Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem

                    

Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Ephesians 3:1-12 

 This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

Matthew 2:1-12

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.

 

Almost 30 years ago when I was the minister at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Oshawa, a couple of women from my church decided one day to go on an excursion

to Toronto.

 

It was some kind of Seniors’ package. They bought tickets to a musical in Toronto and included in the price was the busfare and a meal.

 

The day came and they went down to the bus station around noon hour in Oshawa and boarded the Senior’s funbus; and they set off on their excursion.

 

They saw the matinee performance of the musical and they boarded the bus and went to dinner. They had a very nice dinner and it was dark as they boarded the bus to go home.

 

They noticed that the bus driver was different, but it did not seem to sink in to them until after some time, one of them saw a sign saying Barrie, Ontario…

 

…..and she asked the bus driver, “Where is this bus going?”

 

`He looked at them if as if they were a little strange in the

head and replied. “Well back to Barrie where we came from.”

Barrie is about an hour north of Toronto. Oshawa, maybe 40 minutes east of Toronto.

 

These two friends had caught the wrong bus. When they stopped for dinner there were a number of buses outside and they boarded the wrong bus.

They had missed the bus by a few yards (or meters) and now were a hundred kilometers from home.

 

I don’t know about you, whether you have missed the mark and ended up somewhere you didn’t want to be.

 

I had friends back in my Oshawa days who decided to drive to an Amusement Park near Buffalo and ended up near Detroit instead.

That was a case of our friend Gary not asking directions, or listening to his wife, Leslie who kept asking him. Are you sure this is the right way?

And he would answer something like. ‘Don’t be silly. Do you think I don’t know where I am going?’

 

When I first moved to Edmonton, I found it not too bad to get around, because the streets and avenues are mostly numbered.

But I got lost a few times or had trouble because I didn’t realize that occasionally when the city planners were numbering streets and avenues they had to add one or two in between a number.

 

Did you know there is a 107 ave, a 107a      avenue and a 107b avenue.

If you don’t know that there are three 107 avenues it can be a little confusing.

 

So, I expect most of our have started out on a journey some time in our lives and got lost, or went the wrong way, or missed a turn, and were off be a few meters or a 100 kilometers…

 

And I suppose that is a metaphor isn’t it. For the myriad of ways humans get lost.

I don’t know about you and when you feel most lost.

 

There are times of loss and grief, that devastate and people feel so lost.

 

There are those who go to a 12 step meeting and talk about how their addiction totally took them down a wrong path.

 

I can tell you of times when I listened to some bad counsel from friends or neighbours or peers, or I was pressured to be like others, and I ended up doing something I think, hurt somebody else.

 

Or, another way to get lost is to become so focused on self, and ego and self-gratification, that you get lost in the self and ignore others… ignore caring, or sharing, or reaching out, or saying sorry, or accepting friendship…

 

And maybe we have lost our way as a society when it comes to the big picture of loving our neighbour, because we are so greedy and materialistic.

The words of Greta Thunberg are haunting: “We are at the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,”

 

She is one hundred percent right that a finite planet cannot sustain eternal growth.

 

And we could go on and on about people and humans and us and the ways we have lost our way, in relationships, with money, with power, with violence, with self-control etc.

 

We are indeed a people who have walked in darkness and still walk in darkness.

 

Today is Epiphany, the day that we celebrate that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

In Western Christianity it is the Coming of the Magi that is predominantly celebrated…The manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles.

In Eastern Christianity the focus is more on the Baptism of Jesus, which is the manifestation to the world of Jesus as God’s son.

The word Epiphany literally means manifestation or appearance. When one has an epiphany, one has some kind of revelation.

 

And the very obvious revelation that we celebrate with the coming of the Magi or Wise Men is this: Jesus is not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles too. Jesus is a light for all people.

 

As we read in the Epistle lesson, Paul has the mystery or secret revealed to him.

He writes: In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

 

It was not an easy lesson, though for the church to learn, and the first Christians often missed the mark and got lost, thinking that in order to follow Jesus you would have to follow all the Jewish laws and rituals.

 

And it is a sin that has followed the church for centuries, even millennia, a sin that all of us practice to greater or lesser extents.

The sin of excluding someone we find wanting, or lacking, who are not good enough, or they are different, or we don’t like their politics or theology or their lifestyle.

 

We are reminded that when a picture shows up with a Political leader wearing blackface, ostensibly in a moment of whimsy and fun, that racism is deep-rooted in society, and all of us have participated in some ways in a society and culture that is racist…

And we could go on to the terrible ways we have treated, Jews, women, children, those with mental illness, criminals, people with alternate lifestyles, or who are gender fluid, Muslims, aboriginals, obese people, homeless people…

 

the list could go on and on.

 

And so, the words of Peter from Acts 10 should be said aloud in church on a regular basis:

“God has shown me,” said Peter, “that I should not call any person impure or unclean. (Acts 10:28)

 

We should not call any person impure or unclean.

 

And so, we get lost. Even the Magi got lost. Got on the wrong bus so to speak and first went to Jerusalem.

 

It is very possible these Magi came from what we now call Iraq. That they lived in the land which had taken Hebrews into slavery almost 600 years earlier, and it is possible that these Magi or scholars had access to the Jewish scriptures, because much of what we know of as the Old Testament was finalized and written down, while the Jews were in captivity in Babylon.

 

And it seems likely they knew the passage we read as our Old Testament Lesson:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

 

It was a poem recited to the Jews, composed around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem.

The poet anticipates a glorious future for Jerusalem, and so he tells the people not to lose hope.

One day he says Jerusalem will be shining light, and it will be full or productivity and commerce and I quote:

because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

 

And so, the wise men see the star, the great light and go to Jerusalem, the great city, to see the one who is born to be king…

 

But they get it wrong. They actually have the wrong text.

And Herod, frantically calls in his scholars and asks them all about the scriptural texts and the texts about the great light and the king to be born.

 

And they tell Herod that the Magi have the wrong text. The text they should have got is Micah 5:2-4.

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah . . . from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old . . .

 

It is a much humbler text than the Isaiah text. It is not about the greatness of Jerusalem restored and a fairy tale of eternal economic growth…

It is about getting right with God and maybe the other notable scripture from Micah is this:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

 

The Wise Men get told the right scripture and head off to Bethlehem to see the king born in not in a palace, but in a stable, a king who grows up to have no money, no palace, no soldiers, no home…

But does justice, loves mercy and kindness and walks humbly with the divine.

 

Walter Brueggeman, the great old Testament Scholar, as much a modern-day prophet as I know, suggest that the Narrative of Epiphany is the story of these two communities.  (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2001-12/nine-miles)

Jerusalem with its great pretensions and Bethlehem with its modest promises.

 

We can align ourselves with power and wealth and consumption and consumerism, living triumphant lives because as American Express used to say: Membership has its privileges…a take-off on the old saying that Rank has its privileges.

Or we can receive life given in vulnerability and weakness that suggest it is about humility, mercy, justice, peace and walking humbly with God in love for one another.

 

Maybe we need to make that nine-mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem today.

How many of us want the church to return to the glory days of yore… When the church was full to overflowing and most of the church elders were the leaders in the community, and the church was powerful, and when the church spoke, E. F. Hutton listened…

When the church was responsible for many of the laws our country passed…

And woe to those who opposed the church…

 

And while the church has been guilty of exclusion, has walked in darkness when it comes to loving everybody…

 

…Epiphany exposes another missed turn that the church has all too frequently embarked upon. The way of power and politics…

Of five dreams in Matthew’s birth narrative, four of them are warnings that the one in Power, Herod, and later his son Archelaus, will do anything to keep that power, even if it means killing babies.

While the baby is about humility and love, the ones in power, kill and destroy and accumulate wealth.

 

And it is just as true today as it was two thousand years ago.

 

This baby will grow up to speak truth to power. This light will shine in the darkness and even though the Powers will kill it, the light still shines, and the darkness could not put out the light….

The light that says no one is too unclean or unworthy for God to love.

The light that says God is for everyone…

 

The light that says it is not about fairy tales of endless growth and wealth and power…

 

But mercy and kindness and humility and love and peace…

 

I read recently of a woman by the name of Edwina Gately, a poet, theologian and missionary, especially to woman struggling with drugs and prostitution. One day she encountered an old street wino named Mark, lying on a sidewalk drunk as a skunk. In her opinion beyond redemption.

But over the years she got to know him and saw that he was a gentle soul. And he would accompany her sometimes on her out-reach to prostitutes or visits to other Christians communities. He would shower and shave, wear clean clothes and not drink those days.

One day while they were out, they found an old table buried in mud and dirt and garbage, and they dragged it out and Mark said he could fix it. For six months he scraped and scraped, until one day he had restored it in all its beauty.

Edwina felt God say: “The table is Mark, and Mark is the table.”

It was a revelation, an epiphany of something beautiful and true beneath the reality of external diminishment…

We all are sons and daughters of God, and Epiphany is about seeing a light shining in the darkness of ordinary humanity…the recognition of the divine in each one of us.

(https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20131230JJ.shtml)

 

Epiphany should not be only one day of the year. It is a constant journey where we miss the mark and head to Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem…

But hopefully like the Magi, instead of Herod, turn ourselves in a new direction and head toward Bethlehem.

And whether is exclusion, or power, or sin, or work or money or family or time, or friendships, or meaning, or theology, or play….. we look for the light of Christ in all we do and everyone we meet…

…and that we understand what is required, is to choose mercy, kindness, justice, peace and walk humbly with God and neighbour.

Amen.