The holidays are over.
It’s time to return to work or school or university or to whatever normal life looks like for you.
There’s something wonderful about Christmas time. The candles are lit, carols are sung, delicious food is in the oven, presents are given and received, we tell the beautiful story of Bethlehem – God is here, here in the manger, surrounded by a domestic bliss and candlelight.…
Then, in the fabulous time between Christmas and New Year, still with the church bells ringing in our ears, still with the permission to eat and drink whatever we fancy, there is that most precious gift of all, time… time to do the things you love but don’t have time for… spend time with friends who you miss, or there’s time to walk, wonder, or just sit on the sofa and read a book or catch up on Netflix. Catch up on sleep. We sigh. Our souls find peace. We remember how to laugh. It’s like a vacation but without the pressure to “have a good time” or use it for something edifying.
But all of this is now over. We must return to ordinary life. We must return to the rest of the world away from this holiday.
Will we ever experience overwhelming joy again?
What does God have for us today as we stand on the brink of the end of the holiday? Where is God right now as we brace ourselves to head back into ordinary life? I know where God was a week last Wednesday, I know where God is today, on Epiphany Sunday, but Monday is fast approaching. Where will God be tomorrow morning?
What we see in today’s gospel reading is that God is working outside of the holidays. Outside of the holy days. God is working outside of the holy places and holy things and God is working outside of the holy people.
Theologians don’t really know what to do with the Wise Men. The term Magi might be best translated as “astrologer” or perhaps “pagan priests,” in the child sacrificing, Babylonian religion that preceded Zoarastrianism in Iran. Either way, these practices are directly forbidden in scripture. The gifts they brought would be linked to their practices. These would be the last people that the Jewish people of that time, or the early church would expect to be among the first guests of God the Son, born on earth.
I bet if we went around this room and told the stories of how we ended up being part of the church, following Christ (maybe something to do over coffee), we would have a fair few surprises. Countless people have started going to church because they fancied someone. This isn’t something I would necessarily suggest or encourage (though we have recruited an extraordinarily good looking congregation) but nevertheless it seems to happen. God is not subject to boundaries in what he can use to draw us to himself. The whole of creation is his. He seems to have a serious soft spot for all of us. He’s not that picky about how we get to him.
It’s worth noting that the response of the Wise Men when they found Christ as overwhelming joy. It’s the universal response of people when they find Christ. Although they went back to their own country I can’t imagine they forgot this joy. They were changed forever. Our mission isn’t to hunt out the furthest points away from Christ but to rest assured that where ever we or those we love start from, God is always sending lights to guide us home to himself.
So why is this in Matthew’s Gospel? The interesting thing is that Matthew’s gospel, more than any other gospel is aimed at the Jewish elite. It’s also meticulously put together and the whole construction is aimed to show the Jewish people that Jesus is the JEWISH Messiah, how he embodied all the important events and people in the Jewish identity. How Jesus calls Jewish people to something that is intrinsically WITHIN their faith and what God has revealed to them so far. The challenge I think Matthew is sneaking in at the start is that God is not just owned by the Jewish faith. And our challenge and our hope is that God is not just owned by the Church.
There is every possibility of God’s call coming to us and our colleagues and our friends outside of the walls of the church. Nothing and no-one is off limits to the God who comes to draw all people to himself.
God is not just present here as we gather in church. God is present in your Monday morning meeting with your management jargon and office politics. God is present in the furthest point you can imagine from his Kingdom. And God is sending lights to draw all people to himself.
The story of the Nativity becomes increasingly human. Drawing in not just the chosen Jewish race but the whole of humanity, the whole of human experience.
But where does that leave the people of God? If the Wise men didn’t need Israel to find the Messiah is the call of the Jewish people, now including the church to be the lights of the world defunct?
Well, not so fast.
The Wise Men only got most of the way through their understanding of nature. The thing we often overlook is that they needed Jewish Old Testament scholars, they needed the people of God, to pinpoint where God is. The promise of Yahweh to reveal himself to the world in partnership with the chosen people of God is not over. Even though the Jewish religious leaders here had sold out. They were at the beckoned call of the most despotic, corrupt power of their day. They didn’t question how their information was going to be used by Herod, they just hand it over to him because he is in power. These religious leaders had sold out.
Sometimes I see religious leaders who are sold out to corrupt political leaders around the world – I’m sure you don’t need me to say which leaders but I’m sure we can all think of some. There’s a saying that “The Church isn’t full of hypocrites. There’s always room for one more.”
The message of Christmas in Matthew’s Gospel is that God’s promise holds – even though the parts of the people of God that are sold out are still within the promise of God. They are still used to point out the Messiah to the world. The word of God revealed in scripture is still able to illuminate our experiences. God still upholds his promise to use his people (which now includes the church) to reveal who he is to the world.
I had a friend who trained to be a vicar with me, who found faith through a street preacher. He went along to a church as a teenager and because he had been drunk when they found him, they labeled him as an alcoholic. He had to sit, separated from everyone else, in a separate pew for alcoholics so they were sure he would be given non-alcoholic wine. And yet even in that broken system he heard and responded to the call of Christ. God’s promise to include the people of God in his mission to the world still stands.
And God offers us, even with all our faults, the opportunity to be part of his mission of self-illumination to the wider world.
Christ really is everywhere, in the most unlikely spaces in the world and in the most unlikely spaces in the church.
And what did they learn from the Jewish Scriptures?
They learned the thing that no one reaches from study of the universe with all its survival of the fittest. The thing that is so counter-intuitive it takes a lifetime of practice to train ourselves to live differently.
People talk about “the worst kept secret in Hollywood”. This is the opposite… the best kept public announcement in the world.
The Wise Men learned that though God’s Spirit is everywhere (drawing all people to himself) God’s Son is born not in Jerusalem but in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem was about 6 miles from Jerusalem at that time. Like today it’s a small, not particularly wealthy town on the outskirts of the capital city. There are no temples in Bethlehem, no national religious leaders, no one powerful. When Herod hears that the King of the Jews has been born in Bethlehem he doesn’t panic. The longed for King being born in a poor town doesn’t add up. He waits to see if they were right.
What Herod missed was that the Christian God is most frequently found among those in serious need. Those who are on the verge of losing their jobs, those who are facing a relationship break up, those who are losing a loved one or who are in desperate need in a thousand other ways. When life is most raw we lose our pretensions. We have no energy to put on a mask or to say we don’t need the kindness of others. We are open to God.
Those of us whose lives are not on the edge need to be with those whose lives are so we can catch this honesty, this openness to God.
This is why we have our congregational motto of “Being with God on the edge”
God whispers in pleasures but shouts in pain.
The Wise Men expect to find the King of the Jews in a palace. We expect to find Christ in the comfort and calm of beautiful, warm, plenty. God is closer to those in serious need. Those not living the holiday life.
So don’t give up on loved ones who seem as far as they possibly can be from life and love. God doesn’t. Don’t give up on parts of the people of God who seem like they are corrupt. God doesn’t. Don’t give up searching out the Bethlehem in our own lives and those who live in Bethlehem around us. Don’t give up honouring the weak and insignificant. Don’t give up honouring others and the seasons of our own lives when we live on the edge.
And what we find, is that though the holidays are over, to God the Son who was with time, with place, with us in our birth and infancy, at the beginning of the World. And who invites us, and your colleagues and friends, and the whole of humanity, to discover him in his birth and infancy… in his presence, all days, all places, all people can be holy.