A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 6, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 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.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘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.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 
So I decided that I would try and be disciplined for a while and try to preach from the lectionary, and so that begins today. One of the cool aspects of preaching from the Lectionary is that you enter the Biblical Passage without any real preconceived notions about what you want to say, and allow yourself to be led by the passage. Though I have followed patterns before, it was always me deciding the pattern. So as I was reading the passage for today, and the connection of it to the Old Testament reading from Isaiah, one word kept coming to my mind, and so I decided that I would base this sermon on that word, and the different ways it fits this story. It's kinda like the Wallace Stevens poem "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" or Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" when he describes a blade of grass from every single possible angle and point of view. So here goes, the word that kept coming to me in description of the Wise Men, their encounter and also Isaiah's prophetic description of their part in the Christmas Story is "Outside."
Yes, Outside. I know it's not a very high level word, it's not edgy, it's not overly exciting, it's not even a typical Church type word. I can hear people saying now, "come on couldn't you have picked love, I mean you're always typically so hung up on love. Or sin, maybe you can repeat the darkness of last week's sermon, or salvation. Wouldn't that make for a better message?" I was even thinking myself, speaking to my mind's inspiration, "Really, outside, can't I come up with something a little more interesting?" But no, I couldn't turn it off. Two major connections kept coming to my mind, and I kept thinking that these two connections encapsulated the new insight I wanted to bring out of this very old and very familiar story.
Most people when they think about the wisemen they go one of two different directions. They either talk about the gifts, the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh, or they go straight to the other main character in this passage, the villain, Herod. If you go with the gifts, then you may share some historical insight about the meaning of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, for instance that Gold is a gift for royalty, incense a gift for religious ceremony, and myrrh an oil used for anointing, then making the connection that the gifts are the precursors for the doctrine of Christ and the Three fold office, Christ as King, Christ as Prophet, and Christ as Priest. Or if you focus on Herod, you may say something about the harshness of the world that Christ is born into, or the corruption of the Roman/Jewish state of Palestine, or like I did a year ago, make a connection of the escape from Bethlehem, to Egypt, and our need to symbolically leave Bethlehem as well, that just as Christ grows toward Easter, so must we. I've heard those sermons before.
So outside. The two insights that came to me are connected to this idea of outside. Number one, is that the wisemen themselves are outsiders, and in order to be a part of the story they had to look outside of their already substantial wealth of wisdom and body of knowledge. So one way of looking at the story of the wisemen is that is a story of outsiders being invited in, and insiders being called out. Let's look at these two ideas in order.
Outsiders being invited in. One of the major aspects of the book of Isaiah is his prophecies concerning the nations. Israel in Old Testament times, and you could say like it is today, was surrounded by many powerful nations. Isaiah as a prophet includes in his book, many descriptions of what the unique situations of these nations are, all in the chapters between 13 and 27. He shares prophecies regarding Babylon in chapters 13, then shifts to Assyria in chapter 14, then Philistia, Moab, Syria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Elam (which we know as Persia), Media, Edom, Arabia, and finally the city of Tyre. Isaiah seems to suggest that the Lord God is seated in judgment over those nations, too, even though they do not know, nor worship, this God of the Israelites. There is a sense that God is not just God of a tribe, but God of all of humanity, it's just that some folks are living on the outside. There is comfort in those words for a nation like Israel, awash in a sea of geo - political uncertainty, that the God who has delivered them through the ages also has power over the other bigger, richer, and stronger nations that threaten Israel's very existence.
It's comforting on one hand, at least for the Israelites on the inside, but what about those brought to judgment who have not be introduced to the God who is their judge. This type of truth is often troubling. Which is why the claims of Isaiah 60, which was our Old Testament reading for today, and the presence of the Wisemen in the birth narrative are so remarkable. Look at those first three verses of Isaiah 60:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
3 Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Nations shall come to your light, not only will they be brought within the judgment of God, but can be brought into the salvation as well. This new revelation, this new light, is for Gentiles as well. There is more to the Lord God, than was originally thought. And so in the beginning of Matthew, the first to acknowledge the birth of Jesus, the birth of the Messiah are gentiles, outsiders, symbolic of outsiders being not left on the outside, but invited in. The circle of salvation grows exponentially on day one of Jesus' life.
