A sermon on Matthew 2:1-12
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
By Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
January 6, 2020 – Epiphany Sunday (A)
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.
In the absence of detail, we tend to make up stories. Take these magi, for instance. We really don’t know anything about them. And yet over the centuries, in the absence of detail, the church has made up stories. We have imagined that there were precisely three of these visitors, and we’ve given them the exotic names of Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior. We pretend that they were rich kings or wise sages, and we often depict them ethnically as African, Arab, and Asian to represent the entire world that was east of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth. We’ve decided they wore opulent robes and rode in on camels, and we place a lot of loaded symbolism on the gifts they bring to the Christ child. But, friends, all of these details are just guesses and made up stories. There’s nothing wrong with them, but it’s important to know that they’re not really part of the Biblical account.
We know almost nothing about the magi except this: They are strangers who follow a star to find Jesus, and when they find him, they worship him and offer him their gifts.
We also know this: there is a lot of truth to be found in the information that the Bible leaves out. Because if you spend enough time around Jesus, strangers are going to show up, and we’re not going to know anything about them. In the absence of details we will make up stories, but Jesus simply offers welcome and worship.
In the church, we believe that we love strangers showing up in our midst. We want new people to show up and worship with us. In our everyday language we call that membership and church growth, and it’s worth more to us than all the frankincense in the world. There is nothing more rare and precious in the 21st century church than a growing congregation. But we don’t always know the details of who God might call to worship with us, just like we don’t know much about these magi. In the absence of details, we tell ourselves stories about the young families and generous volunteers who could one day grace our doors, but they’re really only stories. Time and again, what God actually has in store for us is more powerful and more creative than anything we can imagine.
Where I went to college, there was a church on the sketchy side of downtown whose name I can’t remember for the life of me. Their model of being church was this: they had worship for an hour on Sunday, and then the rest of the week was focused on services for the high homeless population in their neighborhood. They gave away clothes and food, offered job training, and provided therapy for addition and other needs. It was a popular place to volunteer, and I went with friends and church groups assuming that we were partnering with that church to reach out to people in need. I was wrong. What I learned was that, over time, these “people in need” had embraced this church as their own. They came for things they needed, but would turn around and wash dishes, answer phones, and – eventually – attend worship on Sundays. When I mentioned to one of the men that it was nice of him to help repair a broken window, he said “This is my church. It’s my responsibility to take care of it.” I don’t think a group of middle aged men who struggled with homelessness, addiction, and mental illness was the future membership this church had in mind. But in God’s goodness, this was the group of strangers who came seeking some sort of light, and found Jesus, and wanted to stay to worship. This was the group of strangers who came offering their gifts to the Holy One. That church and the entire city would have missed out if strangers weren’t welcome to come and see what God was doing.
There’s another church, in the middle of nowhere Virginia, that I’ve never been to but would love to visit. It was one of those little churches that just got too old to sustain themselves. Try as they did for younger members, they eventually closed. Looking for a use for the building, the presbytery started asking around town for what people wanted. And what they found was that no one wanted the “stuff” we think attracts young members to churches. They wanted the good old stuff. And so what’s now called the Wild Goose Christian Community gathers weekly to sit in rocking chairs, sing old bluegrass hymns, and share the occasional potluck. There are very few young people in attendance, but it’s growing and thriving with plenty of retirees to keep it busy. That’s not the kind of people or worship you think would make a church grow – but it’s the people that God has called to that place to preserve a cultural identity and to worship.
In the absence of facts, we make up stories about what church should be like, and who church members should be. We long for people who are younger, who have the finances to sustain a church, who will fit in with the folks we already have here. Those people are important and welcome and I pray God sends them our way. But if we only look for the people who fit our stories, we might miss out on the strangers God really sends to worship with us.
I’d love to tell you that I run across people all the time who look and act and think just like our church members here and who are looking for a place to worship. Sadly, I don’t. In my everyday life, strangers seeking Jesus look more like this:
People whose churches have told them that they are too sinful or different to worship Jesus, or that their spiritual gifts aren’t good enough.
People whose political opinions seem anything but Christian to me.
People at Santa-Cali-Gon who have clearly been enjoying more than just funnel cake and who tell me that they don’t “do” organized religion – but who have a question they’ve always wanted to ask.
People who have enough time and energy to show up every other Sunday morning…but that’s it.
People who might as well be strangers from another country with all we have in common.
Occasionally people like this show up at our church. Sometimes we embrace them; other times, we are distinctly uncomfortable and don’t know how to react to them. They don’t fit our stories of our future church members. But their importance is not in the details of who they are and where they come from; their importance is in the light of Christ who welcomes them to worship.
For all of our beloved stories, we really don’t know anything about the magi except that they were strangers who came seeking Jesus. For all of our beloved stories, we really don’t know what strangers and wanderers God might be guiding to us – the one thing we know is that they will come seeking Jesus. There’s nothing wrong with our traditional stories, but there is just as much truth in what is left out of the narrative. If we spend enough time with Jesus, strangers will show up. And this Epiphany, this new year, I wonder how much brighter our worship might be if we left the mystery up to God and did our best to offer our gifts and our worship with any stranger who might join us, even for only part of the story.
Thanks be to God for such a holy opportunity. Amen.