1/6/2013 Sermon: “Not What You Would Expect…”

A house near Bethlehem – note the “stable” area in a cave below.
The interior of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem – sections dating from the 4th century. The stable/cave is below the altar (under the cross). This building was saved from demolition by Persian conquerors in the 7th century when they saw a mosaic depicting the “three wise men from the east.”

Christmas Trivia/Traditions.  Christmas celebrates the fact that God came to live with us through the birth of a child.  Today is Epiphany – the day in the life of the church when we remember that he was recognized as the Jewish Messiah by people we know as “wise men.”  We have many, many traditions to help us remember important facts like that.  Which Christmas tradition actually has a connection (in scripture) to the night when Jesus was born?

          Christmas tree
          Advent wreath
          The date – December 25
          The wise men
          Santa Claus
          The shepherds*
          The drummer boy

Did the shepherds come to a stable or to a house?  (stable)

Did the wise men come to a stable or to a house?  (the wise men came separately to a house)

There were three wise men, true or false?  False – possibly.  There were three gifts.  Nobody knows how many wise men or magi.

How old was Jesus when they got there?  (nobody knows, but he might have been as old as two)

We’ve heard it so many times now, that it seems normal for Jesus the Messiah to be born in a stable in Bethlehem.  One of the truths about Christmas that has been lost, though, is how strange and unusual the story is.

 Matthew 2:1-12.  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.

 Looking for Jesus.  Do you have unique Christmas traditions?  We all have a lot of traditions connected with Christmas.  Some traditions depend on where we’re from or where we live, like New England or Pennsylvania.  We can’t imagine Christmas without snow, or at least cold weather.  But Jesus wasn’t necessarily born in the winter, and the climate in Palestine isn’t the same as it is here, so there probably wasn’t any snow.  In fact, it may have been a hot, humid night when he was born!

We have gotten so used to the story about the wise men that we don’t question it at all.  Matthew uses this story to show how strange and unusual the birth of Jesus was.  Even bizarre.  In the gospel of Luke, who does God first announce the birth of the Messiah to?  Shepherds.  Not well-to-do religious types, but peasants; nobodies out in the fields.  In Matthew, who does God announce the birth of the Messiah to?  Foreign scientist/astrologer types from another religion.  The most important thing about the magi is that they were not Jewish.  This Messiah had come to save everyone.

If you were a first century Jew listening to this story, you would have said, “What, it takes these non-Jewish people from some far-off country to come and tell us who our king is?”  Not what anybody would have expected.

Matthew says that they were “Wise Men.”  The Greek word for what we are calling “wise men” is Magi. “Magic” comes from this word.  These men were magicians in the ancient sense of magician (they weren’t called kings until the 6th century).  Do you remember Merlin the magician, from the story of King Arthur?  Merlin wasn’t a magician (to us) as much as a scientist, and that is how we should think of these men: scientists who studied the stars for their meaning, and were able to tell by looking at the stars that God was doing something unusual.  Some scholars call them astrologers.  Although Christmas cards show the wise men around the manger of the newborn baby Jesus, they didn’t come until Jesus was one or two years old.

Looking for Jesus.  The wise men looked for Jesus because the stars told them this was somebody they should honor.  But there were other people looking for Jesus, too.  Herod the king looked for Jesus because he wanted to kill him.  He could only see Jesus for what he might take away: the power, money, and influence of being king.  That’s the story, or at least one of the stories, of Jesus’ life: people wanting to touch him or kill him.

We don’t always realize it, but we look for Jesus all the time.  We look for Jesus everywhere.  We look for him in some of the things we take to make us feel better, or the maybe things we drink too much of.  We look for him in the money we think we need and the things we buy once we get it.  We look for him in grades at school.  And relationships with others. We probably don’t always think that’s who we’re looking for, but it is.

The one who can take the edge off of the hurt inside; the one who can bring peace and forgiveness when all we see is stress and confusion.  Most of the time, we hope he’s in his place: in this big brick building on Main Street in Manheim.  Is that where we keep Jesus?  Or maybe in that dusty book over on the shelf.

We’ve got a separation of church and state, so we know he’s not in any of the schools or government buildings.  Or is he?  I think that if this is somebody who rose from the dead, he can be anywhere he wants to be.  But he’s not pushy; he waits for an invitation.  In reality, we don’t have to look for Jesus.  He is here. He is wherever people have gathered to worship and serve him.

