1/1/17: New Light, Matthew 3:1-12
First Lesson: Isaiah 60:1-6
Second Lesson: Matthew 2:1-12
On Christmas Eve I shared a little bit how this has been a magical Christmas in the Dickison household, with Billy just having turned three and experiencing this season, really, for the first time with any awareness.
He’s been taking it all in, but at least early on, was still not sure exactly what this “Christmas” that everyone was talking about really was. What was he supposed to be looking for? How would he know when he found it? Is this Christmas?, he would ask from time to time in the months and weeks leading up to it. He finally started to put it together, I think, when the light was passed around this room on Christmas Eve and we all stood together in the stillness and flickering glow. And he really started to figure it out the following morning with the presents under the tree and the stockings and all the rest. And I was happy to tell him that morning as I was getting him dressed for church, Son, this is Christmas. And he just smiled.
And the next day as we loaded the car to my mother’s house in North Carolina, the boys weren’t sure about leaving all their new toys, and so I leaned back in the car before we left the driveway and said, Billy, guess what; it’s still Christmas! And he smiled again and we were on the way.
And the following few days, as he got to play with his cousins and open yet more presents, and get showered with kisses and hugs from his grandmother, he would pause every so often and run up to me and ask me in a whisper, Daddy, is it still Christmas? And I would tell him, Yes, it is. And he would smile. And after a week of these exchanges, I’ve decided that there may not be more exciting words to hear as a child than, It’s still Christmas. And I’m quite sure that as an adult there are few words more gratifying to say.
And so I’ll say the same to you this morning, that it is still Christmas. In the Church, Christmas is a season which only began on Christmas Eve and lasts twelve days—thus the “12 days of Christmas.” By my count, today is the 8th day, and I did ask Stanley about incorporating some “maids a’milking” into worship this morning, but he said that folks were still getting used to us wearing our robes, so best not to overdo it.
But the season of Christmas continues until January 6, this Friday, the day of Epiphany when we complete this Christmas theme of “the Word becoming flesh,” and the revelation of “God with us,” and round out the nativity scene by adding to the mix those mysterious travelers from the East who were led by the light. The Wise Men, who—you may have noticed—have been making their way over the weeks of Advent and last Sunday through the sanctuary and to the creche where they now stand.
Christmas is not complete until they arrive. Because as much as Christmas for us today is a season of family and traditions, and about finding comfort and strength and joy and hope in the familiar, these strange travelers remind us that the Christmas story is about welcoming the unexpected and the unknown and the gifts they bring.
We take it for granted that of course the Wise Men would come to pay homage to baby Jesus, in their elaborate hats and exotic camels and fancy gifts. But it may be that the characters of the magi that we know from nativity scenes and Christmas pageants are so much fun that we forget how bazaar it is that they should be here.
That of all the people you would expect to be in tune with the workings of God in the world in the sending of the Jewish Messiah, it would turn out to be these travelers coming from some foreign land, of some foreign religion, following astrological calculations they suspect will lead them to something worthy of their curiosity, though they know not what. All without the benefits of prophets and Scripture and Sunday school and sermons--all the things good church folk are convinced puts us in position to best see the light, and yet these are the ones who see the star at its rising. These are the ones who respond—coming great distances and at great risk. These are the ones who are clued into what God is up to, and who carry it back out into the world.
Theirs was not the likely path to Christ, but it turns out the ways and means of God are not as predictable as we would like them to be; that God is much bigger than we presume. As Matthew tells it, these outsiders make their way to the very center of it all and are the first to bring themselves and their gifts, and point all the rest of us in the right direction. And the same happens today.
The church has always needed folks from the outside to come in and point us in the right direction, or open up new directions. To shine new light. We need scientists and philosophers and artists and people of other faiths or even of no faith, to help us see things in new and different ways—if for no other reason than to help us clarify our own beliefs. But in all likelihood, to change us, we hope for the better. To expand our world and knowledge of it. Yes, “expand” also tends to mean complicate and even confuse. But in time, and when approached with the right spirit, this confusion gives way to a richness, a texture, that we could never have known otherwise. When our world is expanded it becomes more complete. Which is to say--snd this is the hard part--we are somehow incomplete without others and the new light they bring.
