Sermon. January 3, 2021.
Today we are going to look at the story of the Wise Men through five reflection questions. This will be done in a semi-interactive format. I’ll first look at the Biblical story through the lens of each reflection question considering the way that the question reveals a Biblical problem or Biblical grace.
We will then bring the question to our contemporary reality. I will ask people to share a brief response to each reflection question. By brief I mean one or two sentences. I will close each section with a person reflection.
The five reflection questions are:
- What you are grateful for?
- What did you learn?
- Who did you love and who loved you?
- How are you grieving or saying goodbye?
- What systems of oppression are you committed to dismantling?
*** What you are grateful for?
Here we need to begin by clearing up some myths about who these wise men were. First, the text never tells us how many wise men there are. There is a group, but this group might have been two or ten. There are three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and it is from this that the tradition that there were three wise men emerged.
The second myth is that they were kings. In ancient times kings never journeyed without some sort of army. If they were kings coming with their armies, well the Romans would have interpreted this as invasion, especially if this was the combined army of several kings.
In ancient, pre-scientific times there were people who payed close attention to the signs of nature. These people might be astrologers like the wise men, or medicine people, or the like. These Magi have seen a rising star and see this as a sign that a new king has been born, a king of the Jews.
They travel to Jerusalem and inquire where this child might be found. In this they show how both politically naïve and marginal they really are. Maybe not so wise in worldly matters, they do discern that something very special has happened. They are grateful – overwhelmed with joy – when they get to meet the child.
In a sentence or two, share what you are grateful for as we begin a new year?
I am grateful to be healthy and well. Not only because of the pandemic, but also to have fully recovered from my back injury in May. I’m able to stand and walk and I’m completely pain free thanks to several months of physical therapy. I’m also grateful for being able to serve at UCC Norwich during this very challenging time. For the people I get to work most closely with, for the prayer circle and various committees, and for all of you.
*** What did you learn?
We call them wise men. They discern that the rising star means that someone very special has been born. But these Gentiles, wise men from the East need help finding the exact location. The chief priests and scribes who know the Hebrew Bible well know that the scriptures say that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem.
The priests, informed from the wise men that the rising star means that a king has been born share their Biblical knowledge, but don’t do anything else.
The wise men act on their new knowledge going to Bethlehem and getting to meet Mary and the child. King Herod has sent them on a secret mission, a deception, to find this child. They learn in a dream not to trust Herod and return to their homeland by another road.
What did you learn this past year?
A key learning for me has been the possibilities of engaging in ministry remotely. Zoom and other technologies that seemed distant and beyond me are now commonplace tools. It is possible for a prayer group to meet daily via Zoom and to grow close. The same with the Open and Affirming weekly gatherings. An excellent worship video can be produced every week. Committees can function well meeting on Zoom.
There are challenges and there are connections and subtle clues that require in person contact. But I and many others have learned that digital tools can greatly enhance ministry and that these tools need to be used after we can meet in person again.
*** Who did you love and who loved you?
The wise men knelt before the child and paid him homage. They offer their three gifts. In this they express their love for Jesus Christ.
At the core of our faith is the call to Love God with all of our heart, mind, strength, and being. And to love our neighbor as ourselves. The wise men model this love.
Who did you love and who loved you?
This has been a time to gather as family. To love those closest to us – my wife Catherine, and those family who we see in person. And my parents, siblings, and nieces who gather for a Facebook chat every other day. We have needed to increase our love for each other while we endure pandemic fatigue and cheer each other on. To encourage all to stay safe and well while the vaccines are distributed and hopefully we can move on safely beyond the pandemic. Love is what gets us through the day.
*** How are you grieving or saying goodbye?
The wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Their goodbyes to Mary and the child are done as they leave for home by another road.
The text then moves to how Joseph is warned in a dream to take Mary and the child and flee as refugees to safety in Egypt. The gifts from wise men give them some economic means to flee. Herod on learning that he has been tricked by the magi has all children under age two in Bethlehem killed. And their parents grieve.
How are you grieving or saying goodbye?
I grieve all those who have died during the pandemic. I especially grieve all those who have died because safety precautions, like mask wearing, were not followed.
*** What systems of oppression are you committed to dismantling?
The wise men have been domesticated as three kings. In reality they act in ways that subvert the way of kings and empire. They choose to follow the rising star, to follow the way of scripture in going to Bethlehem, and to follow God’s way by being guided by their dream rather than reporting back to King Herod.
The wise men, rather than being three kings, are actually marginal characters in the social and political realities of their time. Not only are they not three kings, their mission and offering of three gifts to the child inaugurates the subversion of worldly royalty and empire that comes through the Christ child.
The story of the wise men shows that neither King Herod nor the religious elite are willing to follow the Way of Christ. Here at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, before Jesus is old enough to be active in ministry God is at work dismantling the ideology of domination that supports oppressive systems of empire.
What systems of oppression are you committed to dismantling?
My first commitment is to help people understand the intersectional nature of systems of oppression, and to be able to engage in faith-rooted justice work to effectively dismantle these oppressive systems.
I encourage you to continue to reflect on the five questions. To share your reflections with each other, and to allow these reflections be a guide for you as you seek to grow in discipleship and live in the Way of Jesus.