Story of Wonder

HomeStory of Wonder
January 5, 2020

Story of Wonder

Passage: Matthew 2:1–12

Click here to listen to this sermon.


 

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. —Psalm 74:10

 

Today’s reading will be familiar to you. According to my count we have shared the story of the wisemen from the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, at least a dozen times during Advent and Christmas. Preschoolers from A Joyful Noise have donned golden crowns and acted it out and soloists have carried jeweled boxes in the annual Christmas pageant. Mr. Kipley shared magic tricks using gold, frankincense, myrrh, and jumping snakes during the memorable Family Christmas chapel. We read this passage again today because tomorrow is Epiphany, the end of the 12 days of Christmas.

On Epiphany we remember the journey of the magi, foreigners from the East perhaps near Iran, who were traveling priests or astronomers in search of a king. Though familiar the story invites us on our own wonder-filled journey. Before we listen anew please pray with me:

Epiphany falls right as many of us return to our normal work and school routines usually long after we have put the decorations away. Epiphany is sometimes observed with a pageant, or a kings’ cake, or by blessing the door of the home. Perhaps it slips quietly by unnoticed. But what if, as Christian educator John Westerhoff says, after the great celebration and pageantry of God coming to us at Christmas, “on Epiphany we celebrate our going to God.”[1] What if this familiar story still has something left to reveal to us? Let us accept scripture’s invitation to a star led journey in search of the divine. 

T o embark upon such a journey we may need to approach the familiar text in an unfamiliar way. Respected Christian Educator Elizabeth Caldwell points out that there are multiple ways to read the Bible.[2] One method is to read for information or facts. In this style of reading, once we have learned where the wisemen have come from, once we have committed to memory the names of the impractical gifts, once we have identified Herod the Great as the Roman Empire’s ruler of Palestine, we do not need to read the text again.

Alternatively we may read the text for engagement, reflecting on how the ancient stories of God’s people relate to our lives, and the circumstances of the world. When we read for engagement we are able to return to the stories again and again with expectation. Studying scripture like the magi’s study of the stars, reveals God’s presence to us, a point on which to calibrate our spiritual compass.

Perhaps you have had the opportunity to stargaze. The bright glow of Chicagoland has overpowered all but a few stars. But if you make your way to northern Wisconsin, or out west to a certified dark sky park like Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, you may have looked up at the starry heavens, marveled at the depths of space, and become dizzy trying to imagine the vastness of the universe. Astronomers[3] lament that light pollution has limited our view of the sky. In fact 80% of Americans cannot see the Milky Way from their homes. Seeing the universe with your own eyes is a transcendent experience, one that stretches the limits of imagination. The poet, David Whyte, describes it this way:

It is one of the great difficulties of our time that the night sky has become invisible to so many, not only because of the surrounding manufactured light of our cities but because, lifting our eyes from our small screens toward those icy, impossibly far, pinprick invitations, we find the sheer enormity and spaciousness of that expanse disturbing to our busy, preoccupied personalities. We have engineered, overly-lit, outlined identities through our small screens that are increasingly corroborated by numbers and metrics that cannot ever measure or fulfill our deeper, more un-nameable night-longings, and desires.”[4]

There is nothing but the night sky that even comes close to capturing the infinite and mysterious nature of God. The experience is humbling, inviting us beyond our ego and certainty into the wonder of creation—on which we are reliant for every breath, yet which lies beyond our control, and imagination.[5]

The star-led journey of the wisemen is one that invites us deeper into the infinite mystery of God, the creator of dazzling displays of stars and galaxies, the artist who paints the glowing sunrise over majestic mountains and river-carved gorges, the sculptor of billions upon billions of unique human fingerprints. Like the wisemen, we search for God, who is beyond our full knowing, yet beckons us closer still.

Another way to engage with the story uses the wisemen’s journey as a metaphor for discipleship. This past year Children and Family Ministry has documented our philosophy of teaching and learning. Drawing from the statement of beliefs on the church website, we believe faith as a lifelong journey: Like the magi we learn to pay attention to both the ordinary and extraordinary signs of God’s presence. We are free to follow the path God lays before us, offering up our gifts in gratitude to God, and worshiping Christ as Lord. This faith journey is one of transformation in which we, like the wisemen who steer clear of Herod’s false promise, continue the journey by a different route. Discipleship is the continual practice of Christmas and epiphany: paying attention to God with us and our responding by drawing closer to God.

Children and Family Ministry teachers and staff are intentional about nurturing children’s sense of wonder and innate curiosity about God on the journey. We use questions and use simple concrete materials with our youngest children, allowing them to develop the language of faith as they reflect and connect scripture with their lives. We ask, “I wonder what part of this story is most important? I wonder what part you like best? I wonder what part of this story is about you?

In the third grade we help them write scripture on their hearts, words that become travelling companions through celebration and sorrow, joy and fear.

