Sermons

VicarSharonRichterSermon for Epiphany

Who Are these Wise Men? - The Challenge of the Nativity Stories
By Vicar Sharon Richter -

 

Today is Epiphany, the last day of the 12 days of Christmas. I’d like to invite you on a journey with me and the Magi—sometimes called wise men—to follow a star to Bethlehem.
 
 
Who are these Magi?  And why are they looking at the stars? 
 
 
Magi comes from the Greek μάγος, and it is a word for Oriental astrologers or magicians, probably either Persian or Babylonian. So they are looking at the star, as astrologers do, to try to see signs and portents in the sky. 
 
 
They see a strange new star that wasn’t there before.  We don’t know how they knew that the star heralded a new “King of the Jews.” Maybe an angel told them. They followed it west, and this is not hard to understand.  All natural heavenly bodies appear to move east to west.
 
 
But then, at Jerusalem, it stops, for days, if not weeks! How did it stop moving? And why didn’t they conclude that the baby Jesus was in Jerusalem? We don’t know.
So after Herod consults with his scribes, he tells them to go to Bethlehem. Then, magically star starts moving again, as if sent by Herod to fulfill Jewish prophesy. 
Now they follow the star moving southwest, which heavenly bodies do not do, until it stops again.  Not just over a city, but directly over a stable.
 
 
How close to the earth must this star—or this light—be, to know that it is directly over a stable? When you go outside and look up, from any location, the stars directly above you will also be directly above thousands of square miles of territory.
 
 
You see the problem here?
 
 
We are greatly challenged by the nativity narratives.  They are currently the most beloved of the New Testament stories, and yet, reconciling Luke’s story with Matthew’s story, understanding Matthew’s magical star astronomy, and finding any evidence in history, is almost impossible to do. Many a scholar has given up in defeat.  Neither planets, nor comets, nor meteors can stop and then change direction and then stop again.
 
 
These stories only work in one of two ways.  First, we can conclude that God can do what God wants to do, and so miracles take place at God’s command. This is the way many Christians think, if they think of it at all. And this is precisely where many doubters fall away. They can’t accept it.  It is crazy, they think.
 
 
But one can also look at the details of these stories as symbolic.  They are expressing Truth, with a capital T, not detailed truths with many small t’s.
 
 
I would say, all of our concerns over the details of the two Christmas stories stem not from the stories themselves, but from the growing prominence of Christmas as the defining festival of the Christian year.
 
 
quote theStoryofJesusIt was not always so.  As you probably know, the defining festival from the beginning was Easter.  The story of Jesus Christ is the story of his death and resurrection, not his birth under a star.
 
 
It might surprise you to know that Christmas only began to be celebrated in the 4th century, only became prominent in the 9th century, and over the decades became a festival of public drunkenness and debauchery.  Because of this, the English Parliament banned it as a national holiday in 1645, and the Puritans forbade completely. People who were caught celebrating it were fined.
 
 
It was celebrated only spottily in America until 1823, when Clement Moore wrote “The Night Before Christmas.”
 
 
The truth is, our secular and moral traditions come mostly from popular writers, like Clement Moore and Charles Dickens. And it is the nostalgic secular traditions that have spurred all the interest in the Christian nativity in the last 200 years.
 
 
In that time, through songs, stories, movies, and church embrace of the creche, the nativity stories have become much beloved.
 
 
So we are late to this party.  The conflicting and unlikely nativity details never bothered anybody but Biblical scholars for hundreds of years.
 
 
But now they do.  Christians line up behind either “magical,” or “symbolic.” The first just accepts it all without question. The second tries to see what important Truth (capital T) Matthew and Luke are evoking with these magical nativities.
 
 
Matthew, an intricate and deliberate writer, encapsulates his entire gospel message in this opening nativity. It’s all there: The Kingdom of God contends with, but is intertwined with, the earthly kingdom, and ultimately triumphs.  We have God conveying Truth in a baby—an unlikely vehicle; we have Gentiles accepting the Truth; we have hypocrisy and rejection of the Truth by Jewish leaders, we have plots to murder the Truth; and we have Truth escaping death.
 
 
Let’s take a look
 
Most scholars believe Jesus was born in Nazareth, but both Matthew and Luke transport the baby Jesus to Bethlehem. Why? Because oral tradition arose several decades after Jesus’ death, to convince Jews who rejected any “messiah” not born where scripture promised he would be born: in David’s hometown of Bethlehem.
 
 
Now, why a virgin and a magical star? Because important men were often said to be born from virgins, heralded by special stars. Caesar Augustus, the emperor at the time of Jesus birth, was also said to have been born from a virgin under a special star.
 
 
Why Magi?   The Magi were Easterners—Gentiles, not Jews, to whom God nevertheless spoke. They sought Truth, called by God from their pagan ways, but couldn’t find the King of the Jews until the way was laid out for them by Jewish scripture.  This is an allegory of Gentiles being called by God and coming to faith in Jesus after his death and resurrection. And incidentally, “King of the Jews,” is invoked at two locations in Matthew’s Gospel: Once at Jesus’ birth, and several times at his death.  This is Matthew’s narrative prowess on display. It all comes full circle.
 
 
What about the Jews? Well, if you read Matthew’s nativity story, you also know where the Jewish leaders will end up at Jesus’ death. Herod, a Jewish king, and his scribes, and indeed, all of Jerusalem were frightened by the Magi’s news of a new king.  Herod pretended to worship Jesus, but had murder in his heart.
 
 
Herod’s hypocrisy is an allegory of the hypocrisy of the Jewish leadership (the earthly kingdom) that contended with Jesus (the Kingdom of God) throughout his ministry.  The earthly kingdom fears and rejects God’s Kingdom, not just at Jesus’ death, but even at his birth.
 
 
What does all this matter, and what does it mean, for us?  Because the Gospel must be alive for us, right here, right now.
 
 
Personally, I think what it means is that, for Christians, our Truth is Christ crucified and resurrected.  It is not the baby Jesus. The details of the nativity are not the point. They are worth thinking about, but what really matters is the Truth (capital T) of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the means of our redemption.   That’s the whole, entire point.
 
 
Furthermore, it means that there are multiple ways to understand God, ways that are harmonized in God’s Kingdom, not the earthly kingdom.
 
So, whether we believe all the details of the nativity stories, or whether see them as foreshadowing symbols, really doesn’t matter.  We all end up in the same place: worshipping God.   Here.  Now.  On this blessed Epiphany of our Lord.
 
May it always be so.  
 
 
 Amen
 
 

Vicar Sharon Richter
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
January 8, 2017

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