Saturday, January 31, 2015

Blessed Salt--a sermon on Matthew 5

Rev. Teri Peterson
Blessed Salt
Matthew 5.1-20
1 February 2015, Epiphany 5, NL1-21

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 
 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 
 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

For the past few weeks, I have watched as my pastor friends and study groups talked about the beatitudes all over the internet. There were conversations about translation, and whether the word “blessed” means today what it would have meant when Jesus said it. Some translations say “happy are those…” while other scholars suggest it should say “honored” or even “lucky.” Many people are uncomfortable at the thought of Jesus saying “Happy are those who mourn,” so we quickly dismiss that translation. 

And yet, isn’t there something to that? We are taught that these would be shocking words to those who first heard them, and we who know them so well are no longer even slightly moved at “blessed are those who mourn.” But Happy? It seems there might be a little bit of the “are you kidding me?” factor in that word.

Even as that discussion was happening, there were also people suggesting that the beatitudes are Jesus’ 10 commandments. Aside from the fact that there are nine beatitudes, of course. But the comparison was essentially that the 10 commandments were when God taught the Israelites how to be the chosen people, and the beatitudes are when Jesus teaches his followers how to be disciples.

I admit that I had a moment when I thought this comparison was intriguing. But after a day or two, I realized something:
The ten commandments prescribe action. We will worship the Lord our God and serve only him. We will honor the Sabbath, and our parents. We will not steal, lie, cheat, kill.
But the beatitudes seem to describe a reality beneath what we can see or do. Blessed Are the meek, grieving, hungry, poor, pure, peacemakers.

That’s when I had a realization: I think we have actually turned the beatitudes into commandments, or even a contest. Be meek, and inherit the earth. Be a peacemaker, and be called a child of God. Be pure in heart, and see God. Be poor, hungry, thirsty, and you will be filled. 

But that’s not what Jesus says. He doesn’t say “run out and be more poor, more meek, more pure, so you can be blessed.” He says “Blessed Are.”

This is one of those times that I think the traditional lectionary has gotten us in trouble. We have heard the beatitudes so often, but without the rest of the chapter. We have missed what Jesus said next, and so I wonder if we have also missed the explanation of these shocking words.

Just at the end of today’s reading, we hear Jesus say that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, or we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And because we have read scripture as if it is one set of commandments after another, we have believed the word “righteousness” to mean correctness, or purity, or even self-righteous. But the word righteousness is a relationship word, not a legal word. To be righteous is to be in right relationship with God. So Jesus says that we must have a relationship with God that exceeds that of the Pharisees, if we are to experience God’s kingdom.

The way Matthew tells it, the Pharisees have a relationship with the law, not with God. They have a relationship with the institution of which they are a part, not with God. They have a relationship with their standing in the community and the ways they can maintain it, not a relationship with God.

If we read with a relationship lens, what happens to the rest of today’s reading?

When we have a deep and good relationship with God, we will be blessed even as we recognize our poverty of spirit. Our relationship with God will sustain us in days of mourning, and will remind us that this life is not the end. A carefully cultivated relationship with God may very well cause us to grieve for the injustice of the world more than we already do, in fact, and those tears are God’s own. When we are in close relationship with God, we will know the extent of Christ’s mercy, and we will be merciful. And on and on—what if the beatitudes are a description of a life lived in close friendship with God? Just as later Paul will write that the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control…nine fruits, incidentally…maybe the beatitudes are another way of describing the fruit of a with-God life?

Or perhaps the beatitudes are the salt of a with-God life. What happens if we read Jesus’ saying that we salt of the earth and light of the world through a relationship lens, rather than a rules lens? We know that salt and light exist not for themselves but to highlight other things—a little salt in a dish can make other flavors pop, and a little light in a dark room isn’t made to be looked at but rather to allow us to see other things. But what if these, too, are descriptions of the blessings of a with-God life? 

These are just as shocking, in their way, because our human nature, bolstered by our culture, tells us to get noticed. But to be light is to allow others to see the glory of God—not the glory of ourselves. To be salt is to allow others to taste Christ’s goodness, not our own usefulness or worthiness.

