New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Visit of the Wise Men
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 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.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘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.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
I’m not always proud of my behavior. I strive to live out God’s plan for me every day and fall WAYYYYY short most days. On my best days, I work to remember that everything is not about me and that my job is to further God’s work in the world where I live. In some of my worst moments, I get caught up in feeling sorry for myself, gossiping about others, passing judgement and being pretty selfish. It certainly isn’t pretty and when I reflect on those memories I am not proud one little bit.
But some of my worst behavior has happened when I feel threatened. In high school, the cliques of high school girls didn’t bring out the best in me. I may or may not have behaved like a spoiled child in the face of the girl drama. As a parent, the threat of something terrible happening to my family has kept me from being rational in decision making and too protective when I needed to let go. In my job as a school principal, parents sometimes come to my office to scream, yell and make threats toward me and our staff. My default when threatened typically isn’t to respond with love and understanding. King Herod most certainly felt threatened by strangers coming to Bethlehem to pay homage to a new king; sounds like it was news to him and not welcome news at that.
Herod’s response makes him seem pretty insecure (somewhat understandably in the face of the loss of his power, status and livelihood) and then he gets a bit sneaky. Go find this king so that I can worship him too, he says. Yeah, right. That’s a bunch of malarkey in light of a few verses down the page in Matthew 2:16-18 when Herod’s insecurities leads him to make a pretty nasty decision to kill ALL the kids who meet the age criteria of this suspected king. Talk about acting irrationally in the face of a perceived threat!
And that is exactly what it was – a perceived threat. Not a real threat. Jesus was born to save the world, not to rule over a small group of people. But in the face of the threat to his identity, Herod did what seems unthinkable – certainly a drastic response to the situation. He acts out of fear of the unknown – and we are guilty of the same over reactions in our perceived threats today.
For me, I am fortunate to be able to live a life free of too many real threats to my safety and security. So when I feel threatened, it is typically to my reputation, my beliefs, my lifestyle or my ability to be the winner is some competition. But in most cases, the threat isn’t really about me. Jesus coming into the world as a baby was no more a threat to Herod than one of the cool high school girls was to my happiness back in the day. The threat wasn’t real, but based on a misplaced sense of self importance and our need to hold on to those things which we deem important to ourselves, rather than on the real threat of loss, pain and suffering.
This story tells of Epiphany, a feast day in the church where the manifestation of Christ is celebrated along with his baptism. The symbolism of light in the form of a star leading the way to three strangers coming to honor a king beyond the scope of their understanding, the fulfilling of prophecy (Micah 5:2) from ancient teachings and the fact that the revelation of God sending his Son to live among the people as one of them – they certainly qualify as an epiphany where we come to understand something in a new and different way. The Feast of Epiphany is celebrated on the twelfth day of Christmas – January 6, 2014 this year, to be exact. We are still singing Christmas carols in church (give us a break – we focused on Advent every week since Thanksgiving!) and now we find ourselves with the first of a long line of threats to the life of Jesus Christ, even as he is still a very young child living with his parents in a small town in relative obscurity. The threat to the life of Jesus was real – yet he didn’t respond in anger, defensiveness or with malice. He offered his other cheek, his love to the persecuted and downtrodden and his heart and salvation to all who follow him – personal status being irrelevant. Striving to live with that unconditional love for others is what we are called to do and fall short of as humans. But we must keep trying every day to keep perspective and discern the real threats: the very real threat of a life without Christ at the center of all we do, in all we meet and in our every day work, actions and relationships.
I haven’t killed anyone when I have felt threatened (whew!!!), but I have made others feel things other than love from me. That’s on me, and my lesson from this reading is to stop, listen and react with love, even when it feels unnatural and contrived at first. I know I’ll get better at it the more I do it.
