Second Sunday after Christmas 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on January 4, 2015 (Christmas 2, Year B)

“Wise men from the East.” There’s something exotic about “the East” from whence these Wise Men came. For Westerners, the Orient has long held a certain mystery or mystique. Sure this has abated with the advent of air travel and globalization but even still, and certainly for those in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, encountering three strangers from a faraway land was shrouded in intrigue and curiosity.

Unlike the poor shepherds who first arrived at the manger, these were men of means and WiseMenstatus. The gifts they brought may have been lousy baby gifts — gold’s a choking hazard, a flaming pot of incense is just a bad idea, and what infant really needs expensive embalming fluid — but these gifts were both lavish and symbolic. Gifts that foretold the child’s kingship, priestly life, and crucifixion.

The Magi were astrologers, the scientists of the ancient world; versed in magic and the interpretation of dreams. The word “Magi” itself referred to members of an ancient Persian priestly class for followers of Zoastrianism and it’s where we get the English word “magic.”

And, as long as we’re talking about language, I recently read that the Greek word used for “East” in this text literally means “the Rising.” In other words, these men came from the place where the sun rises. Directionally, the East; physically, the source of light; spiritually, the place of enlightenment.

There are, of course, layers and layers of metaphor and imagery about light and dark in Scripture. Just last Sunday we read the prologue to John’s gospel which includes the phrase, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” The prophet Isaiah writes, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.” So, light is an ancient metaphor for salvation and this Incarnational event of Christmas, which we continue to mark and celebrate, is primarily about the salvation of the world.

Hence, the Star of Bethlehem. Now, everything I know about astronomy I learned on a sixth grade field trip to the planetarium at the Maryland Science Center. So I can’t really speak to the intergalactic phenomenon of this star that famously guided the three Wise Men beyond calling it the original GPS and one heck of a birth announcement.

But there is tremendous spiritual significance to this bright light announcing the birth of our Savior. This light was a signal that salvation wasn’t meant for just a select few but the entire world. Because the other thing about these Wise Men is that they were Gentiles — not only did they travel a great distance, but they also stood outside the original covenant between God and God’s Chosen People, the Jews. So we see in this encounter, the broad reach of God’s embrace of all humanity. Yes, Jesus came first to the people of Israel, in the form of those shepherds watching their flocks by night. But also to those beyond the covenant, to those who did not yet know and worship the God of the Law and the prophets.

Let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a “private” star. No one can claim possession or sole ownership of a celestial body. So this bright light that announced the entrance of the Light of the World was there for all to see. And that’s the thing about salvation — it’s freely offered to all who seek its light. Jesus didn’t come into the world to have his light be hidden under a lampstand but to be seen and proclaimed to all people.

The other thing this star signals is something much more personal. Something that resides deep within our souls. Because it’s one thing to notice an unusual phenomenon in the sky. These days we’d probably whip out our phones and take a picture of it or take a quick star selfie. But in the end the Magi didn’t just note the star or comment on it. It moved them to action.

So what would make these men pack up their camels and follow this star? I think they’re not much different from you and me in this regard. Because at the heart of their journey and ours is a deep yearning for communion with the divine. We all have a yearning to be closer to God that resides deep in our souls. The powerful pull of relationship with God draws us to follow that star in ways seen and unseen. Simply being here this morning is one tangible way that you continue to follow that star. Every week it alights directly above this altar and you can experience the pull of this star in the same way as those three Wise Men so many years ago.

As I wrestled with this very familiar text this week, and thought about the literal translation of “the East” as “the Rising,” I couldn’t stop thinking about that Bruce Springsteen song “The Rising.” It was written in the aftermath of 9/11 and ended up with a couple of Grammys. It tells the story of a firefighter climbing one of the towers after the planes had hit. It speaks of the darkness and confusion and rising despair as he continues his ascent.

And yet, there’s also a note of hope sounded throughout the song. If September 11, 2001, was our national day of Good Friday, the song sounds the Easter message of deliverance amidst the ashes. There’s even an overt reference to Easter morning and Mary Magdalene’s recognition of Jesus, “I see you Mary in the garden, in the garden of a thousand sighs. There’s holy pictures of our children, dancin’ in a sky filled with light.” And that haunting, building chorus, “Come on up for the rising” can easily be interpreted as a call to resurrection.

Some of you may well be thinking, “Why is he talking about Easter imagery on the 11th day of Christmas?” But it’s all about two sides of the same salvation coin. The Incarnation and the Resurrection are both ends to our our salvation and not ours only but the salvation of the whole world. You can’t have one without the other.

So as we come to the close of our annual celebration of Christmas — and I do hope you’ll all take some of these poinsettias after the service (not during communion — after the service) — I encourage you to be aware of the “rising” in your own heart. Pay attention to it this year; nurture it; allow it to illuminate your soul and inspire your actions. Allow that star to draw you ever nearer to the heart of God. Watch for it, give yourself over to it, and let its light shine upon you.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck


Second Sunday of Christmas 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Tim Schenck on January 5, 2014 (Christmas 2, Year A)

Every Christmas pageant you’ve ever witnessed is all wrong. If Stephen Spielberg was directing our pageant here at St. John’s — which is unlikely because he’s both too expensive and Jewish —  he’d be storming all over the set yelling “cut, cut!” There’d be an awkward silence as shepherds stared at wise men and Mary shot Joseph a quizzical glance.  

