Monday, January 4, 2016

Out of the East

Out of the East
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 3, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 2: 1-12

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.

This morning I want us to take a look at the Wise Men from the East. It is a familiar story with much that we remember, camels and gifts, Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, and that there are three of them, named Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior. They go to Bethlehem by way of Jerusalem following the star that they saw rise. They deal with Old Inquisitive Herod, and wisely defy him by not returning with the information. We know the story well, but I want you to listen to this story with fresh ears as best as possible and listen for what is not here. There is much of the story that is apocryphal, or added. Here is the Biblical Version, in the only place in the New Testament it is given, fulfilling the prophesy from Isaiah 60, here is Matthew 2: 1-12.

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. [1]

Did you find anything missing? No camels and no names, exactly. This story might be the story that has the most added traditions about it. I think because it really stirs the imagination. Wise foreigners, from the East, following a star, are they kings, are they astrologers, why do they come? Why do they know about Jewish prophecy? What is their purpose in the story? What was their journey like? Where did they come from? Just how far to the East? Babylon? Persia? India? or even farther like China, venturing towards the West from the East along that ancient Roman Silk Route?  When you close your eyes what do these kings look like to you? Are there three of them? Three is the traditional number since they bring Three gifts, but could there be more? Is it an entourage, or just three solo travelers? It is hard to imagine if it were merely three that they would have come very far, since it is dangerous to travel. East is going away from the Roman center, where things are ordered and peaceful. Though other empires flourish to the East they too have their centers and law and order tends to dissipate the farther away you get.
Many have imagined the journey. In the bulletin I put a piece from TS Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" listen to how he envisions it:\
The Journey Of The Magi
'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 the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
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 unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Eliot envisions their journey, and the life changing event the journey would be. The death he speaks of there at the end seems to evoke death to the old ways of the world, their old lives, their old Religions, he mentions the people "clutching their gods." No something new has happened here.
WH Auden imaginatively sees it this way in his Christmas Oratorio "For the Time Being"
I am that star most dreaded by the wise,
For they are drawn against their will to me,
Yet read in my procession through the skies
The doom of orthodox sophrosyne:
I shall discard their major preservation,
All that they know so long as no one asks;
I shall deprive them of their minor tasks
In free and legal households of sensation,
Of money, picnics, beer, and sanitation.

Beware. All those who follow me are led
Onto that Glassy Mountain where are no
Footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread
Where knowledge but increases vertigo:
Those who pursue me take a twisting lane
To find themselves immediately alone
With savage water or unfeeling stone,
In labyrinths where they must entertain
Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.

To break down Her defences
And profit from the vision
That plain men can predict through an
Ascesis of their senses,
With rack and screw I put Nature through
A thorough inquisition:
But She was so afraid that if I were disappointed
I should hurt Her more that Her answers were disjointed
I did. I didn't. I will. I won't.
She is just as big a liar, in fact, as we are.
To discover how to be truthful now
Is the reason I follow this star.

My faith that in Time's constant
Flow lay real assurance
Broke down on this analysis
At any given instant
All solids dissolve, no wheels revolve,
And facts have no endurance
And who knows if it is by design or pure inadvertence
That the Present destroys its inherited self-importance?
With envy, terror, rage, regret,
We anticipate or remember but never are.
To discover how to be living now
Is the reason I follow this star.

Observing how myopic
Is the Venus of the Soma,
The concept Ought would make, I thought,
Our passions philanthropic,
And rectify in the sensual eye
Both lens-flare and lens-coma:
But arriving at the Greatest Good by introspection
And counting the Greater Number, left no time for affection,
Laughter, kisses, squeezing, smiles:
And I learned why the learned are as despised as they are.
To discover how to be loving now
Is the reason I follow this star.


The weather has been awful,
The countryside is dreary,
Marsh, jungle, rock; and echoes mock,
Calling our hope unlawful;
But a silly song can help along
Yours ever and sincerely:
At least we know for certain that we are three old sinners,
That this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners,
And miss our wives, our books, our dogs,
But have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are.
To discover how to be human now
Is the reason we follow this star.

Descend into the fosse of Tribulation,
Take the cold hand of Terror for a guide;
Below you in its swirling desolation
Hear tortured Horror roaring for a bride:
O do not falter at the last request
But, as the huge deformed head rears to kill,
Answer its craving with a clear I Will;
Then wake, a child in the rose-garden, pressed
Happy and sobbing to your lover's breast.

And this brings me to another idea about the tradition of the Wisemen, and that is exactly who these men are. This is possibly the part that most interests me for reasons I'll mention briefly in a moment. Traditions has it that these men are Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar. Of course there are three, based on the three gifts, but as we have said their names are not found in the Biblical story, but the tradition is that Balthasar comes from Babylon, or Arabia, that Melchior is Persian, and that Caspar comes from as far as India. This is a major part of such books as Ben Hur, or also even the book that Glenn Beck wrote and published about the origin of Santa Claus this year. I love this idea that the wisemen come from the different parts of the world, different countries, different cultures, different religions, as if this birth of Jesus, this coming of God into the world transcends geography, transcends culture, transcends history, transcends, even religion, or philosophy, that the God, the Word, who becomes flesh to live with us as us is not just a tribal deity, but in fact the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, and the very God of Creation, transcendent, eternal, all pervasive, and breaking through barriers that human beings have built. I like the idea of Babylon, Persia, and India, but I'd also like to include China in that, and though it is not a part of the tradition, the tradition was added at some part, too, for if we would the birth of Christ would not just be a Jewish thing, not just a western Greek and Roman phenomenon, but one that would envelop all the centers of religion and Philosophic traditions of what was the ancient world, as it would shape our modern world. Persians and Zoroastrianism, the Hindu of India, the Taoists and Buddhists of the farther east, and the Astrologers of Babylon. That Jesus speaks truth in the ears of all of these great ideas and movements is a powerful notion, and one that interests me greatly.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 2:1-12). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.