And more importantly, salt does something to people. Salt makes us thirsty. After a salty snack, we reach for the water.

did you catch that? 
You are the salt of the earth. 

We are the salt of the earth, the thing in this world that makes people thirst for living water.

Or are we?

When people encounter us outside this building, do they see the blessedness of a relationship with God? Do they get a taste of kingdom life from us and then long to come to the waters? Does our relationship with God make us salty enough that other people become thirsty? When we are the salt of the earth, we will be blessed in ways we could never imagine—though perhaps in ways we don’t want, if the beatitudes are any indication.

Or has our life with God become so habitual that we relegate it to the background, bringing it out only when we’re in crisis or in the sanctuary or when we’re doing the things we’ve always done? Have we lost the earth-shaking experience of God, just as we have lost the meaning of the word blessed?

How can our saltiness be restored?

Well, I suspect that depends on whether we want a relationship like that of the Pharisees—a relationship to the things that serve us—or a relationship like the one Jesus offers—a relationship with the living God who is here and now, active and moving, calling and feeding and seducing us every step of the journey.

A few weeks ago I invited all of us to jump-start our relationship with God by memorizing a bit of the word. Let the word dwell in you richly, Paul wrote to the Colossians—and to us. This is where a deep, fruitful, blessed, salty relationship with God begins. Not with keeping the rules perfectly, but with loving God enough to want to know the word and allow it to bear fruit in our lives. 

May that fruit be a blessed salt that makes the world thirsty for living water.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

By Heart--a sermon on Matthew 4

Rev. Teri Peterson
By Heart
Matthew 4.1-17
18 January 2015, Epiphany 3, NL1-20

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
   but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
   and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

When I was 17, I moved to Chicago for college. A few months after my 18th birthday, some friends invited me to a concert at their church, and then when I went to that, they invited me to a service as well. I went with them, then again by myself, and then found myself at a new members’ class, all before I really understood what had drawn me there. I had read the Bible from a literature perspective, but had never been to church before, except once in high school to play the clarinet with a handbell choir.

When I met with the pastor about joining and discovered I’d have to be baptized, I nearly backed out. I asked if I could do it, but tell my parents later. I hesitated. Obviously I did tell parents—and that went fine, much to my surprise. And one April morning I found myself in a navy blue dress and white cardigan, kneeling on the cold marble steps of a neoGothic cathedral. That day my pastor gave me a new Bible. It has continued to be my favorite even though I have probably a dozen more between my home and office—some more compact, some more grown-up looking, some with better footnotes, some in different translations. But this Bible has been the one that has seen me through my entire Christian life so far.

Almost immediately I began a practice that I continue even now. As I am reading, if I come across something I want to remember, I write it on a purple index card, and I stick the card in the spot, almost like a bookmark. Every now and then I take several cards out and carry them around for a while, almost like flashcards. Then occasionally I put those back and take others out. It’s one of the ways I try to implant the word of God in my psyche.

You probably have other ways. Some of you may have gone to Sunday School during a time when memorization was a key teaching strategy. Others of you may have accidentally memorized things simply by virtue of reading them so many times, or hearing them in church so frequently. Maybe some of you have photographic memories and you can’t help but remember what you read. Maybe some of you don’t have anything memorized, and yet I know you have a sense of some of the important things in God’s word.

The prophet Jeremiah said that God would write the word on our hearts. What does it look like to know God’s word by heart? Not by rote, but by heart?

I think it might look like our reading today. Now, I don’t want to compare myself or anyone else to Jesus when it comes to having the word of God by heart, but since we are all on a path to becoming more Christlike, it seems we should take this seriously.

While he was still dripping from the river, the Spirit descended on Jesus and God’s voice proclaimed that Jesus is God’s beloved son. Then that same Spirit led Jesus away from the river and the gaping crowds and John’s questions, into the wilderness. There, in the desert, he will meet his adversary.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the tempter’s first words, after Jesus has fasted for forty days in the desert, are about food. After all, when I haven’t eaten for four hours the tempter is right at my shoulder.
“Since you are God’s son…turn this stone into a loaf of bread.”

The temptation to self-sufficiency is great. I am sure I’m not the only one who falls into the trap of thinking I can do it myself.

