January 8, 2023, Light for the Journey, Matthew 2:1-13 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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I think sometimes we think of our beliefs, as something like objects or propositions, that we verify, and then store away, as if we have a kind of mental or spiritual file cabinet into which we file truth. The problem with that is that belief is so much more than a simple matter of correct data. Truth has to be something you do, not just something you know. Because by far, the most important part of believing something is what you do in response.
The story of the Epiphany is the story of two entirely different responses to one common belief. The story begins with the Magi – who weren’t actually kings like the song says, but more like a combination of mathematicians and mystics. They are astrologers; they study the movements and meanings of celestial bodies. They are also, apparently, scholars, familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. And they have the wisdom and the discernment to have found a connection between the two.
It is a bit of an interesting mystery that these Magi had access to the writings of the Hebrew prophets. But it’s likely that it dates back to the time when the Israelites had been carried off into exile by the Babylonian king. Nebuchadnezzar brought the cream of the crop into his palace: young, well-educated men like Daniel. When they were carried off, they would certainly have brought the Scriptures with them, and by the marvelous workings of God’s plans they had apparently been preserved, so that six centuries later, the Magi of our story, seekers of truth that they were, sought them out, and studied them. That’s a guess, but it’s a very probable one.
However it came about, in their careful observation of the skies, and in their thoughtful perusal of the holy writings, these Magi had concluded that a new king was being born in the homeland of these ancient prophets. And more, they had concluded that this was not only an event of local significance, but an event of cosmic significance. They believed that this new king was being born in the little nation of Israel, and so they loaded up their caravan, and they packed royal gifts, and they set out on a long voyage.
T.S. Eliot’s poem about the journey of the Magi starts like this:
“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, finally, after a long journey, the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, following the star all the way, and they went to the most reasonable place to find an infant king; they went to the palace of King Herod, the ruler of Israel. They told Herod what they had discovered in their studies of the stars and the prophets. And here’s the thing: Herod believed them! He didn’t think they were crazy, or misguided, or that the were exaggerating the importance of what they had found out. He believed what these foreign dignitaries were telling him.
And what he believed terrified him.
Herod was a Jew. He knew about the prophecies in the Scripture that foretold the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One, that God had promised to send to his people. It was the centuries-old hope of his nation. And Herod was no fool. When the Magi explained what they had discovered, he went right away to his own wise men, scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures, and he asked them: quick, tell me, where is the Messiah going to be born? What did the prophets have to say about that? And they told him: Bethlehem, the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, the city of David. Look, it says so right here.
Just like the Magi, Herod believed the signs and the prophecies. He believed that a child had been born who was destined to become a great king over all Israel. And it filled him with fear. Because the coming of the Messiah threatened everything he had worked and schemed and killed to accomplish. He believed. And he decided to do everything he could possibly do to stop it.
If we had kept on reading a few more verses this morning, we would have reached the terrible part of the story, where Herod sent out his soldiers to slaughter every little boy two years or younger in Bethlehem, and just to be safe, every little boy in the regions surrounding Bethlehem. Because Herod did believe that the Messiah of God had come. But he was willing to do anything and everything he could do to hold onto what belonged to him.
It seems to me very clear that it is never enough for us to make sure we have filed away the correct beliefs, or divined the true truths. What is most important of all is what we do about the truth, how we respond to it. Herod believed that the Messiah of God had come, but he just couldn’t allow even the Messiah of God to ruin the glory of his accomplishments. Obviously, that’s an extreme case. We’re not like Herod. We are in no danger of killing innocent children to protect our own interests. But haven’t we all, at one time or another, run up hard against God’s truth, something we know is true, something we believe, and yet, all we really want to do in response is to make it go away?
One example that might be familiar – we know that God wants us to forgive those who do us harm. It’s right smack in the middle of the Lord’s prayer where we can’t miss it. Jesus even expanded on it. In uncompromising terms, he actually said if we want God to forgive us then we have to forgive, too. I believe that. I know that is true. But there have been times when I have found myself unable or unwilling to actually do it. That person really didn’t deserve forgiveness. And anyway, I’m still hurting. All too often, instead of forgiving, my response has been to nourish and cherish my bitter little thoughts.
And then there is the whole subject of money, personal possessions, security. Our “stuff.” Most of us would acknowledge we believe that the love of money is the root of all evil, of course, because Jesus said it. We’ve all read the story about the rich young ruler, and how Jesus told him the one thing more he needed to do was to give away all his possessions, sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, and then follow Jesus. But how fervently do we sometimes work to convince ourselves that Jesus never meant for us to give away our possessions, or choose the lower-paying job, or drive the old car?
My point is – is there any one of us who hasn’t had to wrestle with the things we genuinely believe? Haven’t we all found ourselves, at one time or another, knowing the truth, even believing the truth, but not being able to accept it – not even being able to WANT to accept it? It seems to me that God’s ideas of love or grace or justice or forgiveness – those things we believe absolutely to be true – can sometimes be almost as great a threat to us as the coming of the Messiah was to King Herod in his great palace in Jerusalem.
And that is why we desperately need the example of the Magi. Because when they believed the signs of the coming of the Child who would be king, they didn’t just make a note in their journals and leave it at that. No, what they did is they set out on a long, long journey. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t quick. They didn’t have GPS, or reservations at comfortable hotels along the way. They just set out to follow the light that God set before them. And they followed it all the way to the place where the Child was, with Mary his mother. And when they came to that place, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
Sometimes it can be a very long journey for us to find our way from belief to joy. And the thing is, that’s OK. Today, we don’t know how to forgive someone for the way they hurt us. Right now, we don’t know how to accept this child of ours whose lifestyle is so entirely foreign to us. We don’t know how to escape from the bitterness, or the comfort, or the addictions that weigh down our lives. We believe that God’s grace is sufficient for everything, but it can be a very, very long journey from there to accepting that God’s grace is sufficient for my deepest, most intractable sin, or my most painful and incurable wound, or my chronic insecurity.
And that’s what the Light is for. Most of the time, I think, we are miles and miles and miles away from loving and living out the truths that we firmly believe. As T.S. Eliot wrote, sometimes it is “such a long journey, the ways deep, and the weather sharp.” We don’t know the way, we have no idea at all how to get there. All we can do is follow the Light that God has set before us.
The Light is the still, small voice of the Spirit,
and the Light is a helpful Word remembered at just the right time,
and the Light is the love of a good friend,
and the Light is the nourishment of the Eucharist,
and the Light is the beauty of Creation,
and the Light is a beautiful strain of music that moves us to tears.
The Light is always there, always shining for us to follow, always showing us the way, always keeping us from falling or losing our way. God’s light shines on our path in all kinds of different ways, but the end of our journey is always the same. Just like the Magi from the East, the end of all our journeys is to find ourselves in the Presence of Jesus. And when we come to that place, like the Magi, we rejoice exceedingly with great joy. +