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.

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