From the Outside…In

From the Outside…In January 9, 2011

From the Outside…In

January 9, 2011

Matthew 2:1–12 

On Thursday the Christian Church around the world celebrated the Day of Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, a day that commemorates the coming of the wise men to visit the baby Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.  Our word “epiphany” comes from the Greek work epiphaneia, meaning disclosure, manifestation, unveiling, or appearance—the same meaning we ascribe to the word epiphany when we use it in modern English expression.  But in terms of our liturgical holiday, Epiphany is one in which images of light fill its celebration, because in the story we tell today there was a star, you know, a bright star that lit the sky and shown just enough light to guide the wise men from far away to a baby they thought had been born but they were just acting on a hunch, an astrological promise.  And they traveled, following the light, until they actually found that baby, and lived the promise of Epiphany: a revelation…people from all different walks of life entertaining the unlikely possibility of God come to live among us. 

Epiphany. 

Today we gather in worship to welcome the light ourselves, to mark a day of bright new beginnings where together we name the light in the life of this baby, God come to earth, and start to imagine what the darkness of our world might look like transformed by this light that has come.

Epiphany. 

It has been my observation that people feel rather proprietary about babies.  Have you noticed?

I noticed it when both of our new Calvary babies, Wyatt and Nolan, were born a few weeks ago.  First, I noticed it as I sat in the waiting room waiting for Wyatt to make his appearance.  As I sat there flipping through a magazine suddenly there was quite a commotion in the maternity ward.  Several police officers stepped off the elevator; over the loud speaker a nurse announced, “lock down—code pink!”  Hospital staff rushed about and took their positions at every door.  A man carrying a large duffel bag exited the maternity ward doors, and at every doorway a different staff person asked to look in his bag.  As they did, the police, who were supervising what I finally figured out was a drill, would correct the staff if they made errors in checking the bag of the man who was obviously acting as a ward visitor trying to leave.  They were practicing, of course, in case a baby ever went missing from the maternity ward.  That drill was put into place because babies, these little precious lives, belong with certain people, their families, and they only would ever leave the maternity ward with the families to whom they belong. 

I saw it again, in a different expression, the very next week, when I went to visit the Meiers after the birth of baby Nolan.  Everyone who saw Nolan, without exception, exclaimed over how much he looked exactly like his big sister Penelope—and he really does.  These comments are a way of noting the preciousness of a new baby, of course…but they are also a way of being proprietary about a new little life.  Baby Nolan looks like his sister, and his parents, leaving no doubt, in other words, to whom he belongs.

And even in the case of babies who come into families in less than conventional ways…the same sort of proprietary sense exists.  I remember I was away on a business trip when my daughter Hannah was born.  I was the last one in the family to get to the hospital where her birth mother delivered her, but as I made my way there I got updates about how amazing and adorable she was—legend has it she smiled the first time she saw her Grandmother, an indication to all of us, of course, that this little one…well, she was meant for us, no doubt about it.  Proprietary.

Maybe it’s because they are so vulnerable…maybe it’s because babies embody the hopes we carry for our world…whatever the reason it’s clear that we all feel a sense of ownership about a baby…we know where the little one belongs, and who his people are.

Just a few weeks ago we celebrated the birth of another special baby, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, born in a stable in Bethlehem to two young parents, heralded by angels and worshipped by the shepherds of the village who saw the sky light up at the news of his birth.  As much as the birth of any baby is news for a community, his birth surely was—a promise of hope for the future, an identity and purpose for his young mother, tangible promise that was stronger than the political oppression in which the people found themselves.  A baby was born…their baby!…and with his birth he reminded them all that hope and possibility were still alive.

And the strange circumstances surrounding his birth—the angels and the stable and all of that—well, they added to the charm of his birth announcement, as everyone in the community surely exclaimed over his coming.  The birth of a baby, you know, is exciting anytime and anywhere it happens.  And the people of Bethlehem certainly celebrated his coming as shepherds exclaimed over how much he looked like his mother…or, how he just seemed to calm from crying the minute his father picked him up.  Proprietary.  Because…he was a tiny, innocent baby, and everyone knew to whom he belonged.  He belonged to them.

But today as we celebrate Epiphany, we tell an interesting twist in the story.  Matthew is the only Gospel writer who has recorded today’s chapter, and it’s one of those Bible stories that, over thousands of years of church history, has taken on a life and lore of its own.  It’s the story of three strangers, come from distant lands—no relation to the baby in the manger at all, not relatives far removed but with the same nose, or even close friends of the family.  These three visitors were strangers in the fullest sense of the word—come from far, far away, bringing strange and unusual gifts, speaking languages that sounded different and grating, perhaps, to the people of Galilee region, dressed in clothes like none worn by anyone else they’d ever seen before, and communicating somehow the crazy notion that they had to see this baby—this baby who belonged to Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the innkeeper and his little community there in Bethlehem…they had to see him, because, they explained, they’d followed an astrological sign, a star in the sky, and because of the promise of his life, this baby…well, he belonged to them, too.

 Who were these mysterious visitors?  They have been called wise men or even kings.  In the tradition of the Western church there were three of them, with names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.  The Eastern church tradition says there were twelve.  And the gifts they brought were worth a lot of money—lavish and exotic gifts unfamiliar to your average Bethlehemite.  So over the years they’ve been called kings, thinking they were royalty from afar come to worship a new king and bringing rich gifts from their royal treasuries. 

And some have called them wise men, as they claimed they’d come at the bidding of a bright star in the sky, indicating that perhaps they were scholars who studied the skies, read them for signs of divine interaction with the world—ancient mid-east versions of academic whiz-kids who sat in ivory towers and knew a lot about things that had very little bearing on day to day life.

The truth of the matter is, we don’t really know how many of these visitors there were, or who they were at all.

What we do know is that they were strange…foreign.  They were likely members of a Persian caste of priests known for interpreting dreams.  They came from far away, looking, smelling, talking differently, to a baby who belonged firmly to those in Galilee, to whom he had been born.  Right?

No matter who they were, they were different…come from afar to claim their place at the side of the manger.  And nobody to whom this baby rightfully belonged liked them, not one single bit.

I was trying to imagine what it might have been like had there been a border patrol back then, department of homeland security manning a post on the edges of Galilee, checking the passports of foreigners, grilling them about their reasons for traveling there.  “We’ve come to see a new king…we saw a star from far away and when we saw it we knew we had to come to see the baby.  What?  Are you really going to make me unwrap the gift I brought?  It’s just frankincense, I swear!  What else would you bring a newborn baby king?”

Sounds a little ridiculous, but remember that people feel awfully proprietary about a baby. 

You recall, in fact, that the travelers stopped on their way to the manger at the court of Herod, to ask for directions, for any information about the new baby king whose birth they’d seen predicted in the stars.  When they did, the whole court exploded in chaos—a new king?  Born here?  A challenge, a threat to order as we have always known it?  People from outside—not home folks for sure—come to see one of our babies, telling us he will change the whole world?

Herod was incensed.  A baby had been born right here, under his nose, and now perfect strangers had arrived, telling him there was something bigger, more important, vastly more powerful that had happened right here in backwater Galilee with the birth of a peasant baby in a manger.  A baby born to a teenager in utter poverty, belonging to the little community in which he had been born, was really the savior of the whole, entire world?

Suddenly, his birth became a matter of radical international intrigue, and even Herod came to feel in one way or another, that the baby belonged to him, too.

See, even back then they had the same problem we have sometimes remembering that God doesn’t belong just to me, or to people who look and talk just like me. 

There’s no coincidence that Matthew’s gospel is the one that tells the story of foreigners come to kneel at the manger of the baby Jesus, because Matthew’s entire gospel tells the story of a worldly kingdom turned on its head by the coming of a new king, an unlikely royal figure whose kingdom is not like the kingdoms you and I have come to expect in this world.  No, in his kingdom wisdom is revealed not to kings and scholars, but to children and paupers, to foreigners and those without any power at all, to the most unlikely recipients of God’s salvific announcement, and hope and life in this kingdom are for…everybody. 

In the kingdom of God, you see, the baby belongs to everybody.  In the kingdom of God, it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what food you eat, what country’s passport you hold.  There’s room at the manger of this baby for all of us, enough room for everybody who believes enough to follow a star, to imagine that the kingdoms and power structures of this world that include the wealthy and beautiful, those with power and influence, and leave the rest out in the cold, are not the power structures God envisions for our world.

Have you seen this baby anywhere?  Do you know this God who includes the outsider and welcomes those who are different?  We, those who live in the hometown of this baby and think of him with a sense of ownership, we might remember this day that light, insight into the divine, doesn’t come just from one place.  In fact, God may very well be showing himself in and among us, all the while we are preoccupied by our compulsion to keep everybody else away—he belongs to us, you know…and our borders and law enforcement, rules and economy will keep him all to ourselves.

The thing is, as Matthew would remind us with the story of three strangers come from far off to join us in celebrating the birth of a baby, that there is room around the manger for everybody.  King Herod can have a place.  Even a filthy shepherd can kneel there.  Strange looking foreigners, people who don’t know our customs and are not sure how to form the words in our language to say how peaceful he looks sleeping…there’s room for them, too.  There’s even room—over there, just enough—for you and me to find our own places around his manger.

Because the thing is, this baby belongs to everyone.  His light breaks forth from heaven to illumine every dark corner of the world, even the most unfamiliar.  The old ways of navigating the powers of this world have ended; even those who never thought they’d have any power at all suddenly have a place to belong.

This baby…he belongs to the whole world…he belongs to me…and he belongs to you.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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