The thing is, in the Bible, there are shepherds and there are wise men but never the twain shall meet. Luke’s gospel has shepherds; Matthew’s gospel has wise men but they don’t arrive until twelve days later – the arrival of which we celebrate on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, which concludes the 12 days of Christmas. So the traditional Christmas pageant is really a mash-up of these two stories. 

It’s not really that big a deal — they all eventually arrive in Bethlehem to worship the newborn King. And I’m certainly not going to be the Grinch who stole the Magi and disallow wise men in the pageant. So we can call this poetic license and leave room for everybody — that certainly speaks to the spirit of the manger. 

But we do lose something when we combine these stories so it’s important to pull them apart once in awhile. The shepherds with all their requisite livestock, point to Jesus’ humble birth and his coming to the marginalized of society. Shepherding wasn’t a glamorous vocation — it was hard work, lonely, and it certainly wasn’t lucrative. The presence of the shepherds also showed that Jesus came first to the Jews. He was the Messiah intimately connected to the God of the Hebrew tradition — the Law and the prophets.

The arrival of the Wise Men tells the world that Jesus came not just to the Jews but to Gentiles as well. These foreigners had access to the salvation freely offered to all people. This was quite a radical thing — and difficult for Jews who had been waiting so long for the arrival of their Messiah to accept. “What do you mean with have to share him with the rest of the world? His arrival was foretold by our prophets, our Scripture, and he’s one of us.” We see in the early years of the church, as recorded in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, that this was a major theological struggle, one eventually falling on the side of salvation for all believers.

Now lest you think I’m in a debunking mood, this might not be the best time to mention that the three kings weren’t actually kings at all. “Wise men” is a much better translation. These three men, known apocryphally as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (their names aren’t in the Bible) were star gazers, early astronomers perhaps. The word “magi” is a Latin version of the Greek magoi, referring to a sect of eastern holy men. It’s where we get the word “magic.” So unlike almost all of Jesus’ early followers they were not Jews expectantly waiting for the messiah. They were Gentiles from a distant land, which made them outsiders.  And so these wise men, knew little if anything about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet something compelled them to follow this star that had risen in the east. 

The symbol of this universality is, of course, that star; the Star of Bethlehem. The thing about a star is that you can’t own it. Stars can’t be hidden; there are no “private” stars – stars are visible to everyone. Different cultures may call a particular star by different names but it’s still the same star. So there’s a universality in this particular star – one that transcends race and nation and social status.  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was in Kentucky this past October to lead a conference for a bunch of clergy in the Diocese of Lexington — I realize being trapped on a mountain with a group of priests is a recurring fantasy for many of you. We stayed at a rustic camp owned by the diocese up in the mountains. And the first night as we passed around the moonshine (that’s a terrible stereotype, it was actually expensive bourbon), I gazed up at the sky. I had forgotten just how many stars there actually are up there. The sky was covered with stars of all shapes and sizes. And it made me think about this special star that had such a compelling hold on those wise men and how it connects all of us one to another throughout the world. I’m pretty sure that was a theological insight rather than the bourbon talking.

But this also seems to relate to the prologue to John’s gospel we read last Sunday — the same reading we hear every year on Christmas Day. That line about how “The light shines in the darkness but the darkness did not overcome it.” Stars shine in darkness; they are surrounded by darkness. As bright as they are if you go far enough away, you will encounter darkness. Jesus came to us as the Light of the World, as that light shining in darkness. This doesn’t mean there isn’t still darkness. Jesus’ entrance into the world doesn’t mean that darkness automatically goes away. There is still evil in the world; bad things still happen. But the Light of the World gives us hope even in the midst of the darkness — that’s the Incarnational promise made manifest by Jesus’ birth.

And in this story darkness, or evil, is personified by King Herod. You can almost hear the trickery in Herod’s voice as he tells the three wise men to “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.” There’s a sinister quality to this that, fortunately, the wise men caught onto.  

What happens next is a gruesome tale you’ll never see portrayed in any Christmas pageant. When Herod can’t locate this child, this king of an entirely different kingdom, he slaughters all the babies under the age of two in and around Bethlehem. The light shines in the darkness but the darkness cannot overcome it.

In a sense, we’re all a bit like the Magi. We may not have camels or carry myrrh around in the trunks of our cars but we’re all searching for Jesus. We’re all on a spiritual journey that can take us to some pretty dark places along the way – for the wise men it was Herod’s palace. For us it might be pain or abuse or addiction or isolation or depression or a broken relationship. But like that ever-present star it continues to shine in the darkness offering up hope and giving us direction.

The next time you see a Christmas pageant — presumably about 12 months from now — enjoy it. Here at St. John’s it’s hard not to from the gold star thingy that I’ve come to refer to as the holy tarantula to the Chambord bottle carried in by one of the three kings — I think that’s supposed to be the stand in for myrrh. But remember the distinct traditions of the shepherds and wise men as they both add to the fullness of the Christmas story. And then go ahead and hitch yourself to that rising star.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck