First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
December 15, 2019
Wisdom Readings: Matthew 2:1-22, Rumi
Advent Series: To Follow that Star!
Message: “Food for the Journey”
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Your journey is the journey of love. Sense it to its depth and say no more.
TruDee visited the Eastern Orthodox Church a few weeks ago; they were having a sale, part of which was food. She purchased an assortment of pastries to bring home. The other evening I opened the package and chose a kind of nut bread, as I ate it I was reminded of my mom. Mom would make copious amounts of date nut bread each Christmas. Large loaves, small loaves, and a large round loaf each year that would be saved for Christmas morning complete with birthday candle to share for Jesus’ birthday before we opened gifts.
I sat for a time remembering mom’s date nut bread. It made me a little nostalgic, and I thought, “I can make date nut bread!” So, I began perusing date nut bread recipes online… however, the thought came to me if I made it, I would eat it, and I do not need any date nut bread! As I reminisced about date nut bread and the memory I knew I had learned long ago that such things as this… it’s not about the date nut bread, the date nut bread represents something much larger and deeper than just bread. These images and symbols represent the life of one who influenced and loved us. The date nut bread represents the love and light my mom shared and passed on to me through her presence and love of me and so many others.
It is much the same with the symbols and images of our faith and the stories of our scriptures. These represent so much more than just the images and stories themselves. Not unlike the story we just read from Matthew, this story holds within it much more than just the story itself.
We have been on a journey of sorts; we have yet to reach our destination, as if we ever do. We began our Advent journey proclaiming we would Follow the Star… and yet, we have not spoken of the star as of yet. We have been invited to enter into a call to action, the tension between the religious and the political, the struggle between being called to act, and being convinced to fear.
We listened with Mary and the shepherds, opening our hearts to the call of God and offering our acts of love and passion toward a better world for all. We have been challenged by the courage of Joseph, and Mary, to stand toe to toe with the powers that be, committing ourselves to the call to action of working toward the common good of all; sometimes risking reputation, livelihood, and perhaps even life, to do the right thing.
Today, we see the star. We are invited into the story of the wise men the from Matthew’s gospel, a familiar story of this time of year, when the wise men from the east happen upon the scene. We do not know from where they come, only “the east,” there is much speculation, if this story has any historical roots; from where these wise ones come. Stories of astrologers because of their focus on the star, stories of magi, of Kings… ultimately, the author of Matthew never reveals the source or home of the wise men from the east. They have simply seen a star, a moving star, and have chosen to follow to where it leads.
The author tells us this star signifies the birth of a king, the King of the Jews, and they have come pay him homage. The author of the story does not even tell us how many there are… no not three, the text does not state the number, only “wise men.” The “three” are assumed because of the three gifts they bring to the child, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Perhaps the primary point the author of Matthew is making, is simply these visitors from afar are not Jewish, but rather gentiles, they are not “from around here.” These visitors indicate this coming child, this coming “ruler,” this coming King of the Jews, will be for all persons, not just the Jewish community.
In a larger context the encounter with Herod, the prophecy of a deliverer, the wise men going home by another way, and Herod’s sending of the guard to slaughter the male children in the town of Bethlehem and area… this according to many scholars is an echoing of the Exodus story of the Hebrew scriptures, many suggesting the newborn baby Jesus is to become the new Moses, fleeing not out of Egypt, but into Egypt for his protection. Scholars like John Shelby Spong interpret the writings of Matthew as actually a worship liturgy used by the early followers of Jesus that lays out a remembering of their past, such as the Exodus through to the resurrection of Jesus.
This story of the coming wise men and the reaction of fear from Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” is deeply political. It is a politics of fear and an attempt to maintain control at all costs. Herod was known for his paranoia and his ruthless attempts to maintain power including murder, including his own family.
As we lifted up the first week of this Advent Season, we have domesticated these birth narratives and focused only on the personal aspects of what they might mean for us, at the expense of the deeply political nature of them and their revolutionary subversive-ness. We skipped one of the most passionate revolutionaries in our readings this year in the person of John the Baptist, who brought a fiery message of rebellion and preparation on the scene.
Advent beckons us to personal reflection and preparation; however it invites us into the preparation for a revolution, for a time of setting the world upside down, for a time of standing up to the Herod’s of our day who would use violence and fear to maintain control and power over us. The story of the wise men is no different.
That being said, what about the star? What about the light in this story, because that really seems to be the focus, and what does it reveal? If we are to follow this star to its resting place, where are we going, how do we get there, and what should we take with us.
We learn in the story these wise men have brought gold (resources), frankincense (an awareness of the senses), and myrrh (known for its medicinal qualities and use for anointing the dead). These are the things the wise men chose to carry with them on their journey. These are the things they would present to the infant Jesus; he would need on his journey. These are things we are invited to carry with us on our own journey, Food for the Journey so to speak.
It is this journey of Jesus the light of the star reveals, a journey that will take all of these things to accomplish. It is this journey of Jesus we follow when we follow the light of the star. We will need resources – and I speak not just of monetary resources but other things as well; relationships, connections, community, information, sharing, action plans, and those things that keep us of from burning out. We will need the gold of the wise men, of Jesus’ journey to carry us through.
We will need frankincense – no, not perfume so much, but an awareness of all our senses born out of our passion for justice and love. This will be the awareness of our physical, spiritual, and mental well-being as we follow the light of the star. We will need practices that enhance this awareness within us; prayer, scripture study, books, conversation, collaboration, eating healthy, exercise, and those things that keep us healthy. We will need the frankincense of the wise men, of Jesus’ journey to carry us through.
And we will need myrrh – Medicine, this is a difficult journey. The wise men show us this, we will be engaged by people whose motives are suspect. If we are to follow the vulnerable example of Jesus, we will be wounded, scarred, even perhaps, risking all; reputation, career, livelihood, and life to do the right thing… and we will need a balm to heal and renew us.
As we seek this light, this star of the journey we are called to follow into the life and journey of Jesus, where do we find these things? These things are sustenance, the food for the soul, food for the journey, the light that leads us finally to the infant Jesus? It is a diverse seeking. It is a diverse journey. Each one of us will find these things in different ways. However, I believe we all carry the same light within us in in many ways.
Some will find it most profoundly in contemplative practices of silence, meditation, prayer, and centering. Some will find it walking the streets of the city, amid the noise and the connection of humanity. Some will find it in the actions they take, the letters they write, the encouragement they share. Some will find it in sharing food with others, sitting down at table to break bread. There is no “one” way to nurture this Food for the Journey.
I was thinking about the barrage of stuff that comes at us every day in the current state of our world, nation, communities, churches, religious leaders… it is important to be engaged and to know what is going on and to consider how to respond.
I believe it was Karl Barth who said of we preachers, “You should preach with a newspaper in one hand and the bible in the other.” My task as a preacher is to look into the current state of the world, of our culture and society, and to interpret that state in light of how we should respond in a way that is in the “Light of Jesus own journey.”
There is so much… it can become overwhelming if we let it. We can become so overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what comes pouring out of our government, out of our church leaders, we can become tempted to throw up our hands and do nothing, or be lulled into a numbness of mind, body, and spirit and become paralyzed and unable to respond in any way.
We need to rest. This rest is what I speak of when I say, these gifts of resources, awareness, and medicinal needs are necessary for the journey. It is what I speak to when I say, “each one of us will find these things in different ways and there is no “one” way to nurture this Food for the Journey. These gifts, this food for the journey is crucial… because we need to know what our rest is… what fills our cup when we are running on empty… there is not a singular answer… each of us will need to discern this filling for ourselves… but let us not neglect it.
I ran across a quote the other day that really resonated with me… it is from Bishop Robert Barron, a bishop in the Catholic Church in the Los Angeles area… “I don’t think we’ll understand Advent correctly until we see it as a preparation for a revolution.” Advent invites us into a revolution… a revolutionary journey of Mary, of Joseph, of the wise men, of the infant Jesus, whose journey will invite us to turn the world upside down! However, it is important to remember… this is not just a personal journey, though we need that for our own well-being, it is also political as are the stories about the birth of Jesus… following this star, following this Jesus will not just turn the world upside down… it will turn our world upside down.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book The First Christmas, What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Birth, speak of this image of light and dark; they speak of this journey of the wise men and the light of the star and close out their chapter on this with these words,
“Like much of the Bible’s language, the imagery of light is both personal and political. The contrasts between darkness and light are correlated with other central contrasts: bondage and liberation, exile and return, injustice and justice, violence and peace, falsehood and truth, death and life. These contrasts all have a personal meaning as well as a political meaning. It is important to see both. So, it is with the stories of Jesus’s birth. They address our personal yearning and the politics of his world and ours. To see only the personal meaning is to miss half of their meaning.” 1
So, let us follow this star into the journey of the wise men, into the journey of the life and ministry of Jesus, into the light that will lead us to Christmas Eve with open listening heart of Mary and the shepherds, the courage of Joseph and Mary; with our resources, senses, and well-being intact. Rested and prepared for the revolution to come as we participate with the Divine in setting the world back on its head where it belongs. May it be so. May it be soon! Amen.
1 Borg, Marcus J., John Dominic Crossan,(2007). The First Christmas, What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Birth, Harper Collins, New York, New York.