Rev. Michael Durst
~ Matthew 2:1-12 ~
Today’s Gospel reading about the magi, the wise men who journey from the east to present gifts to the infant Jesus, tends to evoke in us warm Christmas-card images: images of a hushed group of richly dressed admirers, suffused by radiant light, paying homage to a beautiful and serene baby. The scene is one of infinite promise, of hope for the transformation of the world as the infant Jesus grows into adulthood.
And the scene is indeed one of hope; the infant Jesus is going to transform the world, Jesus is going to bring the world new hope. But still, the images we receive from the Christmas-card scenes are incomplete images. These images leave out some important elements of the story; elements that contain an important message for all of us.
A seminary professor of mine once made an insightful observation about the Gospel: The Gospel was written for people who already knew the end of the story, the painful death and then the hope-filled resurrection of Jesus. That is, it was belief in the resurrection that induced the early Christians to come to, say, a house church and be present when the Gospel was read. So the Gospel isn’t like a detective novel in which the reader is supposed to try to figure out the ending from clues planted in the story. Instead, it’s assumed that the reader knows from the beginning how the story ends; and what comes before is intended to explain, to make sense of, the ending that we know is coming.
And in the story of the magi, this point is reinforced. Magi, in ancient Persia would have been expert in astrology, which involves foreseeing the future. Also, there is a long tradition in Christianity that the Magi brought myrrh to the infant Jesus because myrrh is used in embalming. The author of the Gospel seems to be telling us that just like us readers, the wise men, even as they are adoring the infant Jesus, know how the story is going to end – in terrible violence, only then being followed by resurrection. How can the magi react joyfully to the birth of the infant Jesus, when they, like us, know in advance that Jesus’s life is to end prematurely, in pain and in tears?
In the earliest days of Christianity, many people, perhaps including the wise men, had a particular reason for greeting the birth of Jesus with joy. Many believed that the birth of Jesus presaged an imminent end of the world as we know it, to be followed by an eternal state of perfection. But two thousand years now have passed, and the world has manifestly not entered a state of perfection. The world remains a place where all kinds of tragedy, including illness, violence, oppression, poverty and injustice are all too common, at both the level of society as a whole and the immediate personal level.
Were the magi therefore mistaken in greeting the birth of Jesus with such reverence and joy? Has Jesus’s promise simply not been realized? Was the radiant hope that the magi saw in the infant Jesus just an illusion?
I think that a particular brand of theology, originating in the 20th Century, called “process theology,” helps us approach this question in a useful way. Process theologians argue that the initiation of a perfect world, free of suffering, could not possibly have been part of God’s promise in coming to us in the form of Jesus. To the contrary, God has known from the beginning of Creation that, as much as God may have wished to do so, it would be impossible to create a perfect world. A perfect world could never change, because any change would be a move away from perfection. A perfect world therefore would be a static world; not really a living world. And in a perfect world there would be no room for free will, for individual freedom. What kind of a world would that be?
So in joining us in our world incarnated as Jesus, God’s plan was not to bring perfection to the earth – a task God knew to be impossible. God instead wanted to experience our human condition, in all its joys and all its pain: God wanted to show humankind that God shares fully in every aspect of our lives. The word “epiphany” means a manifestation or a showing; Jesus’s birth was the manifestation of God’s arrival to share with us our human condition.
And in the Gospel, of course, the revelation, the manifestation, of Jesus continues to the resurrection. In Jesus’s death and resurrection, God showed, God made manifest, that whatever the circumstances of one’s life, one remains eternally part of God’s universe, of God’s plan of creation. Taken together, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus mean that whatever the circumstances of our life at any moment, whether we’re experiencing joy or suffering pain and loss, we’re involved with God inextricably in the eternal process of creation; the eternal process of bringing life into the world.
Our lives are enriched when we come to experience, to feel, the reality of our partnership with God – when we experience epiphanies of God like the epiphany experienced by the wise men. Sometimes, these epiphanies can be triggered by experiences of joy. God provides us with many epiphanies of sheer joy – the joy of interpersonal love and friendship; the joy of natural beauty; of music and art and literature; and sometimes the joy of selflessness, as we perform charitable works and other acts of altruism. When we experience these kinds of joy, the reality of our co-ventureship with God can be relatively easy for us to see.
But in other circumstances in our lives, the beauty and joy of our partnership with God can sometimes be more difficult to see. I’ve often been deeply impressed by the situation of people who are called upon to care for loved ones with serious medical conditions, often for long periods of time and also, in many cases, without expectation of physical improvement. This might involve parents caring for children, children caring for parents, or spouses or close friends caring for one another. I am struck by how often the caregivers, whose work can be enormously wearing and challenging, are nevertheless keenly aware that they are engaged in God’s process of creation. They embrace their roles fiercely and with devotion. And also, the people who are being cared for, if they are able, often seem to recognize that they too are participating in God’s process of Creation. The recipient as well as the giver of care are inextricably part of God’s creative processes. The caregiving process is one way, even sometimes under the most difficult of circumstances, in which people are enabled to feel God’s presence with them, to share in the epiphany experienced by the three wise men.
The caregiving urge is embedded so deeply in some peoples’ souls. Viktor Frankel, in his memoir of the Holocaust, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” recalls, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.” People felt God’s presence, people recognized their co-ventureship with God, even there.
And it’s not only in individual caregiving relationships that we gain glimpses of God’s light, God’s presence, through the fog of adversity. All of the larger-scale sources of pain that beset the world two thousand years ago in the era of Jesus – violence, oppression, poverty, the forced migration of refugees – remain, of course, very much with us today. Indeed, in some respects, these sources of pain have grown in recent years, both in our country and around the world.
As part of our co-ventureship with God – the co-ventureship witnessed by the magi in today’s reading – God calls on us to take the actions that God can’t take directly in order to alleviate pain and injustice in the world. In Jewish tradition, this calling to us by God is called tikkun olam, the duty to repair the world. And of course in the United Church of Christ, the concept of mission, of outreach of various kinds to seek to relieve pain and injustice in the world, has for a long time been central to our religious tradition.
We can act upon our calling to repair the world in many different ways. Sometimes this involves financial contributions; sometimes it can involve political action. It also can involve individual acts of support, like working at food banks and homeless shelters, or as mentors in youth programs. Sometimes repairing the world might involve providing legal representation for immigrants. There are hundreds of ways in which we can participate in God’s work of creation, by taking personal action on small or large scales.
As a rule, the work of repairing the world is arduous, and it can feel enormously frustrating. Transformation is slow. Just as it was unrealistic to expect an imminent, divine transformation of the world in the early days of Christianity, it’s unrealistic – or at least unwise –to expect one now. The conquering of violence, the alleviation of poverty, and the ending of oppression are not going to be accomplished fully in our generation. As a famous UCC theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, said, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” The justice and mission work that we do makes sense – makes great sense – when we recognize that we are indeed partners with God, in a process of creation that extends well beyond our lifetimes. And recognizing that one is engaged in that kind of process can be a source of joy, even if the going is rough and little progress seems to be being made.
Now, let’s return to the image with which I started this sermon, the Christmas-card image of the wise men gazing down adoringly on the perfect little baby. Is this image appropriate? Well, to some extent it surely is: the arrival of a baby is a spectacular manifestation of God’s continuing process of creation; the birth of a baby is always a time for joy and adoration. And as the wise men knew, this wasn’t just any baby; this was the manifestation, the epiphany, of God’s presence with us on earth. All the more reason for joy and veneration.
But there was more to the story. The birth of the Jesus the wise men adored was part of an ongoing process of Creation, which is full of pain as well as joy; and this process of creation would continue for eons after Jesus’s own painful death, and his resurrection. It’s hard to encapsulate all of this in a Christmas card image, and it’s probably best not even to try. But it’s nevertheless so important, as we, like the wise men, contemplate the infant Jesus, to see in that infant the promise that God is with us always, that God shares our joys and our pain; and that we are partnered with God forever in the never-completed process of creation.
Let’s pray: May God grant us epiphanies of the divine presence at many times throughout our lives. May we feel God’s presence in times of joy as well as times of challenge and pain. And may we take fully into our hearts that we are engaged with God forever in the divine process of creation.