Way back in my first semester of seminary, in a course titled Introduction to the New Testament, our professor made a comment that stuck in my mind. He said the Gospel of Matthew is the “most Jewish” of the four gospels. What he meant was that the writer of Matthew consistently quotes the Hebrew scriptures to demonstrate to his readers that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of ancient prophecy, the hope of Israel.
For that reason, I thought it odd that Matthew opens his account of the birth of this very Jewish Messiah by telling us that the “insiders”, the ones who the prophets spoke directly to, the ones who had the scriptures and studied them day and night, those who were the actual recipients of all the promises of God, missed the arrival of the Christ child? And that instead, a bunch of outsiders, some Gentiles, who knew nothing about the ancient prophecies, were the wrong race, the wrong religion, that they were the recipients of the announcement of Jesus’ birth and it was they who visited and worshiped him. For that reason, I thought, there must be something in this story that the wise men have to teach us.
The problem was, when I started to think about this reading, I first approached it with an arrogance born of familiarity. I thought, “I know this story, I’ve read it a million times. I’ve preached on it every year.” So, I decided to open my Bible and try reading the passage with fresh eyes. And you know what, when I read the text this time, I had a rude awakening.
Did you know that there is no mention anywhere in this story of three KINGS, or of three of anything for that matter, coming to visit the Christ-child? There just isn’t! I read every translation I could find, and the only words used to describe these visitors from the East were Magi, wise men, and astrologers. There wasn’t even a reference to the number of persons in their group. The story does tell us that three gifts were presented to the Christ-child, and so the church has just ASSUMED that everyone who came to visit the Messiah brought a gift. And since only three gifts were listed, there must have been three wise men. I don’t know how they got promoted to the status of kings, but somehow, they did.
So, I threw out my preconceived notions of what my sermon content would be and started over. And in doing so, I found a whole new insight into this passage. What it showed me is that this passage reflects two very different responses to the birth of Jesus – the response of Herod and the response of the wise men.
Any time a child enters the scene, you can count on one thing – there will be a disruption in the normal order of things. Some of you are grandparents, and during the holidays you had small children visiting in your home. If not, then you have at least been in somebody’s home when children have arrived. If you have, then you know that there is no greater sense of upheaval and confusion than when children arrive. Orderliness is not something that ranks very high on children’s priority lists. Some folks, therefore, have an automatic negative response to children.
Of course, Herod’s response to the arrival of this child was negative on a whole other level. Herod’s response was much more than simply being disgruntled by an annoying child. Herod responded in rage and anger. But then, put yourself in his shoes. If you were living large and in charge and news came to you that a baby had been born who would someday challenge your authority, threaten your way of life, shake up the status quo, wouldn’t you get a little bent out of shape? Ask any teenager how upset parents get when their authority is challenged. When those of us who are charged with the responsibility of creating and maintaining a sense of order feel threatened, it’s not a pretty sight! We don’t normally fly into murderous rages, but you really wouldn’t want to be there when it happens!
Throughout history, kings and leaders have always been sensitive to anyone who might challenge their authority. In Herod’s case, it was not the fact that a child had been born that presented the problem. The threat Herod reacted to was the possibility of future conflict. What would happen when the child grew up? That’s what worried Herod. So, he attempted to eliminate the problem before it became a problem. He responded like people in positions of power all too frequently respond. Herod was so concerned with the preservation of the status quo that he was even willing to eliminate children to accomplish his goal.
2000 years later, not much has changed in that regard. The Herods of our day still try to maintain power at all costs. Frightened leaders still don’t hesitate to pull the trigger or push the button to maintain power. The loss of innocent lives is more often than not relegated to a secondary consideration. And if you don’t believe me, ask yourself this question: If today’s leaders are as concerned as many of them publicly claim to be over the plight of the children of the world, why do they continue to spend more on weapons of destruction to protect and preserve power than they are willing to spend on children to protect their lives?
Twenty years ago, UNICEF estimated that 100 million children worldwide would die in the first decade of this century. At least half that number, the report said, would be saved by simple measures such as immunization and medication. The estimated cost of this life-saving endeavor was about 2.5 billion dollars over a ten-year period. $2.5 billion dollars! The world spends that much on armaments every day of the year. And yet, today we continue to walk in Herod’s footsteps because UNICEF’s estimate was proven to be very conservative. Far more than 100 million children did die in the first decade of the 21st century, most from malnutrition and related diseases that could have been prevented. And as we begin the second decade of this century, there is little to indicate a change in that trend.
But there is another response revealed in our scripture for today – the response of the wise men.
The wise men had been searching the heavens for signs of significant world events when they saw the star – one star, shining more brightly than any other. They followed the star and found the child. And when they found him, they didn’t feel threatened. They recognized him for who he was. These strangers who have come to be known as wise men worshiped Jesus and presented him with expensive gifts.
Why do you suppose these men responded so differently? After all, they were rulers too, of a sort. In Middle Eastern cultures, astrologers were admired and respected as religious leaders. Why were they willing to travel so great a distance at so high a cost, not to mention enduring the dangers of travel in those days, just to see a child? Perhaps because they had a different set of values than Herod had.