But Jesus has the word of God by heart. He has a relationship with God that can be relied upon—after all, he’s already trusted God to bring him through 40 days without food in the desert. From his heart, he is able to say “I am not actually self-sufficient. I stand on God’s promise, not on my own power. I am dependent on God, and to say I could depend only on myself is folly. Man does not live by bread alone.”

So the tempter tries a different tack. “Since you are God’s son, throw yourself off the Temple, for the scriptures say that angels will bear you up and God will not let you dash your foot against a stone.”

In the midst of difficulty, it’s easy to make bargains with God. To think “If God really loved me, then he would __fill in the blank__.”  Especially for someone who has so recently felt the Spirit on his shoulder and heard the voice of God declaring him beloved…what would be the harm in showing that off just a little? Doesn’t he deserve a little acclaim after this suffering in the wilderness? What if everyone has forgotten his baptism by the time he leaves the desert? This is a great chance to prove that what they heard was true. I mean, it would be good for both God and Jesus in the end, right? It’s a great bargain.

But Jesus knows that even if everyone else forgets his baptism, he remembers. He does not need to bargain with God, because the word is already written on his heart. He does not need to give in to the tempter’s misuse of scripture, because he can see the difference between letting the word dwell in you richly and using the word for your own purposes. So he says simply that scripture tells us not to put the Lord our God to the test…and to twist scripture to test God is a misuse, not a faithful use.

Seeing that the temptation to self-sufficiency and the temptation to bargain and cement his fame have failed, the tempter goes for the big grand finale. “All the kingdoms of the world” he promises Jesus, if only you will worship me.

Not just fame and fortune, but power as well. To possess all the kingdoms of the world…but in so doing, lose the kingdom of heaven. Jesus knows, better than we do, that his calling is to embody God’s kingdom and to cause it to come here on earth. Is he willing to trade that work—the teaching, the healing, the slow-to-understand disciples, the arguments with Pharisees and Sadducees, the crown of thorns and the cross?

The shortcut often looks pretty attractive. I mean, maybe if he took the offer, he could then be a sort of double agent, bringing all those kingdoms into God’s realm without having to first win them over. Plus he’d be very powerful along the way.

But Jesus knows that good intentions are no substitute for faithful following of God’s good call. From the depths of his heart, he can feel God’s word growing and growing, calling him to take up his cross, because that is the way to win kingdoms. The power of God is not like the power of the world, and every time we fall into the trap of worldly power, we need to know that we may very well be trading away kingdom power.

Jesus resists yet again the option of doing it his own way, and reminds his adversary that he worships and serves God alone. No matter how tempting it is to create his own light, he knows his job is to shine the light of God.

How does he know? It’s easy to say “well, he’s Jesus, so he already knows how this is all going to go, and what he’s supposed to do, and he is the word of God, and he is God, so of course he has scripture by heart.” I’ve said those things…and I also think they are the tempter speaking to and through us, trying to convince us that because we are not Jesus, we don’t need to be so scrupulous in our relationship with God. It’s okay to trust ourselves or worldly power or a bargain sometimes, because we can’t possibly be as good at resisting temptation as Jesus…

But we can. It won’t be easy, of course, but then neither was fasting in the desert for forty days. Neither was dealing with the disciples as well as the Pharisees. The path of transformation into more and more Christlikeness will not be simple or painless. Neither was carrying the cross. Jesus never said the way would be easy. But he did say that he would be with us, that when we are carrying his burden we will find it light, that the Spirit will be our Advocate when we are faced with the Adversary.

This is the relationship we want to nurture. To learn to trust God, not only believe in God, is a lifelong process. It begins with having the word by heart, not only because then it’s always ready when you need it, but also because to truly know God’s word is a sign of how important it is to us. We know by heart all kinds of things that matter—our address and phone number and social security number and email address and passwords, birthdays and anniversaries. We also know by heart all kinds of things that don’t matter much—song lyrics and movie quotes and jokes we first heard 20 years ago. What would it take to add some scripture to our hearts? And more importantly, why do we resist the idea?

