Monday, January 7, 2013

Encountering God

Encountering God- Sermon from 1/6/13: Matthew 2:1-12

Today is the 12th day of Christmas- the day we mark ‘Epiphany’- or the manifestation of Christ to the world. 

In the West, Epiphany is typically marked through celebrating the visitation of the kings or the Magi, to the baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary. 

The text that this story is pulled from comes from the gospel of Matthew... We have been spending most of our time this Advent season in the book of Luke.... Listen closely to hear the distinct differences in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ birth- as compared to Luke’s telling.

A reading of the gospel from Matthew Chapter 2 versus 1-12:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, 
they left for their own country by another road.
Gone is the pageantry of Luke’s narrative full of poetry and song and vivid descriptions. In Matthew’s gospel there are no shepherds or inn keepers- no manger or swaddling cloth. Mary is less of a central figure, and more of a side note- Jesus is linked to the Jewish lineage of Joseph- The gospel moves straight from Joseph’s dream of reassurance that his wife will bare God’s son- to our text today and a visit from the Magi.

In Matthew’s gospel- From the moment of his birth- Jesus is a threat to the dominant powers. Connected to the line of Jewish ancestry, Jesus comes to fulfill God’s purposes, and to bring God’s justice. 

Now while we may see this as a great gift- a welcome message- that was not the case for Herod- or for all of Jerusalem. Matthew emphasizes from the start that Jesus was born into conflict- for some a messiah- one who comes to save and bring justice- but for most a threat. 

Matthew tells us:Under the time of King Herod- Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Under the time of King Herod - Read amid threats of power, domination, corruption, violence...  A baby was born on the outskirts of town to a lowly young woman and her confused husband. 

The heros in this story are not the typical ones with strength- but those on the outside of power centers- 

Those on the outside welcome God’s initiative- while Herod and the Roman Empire try to squelch it. 

first Joseph and Mary- 

and then the gentile Magi- or wise men- the Magi are not actually kings- as we sing of so beautifully- but priestly figures from the East -not jewish- but gentile- and they have access to the centers of power- because of the predictions they make...

these Magi would make predictions- often based on signs in the stars- these predictions were valued by some and dismissed by others--

This time their prediction drew attention because it was especially threatening to Herod and those in power... 

The Magi ask: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? 

Jerusalem’s elite are threatened when they hear that there is a new king coming to town. They will do all they can to retain the power they hold- be it manipulating the magi, sending them as spies to glean information about this new ‘king’ -

Or killing all babies under 2 to preemptively prevent the possibility that one of these babies is the one who has been prophesied king. 

Herod’s murderous violence is the standard response to a perceived threat. This is no sweet story of mangers and shepherds. 

This is a dangerous tale of power, espionage, and murder. Herod isn’t messing around.

It is in this context that the Magi head on their way, following the great light than guides them. Bowing to the power of the King’s demands, while at the same time- following their instincts that this star must lead to something important- The Magi follow.

When the star stops the Magi don’t just feel joy- they are overwhelmed with joy-- perhaps they are just exhausted- or perhaps they have that feeling- you know that feeling- when you just know this is a really important moment...

They expectantly and silently walk into the house and look up to see the ‘king of the jews’...

Was this what they were expecting? 
A young girl in plain clothes- a little baby- 
not apparent royalty- but a simple baby.

Whatever they saw that night- it changed them. Humbled and breathless- they drop to their knees- they open their chest and give those gifts we all know so well- Gold, frankincense, myrrh. The gifts full of symbolic and spiritual meaning.

After spending time with the baby and his parents, they are invited to rest their heads for the night before they begin the long journey back home.

As they lay that night reflecting back on the day they sit in awe. Everything has changed. In a dream their feeling is affirmed.” Do not go back the way you came”. No more do the powers of Herod guide their path. They will follow a new path.

Their world has been altered. The light of the star changed their vision. Something they saw that night - the sight of the baby- ‘the king of the jews’ has forever changed them. They cannot return to the oppression and tyranny under Herod’s rule. They must go a different way. 

The next day they awake and take a different path home.


This is the kind of thing that happens when you encounter the living God.  Encounters with God change our perception of the world- our perception of ourselves- our understanding of what it means to love others - and hopefully- the way we live our lives....

Maybe it happens in a flash, But I believe most often it happens over years of struggle.

We have no story of the Magi’s journey back. Did they all agree that they should ignore Herod’s demands to return to him? Did they waiver in their decision? Did Herod try to find them or threaten them?  

I think we sometimes we hear stories of great transformation that sound ‘easy’ or fast and dramatic... As if a lightning bolt hits and someone is changed-- or a voice from God comes down in a bellowing deep sound and directs the way and we never go back. These stories can leave us disheartened when we don’t receive clear messages in dreams from angels, or hear God shouting to us when we are awake.

I think most often- these encounters with God that change us are more like a subtle nudging- a tugging inside that tells us to go a different way- take a different path. New sight comes slowly as we begin to notice the person on the side of the street and we wonder what has led them to that place. Our vision becomes less clouded when we begin to ask why there is so much violence- and what can we do to stop it... 

Some of you know that I am working to start some small groups called Table Groups. The hope for these groups is that they will be spaces where we may gather with people- some from here at South Broadway, and some from outside the church- especially people who may be less comfortable with traditional church... We are just getting started- so you’ll be hearing more soon.

In one of our first gatherings we discussed our experience of God and church and religion. My friend Marni, who is a part of the group, said in our first gathering that she has always been envious of those people who felt they heard God talking to them. She felt like she was missing something because she didn’t have these clear signs from God- or overwhelming feelings of God... longing for the ‘guiding star’ or the ‘angel in a dream’- she felt she had been passed over.

Two weeks later- Marni shared about an experience on a road trip she and her family had taken to Arizona. On their way home, somewhere in a one-gas-station town in New Mexico, there was a man on the side of the road with a sign. For some reason Marni’s heart broke in that moment with feelings of sadness and helplessness for the way things are. While there wasn’t much she could do in that moment- this connection sat with her and stirred in her. Her perspective shifted a bit in that moment.

The next week brought the shooting in Connecticut and her heartbreak and longing to do something more grew even deeper.

The next weekend we gathered as a group to do a small thing- to make lunches with the ‘Give a Jam’ ministry, to put together hygiene kits for New Genesis halfway house, and to spend time playing uno and tossing the football at Civic Center Park with some folks living in homelessness.

Quite honestly- I know that this is a small response to the vast systemic and social issues of violence, poverty, and disconnection--

But for her- and for me- and for us-- in that moment this was a resistance to the violence, poverty and disconnection of our world. This was a different path from the easy path of assimilation to our cultural values of greed, consumption and individualism.

Encounters with the living God change our perception and change our path. 

Whether these encounters come in a dream, from a star in the sky, from a sweet baby, or from a man on the corner with a sign- we are slowly changed.

Sometimes choosing to take the different path home is clear choice in a rock-bottom moment - no alternative kind of time...

And other times choosing to take a different path takes years of nudging, prodding, and struggle.

Either way- once you begin to taste the sweet life, grace and freedom of this path- you will never be the same.

Each day - May we open our eyes to the light of the star. 
Each day- May we open our hearts to the grace of the baby.
Each day- May we resist the pull of the violent and oppressive ways that surround us-

And take a different path home.