The Visit of the Wise Men
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘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.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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.” 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
~ Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
This Advent, we have done things a little different here in Oldtown. While normally, we light the candles of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, and we focus our worship themes as such, this year we mixed things up following the verses of Silent Night. Our themes were: Peace, Joy, Love, and Hope as we reflected on not only “sleeping in heavenly peace,” but living our lives that way. The “glorious streams” that brought the shepherds to God’s big amazing joy. Redeeming grace, and what that might mean in our lives. And this week, we are looking at the way that hope abounds in the most humble and unassuming places when we aren’t afraid to open our hearts to God.
Now, that may not sound like a big thing, I mean really, we only moved Hope from week one to week four, but I have found that for me, making this little change in the way that we do things has really opened my heart to a whole new way of looking at the Christmas story. Normally, the theme of Hope kicks off our advent season. We are filled with hope as we wait for Christmas to come. The idea of hope fills us with possibilities for the coming Advent season, with the pinnacle being the birth of the baby in Bethlehem. But now, focusing on Hope as a theme for Christmas Sunday, we are called to search a little deeper as we begin to understand that hope is not only about waiting for something to happen but allowing God to step in and change our lives.
The Christmas story, of course, is filled with peace and joy and love, but it also abounds in hope! Stephen Hawking, the great theoretical physicist once said, “However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
Well, in the Christmas story, we are given many examples of just that. God steps in and brings hope to tough situations and to some of the most unexpected people. First, God steps in and chooses Mary and Joseph, a humble and meek teenager and a hard-working older man. And Mary and Joseph faced difficulty and challenge at every turn, didn’t they? From the unexpected news that Mary would be having a baby, to the fear that they experienced at the appearance of the angels. Remember, that’s why the angels always start out saying, “Do not be afraid!” And from the ridicule of society to Mary and Joseph’s need to travel that long road to Bethlehem for the census just as the baby was due to be born. Then, searching for a place to stay but finding no room when they got there. But through all of the difficulty they faced, they had faith, and they trusted in God. And because their hearts were open, God stepped in and filled them with hope. Now the road was far from easy, but they knew in their hearts that all things would be possible with God.
I’m sure that the shepherds struggled too. After all, as we know, shepherds, for the most part, were outcast from society. They never received a warm welcome when they came into town, so they usually kept their distance. And in the Christmas story, they were minding their own business out in the fields that night when all at once, God stepped in, sending a heavenly host of angels to tell them to head into town to see this baby that had been born. Again, God appears and chooses the shepherds, filling them with hope and giving them a chance to be a part of something so big that they can’t begin to fathom it.
And in today’s scripture reading, we hear about the kings or the magi. All that we know is that they were wise men from the east, astronomers probably, because they were so attentive to what was happening in the sky. And though they had no idea who or what this baby was, when they saw the star at its rising, their hearts were filled with an incredible sense of hope, and they knew that something amazing was happening!
Folks, this year, as we focus on the hope that Christmas brings, I am reminded even more clearly of the wide welcome that God offers. God welcomes the young and the old, the wise and the simple, the ones who have it all together and the ones who struggle with each step, those who are lost, those who are found, and those who are searching.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t address the one person in our scripture reading today who was not invited to the see the baby. Friends, the only person that we know was not invited to come and see the Christ child was King Herod. Plenty of people say that Herod was not welcome because of his wealth, or his position of authority, or because he wanted to harm the child. But I would totally disagree with all of those answers because the God that I know offers grace and hope to ALL! But the key to receiving grace and hope, is the willingness to receive it, and Herod had a heart of stone, that was not open to receiving. He knew everything and trusted only in himself, and therefore there was no way for God to step in and offer him the gifts of hope and grace.
Friends, Christmas is not only about love and joy and warmth and comfort. It’s not only about lighting candles and getting together with family and friends. It’s not only about presents and parties and celebrations, but it’s about the fact that anything is possible, that everyone is invited, and that no door is ever closed. It’s a reminder that however bad life may seem, there is always something you can do. You can have faith and believe, because, on that first Christmas, God loved us all so much that He came to be with us, in the flesh, to love us and to teach us and to fill our lives with hope.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your Christmas celebrations, remember that all things are possible and that hope abounds, but we have to be willing to let go of our need for control and to open our hearts in order to truly welcome God into our lives.
My friends, Merry Christmas! And may it be so. Thanks be to God! Amen!