What would happen if we really made an effort to know some of God’s word by heart? Not just to have it in our minds, not just to be able to google it, but to know it—even just a few verses—so well that they live in us, become a part of us.

Besides deepening our relationship with God, and giving us something to rely on in the midst of life, it might also be like a compass, telling us when we are about to give in to the tempter and his offers of self-sufficiency, of ego, of worldly power and wealth. The adversary threw his most impressive pitches at Jesus—the very things we humans all struggle with, like independence rather than interdependence, proving ourselves to others rather than remembering who we are and who God is, and the dream of an easy path to millions rather than the harder struggle to the kingdom of God, where our true treasure lies.

So this is the challenge: this week, choose a bit of God’s word. It might be just a couple of verses that you have read recently, or that you turn to again and again, or that you discover as you search for something that speaks to you in this moment of your life. It should be something you haven’t already memorized, that’s cheating! If you would like recommendations, or help finding something you are thinking of, I’m happy to help. And then do whatever it takes—write it over and over by hand, read it silently and out loud many times a day, draw a picture, post it on every surface in your house, car, and office, cross-stitch it for a sampler or pillow, set a reminder to pop up the verses on your phone, quiz each other at home, set it to music, or whatever way you learn best. Learn part of God’s word by heart. Let the word dwell in you richly, and see what fruit you might bear for God’s kingdom because of it. Rather than creating the light, be a bearer of Christ’s light. And know that when we stand on God’s word, the tempter will never prevail.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Just the Beginning--a sermon for baptism of the lord sunday

Rev. Teri Peterson
Just the Beginning
Matthew 3.1-17
11 January 2015, NL1-19, Baptism of the Lord

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

You brood of vipers!!

I’ve always wanted to start a sermon that way. I have no idea what situation or text would make it appropriate, and no clue what the sermon would actually be about, but it’s fun to say. You brood of vipers!

It makes me wonder if John the Baptizer—whom I often call JTB—had been waiting for the opportunity to say it too. I picture him standing waist-deep in the Jordan River, calling people to a renewed commitment to living God’s way, when all of a sudden he sees the people who have murmured against him, undercut his message and his character.

It’s no wonder he shouts at them, really. These are people who scoff at John’s ministry, believing that because they grew up in the church, they don’t need to do anything else. They see themselves as the keepers of the tradition, ready to point out when we haven’t done things that way before, ready to offer their perfect bloodlines as evidence of their faithfulness. John wants them to know that God can do amazing things, both with the children of Abraham and with those who will be adopted into the family tree. God calls us all to bear fruit, not just to stand unyielding even if the tree is dead.

John’s words at the end of his rant have echoed through time: “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” We have read this as a threat, and used it as one too. If we don’t ask Jesus into our hearts, if we aren’t baptized, if we don’t go to church often enough, if we don’t read the right translation of the Bible, if we don’t support the right political party, we might turn out to be chaff, thrown into an unquenchable fire.

Or rather, if other people don’t do these things, then they are chaff—useless, a nuisance, only worthy of being carried away by the wind or burned. 

We have forgotten something important about chaff and wheat. Namely: chaff is a part of wheat. These are not two different things, they are together. And as grain is growing, chaff is important—it is the hull that protects the grain from bugs, from the elements, from falling prematurely off the stalk. It is, in most grains, a hard shell that builds up as the stalks grow and the heads mature.

At the harvest, the chaff must be separated from the grain in order for the grain to be useable. That husk is stripped away and sifted out, until what’s left is a pile of grain ready to be ground into flour and turned into bread, and a pile of husks ready to be swept away.

What JTB tells the Pharisees and Sadducees—and everyone else listening that day on the riverbank, and all of us who continue to read his words—is that a life committed to God’s path is a life of letting God strip that husk away so that we can be useful. Much though we might want to hang on to those layers of protection we have so carefully built up, the reality is that those layers keep us from fulfilling our calling. It is only when they are removed that our true nature is revealed and we are ready to be used for God’s purpose.

It can sometimes hurt, and sometimes be confusing, when God pulls off the husks we have so carefully put in place. It makes us vulnerable, and it changes our whole view of the world. Where once we saw through layers of protection, now we see as God intended, and the light can be overwhelming.