This past fall as we continued our conversations with the good people of the First Baptist Church on New St., I shared three pointers I received from some friends and former colleagues who are involved in the work of interfaith dialogue—which of course wasn’t our situation exactly, but their wisdom still applied. They said to:
- Eat together.
- Play together.
- Hold each other’s babies.
I love that. What could build relationship faster than holding each other’s babies? But these three tips are actually one step of a larger list of 12 steps they put together entitled “How to Respect Other Religions.” (1) Things like:
-Educate yourself—it’s hard to love our neighbor if we don’t know her
-Be amazed—or even converted— into a better version of yourself
-Be patient—don’t form opinions too soon
-Keep your sense of humor handy
-Say “I don’t understand—yet”
-Honor convictions—don’t try to remake people in your own image
-Embrace mystery—assume there is much you do not know and never will
-Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
Twelve steps, one for each day of this season, perhaps. And just as they applied to us in our conversations across race lines, each of these steps apply to more than simply conversations across religious divides. They’re good reminders for encountering anyone of difference: be it politics, religion, race, class, sexual orientation, or any number of ways that we come to see ourselves as apart from others. Heck, these are good reminders for encountering anyone at all! You could really rename this list, “How to Respect Other People.” Or even, “How to Become a Better Person.” Or, given that it is Epiphany and we’re talking about those strangers from afar, “How To Become A Wise Person.” After all, those original three followed these guidelines to a tee. Educate yourself? Check.
Be amazed? Check
Say, I don’t understand—yet? Embrace mystery? Hold each other’s babies? Check, check, and check.
How necessary this part of the Christmas story is. This story we were convinced was all about us turns out to expand much further than we anticipated. God, it turns out, was working in other lands and other hearts, that have only now been revealed.
It’s one of the holiest moments of the year. Near the end of our service on Christmas Eve, after we’ve sung the carols and heard the Scripture and sat in awe of the likes of Olivia McMillan or Marie Roberts or Jonathan Johnson, and the time comes for us to put to use the candle we’ve been given and have held onto throughout the service, more tightly than we realized. And if you’ve been in any service like this, you know how it goes with the preacher taking a light form the Christ candle and passing it down to another who passes it to another and another and so on until we’re all there holding our light together, singing Silent Night, and then in the stillness.
But we do something different here that I’ve not seen before. When I make my way over to the Advent candles, the room begins to move. People begin to get up from their pews and move toward the aisles, to the center, and even to walk forward toward the light, until we've found ourselves in this circle of sorts. And I found myself marveling at this sight this year, and noticing things I’d never seen before. How we’re all drawn to the light. How each one passes and receives it with such care, such expectation. How when someone receives it they immediately look to see who they can pass it to. How sometimes the light doesn’t pass as quickly or as smoothly as we might like—the wicks won’t light, it gets help up in this part of the room, or that. This happened this year, when for a moment some of us wondered if the folks in the back would get it in time, but of course they did. The light is passed slowly at times, but you see it gets to where it must in time. How we each instinctively look to our own candle for a time, but then are drawn to marvel at the lights held by others. But the light created when we hold our lights together. How everyone holds the silence, even the infants who just moments before were crying. All marvel at the sight.
It occurred to me that if only one of us were to stand there holding our small light, the room would not be lit. Most of us would be standing in darkness. But all of our candles, burning as they can, fill the room.
And I wondered if it really is as we say, and what’s true at Christmas is true throughout the year and in other parts of our lives. That the lighttruly does shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. And that sometimes this light is revealed in stars shining brightly in the sky, but more often it’s passed from candle to candle; one person to the next, given and received with tenderness and gratitude. Slowly making its way—at times more deliberately than we would like—but on it goes until the room and our faces are filled with it.
(1) From Salt Project: http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christianity-blog1/respect.html