Sermon Transcript 12.18.22 Advent 4
God has spoken through the prophets. We hold that God's word is unchanging and give our own understanding or knowledge of the word, is called to grow, and even change. God has spoken through the prophets. We have been hearing, throughout Advent, from Isaiah and some of the other prophets, promises of hope of renewal, of peace wholeness of Shalom.
In the prophets that we find difficult passages and hopeful promises. Inspired human authors of scripture wrestled with God's eternal, unchanging Word. They wrestled with what they saw happening in their midst. Communities, in their nation, in the world. They asked questions. Sometimes, we project onto God, our own answers, our own behaviors, our violence. At our best we reflect God's light, God's love, God's peace. We experience it for ourselves. We share it with others and we recognize that God is constantly calling, recreating, reforming. Suffering and death do not have the final word. Hope, and light, and love are what God calls us to.
We've been following the Magi's journey in Matthew 1:1-12 and as we've been reading sections over the past few weeks. In today’s reading, they've arrived, They've arrived at the house, at the place where they find Jesus… which seems out of order. “but it's not Christmas yet, Pastor?”
As I was developing the series, I was wrestling with how to do this. I struggled with this day because Christmas is next week. They can't be here yet. As I started the series, I talked about how we know from their tale to Herod that they have travelled up for as much as 2 years. A literal reading of the Gospel of Luke's story and the Gospel of Matthew story can't exist in the same year. So typically we tell Luke's story and we kind of pack in a couple of verses from Matthew and we have a wonderful stable scene with wise men and shepherds all at the same time. Which is beautiful and true in its symbolism. The lowest of the low, the highest of the high, the rich, the powerful, the lowly, the outcast, Combine, to pay homage to Christ, but it's not Matthew's story and it's not Luke's story and it's not exactly our story. We are called to be shaped by these stories, not to merely view them as some literal thing that happened a long time ago. but to take the symbolism of each story, to see ourselves in the story, and seek Christ. To look for signs - be it a star in the sky or problem that we are equipped to solve - to be wise to know. “The capacity to learn is a gift. The ability to learn is a skill. The willingness to learn is a choice.” Our wise men or kings of Matthew's story make a choice to learn more. They orient their lives, perhaps as much as 2 years – to a long and difficult journey seeking Christ. We often think of the three wise men. That's what our tradition has taught us, but did you notice in all of our readings of Matthew, it never says there are three wise men? Tessot, a French painter journeying to the Holy Land to learn more about the stories found that any rich and powerful person from the lands of Persia and beyond would not have traveled by themselves or even with a group of two or three. And certainly not two other powerful rulers or Magi or magician astrologers or whatever these travelers were. So he depicts a Caravan. There would have been dozens, hundreds of people riding. How many wise men are there? Our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, particularly Syrian Orthodox Church, often talk about twelve wise men and they have a collection of stories and attributes that each of those twelve. It, obviously, is a mirroring of the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve disciples. But we in the west tend to talk about three and I'm not suggesting we're wrong. We focus on the gifts and there are three gifts. So, logically, there are three wise men to tell the story.
The gifts are symbol of kings. and of power They offer gold. Frankincense, an incense used in worship – communication with the deity. A precious resin derived from sap of a particular tree and Myrrh - precious medicine. Another sap dried, curated, used in medicine, and perfume. Myrrh, as our verse from We Three Kings said, was used as an anointing for the dead… sealed, in stone cold tomb. Frankincense and myrrh are odd gifts for child. but they are fitting symbols for God who dwells among us. They're fitting gifts for a king. Frankincense and myrrh at the time were worth as much as gold.
When we give a gift, we also receive. The wise men received gifts on their journey gifts for themselves, gifts that they then share again with the world. The gift of hope - that their emptiness of spirit will be filled when they reach their journey’s end. Hope that spurred them to action, to risk all material wealth, and seek the most important gift of a lifetime.
The gift of time. Well, we have no accurate record of the length of time it took the Magi to reach Bethlehem. It certainly took months or years by their own account of when the child had been born. They set off on their journey with no time limitation in mind. They set out to seek a miracle. However long it took.
The gift of faith. Faith that their journey would lead them to the truth. to sacred knowledge, To the light of the world. And it did. The image on the screen is the oldest painting of the Magi in that we are aware of and it depicts three visitors to a mother and child. It is from the third century. It's painted on the walls of the catacombs under the city of Rome.
The point of advent, the point of Christmas is a wondrous opportunity to exchange gifts of hope and time and faith. To realize that all we need is already with us. to draw ourselves into the presence of God, to see our true selves - made in the image of God. To be enlightened. by the one who is the light of the world.
