Sermon Archives

Sunday, January 3, 2021
The Second Sunday after Christmas (Year B)
The Reverend Walter Brownridge, Associate
The Work of Christmas

May I speak in the name of our ever-living, ever-loving and ever-leading God. Amen.

“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Happy new year on this the third day of January, and Merry Christmas on this the 10th day of Christmastide. Our calendars this year, both liturgical and chronological, have conspired that on this Sunday, the second Sunday of Christmas in our liturgical year, coincides now in January and now on the 10th day of Christmas, with the reading that is assigned to, yes, this Sunday but also in a few days for the Feast of the Epiphany. And of course in the Epiphany, our attention turns to the magi. And let me, if I could just parenthetically, just draw this out for you, one of the things that I most sorely missed this year was, of course, a proper Christmas pageant with all the beautiful children playing the parts, whether of Mary and Joseph, sometimes in some churches a real live baby or infant, the angels, the shepherds, the sheep, the goats, the oxen all played in some way to depict the scene that the church through centuries has glorified and been creative about. I indeed miss that.

And of course, as the reading celebrates today, one of the main characters are the three magi, wise men or kings, as the hymn would say. We love to see, in fact, places where they have tried to make young boys and young girl look to be quite elderly, because one thing that I think this year would symbolize is that a more realistic portrayal of the magi would be helpful. They were indeed wise, but they would have also have then been aged, aged enough that this would not have been some walk in the park to following a star, to seek consultation from kings and astrologers, to go and pay homage, honor and worship to this newborn king. It would have been hard.

There was a poet in the 20th-century, St. Louis born, Harvard educated and British adopted Thomas Stearns Eliot, T. S. Eliot for most of us. And he imagined it this way happening. “A cold wind we had of it, just the worst time of year for a journey, and such a long journey, the ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter. And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces and the silken girls bringing sherbet. Then the camel men cursing and grumbling and running away, wanting their liquor and women.”

Yeah, it would have been hard for the magi, but they did so not because they were so wise as to quote “study this and learn this,” as this text says that they had studied and known and calculated, but they didn’t quite have all the answers. They were going to Bethlehem for something deeper. And when they get to Jerusalem and they run into Herod, and innocently ask Herod, “Where is this new king of the Jews to be born,” Herod calls in these astrologers, others who study the stars, and made this point that it says that it will be in Bethlehem.

And so Herod then warns these magi, “Go find this child, this new king, and then get back to me. Tell me where I can also go and give homage.” Of course, Herod has a more sinister motive at play. The point, though, of Matthew’s narrative is that he isn’t endorsing astrology. It’s not a point about study. It is more a point about worship. What do we worship as humans? And the magi understand this, but they’re not so wise as to understand that intuitively. They’ve grown in their understanding through the experience they will have. What Matthew was testifying to is to the power of God, not merely to bring foreigners and those who have, up until now, been clueless about God’s plan for humanity or about God’s ability even to manipulate nature itself. No. As Augustine would say, Matthew was writing to help people understand Christ was born not because the star shone forth, but it shone forth because Christ was born.

Let me say that again. Christ was not born because the star shone forth. No, the star shone forth because Christ was born. We, we should not say then that the star was fate for Christ. The star was not Christ’s fate but rather that Christ was the fate for the star. Christ was fate for the star. Dante put it this way. “God is the love that moves the stars.”

Yes, God is the love that moves the stars and with that knowledge, we understand that we are not, as Shakespeare would say, “star-crossed victims of fate.” No, we have a destiny. And as the magi understood, that destiny is the newborn Jesus.

Matthew is offering us a tantalizing hint about life for those who have met Christ. He is saying, “Something is going to happen.” He’s dropping a tantalizing hint that after you meet Christ, nothing is ever the same. And thus, as the gospel ends, you don’t take old road any longer. You unfold a new map. You discover an alternate path. And so when the magi, as Eliot has in the poem, they are reflecting, even older men, reflecting on what happened, looking back from the perspective that only old age and wisdom can give you.

Eliot continues:

“And the night-fires going out and the lack of shelters, and the cities hostile, and the towns unfriendly, and the villages dirty and charging high prices. Yes, a hard time we had of it. And at the end, we preferred to travel all night, sleeping in snatches with the voices singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly.”

And yet when they got there, it was not all folly. They found the place with the child laid, as Eliot would say, satisfactory. And they looked back and said, “All this was a long time ago, I remember. And yet I would do it again but set down, this set down, this moment, this encounter. Were we led all the way for,” and then there is this interrogation, “for birth or death?” In fact, Eliot, theologically correct, would say it was both a death and a birth. “There was a birth, certainly. We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death but had thought that they were different. This birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death.” You see, what happens is that the magi, in encountering of Christ, something has to die within them for something new to be born. And that’s birth, Jesus’ birth, but also humanity’s birth and death are tied up in this moment, this epiphany.

And so the poem ends. We return to our places no longer at ease here in the old dispensation with an alien people clutching their gods. Saint Matthew and T. S. Eliot are trying to tell us that life with Jesus does not make our life more comfortable. 2020 is a great example of this. Life with Jesus is not intended to help us fit in nor to quote “succeed”. What happens when you really meet Jesus and are transformed is that you are no longer at ease in a world not committed to the values of Jesus. We can love all of humanity and love the world in a way, but we notice now that there are false gods all over the place. And we can detect royal pretenders. Nothing is the same and nothing comes easy. A strange, unfamiliar road is now our path, but it is a road that is going somewhere, a road that is our destiny.

And over the years I’ve been here, you have heard me and then also Father Drew quote Howard Thurman. And there is this very famous poem about Christmas called The Work of Christmas where, I’m paraphrasing now, he says after the shepherds, the sheep, the angels, the magi, after the crèche has been cleared away, all of that done, then the work of Christmas is begun to bring hope, love, joy and peace and healing to the poor, to the lost, to the dispossessed, to those in prison and those in danger. That is the work of Christmas.

Well, this year I have another poem, something else from Howard Thurman. But before I give it to you, in this year 2020 that just concluded that is so difficult, in this year where people may even scoff at those who claim to follow Jesus Christ as God or any, in fact, form of religion, I learned this past week that since that omnipresent thing called Google keeps track of everything, they can tell you, yes, the most Googled term or phrase was coronavirus in 2020. Coronavirus, and then there are all sorts of variations of it. What is it? How is it transmitted? And so on. How will we find a cure and therapies and vaccines? Yes, all of that. But right up there in the midst of that, despite what we hear about declining church attendance and support, right up there at the top with coronavirus was prayers and spirituality in this time of the coronavirus and pandemic. People are hungry for the real, and that means even the real spirituality that comes from God, that they may understand.

For us as Christians, it is to follow the message and example of Jesus, and in that spirit, I give you this poem by Howard Thurman about how the simple act of lighting a candle and prayer is what we need to maybe begin our own spiritual journey as we are now in 2021, and yet have some difficult days still ahead before we get to the other side. Thurman writes,

“I will light candles this Christmas, candles of joy despite all the sadness, candles of hope where despair keeps watch, candles of courage for...candles of peace for tempest-tossed days, candles of grace to ease heavy burdens, candles of love to inspire all my living, candles that will burn all year long.”

Beloved in Christ, may you also light candles and may your candles burn all year long. Amen.