January 6, 2019 – Sermon

Epiphany Sunday    January 6, 2019   Psalm 72, Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12         eyes on the star

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A few weeks ago, reading the Barton Chronicle (the Northeast Kingdom Vermont weekly Joyce McLane subscribes to, and passes along to the rest of us with Vermont connections in our Cataumet church) – I got to a story about a panel discussion among journalists, about the state of the newspaper business in Vermont. I have  Vermont friends who are reporters… I read with interest…

As most of us know, newspapers everywhere are hurting financially, mostly due to the internet. (Good local papers like the Chronicle may have a little advantage – since the internet’s not very interested in covering small town life – nor are most of the national media.) Anyway – one of the panelists was Chris Braithwaite, founder-and-retired-editor-publisher of the Chronicle… Another panelist asked him one of those Frequently Asked Questions – ‘How do you define the mission of the local paper?’

And, well prepared, Braithwaite replied: “If someone called and said Christ had returned, my question would be – ‘did he come to Orleans County?’”

Panelist David Moats, retired editor of the Rutland Herald, immediately got the drift, chiming in… “And if he didn’t come to Orleans County…”

“We’d let the dailies cover it,” Braithwaite said, completing the sentence…

Which is sometimes a pattern even with The Good News. If Christ shows up in our town. We’ll be there. If not – maybe we’ll wait and see if he makes the evening news.

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The national religious leadership of the day knows exactly where the Messiah is to be born. They’ve got no trouble answering Herod’s inquiry – quoting the prophet Micah (5:2) – pointing to the little town of Bethlehem, a small village just five and a half miles from Jerusalem – small – but well-known as home town of King David – and final resting place of Rachel, wife of Jacob (whose other name is Israel) – and the setting for most of the book of Ruth.

But either religious authorities are thinking so extremely local that even five-and-a-half miles away is too far off to be local news they’re willing to cover…. Or –

Maybe these Magi look so out-there – so very not-from-around-here – what with turbans, funny hats, strange clothing, maybe different skin color… that our national wise men don’t trust these wise men from afar to be reliable sources. They decide, perhaps, anyone looking like this, and following a star has got to be dispensing fake news…News designed to make them look bad…

And yes, possibly some cultural profiling is happening here… Because if this new king-to-be-of-the-Jews is not fake news – this is not good news for King Herod – who likes to think of himself as king of the Jewish territories – though he himself has never been anything close to a practicing Jew. And if Herod isn’t king, perhaps the resulting government shut-down will cost the religious leaders who advise him and kiss up to him their jobs…

So – let the Persian Times or the Roman Herald cover the baby story. We don’t think it’s news… in Jerusalem.

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I enjoy gazing into the night sky… (Most often I get to do this when I’m out fishing.) It’s easy to feel awe and wonder, gazing up at brilliant stars, light years away. This can almost get me wide-awake-dreaming of peace-on-earth-and-mercy-mild… God-and- sinners, reconciled… I really ought to spend more time looking up into the night sky…

But unless I’m outside in nature…Making time to feel God’s presence in creation… So often the world seems such a mess… It’s easy to feel small and powerless…and wind up thinking too small – aiming too low – living life too stingily…Stressed to excess over way too many things…Even while knowing my stress not only doesn’t help… it makes things worse…

When we think too small… We tend to imagine God as too small…And when our image of God shrinks we miss the big picture – of God who made the starry heavens, the good earth, the rolling seas, and all that fills them….God who made all people on earth from one blood… God who sent Jesus as Savior of the world… We tend to miss all this…when we imagine God and life too small…

Which, of course, is recurring human behavior. Just a generation after Jesus has ascended into heaven, the apostle Paul’s already writing a cautionary letter to the churches in and around the city of Ephesus in the land now called Turkey.

We notice the apostle uses the word “mystery” four times to describe the gospel – letting us know the good news is not always self-evident to everyone who hears it. He’s writing to predominantly Gentile (non-Jewish) churches, letting Gentiles know they are assuredly full members in the one body of Christ – fully integrated in Christ into the One church of Jesus Christ… But, heads-up, folks – you’re not always going to receive a warm welcome from all parts of the church – meaning, in that day, mostly the Jerusalem-based-wing-of-the- church – who up to now have been accustomed to having an exclusive deal with God.