Two thousand years ago, God entered human life and became understandable and real to us in Jesus.  This Jesus who would eat dinner with anybody, no matter what was in their past.  This Jesus who would touch anybody, no matter what was wrong with them.  This Jesus who would go to anybody’s house, no matter who they were or what they believed.  This Jesus, who can fill that void when we talk to him and trust in him. Even us.  Not what we would expect.  Those who find him are overwhelmed with joy!

Do you remember what the name Emmanuel means?  In Jesus, God is with us.  And because of us, people in Manheim shouldn’t have to look far to find Jesus.  They should be able to see Jesus working in us and through us.

The Rabbi’s Gift.1  There was a famous monastery in Germany which had fallen on very hard times.  In years past, its buildings were filled with young monks and its huge church was filled with the singing of the chant, but now it was nearly deserted.  The people from the village in the valley below no longer came to Mass.  A handful of old monks took care of the place, and shuffled through the cloisters, praising God with heavy hearts.

Out on the edge of the monastery woods, an old Jewish rabbi had built a small hut and would sometimes retreat there to pray.  No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he was seen, word was passed along from monk to monk: “The rabbi walks in the woods.”  Somehow his presence cheered them up and gave them strength.

One day, the abbot of the monastery decided to visit the rabbi.  So, after the morning Eucharist, he set out through the woods.  As he came near the hut, the rabbi stood in the doorway, with his arms outstretched.  It was as though he had been waiting there all morning.  The abbot and the rabbi embraced like long-lost brothers.  Then they stepped back and just stood there, smiling at one another.

After a while, the rabbi motioned the abbot to come into the hut.  There was only one room, with two primitive chairs, and in the middle of the room was a rough wooden table with the scriptures open on it.  They sat there for a moment in the presence of the book, and then the rabbi began to cry.  The abbot couldn’t help himself; he covered his face with his hands and began to cry too.  For the first time in his life, he cried his heart out.  The rabbi and the abbot sat there crying like lost children, and soaked the wood of the table with their tears.

After the tears stopped and it was quiet again, the rabbi spoke for the first time.  “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts.  You have come to ask a teaching of me.  I will give you a teaching, but you can only repeat it once.  After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.”

The rabbi looked straight into the abbot’s eyes and said, “The Messiah is among you.”

For a while, they were silent.  Then the rabbi said, “Now you must go.”

The abbot left without saying a word and without ever looking back.

The next morning, the abbot called the monks together in the chapter room.  He told them he had received a teaching from “the rabbi who walks in the woods” and that this teaching could never again be spoken aloud.  He looked at each of his brothers and said, “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.”

A different kind of shocked look was on every face.  “What does it mean?  Is brother John the Messiah?  Or Father Matthew?  Or Brother Thomas?  What does this mean?  They were confused by the rabbi’s teaching, but no one ever spoke about it again.

As time went by, the monks began to treat each other in very special ways.  There was a gentle, soft-hearted, caring quality about them now that was hard to describe, but easy to notice.  They lived with one another as though they had finally found something, and they prayed together as though they were always looking for something.  Visitors to the monastery were moved by the lives of the monks.  Before long, the people of the village were coming to Mass again, and young men were asking to become part of the community.

In those days, the rabbi no longer walked in the woods.  His hut was now a pile of ruins.  But somehow or other, the old monks who had taken his teaching to heart still felt his presence, and knew that the Messiah had come among them.

The word “epiphany” means “an experience of sudden and striking realization.”  The light bulb goes on!

Because of our faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit is at work here, doing new things in each of us and with all of us together.  May the people who visit here know that the Messiah is among us.  Amen.

Prayer. O God, surprise us with yourself.  You can create life and move mountains.  You can change hearts and change lives.  Our hearts are so empty without you.  We come to you to be filled.  We trust in you; our faith is in your son Jesus.

As you fill us with your Spirit, help us see your world as you see it, hear what you hear, feel what you feel.  Take us beyond the little chores and distractions we create for ourselves.  Help us truly love peace and hate conflict.  We give the new year to you, and pray that throughout the 2013, this church lives a life that truly reflects your message of hope in Jesus.  Amen.

1  adapted from Stories for the Journey by William R. White (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988)