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The Geography of Christmas
January 6, 2013
Christmas is often a time for travel. On Christmas Day this year, Jan and I flew to Denver, Colorado, and then took a shuttle to Carbondale, where our son and daughter-in-law live. We certainly weren’t the only ones traveling over the holidays. During this season, many of you also hit the road or took to the air to be with family and friends.
Well, on this Epiphany Sunday, Matthew’s nativity story also has us traversing the map. He tells of the mysterious wise men from the East who made their way first to the city of Jerusalem, then on to Bethlehem where they worshiped the Christ child. Matthew uses these geographical designations—the East, Jerusalem, Bethlehem—in order to shine more light on the meaning of Jesus’ birth.
According to Matthew, the first people to get wind of the birth of the Messiah were certain wise men from the East—think Iran, Iraq, maybe Saudi Arabia. They may have been Persian priests or Zoroastrian astrologers. In any case, they were foreigners, of another race and religion. What should startle and amaze us is the boundary-breaking, far-reaching significance of the birth of Jesus. Here at the very beginning of the story, God’s love bursts upon the world, shining the light of God’s embrace on far-away places and to unexpected people.
It’s a matter of enormous significance that outsiders are the first to receive and respond to the good news of Christmas. The epiphany, the surprising disclosure, in Matthew’s nativity story is that God’s promised blessing is for all the world. Not just for Jews, but for Jews and Gentiles. Not just for some people, but for all people. This theme of inclusion first sounded in the story of the wise men will continue to ring out as the story of Jesus unfolds. He eats with outcasts and sinners. Jesus touches people who are sick and people who live with disabilities. His ministry is like a beam of light that penetrates further and further into every dark corner of our lives and world.
Reflecting on the story of the wise men, John Buchanan, editor of Christian Century magazine, observed: “The more I ponder the story of Jesus, the more convinced I am that it’s about a radical inclusivity…The story still challenges every established religious, political or social structure that’s vehemently defended to keep insiders secure and pure and outsiders away.”
Matthew’s story of the wise men from the East signals to us that the geography of Christmas doesn’t limit God’s embrace to any one locale or people. To say, “God bless America,” as politicians are prone to do, is good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. God’s blessing is for the whole world. That’s what Matthew means to convey by including these wise men from the East in the Christmas story.
But let’s move on to our next Christmas stopover. Jerusalem is the second locale mentioned in our story. Jerusalem represents the center of power and commerce. It’s the place where Herod is king. Political intrigue, deception and fear-induced violence characterize Jerusalem through the ages. Jesus summed up the history of the city when he lamented: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” We read this morning that, unlike the wise men, Herod does not greet the news of Jesus’ birth with joy. Instead, he’s afraid. He’s filled with jealousy. He’s threatened by the news that a rival “king of the Jews” has been born. And not only is Herod threatened and afraid, but “all Jerusalem with him.”
In Jerusalem, and in all the Jerusalems of the world, the ideology of domination collides with the all-inclusive Gospel of God’s embrace. On that first Christmas, Herod, consumed by fear and jealousy, sent out an order that all the male children in the region should be killed. And on this Christmas, we still feel the sadness of the recent elementary school massacre. We wonder why God would come into such a violent, fear-riddled world. Yet God did come precisely for this world. Came even for Herod, and all the Herods of the world, who often do the unthinkable to one another and to themselves. Matthew won’t let us sentimentalize the story of Christ’s birth. The wise men only stopped briefly in Jerusalem, but their stay-over was long enough to prove to them that the Jesus they were seeking threatened, and still threatens, all who want to dominate, control and exclude.
Now on to the last stop on our Christmas travels: Bethlehem. In an article titled “Off by Nine Miles,” theologian Walter Brueggemann notes that the wise men missed their destination by nine miles, the distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. He points to two prophetic traditions concerning the coming of the Messiah. One tradition, found in Isaiah 60, anticipates that Jerusalem will be the locale, the birthplace of Israel’s King. No wonder, then, that the wise men first come seeking the newborn king in Jerusalem.
But then the scholars of that day tell the wise men about another tradition concerning the coming of God’s Messiah, the one found in the writings of the prophet Micah. Micah envisions Bethlehem of Ephrathah, one of the little tribes of Judah, as God’s chosen place for the Messiah. Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by servant leadership and self-giving love. Given God’s choice of Bethlehem over Jerusalem, Bruggemann then draws the conclusion that, “The way beyond is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares.”
In Bethlehem, we not only learn that God is with us, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, we learn how God has decided to be with us—as one who comes not to be served but to serve, not to dominate but to liberate, not to condemn but to forgive, not to rule by force but to establish God’s reign through suffering and love.
Well, Matthew has taken us on quite a journey—from the East, to Jerusalem and finally to Bethlehem. This is the geography of Christmas. Each locale mentioned by Matthew reveals some essential aspect of the Christmas story—its ever broadening reach, its threatening nature, and its peaceful, persistent presence among us.
Friends, on this Epiphany Sunday, may our lives, like the star over Bethlehem, continually point to Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable presence of God. And may our worship of Emmanuel guide our feet in the way of peace, and open our hearts to our neighbors—those both near at hand and those who are far away.