Faith Between the Lines

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

January 7, 2001

Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-5

(Part 6 of 6 in the sermon series "The Birth of Faith")

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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Poets such as William Butler Yeats, William Blake, and William Carlos Williams have told the story of the magi through the magic of their words. Longfellow even gave them names: Melchior, king of Persia; Gaspar, king of India; and Balthasar, king of Arabia. Botticelli and Fra Angelico have told their story along with hundreds of other artists on the canvases of time. Folk song writer James Taylor and even Garrison Keillor of "A Prairie Home Companion" have recreated the coming of the wise men to the Bethlehem of Judea. So many have made so much of this story of which we know so little.

They were not kings, of course, and there were not three of them, at least according to Matthew. They were nameless, coming God only knows where, and numberless - Three? Seven? Twelve? Who knows?! We don't know when they arrived in Bethlehem or even how old Jesus was by the time of their arrival. Not even sure about the famous star.

We know that Joseph is not mentioned in this story. Mary is seen but not heard. The miraculous child does absolutely nothing. In other ancient birth narratives, the child speaks, tongues of fire are given him to eat, and halos are placed on the heads of the deities. But, our Savior is shown with great restraint. He is Being, not doing in the midst of the story; receiving gifts, not acting in any way.

This story is carried by the wise ones from the East, King Herod, and his chief priests and scribes. The wise ones have curious, inquiring minds. They come with questions and problems to solve. One look at Herod and they know he is not the king they are seeking.

Herod carries this story's narrative forward (but, as we know, rarely appears in any Christmas pageant because his anger and hateful heart doesn't fit with the peaceful night of Christmas Eve). Herod is not only hateful, but hostile. He is afraid that this new king, apparently born in Bethlehem, will interfere with his life, his place, his power, his influence, his rule, and therefore must be stopped. The chief priests and scribes are benign and indifferent. They seem to care very little about stars, Messiahs, and kings. Their interest is in the Temple worship, so they quote scripture and stay out of the way - most clergy today.

What is known and unknown about this story is ultimately not what matters about this story. I lift up for this morning five thoughts which are reflections of faith coming from the heart of this text: 1. Each of us should follow the stars in their rising (Mt. 2:2). 2. We should Face societal fears engendered by fearful rulers (Mt. 2:3). 3. We should remember that shepherd leaders come from the least likely places and people (Mt. 2:6). 4. We are called by God to share our gifts in a joyful and worshipful way - no matter how inappropriate those gifts may seem to others (Mt. 2:11). 5. We should listen to our dreams - especially when God provides the message to head home by another way (Mt.2:12).

1. Follow the stars in their rising (Mt. 2:2). The wise men looked to the stars and what they saw called them away from their comfortable dwellings toward Bethlehem. When I search the stars, I see the glory of God's amazing creation. The stars become idols when we look to them for counsel which should only come from God. For the magi, astrology and astronomy were one science. And it's probably a sad thing that they ever became separated. If the world is as interdependent as the discoveries of particle physics imply, then what happens in the stars does make a difference in our daily lives. But the stars will not and should not tell us our future. The one who made the stars and the moon and the universe is the one to be followed. Follow the rising star for your life, even the bright morning star - Christ Jesus our Lord!

2. We should face societal fears engendered by fearful rulers (Mt. 2:3). Herod was afraid of the news that a new star, a new king was rising. Old, established, and a painfully fearful man, Herod was set to destroy the up and coming star. Sounds like contemporary politics! Herod was threatened and the people of Jerusalem were fearful of what he might do as a result of his fears. Rather than running from fears, we need to name them and face them. We should not allow the fears of leaders - in the city hall, in the halls of Congress, or in the halls of our workplaces - overwhelm us. Rather, we should face the fears and utilize our faith in overcoming fear with hope.

3. We should remember that "shepherd leaders" come from the least likely places and people (Mt. 2:6). Micah 5:2 heralds the coming of a shepherd leader for the people. We often look to far away places and exotic qualities for leadership. Often we find leaders right under our noses. I think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. having recently arrived in Montgomery, Alabama from Boston, Massachusetts as such an example. The timing of his arrival in Alabama and the tremendous needs of the people matched one another as a gift from God. He not only led a local bus boycott, but his local leadership grew into a Civil Rights movement. This soft spoken young pastor, became the shepherd leader for a nation. From the least likely places, we find the most needed leaders. I have seen this in the BREAD Organization here in Columbus. We have had men and women rise up to lead us who weren't cut out for elected office, or high posts in someone's government. But, with passion, clarity, and hard work they have become spokes-people (or in Dr. King's words - "drum majors") for justice. Shepherd leaders from unlikely places and people.

4. We are called by God to share our gifts in a joyful and worshipful way - no matter how inappropriate these gifts may seem to others (Mt.2:11). The wise men arrived with three gifts (and thus we think of three wise men). Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Perhaps they thought they would find an adult who would appreciate such gifts. You have to wonder if goat's milk, diapers, and a warm blanket might have been more useful. Nevertheless, they came in joy and shared their gifts with great love. Gold is the gift for a king. Frankincense is the gift for a priest - the sweet perfume used in the Temple for sacrifices. Myrrh is the gift for one who is to die - used to anoint the body at burial. Though seemingly inappropriate to others, each of these gifts were appropriate for the king, the priest, the savior who was before them. Each of us is gifted in ways that we and others often to not recognize or acknowledge. God calls us to share the gifts which we have with joy and in a spirit of worshipfulness. I encourage each one of you to name and claim the gifts God has given you. Then share your gifts, each day with others. No matter how great or small - your gifts are needed and accepted in the eyes of God.

5. We should listen to our dreams - especially when God provides the message to head home by another way (Mt. 2:12). How is God calling you or speaking to you? How is God working in your conscious or unconscious life? Through dreams, we often receive messages which rightly guide us home by another way. The wise ones were guided by their dreams, as was Joseph, and Mary, and Elizabeth, and Zechariah. If we carry anything away from the Christmas stories, we carry away this thought: We should listen to our dreams. We should heed the warnings and the guiding of our dreams. They are the unconscious Word of hope and direction. We find our way home to God, often on the back roads and side roads of life. Home by another way.

Perhaps a month of reflections on the birth of faith, best ends with this thought. God is always calling us to faith, calling us home. Be awake to God's calling. Do not be afraid to cry out to God in your need. Reach out to others as they need your faith - whether it is sure footed or clay-footed - they need your reaching out. Stand with others in their need and you will increase in favor in love. Faith is being born again. Calling you home to God - perhaps - home by another way. Be open to God's call, today and forever more. Amen.

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