Christmas 2 January 4, 2009

Jeremiah 31:7-14                                                                               

Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a                                                   

Matthew 2:1-12

 

 

The search committee for a new priest had prepared a glowing description of the person they were seeking. He or she would revitalize their worship with dynamic preaching; inspire their stewardship so that their budget would be balanced and they could expand their programs and fix up their building; visit all the shut-ins and newcomers; restart the youth group; rebuild the Sunday school, and be personally a shining example of faith. And when this paragon had accomplished all these goals, the committee wrote in its search brochure, “we look forward to basking in the warm glow of success.”

 

Well, don’t we all? Isn’t this the carrot that’s always waving out in front of us as we urge ourselves forward: the warm glow of success, when all our goals are achieved and we can simply lie back and “bask”? One of the great come-downs of the financial collapse of the past fall is that in so many ways, personally and as a Nation, we were abruptly tumbled backwards down the mountain, returned to “Go” without collecting the $200. It is not only our 401k’s that have lost half their value; our morale has too.

 

Yet this is the moment for a spiritual reality check. The Christian life offers us another model from that of the warm glow of success. It is one of journeying, one of seeking, one of following stars. We leave our comfortable homelands to travel to destinations we are promised by God, but which lie always beyond our definition. The journey has many trials and tests, many temptations to give up and turn back. We are taught many lessons along the way. And when we reach a destination it turns out to be not the end at all, in a basking in the warm glow of success sense, but a new beginning. In perhaps the most poignant phrase in the story of the Magi, they “return home by a different road.”

 

In the Christian journey, our destinations, our discoveries, transform us and set us on new courses. Even death, we believe, is a new beginning, a passage into a wider and eternal life.

 

The story of the Magi offers contrasting models of “kingship”—kingship being in this sense models of ruling or comprehending life, models of being. The journeying, seeking, changing one which I have been describing is, of course, the model of the “three kings of Orient are” who “traverse afar.” They were not kings actually, but astrologers, early scientists, followers of the ancient Zoroastrian religion of Persia. They sought God in the natural world, hence their following the star. They represent the fact that Jesus is not just the king of the Jews, but of the Gentiles as well; that he represents the fullness of the God who is God of all, and that it is outsiders, strangers, those who are open, who will acclaim him as such.

 

These “kings” are contrasted with King Herod. Herod was the puppet king who ruled Judea under the Roman Empire. He had a very difficult job. On the one hand he had to satisfy his Roman overlords, on the other he had to keep in check the restless nationalism of his Jewish subjects. He was very rich, very powerful; you can go to the Holy Land today and visit the great fortress palace he built at Masada.

 

But his life was the very opposite of seeking and journeying. It was all about defending and holding on, staying put. That is why in the gospel as soon as he learns from the Magi that there is this “child who has been born king of the Jews,” Herod sets out to kill Jesus. His interest is not in learning the whereabouts of Jesus so that he may worship him. He wants to find him so he can dispose of this rival ruler. Herod’s is a model of life that all of us know something about: life lived around jealousy, insecurity, defensiveness, competitiveness, lack of trust.

 

And then, of course, there is that other king in the story of the Magi: Jesus. He is a king, true, but a king of a very different sort. I have been reading a new book by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the Russian novelist Dostoevsky. Actually, the book is about much more than Dostoevsky. It is about the nature of faith, specifically Christian faith. And one chapter in it is entitled “The Last Word?” Archbishop Williams points out that Dostoevsky never allows any of his characters to have the last, defining word. He never allows his narrator to have the last word, nor even claims it for himself as author. The dramas of his novels always remain open, like life itself—no final baskings in the warm glow of success. The last word is always and only the last Word of Jesus Christ: Jesus the star towards whom we journey in faith, whom we may discover in part from time to time as we go along, but never fully; discover only to be sent off on further journeys, our lives changed. Jesus is the true King, the only ruler and giver of life.

 

So here we are setting forth on a new year: daunting challenges ahead of us, many of the old “kings” we had set up for ourselves now shown to have been failed models for life—from George Bush to Alan Greenspan. We have set up new kings—Barack Obama the most visible right now. But they too will not have the “last word.” There will be no basking in the warm glow of success. There will only remain Jesus, always there before us and beyond us. Jesus and the journey.

 

What saint is it who said that half of heaven lies in the getting there? A wise one, surely! God bless us all on this new year’s journey.

 

 

 

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