And when they have received their Bibles, we teach them how to approach the Bible critically and contextually, so that the Bible continues to be a story of wonder, a book to return to and engage with over and over and over again.

A third way of engaging with this text emerged during one of our December Middle School youth groups. (Did I mention how often we have read this text recently?) We began by listening to the characteristics of kings. They were quick to name the basics of monarchy: kings alone make the rules. They inherit their titles. They are often wealthy and sometimes greedy. Then we asked them to compare these kingly qualities with the qualities of Jesus: Jesus was kind, loving, humble, and born a vulnerable child. Though they did point out Jesus was born into his role—it is there the similarity with earthly rulers ends. We talked about the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God where the newborn king is found in a manager and not in a palace. Then we played a topsy-turvy variation of our usual hide and seek—slash—tag game, reversing the roles of children and leaders. We leaders lost. Swiftly.

In spite of this crushing defeat that I am still getting over, embedded within the youth group activities is the transformative understanding of who Jesus is and how Jesus rules in our lives. Living into this truth is the deep hope that by the power of love, Christ brings the wholeness, healing, peace, reconciliation, and justice we pilgrim travelers long for.

Logically the wisemen go to Jerusalem, the seat of power, asking for directions to the king. Here Herod the Great, ruler of Palestine at the time of Jesus’s birth, carries out the will of the Roman Empire under Caesar Augustus. Herod was known as a master builder, refurbishing the temple in Jerusalem, in so doing, creating the wall revered today as the Western Wall. Despite the lavish rebuilding that created jobs and enriched the powerful, resentment from his subjects grew. Notoriously paranoid, he killed three of his children and a wife he felt was threatening his rule.[6] Disloyalty was quickly squelched.[7] So frightened was Herod about the birth of a child king, we read just few verses later that that he orders the death of all children born in Bethlehem who would have been the same age as  Jesus. Here is yet another layer of the story to examine as Joseph and Mary become refugees, taking Jesus to Egypt for safety.

But that is a layer to explore another day. Today we focus on this journey of discipleship. Today we see how the sacred scripture inspires our reflection on our personal experience and our current events. Today we see the transformative challenge of worshipping Christ as Lord.

Many things compete for our attention, allegiance, and power over our lives. A few years ago the book The Price of Privilege  by a psychologist working with teenagers in Orange County, California shifted my perspective on parenting and working with youth.[8] She was one of the first to note that rates of depression and anxiety were skyrocketing among teenagers from affluent communities. She described the ways in which a hyper-focus on individualism, materialism, perfectionism, and competition was causing serious harm to young people. When grades, possessions, and achievements become the rulers of our lives, we are likely to become lost losing sight of the hope and promise found in Christ.

Adults face similar challenges to putting God first in our lives. Writer and Franciscan friar, Richard Rohr says this about the implications of wisemen’s journey for our lives:

“If Jesus is Lord, than Caesar is not! If Jesus is Lord, then the economy and stock market are not! If Jesus is Lord, then my house and possessions, family and job are not! If Jesus is Lord, than I am not! That multileveled implication was obvious to first-century members of the Roman Empire because the phrase “Caesar is Lord” was the empire’s loyalty test and political bumper sticker.[9]

This is the wonder of today’s story—that it can serve as a delightful children’s pageant tableau, it can shape a path of discipleship. It can challenge our priorities, pointing us in the direction of God who promises and provides joy and peace, justice and mercy.

Over break I enjoyed spending time with a nephew who loves to read. Pondering today’s message about the wonder of stories I asked him what kinds of books he likes best. “Stories where the kids defeat evil.” was his enthusiastic reply. Today we have read the beginning of just such a story, a story that the mystery and wonder of God revealed in scripture is a story great enough to hold a lifetime’s worth of our deepest hopes and longings.

Today I encourage you to take your bulletin home with you. It contains just a few of many church opportunities for Bible study, travel to places where you can see the stars, and an epiphany tradition of chalking the front door. Marking your door is a way to remember that wherever you go this coming year, the words of holy scripture and the love and abiding presence of Christ shine like stars, guiding us on our daily journeys. Thanks be to God.


[1] Westerhoff, John H.  A Pilgrim People, 67.

[2] Caldwell, Elizabeth, I Wonder: Engaging a Child’s Curiosity about the Bible.

[3] https://www.vox.com/2016/6/10/11905390/light-pollution-night-sky.

[4] Whyte, David, “A Deep but Dazzling Darkness: The Inner and Outer Frontiers of a Human Life. https://www.davidwhyte.com/#letter2019.

[5] Bonnett, Michael, “Environmental Education and the Transcendent,” Policy Futures in Education. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1478210314566730.

[6] Powell, Mark Allan, Introducing the New Testament, 27.

[7] “Kings of The Bible”, National Geographic Special Edition, 2019.

[8] Levine, Madeline, The Price of Privilege.

[9] Rohr, Richard, “Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent”