The Journey to Joy

Jan 5, 2020 by

Sermon by Paula Papky

Isaiah 60:1-6          Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14       Ephesians 3:1-12       Matthew 2:1-12


The poet, T.S.Eliot, in telling the Magi story, begins this way:

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and gambling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

            The poem is not a romantic view of today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel.  Rather, Eliot highlights from the start that this quest for the infant king will have its hardships.  All journeys after truth and meaning will go down some unfamiliar roads, full of risk and not-knowing, our heads full of voices saying this is all folly.  But the joy to be found!  Now that’s what gets us started on such risky journeys in the first place!

Only Matthew tells the Magi story, a tale that begins in the time of King Herod, in the age of tyrant kings.  Now Herod himself was half Judean, but he was a Gentile at heart.  He was a bloody-minded despot with his own security forces, as well as the Roman army to back him up in quelling protest movements.  The world into which Jesus was born was violent and volatile, a world where birth and death weren’t always easy to tell apart.  That’s what troubles the Magi of Eliot’s poem:  had we come all this way for birth or for death, they ask each other.  And yet they come.

Magi were from Persia, which is modern-day Iran.  They were part of the priestly class in Persia, serving the ruler.  They had access to the centres of power across a wide region, which explains how these Magi had access to King Herod.  To say they studied and followed the stars is to make them seem like romantics and dreamers, which they were not.  Their lives were devoted to discerning,through their religion of Zoroastrianism, the rise and fall of kings.  They have followed this particular new star all the way to Jerusalem.

They search first in Jerusalem, Israel’s centre of power.  They’re going through the city asking a question that could be considered destabilizing.  These Gentile strangers are asking:  where is he who was born King of the Judeans?

It’s hugely embarrassing for King Herod to have these strangers nosing around his kingdom asking where the King of the Judeans has been born.  After all, he, Herod, is King of the Judeans!  Notice that he is not King of “the Jews” as our translation has it.  Rather, he is king of the Judeans, the inhabitants of the region including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Bethany and Jericho.

Word gets around fast enough for Herod to think these strangers are bad news and to start looking over his shoulder.  Herod has all the trappings of kingship:  10 wives and lots of quarrelsome sons and daughters, palaces to keep them all from killing each other, a magnificent temple on a mountain in Jerusalem, money, and powerful friends.  He views the Magi as a challenge to his honour and to his throne.  Surely they should have come to him first, discreetly, on their knees, even.

And they have the effrontery to question Herod, to challenge him, as they talk about a star, of all things.  “We have seen his star…” they explain, “and we know it means something important.”  Not so strange even in our day, this interest in stars and what they portend.  Even today, huge numbers of people turn first to the horoscopes when open their morning newspapers.   In Jesus’ day, Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of Persia.  All over the Ancient Middle East people put much stock in stars and their meanings.  Stars could point to blessing but also to calamity.  The Magi’s interpretation is that a new king has been born.  It remains to be seen if that is blessing.

Herod is ashamed of being the last to hear the news that he’s to be sidelined, phased out, made redundant.  He had heard these Persian Prophets were just riff-raff, just fortune-tellers.  Like any king or established authority, his power depends on patronage appointments, on the military, on control of the economy, that is, taxes, and one-man rule.  He won’t have all that questioned by star-gazers.  And he abhors change.  Those at the centre always fear what comes from the margins.

Herod listens to the Magi and tries to get as much information as he can from them.  Shockingly, they speak not about “a” king but about “the” king.  He calls for his cabinet, his own people, who are supposed to know about momentous events – another humiliation, really, to have to consult them at all.  As King he should know everything.  But he asks his elite advisors, “Have you heard anything about a new king?”

His own people turn to the resources of their own religion, to the Scriptures, and what they tell Herod is not reassuring in the least.  They quote the prophet Micah:  the new king will be born in Bethlehem, in Judea.  It sounds like a little hick town but it does have importance as the birthplace of Israel’s greatest king, David.  But they can’t think of a way to make the prophecy sound to Herod like good news.

Herod leaves them and returns to the Magi, issuing a command as if they were his servants:  “Go and search for this king and when you find him, bring me word so I too may go and worship him.”  Can’t you see his cronies when he says that?  “Oh, sure, boss, wink, wink, we’ll go and worship him too.”

The Magi set out again on their quest, having heard the word, “Bethlehem” but still not knowing as much as they would like about where the star is guiding them.  Some quests are confusing and difficult.  Even today, there are some questions that can’t be answered by Google; some roads not in the GPS.  Some quests take years.  How do we prepare for such a journey?  When we set out on a quest for the gift of God in Christ, we discover we must leave some things behind, things like power and status and self-centredness – even traditions.  We gather up our courage and determination and loyalty.   And some days we may wonder if we’re heading in the right direction.  Like the Magi in Eliot’s poem we are liable to hear “the voice in our heads singing, saying this is all folly.”

But the Magi have more than their wits and determination.  They have that star, that connection with the heavens and with God.  And Matthew writes, “the star stopped over the place where the child was.”  They know by the star in the heavens that they have come to the right place.  “And they were overwhelmed with joy,” says Matthew.  Joy.  The Magi are overwhelmed with joy as they meet the Divine.  Another poet among us puts it this way:  “They joined the echoes of choirs, the excited whispers of shepherds, the adoring murmur of the dumb animals at a birth.”  This quest for the child brings joy which shall be to all people.

Matthew writes, “the Magi enter the house.”  Such a little sentence, but so full of meaning.  We know what it is to enter into something, to be fully engaged by an experience, to give oneself over completely to what is found after such a long journey.  The Magi bring their whole selves to this moment, this entering, when they see the child with Mary, his mother.  And they know exactly what to do:  they kneel down and worship.  They didn’t do that that for King Herod, but they kneel down and worship this infant.  They offer the gift of themselves in opening their treasure chests.  You can see they are utterly open to the Divine.  They honour him with what they treasure, what they value, what they hold dear.

The story ends with a dream – not unusual in our Scriptures.  Remember Joseph being told in a dream not to shame Mary but to take her as his wife?  Herod, you notice, is granted no dreams or visions.  He’s informed only by hearsay and frightening Scripture and unreliable chief priests and scribes.  But God warns the Magi in a dream not to go home the way they came.  Without a doubt, Herod’s spies will be searching for them.  And so, they leave for their own country by another road.

We might read this Gospel of Matthew as a counter-narrative.  It exposes the world of the centre of power in Jerusalem under a brutal king; it unveils the alternative world of God’s reign as the gospel continues.  This counter-narrative can guide us in the year ahead as we consider how best to continue MacNeill;s ministry.  It invites us to watch for something utterly new to happen and not to be afraid to travel an unfamiliar road.

Like the Magi, we have dreams and visions to guide us, the dreams and visions of prophets like Isaiah and the Psalmist and our poets and hymn writers.  We have another year of grace to be guided by these dreams and possibilities.  We have the companionship of others at this table; and we too have heavenly signs:  bread and cup, cross and candle.  We have the promise that we will find Christ among us if we search, if we are open, if we put the treasure of the Christ above all other treasure.  On this first Sunday in Epiphany is revealed to us the mystery hidden for ages, even Jesus Christ.

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