At least that’s how religious leaders often preached it. Over-looking all the parts of scripture that describe Israel’s mission as to be light for all the nations (Is.42:6-7, 49:6, 56:3-8) – a model of the inclusive grace and love of God for all people everywhere.

To be sure, St Paul also lets the Gentiles know – they have a duty to respect and help support the Jerusalem church – who by the time he writes has grown smaller and poorer. “Honor your father and mother,” Paul reminds us elsewhere in this same letter. And Jews (and Jewish Christians) are our spiritual ancestors, whose legacy is always to be honored. The same prophet Isaiah, the same psalmists who speak of God’s universal love for all nations, also speak of God’s special love for Israel, Jerusalem, Mt Zion, and the temple courts…

In much the same way – we should have special love for the places we inhabit, and those who live nearby.

The issue is including others. The issue is welcoming strangers. The stranger  among you is also your neighbor the Torah often tells us (Lev.19:34-35). By entertaining strangers some have entertained angels unknowingly Hebrews (13:2) tells us.

And as much as we should love our home place… As good as it truly is to show special care for our nearest neighbors and the land in which we live…

There can also be a toxic side to localism – if we let fear of strangers – fear of change – fear of disruption of our routines lead to demonizing people we don’t really even know… and…

I’m reminded of a music video with country singer Dwight Yoakum singing The Streets of Bakersfield. Bakersfield, California was the Western headquarters of the country music world, and may still be. (Think Merle Haggard in his Okie from Muskogee period and Buck Owens, way back when he was on weekly tv.) Now here’s a younger, next-generation country singer, scraggy-haired, who gets up from a diner counter, playing guitar, singing country… But instead of your typical steel-pedal guitar now there’s lilting Tex-Mex accordian backing – as Yoakum sings “Hey, you don’t know me, but you don’t like me…” Then an older guy sitting next to him on his counter stool swings around – and it’s Buck Owens himself, king of Bakersfield country music – picking his guitar, singing along now with Yoakum – “You don’t know me but you don’t like me…. On the streets of Bakersfield…” (And if the analogy’s a little over-the-top…)

So, maybe, also, what Matthew the gospel writer dishes up for us in this strange little story of Magi-from-the-East… Coming into Jerusalem… a different sounding band playing a once-familiar song of good news….

Who are these guys? We still really don’t know. People have guessed astrologers, dream interpreters, Zoroastrian priests. The gospel never calls them kings. (Song-writers of old got that idea from Psalm 72 and our Isaiah 60 reading today.) They’ve got gold and time to travel… Perhaps they serve in the courts of one of the regional empires to the East. Whoever they are –

The gospel writer makes no effort to portray them as morally-superior, spiritually advanced, or even a little orthodox – and certainly not wise in any conventional sense. As we read on, we’re reminded King Herod uses what he’s learned from them about the birth of the Messiah for evil purpose, as he orders the massacre the children of Bethlehem. The Magi are assuredly not wise in the ways of the political world…

But then – neither was our ancestor Abraham – who wandered down to Egypt for refuge in a time of famine and got his family entourage in big trouble with king Pharaoh there … Neither was our ancestor Joseph, sold as a slave into Egypt, promoted to high office by Pharaoh, married to an Egyptian priest’s daughter, caught up in Egypt’s power trips, ultimately getting all of Israel stuck in the machinery of Egyptian slavery for 400 years. Very few of our ancestors in faith would ever be called wise men. Most often we celebrate their willingness to be fools for God…

Fools for God – much like these Magi of strange appearance…Who are foolish enough to follow a star, not knowing where it leads…

Willing to be fools for Christ – as they search for a child who is a king. Whose kingship will be mocked, scorned, dismissed, and rejected by the powers-that-be-of-this-world….

But thanks be to God – these Magi from afar join humble shepherds of Bethlehem in welcoming King Jesus – Bowing low in worship, offering their best gifts…

And having met King Jesus – head home – forever changed – by a different road.

May we do likewise.

Amen.