Matthew 2 (1-12)
Welcome to the New Year! As the page turns on 2018 and 2019 begins, maybe you have had the same experience that I have had. In social media, and perhaps media in general, it feels like at the end of the year, everyone asks the same question: What went wrong? Think about the lists and articles that we tend to read at this time of year.
- We read about who died…what celebrities were lost.
- We read political articles that are usually about what the other side did wrong.
- Even the sports teams that I follow tend to have a report card out at this time of the year – what should my teams have done better last year?
What went wrong?
I don’t know about you, but 2018 felt like a lot of things went wrong. It felt like a hard year in some ways. Many of you will know that several members of our congregation have been upset by our congregation’s vote in October, and have chosen to leave the church. It has been a painful time for many, and I consider myself a part of that pain. I have been hurt, as I have been the target of accusations that have felt unfair. I have been angry, wishing that people would have talked to me about their feelings instead of about me. But mostly, I have been sad. These are relationships that I have had for close to a decade. These are people that I have worshipped beside, studied the Bible with, practiced Biblical hospitality with in Family Promise and the food pantry, participated in God’s mission with in our community and around the world. I am sad to consider that these relationships will be forever different, if not ended. Sad that they will not be sitting in their favorite pew when I look out, that they feel hurt or disenfranchised or left out or angry or all of the above. I am sad because I care about them, and I miss them. It hurts. I grieve their loss.
That’s not it. Many of you know that the week before Christmas, Kimberly’s mother passed away. We drove up when they started talking about Hospice, and were able to be with her in her final moments. Then we drove back to be able to celebrate her life at the service in Kentucky, where I was honored to participate in the service. Needless to say, it hurts. It hurts because of my love for my mother-in-law, and for my love for her husband and daughter and grandchildren and I know that they hurt. It hurts because I know that we won’t be able to share our memories with her anymore. We know that in 2019 and beyond, she won’t be with us; we won’t celebrate her birthday or holidays. It is sad, and it hurts.
Now, why am I being so personal, you might ask? “What does this have to do with me?” you might be saying. While these are my griefs, my guess is that you have your own griefs from 2018. Friends and family members that you have lost. Relationships that have ended. Many of you feel the same as me, sad to have lost church family members. For me, these are 10 year relationships. For others, they are 20, 30, 40 year relationships.Some of you might have been happy with the outcome of the vote, but unhappy some are leaving. Others unhappy with the vote and unhappy that others have left. Grief abounds. And our world is turned upside down.
“All well and good, but what does that have to do with today’s passage?” you might ask. If we take a closer look, it is a passage filled with grief, and pain, and worlds turned upside down. Today is Epiphany Sunday, and it often pulls together these various stories of the Magi and related narratives. Three jump out to me as stories of grief.
First, Jerusalem felt as though their world was turned upside down. It is an interesting way that Matthew tells the story. When the magi show up and ask where the new king is, Herod is understandably anxious. Of course, the current king isn’t too happy to hear that there is a new king coming. But look what it says: Herod was frightened, “and all Jerusalem with him.” That doesn’t mean that all of Jerusalem loved Herod, or even that they weren’t pretty unhappy with him. But we love stability, don’t we? And a new king usually meant a violent uprising, which caused collateral damage. The news of the coming wise men threatened to turn Jerusalem upside down, and it frightened all of the city.
Second, the holy family was turned upside down. Herod’s anger burned against them and threatened their safety and even their very existence. And so, the angel warned Joseph to take the family to Egypt. A new culture. A new language. An end to the family support and protection that they would have known in Nazareth. A world turned upside down.
Finally, Bethlehem was turned upside down. Again, because of Herod’s anger and jealousy, he made the command to kill all of the children under two in Bethlehem, just a few miles down the road. Imagine the communal grief that was taking place. In a town that size, everyone would have known someone who was affected. It would have caused deep pain, and anger, and grief. Their world would be turned upside down.
Jerusalem. Bethlehem. The Holy Family. Think of the chaos and pain that these families had to deal with. Think of the grief of their loss, and of the changes that they would have to deal with. The story of the birth of Christ is a story of worlds turned upside down. I am not saying that my grief or your grief is exactly the same as any of these Biblical examples, but perhaps we can understand a portion of the fear and pain and chaos that they felt, because we know what it is to have our world turned upside down.
But now, let us look at what happens in the midst of this chaos. Look what takes place in the midst of these worlds turned upside down. The story of epiphany is the story of the Magi is the story of God speaking light into pain. Speaking joy into grief.
First, look what happens to the Magi in Jerusalem. They left their homes, their families, their comfortable surroundings, and headed East to follow what they hoped would be good news. What were they hoping for? People don’t usually pack up and leave their homes if everything is smooth sailing there. They were hoping for a better life, a better reality, a more hopeful existence than they had. They were hoping that this new king would bring something that they were looking for. And they found it! Look how many times the passage uses the word “joy!” When they found the star again, they were overjoyed! And that is even before they found the baby himself!