If it’s any consolation, this was just as true for good old JTB as it is for us. The final words of his temper tantrum are barely out of his mouth when Jesus wades into the river next to him, and he finds himself protesting. This is all wrong, this isn’t how the story is supposed to go, he wasn’t prepared for this. John had worked it all out, and he was the one who would set the script…except all of a sudden, John and Jesus were standing there together and John discovers that he still had more husk to peel away, more chaff to be winnowed and burned. Through his protesting, Jesus gently pulls…it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness. Not your self-righteousness, not your righteous anger, but true righteousness—right relationship with God, each other, and creation.

In order for us to be in the right relationship to God, and to each other, and to the community, this is the way it must go. Jesus has come to be the next steps on the way, and John is not in charge of the story anymore. He has to give that up and allow himself to be a part of God’s plan, not only his own.

And as Jesus comes up from the water, when both he and John are at their most vulnerable, the plan is revealed in one word:

That’s what Jesus lived, died, and rose to show—that under all those layers: Beloved.

In the life of Jesus we see that we don’t need all that tough husk, because even as it protects us from those things we would rather not see, it also blocks us from knowing Christ in all his fullness. When we stay huddled inside the chaff, our grains of wheat shrink and rot from lack of light. It’s almost as if we are trying to push away grace because we find it uncomfortable to let go of our security blankets. But even inside that dark hull, the reality is the same: Beloved.

No wonder baptism is the ritual we use to symbolize God’s grace already at work in our lives—before we can put up all those layers, before we can respond, God is already there, making kernels of grain that will feed the world, and growing requires water. Baptism is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, and it is the beginning of our communal Christian story. In the water, we see right relationship with God and with each other. Because of course one grain of wheat doesn’t get very far, but many gathered together can create an abundance. It is in this community where we remember that underneath it all is one word: love. It is in this community where we can have some of the husk stripped away, because we are growing into mature faith that is ready to be used for God’s kingdom, and that’s going to mean letting go of our own. It is in this community where we support each other, challenge each other, and practice authentic relationship as we find ourselves broken open again and again for the sake of the world. And around us and in us will be the water of life abundant and eternal, swirling with the voice of God, whispering and babbling and singing and roaring: beloved.

This is just the beginning. Over and over God will pull back more and more layers, and we will squint at the light, and wish we could stay under the covers, and watch as our protective husks are blown away by the winds of the Spirit. Over and over, every time we encounter God’s gift of water, we remember the covenant: that at the center, we are beloved, and we are made for a purpose: to come together into something useful and nourishing for God’s world.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

dreaming in the dark: a sermon for Epiphany

Rev. Teri Peterson
dreaming in the dark
Matthew 2.1-23
4 January 2015, Epiphany, NL1-18

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.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

Have you ever used the phrase “we all know how that ends”? I’ve heard and said it about stories, some from this very book, as well as used sarcastically to suggest that something is not a good idea.

This story seems to fall outside “we all know how that ends”—I would be willing to bet that very few people know how the Christmas story ends, actually. The pageants and the movies end with the wise men and shepherds going home and sharing the good news, and then we move on to adult Jesus out teaching and healing and calling disciples. For some reason we almost always cut out the actual end of the birth story as Matthew tells it—the part where the wise men’s decision to stop following the star and start following their usual script leads to the death of a whole town’s worth of children.

If we do talk about it, we often read this in the context of the larger story Matthew is setting up—he wants to prove that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophecy, that he is the new Moses, and so he makes sure to tell us the story of how the holy family came to be in Egypt, so that the Son could be called out of Egypt. We talk about the importance of Jesus leading God’s people to freedom from sin the way Moses led people to freedom from Pharaoh. We conveniently gloss over the dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of tiny coffins that paved the way.

It’s easy to do this, of course. For one thing, we don’t like to be uncomfortable, and we especially  don't like scripture to make us uncomfortable. For another, stories like this one don’t fit our image of the Christmas story as all about peace and harmony and surprisingly clean animals in a surprisingly snow-covered stable.