Light of the world, help me to view others through the eyes of your love. When I am confronted with fear, help me to see that in you, my life is secure. Show me the way to live every day with you as the center. To you are the power and the glory. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus the Cause of Division
49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Interpreting the Time
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Every time our high school daughter leaves our house to go to a new setting, I try to remind her that she represents our family out in the world. If she meets someone, they learn about our family and the things we value through her words and actions. As a teenager, I can assure you she has an eyeroll and a sigh for every time she has heard that speech, but hopefully she has learned that she teaches others about our family with her every interaction.
I think all of us parents want our children to represent our beliefs and make us proud as they make their way in the world. I can only imagine how God must feel about how we represent our faith in the world as well. Today’s Gospel reading is a tough one and seems to contradict the Jesus who we all look to as a model of unconditional love. What do you mean, “No peace on earth?” Jesus as a uniter, not a divider – that is our usual thinking about Christianity and loving our neighbors as ourselves, right?
Although this passage throws a ringer in the non-messy version of Christianity that we like to believe is the outcome of our love for God, if we really are reflective, we have all experienced exactly what Jesus may mean about division. I have a very distinct memory from high school that stands out. Three of us – my two best buds and me – were like a joke that starts with “three girls walk into a bar; a Baptist, a Catholic and an Episcopalian.” We didn’t yet go to bars, but we did have many deep debates about our Christian beliefs through the lens of our family traditions of worship and teaching. We didn’t agree on many things, and even faced a hard conversation about the fact that our Baptist friend believed our Catholic friend wouldn’t make it to heaven because of her faith (awkward!!!). We were inseparable – but divided on many fundamental issues.
As an adult, especially as a school leader, I spend a lot of time talking to our staff about building strong relationships with our students. Every relationship starts with love, but sometimes there are students who sure make it hard to love them. And they need it more than anyone – but it’s hard for teachers to not take their gruff exterior and problem behaviors personally. We all fail to truly love others at times and this passage shines a light on our failings. We judge others – not our job to do. We ignore injustices, neglect our faith, covet our friends’ possessions and give permission for others to speak gossip and untruths by standing by and doing nothing; or worse still – joining in. We just try to get along in the world without being the ‘squeaky wheel.’ Jesus knows this about is and calls us out in this inflammatory passage. As I read it through several times, I realized that my response to the words was one of guilt. I think I know everything and am busy trying to live the life I think I should be living, while Jesus himself points out the stress he was under to get the words of faith spread throughout the land in the limited time he had here on earth. I’m pretty self-righteous when it gets right down to it – I think I have things figured out while I drive right past a homeless family on the road without much of a thought at all.
But it’s so hard to be that person God wants us to be, and I can think of many examples in our church and within my family and friends where we allow wrongs to stay wrongs because it just easier. I believe Jesus is saying that it is okay if it’s hard – in fact, that is the very divisiveness that he EXPECTS to have happen when we wrestle with the truth. Polite conversation is what we are all taught to have, but what if Jesus really wants us to be assertive about his will for the world? What if the bad things that happen all around us were confronted by us and the world was a changed place? I think we might make some enemies in the process, and it sounds to me if God is okay with that.
I’ve learned something about myself as an adult – that change only happens when I am uncomfortable enough to start adjusting my behaviors. This passage makes me uncomfortable on so many levels – hopefully enough to challenge the status quo.
God of love, help me to reflect on my place in your world and your will for me to be the change you desire. Give me courage and strength to stand for the right things and confront the wrongs I see. With your love and never ending grace, I know that I can spread your word in all I say and do. Thank you for your many gifts, even the ones that make me uncomfortable. AMEN.
In October of 2011, my Mom was diagnosed with cancer. It spread very quickly and she died in January of 2012. I spent the time trying to feel useful and get some control over the speeding train that was going a place I didn’t want to go, and started blogging about the experience to let folks know about Mom’s situation and to ask for prayers. This writing turned into a ministry for me and I was fed in a way I never expected by those who read my raw and emotional words. My walk with Christ was forever deepened through the experience.
Now, a year after her death, I want to write again. I am hungry for spiritual growth and a Bible novice. I’ve read it from front to back, but now need to live IN it. I’m grateful for the opportunity to grow closer and follow the path with Jesus.