Look, then what happens with the Holy Family when they do find the child. God has led them to Egypt by way of an angel. Look at all of the ways that God is present in the story. It is God who sends the star, offering light in the darkness. It is God who sends the angel to Joseph, to protect them from the violence wished upon them. It is God who sends the angel to the Magi, protecting them and sending them home another way. When the Magi found him, they emptied their chests at the child’s feet. Because he represented the joy that they were looking for, the joy that they sought, the joy that they yearned for. They were from another country, generally unconcerned about the politics of Judea, but they still knew what this baby represented. They knew that somehow, this child would bring joy not only to the people of Judea, but to these foreigners as well.
Even in the pain of the death of the innocents, it is God who cares for those who grieve. Matthew’s use of the story of Ramah is meant to remind his readers about God’s presence in the midst of grief and chaos. It refers to two stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. The first was the barrenness of Hannah, who wept because she could not bear children, but was eventually blessed with Samuel, the first of the prophets. The second was when Jeremiah used the image in conjunction with Ramah, where the Israelites were gathered before they were exiled to Babylon, but of course, by the time Matthew used this passage, the exile would have been reversed and the people would have been allowed to return to the promised land. In both of these stories, God cares for those who grieve, and brings restoration. And so, now, this story becomes another story of restoration to those who grieve.
For in the midst of the violence of Herod and the grief of his victims, Matthew knew that there was reason for joy. He knew that even if the world was completely against this child, God would still overcome. Matthew knew the end of the story. He knew that Christmas was the beginning of Easter. And he knew that whatever pain the people of God found themselves in, they were never alone. He knew that even as the world tried to extinguish the light, Jesus would stand on a mountaintop with his disciples and tell them, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” The Gospel joy that the Magi spoke first would be repeated to all generations! The story of epiphany…the story of the Gospel is the story of God speaking light into pain and joy into grief.
And so, today, I invite you to bring your grief. Bring to God your world turned upside down. It may seem like God is lost in the darkness. That God has given up and cannot make your pain go away. That God is absent from your life, or your family, or your church, or your nation, or your world. But listen again to the response of the Magi: “they were overwhelmed with joy!” Even in the midst of worlds turned upside down, the God of Christmas and the God of Easter will not leave us or forsake us. Look to the star of wonder and star of light. Look to the promise that God is alive and well and at work in our world. Listen to the angel message, the messengers of hope and healing in our world who prophecy that God is here and God is at work. Look to the world turned upside down of 2018 and ask “how will God send us home another way in 2019?” “What is God leading and guiding and directing us to do and be in the days ahead?” “What will the pathway hold when we open our eyes and see God walking in our midst?” “How do we see the God who will not leave us or forsake us?” “How can we bless those who are gone from our presence, either gone into God’s eternity, or just to the church up the road?” “How can we pray for those who are gone – grieving that they aren’t with us, but blessing them on their journey?” If we truly believe that God is the God of joy in the midst of pain, then of course we can!
Margaret Marcuson, a church blogger and wise soul, reminds us of the light which God brings. She asks why it is that we spend so much time asking what went wrong? Instead, she suggests, what if we ended the year asking instead, “what went right?” She invites us to ask these questions instead:
- What went right at church?
- What went right in your personal relationships?
- What went right for you spiritually?
- What went right for your health?
- What did you learn?
- What did you read?
- What new things did you try?
What a wonderful list! Perhaps one that would help us focus on the light that God offers, instead of the chaos that seems to overwhelm us. Questions that help us focus on the star of wonder…and light.
The word epiphany literally means “revelation.” It is God revealing the light in the midst of the darkness of our world. I know that I have talked before about one of my favorite short stories by Flannery O’Conner titled Revelation. It tells the story of a good old church lady, Mrs. Turpin, who spends most of her days looking over her nose at others, thankful that she is not like them. She spends most of the story thinking about what is wrong about everyone else! But then, near the end of the story, she receives a revelation. As the sun sets over her farm, and the clouds light up with beautiful colors, she sees what looks like a bridge straight to heaven. On this bridge are walking saints of all shapes and sizes. At the back of the line are people like her, and like me, and maybe like you – good old church ladies and gentlemen who think we know all the answers and think we are the only ones. But in front of them, leading the way with exceeding joy and shouts of acclamation are the outsiders – like the foreigner Magi – or those who have known nothing but grief and pain, those whose world never seems to be anything but upside down. Her revelation, her epiphany, seems to be that God is more focused on inviting in those that the world deems as wrong. God seems to be a God of opening our eyes to the light.
This morning, and this year, may we open our eyes to the light! May we see what God has done and is doing! May we choose joy in the midst of our grief, and light in the midst of our pain!