The Magi visit the child and then having been warned in a dream, they go home by another way they change their route. They do what they can to avoid participating in systems of injustice They go by another way.
Matthew's account is full of dreams. We heard from Matthew 1 Joseph discovers that Mary is with child. It's a scandal. and already at that point Joseph is bearing fruit of kindness, of gentleness. He resolves to dismiss her quietly. By law, he should make her public. He should decry her sin, should send her to the city gates, she should be stoned, that his honor be reclaimed.
But Joseph resolves to dismiss her quietly. to bear the brunt of the shame, to let people think that she had abandoned him. Then he has the dream – “do not be afraid, Joseph. Do not be afraid. Take her as your wife. This child is a child is of the Holy Spirit…” and Joseph does. Then as we heard, Joseph has another dream later. A dream of warning. A dream that calls for a healthy fear and reaction. Herod is coming for the child. Take the child and flee. So, he takes the child and Mary - confident that God is with them. He leaves his home. He leaves all he has. He goes on a journey. The journey of service… of awe, and wonder. He journeys back into the land of Israel's slavery for salvation and protection.
I am a huge fan of this painting by a French painter, Merson from 1880. Entitled “Rest on the Flight to Egypt.” It is an image of Mary holding the Christ child in the lap of the Sphynx - the symbol of the power of Egypt and the Pharaohs. Joseph and the donkey lying on the ground nearby, catching just a bit of rest. The light of the world, not dimmed by the darkness.
Merson spent time with this story. And painted what he saw, what he experienced. We know how the story continues. While the holy family are refugees in Egypt. Herod’s forces sweep through Bethlehem, slaughtering all the boy children, two years and younger.
This painting by another French painter named Léon Cogniet is remarkable because this mother unable to save her child hides and looks at screen, looks at the viewer, asking a question. Where are you in the story? Where are the systems you are a part of… Oh most of us don't seek to do harm to others very often… but how easily we forget that we happen to be citizens of one of the most powerful empires in the history of the world. We overlook how much of our daily lives is built on the suffering of others – our use of resources, of cheap labor. Cogniet’s painting calls us to examine our lives - to be willing to go home by another way. To question. To change, to learn, to grow, to be willing to confront what is wrong with our world. To look for that small thing that we are equipped to fix - to contribute our part to the wholeness. Because God is with those who suffer. God dwells in the midst of this broken world. God calls us to remember that God is with us and with them and God and calls us to really know, and respond to the fact that we – all of us - are made in the image of God.
Which brings me to why I think it's extremely important to focus on Joseph. This is another powerful painting. This one's modern. It's from last December. It was commissioned by Christianity Today for a cover issue on Joseph by artist and graphic designer named Matt Chinworth. Joseph holds the holy child, Mary is sleeping. How many of you have carried and bounced a child seeking to give your partner a moment of rest, to find a moment of peace. To wrestle with the wonder of that new life that is so utterly draining and demanding on your time.
Joseph carries the child outside. Joseph plays and celebrates. There is laughter. There is light. There is joy. Joseph has no lines in the nativity play He doesn't have a single spoken line in the stories. But his willingness to learn and grow and serve. His willingness to take Mary and his child to make them his own, to let the light dwell within him, is clear. Much like the Magi, we don't know the rest of Joseph's story. He's never mentioned again after Jesus' infancy, but he is a crucial role model for us He trusts. He believes. He gives his hope, his faith, his time. each of us is called to accept this Christ, to make this child our own, to carry him with us, to share the light, the hope, the joy, the love, to be a part of the peace that is Christmas in every day of our lives.
To help us ponder that, I want close with a blessing. It's a non-traditional blessing. It's a challenging blessing. It often makes the rounds on the internet as a Franciscan blessing but it's not. It's by Sister Ruth Fox, who is of the Order of Saint Benedict. She wrote it for a graduation ceremony in the early 80’s and I find it helpful and challenging.
A Fourfold Blessing By Sister Ruth Fox (Benedictine)
May God bless you with discontent
with easy answers, half-truths, superficial relationships, so that you will live from deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression, abuse, and exploitation of people, so that you will work for justice, equality, and peace.
May God bless you with tears
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them and to change their pain to joy.
May God bless you with the foolishness
to think you can make a difference in this world, so that you will do the things which others tell you cannot be done.
If you have the courage to accept these blessings, then God will also bless you with:
Happiness – because you will know that you have made life better for others.
Inner peace – because you will have worked to secure an outer peace for others.
Laughter – because your heart will be light.
Faithful friends – because they will recognize your worth as a person.
These blessings are yours
– not for the asking, but for the giving –
from One who wants to be your companion, our God, who lives and reigns, forever and ever.
Amen. Amen. Amen.