But that’s the thing about epiphanies—they rarely fit our Christmas-card understanding, and they often make us uncomfortable. Like a light that is too bright and makes us want to shield our eyes, or put on sunglasses, or put our head down and look at only a tiny piece of the world right in front of our feet, Epiphany—the revealing of God in the human Jesus—might hurt a little bit, and we might want to turn away. We might be tempted to walk our well-worn paths of explanation and excuse, because the light is too bright on any other way. And yet the light keeps shining, on and on, urging us to just try to look, just try to open ourselves enough to perceive God’s action, God’s presence, just try to take in the wonders of God’s grace.

The wise men were doing a pretty good job, weren’t they? They were outsiders, people of a different religion and a different skin color and different foods and a different language. But they were paying attention, and they were courageous enough to set out from home to see this important thing happening in the world. They saw the light and they followed it. Yet they would follow only so far, and then they knew how the story ends. After all, they were learned men, they studied the stars and the texts, they knew their history and their mythology. They knew that such a light could only mean one thing: a king. And they knew that kings were in palaces. So, naturally, their eyes turned toward their own understanding, leaving the light behind.

How often do we walk by habit, almost with blinders on, because we already know how this story goes? How often are we looking right past the light to our own predetermined plan?

Eventually they get it right, with some help from Herod and the royal scholars. They head the last 6 miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where they find the star had been waiting all along, and where the child called God-With-Us was growing up in a family, in a neighborhood, in a synagogue. They present the gifts of kings, confusing the heck out of his parents, but preparing the way for how this story will proceed much farther down the line. And then, in the dark of night, they have a dream, and they finally manage to blaze a new trail, rather than going again and again over the one they had already trod.

But Herod…Herod has heard about the light now. And sometimes we cannot handle light brighter than our own. He could not risk people seeing by this light God had sent. He wasn’t finished with his own power scheme, so it couldn’t possibly be time for the Messiah yet. He liked the throne, and the light shining out of that little house in Bethlehem might not only eclipse his own, but it might also illuminate all his faults and failings—both as a Jew who bowed to Roman idols and as a Jewish king who danced to the tune of the Roman emperor. He needed the darkness, so he created it, dimming the eyes of mothers with tears as the light went out from their children.

How often does our fear, or our privilege, need the darkness?

The soldiers came, and with impunity they killed the future of a whole community. Because one man believed his life was in danger, a gaping hole was slashed in every family tree. No incident report, no trial…it was justified, after all. Best not to bring these things to light.

Where was God-with-us while Herod’s power trip was mowing down Jesus’ neighbors and playmates? It must have felt as if the very light of God had fled along with the holy family. Where once the darkness held dreams, now only a nightmare.

‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

We don’t like this. We want people to grieve quietly, not with wailing and loud lamentation. We want it to be appropriate, and private if at all possible. We want to be able to console, to comfort, to offer words or casseroles that will make it all better. And those things matter, they really do. They are the presence of God in the midst of pain. But if they are accompanied by any whiff of “when will she move on?” then we are working for ourselves, not God. It’s counterintuitive; we see this kind of inconsolable horror as the darkness, needing the light of encouragement and busyness and laughter. But to sit, stand, march, refusing to be consoled, is also to stare into the face of injustice and refuse to back down. It is to stand hand in hand with the creator and stand up to evil, insisting not only that God hear, but that the world hear: we will not simply put up with someone’s fear and privilege blotting out the light of life.

When Rachel wails, when the mothers of Bethlehem weep, when Pakistani fathers carry lifeless bodies out of a school, when communities block traffic by lying in the streets, when people swarm the steps of government buildings begging for justice, when the people of God refuse to be consoled because others made in God’s image are no more…it forces the rest of us to face our discomfort. Will we complain or whisper or gossip? Will we shake our heads and say a prayer then forget? Or can we stand there, hand in hand with the prince of peace, and look into the darkness?…By looking and wailing and sitting, by refusing to offer platitudes or to hint that we know a better way, maybe we begin to let the light in.

How often do we insist on moving on, being appropriate, putting on our shades and lowering our eyes, taking an easier way, rather than standing to stare into the despair and hold its gaze until it is the darkness that has to back down this time?

Light can be a dangerous thing. It is also beautiful, and healing, if we will let it in.

May it be so. Amen.