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December 26, 2010
A typical topic of conversation this time of year is “where are you going for Christmas?” One person I asked laughed and said, “Well, Christmas Eve we’ll be with our children in Houston. After opening gifts Christmas morning, we’ll drive to Dallas and spend the day with my mother, who is in a nursing home. The next day we’ll drive to Oklahoma City to spend a day with my husband’s sister and then back to Austin on the 27th.” Christmas travels of this sort are not uncommon. Well, our scripture on this Sunday after Christmas also has us traversing the map—to the East, then to Jerusalem, and finally to Bethlehem. Figuratively speaking, let’s open Google/Earth and zoom in on the shifting geographical locales mentioned in today’s scripture. What do these places mean, and what can we learn from each?
We begin our journey in the East. According to Matthew, the first people to get wind of the birth of the Messiah were certain wise men from the East. Christian tradition later identified them as kings, but scripture doesn’t mention that. We’ve also imagined that there were three of them, but no number is actually given. They may have been Persian priests or Zoroastrian astrologers. What’s significant is that God chooses to be revealed, to be made known, to those outside the regular circle of his acquaintance. Luke, in his account, makes the same point in a different way. In Luke, the first ones who are told of the Savior’s birth are the outcast and unclean, which is say the shepherds. While in Matthew’s account, it’s the distant ones, the pagans—that’s to say the wise men.
It’s a matter of enormous significance that God first sought outsiders. This is a theme that Jesus lived out as he proclaimed God’s love to those who are normally excluded, those outside the circles of religious respectability. With the wise men from the East we learn that God doesn’t belong any one nation, race, tribe or religion.
A few years ago Jan and I went on an interfaith trip to Turkey. One evening coming back from the airport, our van of Americans got stuck in a horrendous traffic jam. If you think Austin has traffic jams, you should experience what routinely happens in Istanbul, Europe’s largest city. While we sat in our van at a standstill, everyone feeling impatient, I looked to the side of the road and saw that a man had gotten out of his car, put his prayer rug on the side of the road and was praying his evening prayers. Could I possibly believe that I’m closer to God than that man? In truth, I realized I could surely learn from him something about the importance and persistence of prayer—even in a traffic jam.
Especially today, when most serious wars are waged by people of competing religions, and when the fear of others often closes off dialogue and relationships, we need the humble recognition that God comes to unexpected people in unexpected places. This is what we learn from the East.
Now let’s move on to our next Christmas stopover. Jerusalem is the second locale mentioned in our story. The wise men who set out from the East were guided by their own global positioning system, namely a star. Somehow, though, as GPS’s sometimes do, the star failed to give them a direct route to Bethlehem, and led them instead to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem we learn that Jesus is a political threat to the status quo. The fact that Jerusalem in on the Christmas itinerary will help keep us from spiritualizing, sentimentalizing or individualizing the Christmas story. In Jerusalem, we learn that the birth of Jesus has implications for the political realities of the world. We may get so carried away with the beauty of Christmas, with the sweet little Jesus boy, that we forget that Jesus came into the world to turn it upside down. Mary, the mother of Jesus, grasped this and sang of the birth: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Of course, turning the world upside down makes those in positions of power very nervous and angry. Take Herod, for example. He was not about to tolerate the presence of a rival king. When Herod heard the news of Christ’s birth, he immediately began to plot how to get rid of this threat to his position. Jerusalem—like Rome, London, Moscow, Tehran or Washington, D.C.—is where the power of force clashes with the power of love. In all the Jerusalems of the world, the ideology of domination collides with message that comes out of Bethlehem: “Love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you.” The wise men only stopped briefly in Jerusalem, but their stay-over was long enough to allow them to learn a fundamental truth: the Jesus they were seeking presents a threat to the status quo.
Now on to the last stop on our Christmas travels: Bethlehem. In Bethlehem we not only learn of the unwavering desire on God’s part to ‘be with us.’ But also, and perhaps even more importantly, we learn how God has decided to be with us—in a terribly vulnerable way, with arms outstretched to the world.
Noting this good news, Catholic theologian Walter Burghardt wrote: “All too many Christians are afraid of God. In their experience, God seems so distant…or so majestic…or so despotic…or so uncaring. God is the God of tornados and hurricanes, of wars and laws, of vengeance and punishments. No, if such is your image of God, look down into a crib, look up at a cross. There is your God—in swaddling clothes and bloody naked. ‘God so loved the world…so loved you and me.’” This is what we learn in Bethlehem.
Friends, in Bethlehem, we also learn where we fit into the story. Thank goodness, our role is not to be Jesus. Saving the world is not in our job description. And certainly our role is not be Herod, someone who is deeply threatened by any development that might shift us from the center of the story. Our primary role is not even that of the wise men, seeking truth in faraway places. No, consider that our role is essentially that of the star. We are to live our lives in such a way that we point others to the joyful reality of Emmanuel—God with us. In a world where the darkness of war and poverty and injustice oppresses many, our role is to shine a light on the humble but transforming reality of Jesus, God with us. During these days of Christmas, and throughout the year, let’s try always to love our neighbors, do justice and wok of peace. By doing so we will point others to the love made known in the manger…the love that will transform the world.