Herod valued law and order. He wanted to preserve “the way things have always been,” the status quo. The wise men, on the other hand, were not looking for power and order but for wisdom and truth.
When you’re looking for wisdom and truth, it really doesn’t matter how far you have to go to find it. And it doesn’t matter if the source of wisdom and truth is a wrinkled old man who lives next door or a wrinkled baby who lives in a far-off country. When you’re looking for wisdom and truth, the messenger isn’t important, only the message.
As we begin the second decade of the 21st century, are the wise of our world today capable of accepting wisdom and truth, even if it comes from the most vulnerable and powerless members of our society? I think of people like Greta Thunberg, the young climate activist from Sweden. Greta’s message to the world is that if the preservation of power, the status quo, is what we value most, we will continue to mortgage the future of our children to buy whatever passes for success. Are the powerful of our world today willing to hear that message?
This all led me to a place I did not expect to go with this sermon. That is, to the place of children in our church. We’re awfully fond of saying that children are our future. We especially say that in the Church. But I am convinced that WE are the future. Our decisions about how we guide and support our children in the Church will determine our destiny. If we take our children for granted and neglect their needs, then our future is bleak. If we stifle children in their expression of joy and innocence in the life of the church, and if we do not help them in their search for a relationship with God, then the future of the church is dark. Because as soon as they are old enough, our children will leave to seek wisdom and truth elsewhere. If we do not attend to the spiritual needs of our children, then the hope that is in them will die.
But if we, as the wise men did, open ourselves to God’s new revelations in our lives and in the lives of our children, if we are seekers after wisdom and insight (even wisdom and insight that might come from our children), if we care more about a growing sense of God’s presence in our lives and in the life of our Church, then our lives will be lives which respect and care for the children of this church and the children of this world.
The wise men came to the place where the child was, and they gave him their valuable gifts. If our journeying and searching is in response to God’s call to us, we, too, will have to present our gifts. Our gold and frankincense and myrrh are things like our energy, time, our experiences, our integrity, our compassion, our generosity, and our hope – the deepest elements of heart and soul and mind and strength. The greatest gifts we can give to our children.
And in keeping with that theme, I’d like to read a letter this morning that I received from members of our parish – Tom Bauer and Nilo Ventura who were married here at Christ Church in 2013.
Dear Christ Episcopal Church Family-
Nilo, Jon and I are in the Philippines. Eight years ago when I met Jon, he was in the foster care system and I was his Court Appointed Special Advocate. He was a seriously abused and neglected child who was removed from the custody of his immediate family in January 2012 and after the rest of the paternal family turned their backs on Jon and his sister, they were remanded to the foster care system. In the years I worked with Jon as his advocate until the time Nilo and I made the decision to adopt him, all the way to today, Jon has worked very hard to face and to heal the many scars he has as a result of the trauma he suffered as a child. Although it has not always been easy watching him struggle as I have over these last eight years, I continue to be amazed at his resiliency.
This trip to the Philippines is another step for Jon in his healing. You see, Jon and his sister Lisa were taken from his birth mother, Jeanette, by the birth father to the US on the promise that the birth father would send for Jeanette after they arrived in the US. That never happened. Instead, the birth father and paternal grandmother cut her off, severed contact with her for the children, told Jon and Lisa horrific things about her all the while inflicting abuse and torture on both children – but mostly on Jon. The two kids grew up feeling their mother abandoned them and never wanted them.
Jon’s birth mom found me on Facebook after seeing my name come up repeatedly on court documents. I learned that she loved her children very much, made the decision to have them brought here because she believed they would have a better life in the US and that she would join them here shortly after they left. She never imagined that when she let them on the plane in December 2002, it would be the last time she would see them and she really never imagined what they would endure once here. Nilo and I met Jeanette, her boyfriend and her two other children, Jon’s half-sisters, when we visited the Philippines back in 2015. I found her to be a tragic figure who made some very bad choices in her life but who truly loved her children. I promised her that one day, she would be reunited with Jon and Lisa. Over the years, she has held on to that promise that we would bring the children back here to reunite with her. We are here now to do just that for Jon and his Mom. Lisa is not ready to see her yet but Jon, his therapist and I believe that he is ready to meet her. So, here we are.
As you are hearing this now, it is very early Monday morning here in the Philippines. We will be leaving on a plane in a few hours for the island of Cebu where Jon and Jeanette will meet again for the first time in 17 years. Jon is very nervous as is Jeanette. We are excited, nervous and hopeful that this will help Jon know and believe that his mother loves him and this meeting will begin healing the scars of abandonment he has carried all these years. There is no telling yet how this will go which is why I asked Father Chip to share this with all of you. We need all of your prayers and positive energy today that this visit will be a transformational move for Jon and for our family. So many of you know our family well and have had a front row seat watching Jon grow into the amazing young man he is today. I know that with your prayers and positivity, this will be an amazing day for all of us.
Thanks you all so much for your love, support and prayers. We will be back in church on the 19th where we plan to share great memories of the trip.
In the coming year, I hope that we at Christ Church will renew our commitment to love and worship God with all that we have and all that we are, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. And especially, to set aside the time it takes to share those things with our children. Because when you allow the Christ-child to be born in the stable of your heart, these things are always born anew. AMEN