Ok, now that brings me to the other side of this story. The inside being called out. Now one thing is certainly clear, that it is only in Christian hindsight that you could say that the Israelites are on the inside and that the rest of those nations are the outside because the rest of those nations had everything that screams about worldly success. They had wealth, they had power, they had armies, they had wonders, like the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Pyramids of Egypt, not included in Isaiah's list, but jumping forward to the time of Christ's birth, they certainly were those same Nations, you could include the Coliseum of Rome and the Parthenon of Athens. All of these nations had one thing in common. They were all empires, seats of power, authority and oppression, and they each in turn conquer the lands of the Israelites, but unlike most conquered peoples, the Israelites maintained their identity. But was it an identity that anyone else, especially one of the people of these powerful empires would want to take for their own?
I talked last week about the Romans believing that they had it all figured out, and they did, but all empires feel that way. All empires feel that their knowledge is complete, I mean hey it helped them conquer the world. Scientists, religious leaders, and politicians are the worst at thinking like this. They all claim perfect knowledge because extra knowledge challenges their power, the structures and systems that they have built to consolidate their rule. New knowledge is a threat. Look at Herod if you want another example, and Herod could see himself as on the inside of this whole Jewish Spiritual Prophetic thing. I said scientist, religious leaders, and politicians. Isn't it interesting the words that we use to describe these three star followers that find their way manger side bearing gifts. Wisemen (scientists), Magi (religious leaders), Kings (politicians). These are the movers and shakers in the nations who are movers and shakers. You can't get any more inside than them, but then a star new rises, a new star shines, a new star beckons, a new star calls. And the new star says to them, "everything you thought you knew is incomplete, everything you thought you knew falls short, everything you thought you knew is wrong, here is the truth, follow this star, and learn about real truth, learn about real power, and learn about what it means to worship, bow down, and submit. Think outside of your preconceived notions, think outside of everything you've been taught, think outside of everything you have observed up to this point, because this new star defies your charts, defies your sense of direction, defies your sense of place, defies your notions of north, east, south, and west, which you thought you could gauge by the stars, those immovable constant stars. Look again, open your eyes, this is epiphany. What you thought was the inside is the outside, and what you thought was outside is inside, come in out of the darkness and into the light." And they did, they followed, they left what they had, they travelled across the desert, perhaps on camels, American poet T.S. Eliot imagines their journey in this way:
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and
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
And the villages dirty and charging high
A hard time we had of it.
It's not easy to be called, and to follow a star. It changes your life. It changes your life to be on the outside and be called in. And in the end this is what epiphany is about: change. The definition of epiphany is "a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into reality, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience." Yes that is it, another way of saying it is like Isaiah says it "arise your light has come," another way of saying it is "Follow me," another is "Noah I want you to build me an ark", another way is "Your sins are forgiven," another is "I want you to go to pharaoh and say to him Let my People Go," another way is "Rise take up your mat and walk," Another is "Do not be afraid," another is "You will know my name is the Lord," another is "I will be with you until the end of the age." Another is "I have known you since before you were born," Another is "now you will be fisher's of men." It is call, and there are many ways that it happens. No two are the same, but there is one repeated response to the call, and that is the Hebrew word, Hineni. Here I am. Take a look at the call of Abraham, look at the call of Isaac, look at the call of Jacob, look at the call of Moses by the Burning Bush, look at the call of Samuel, look at the call of Isaiah, in all of them God speaks, often their name twice, like Abraham, Abraham, and then there are the words, "Here I am." It is there every time. It even makes its way into the New Testament, Hebrews 10:9, then I said, "Here I am, I have come to do your will my God," and Revelation 3:20, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in."
Again like it was for Mary, "to be called is to be favored, to be favored is to be loved, and to be loved is to never be abandoned." The difference now is our understanding that anyone can be called. The truth that was outside of our prior understanding, and that is the common thread here is that now there is no such thing as outside. There is no such thing as outside of God's judgment, but also there is no such thing as being outside of God's favor, therefore there is no such thing as being outside of God's call, and so there is no such thing as being outside of God's community, there is no such thing as being outside of God's love. Psalm 1 states, " The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish." Does the forgiveness of sin alter our understanding of this psalm?
The question then for us today is, where are we? Here is the issue. Many of us today are still trapped by this problem of outside verses inside. Many of us who feel we are on the inside, think we have it all figured out, and therefore are blinded to the new stars that appear on the horizon, and so we stay where we are happy about being on the inside. And others of us are so sure that we are not invited to the party, that we do not have the skills, that we are too old or too young, too tired, too infirm, too much of a sinner, too much of a checkered past, do not have enough within us to be called, we are sure that we are on the outside. This story wipes out these distinctions, God wipes out these barriers, in a child visited by shepherds and kings, the call is made, follow me, and the invitation to of the call is extended to all, called, favored, and loved, never abandoned, it is just for us to answer Heneni, Here I am, then hop a camel, knowing that God will guide our steps, show us the way, and be with us for eternity. Amen.