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Leonardo Da Vinci, “A Study for the Adoration of the Magi.” (ca. 1481)

(a sermon for January 6, 2019, the Day of Epiphany, based on Matthew 2:1-12)

Today, as we’ve said before, is the Day of Epiphany, also known as “Twelfth Night” (or, the 12th Day of Christmas, as it were!), which celebrates the light of God that shone forth in Jesus Christ; and which according to Christian tradition, was the time when “wise men from the East” came seeking the Christ Child, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

There’s no question that the “three kings” – or more accurately, the magi – loom large in in our text for this morning: their arrival at the manger, with all of its flourish and drama, plays like the grand finale of the nativity story; and even theologically speaking, the mere fact of the Magi’s presence in Matthew’s gospel, as brief as it is, says a great deal about how Christ was given as a light unto the nations as opposed to simply the people of Israel.  So speaking as a preacher, I can vouch for the fact that there’s actually a great deal that can be said about these ancient and mysterious star followers; but all that said, I also must confess that this year as I’ve returned to this part of the Christmas story it’s seemed to me that before we can say much about the wise men, we really do have to say something about… King Herod.

That’s right; King Herod, also known as Herod the Great, the Roman appointed King of the Jews, a described by at least one commentator I came across this week as “the nastiest of all nasty kings.” Now, I should point out here that this not the same King Herod that figures in the story of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion; that was in fact the son of the King Herod in this story, actually part of a long line of Herods: Herod Antipater, Herod Antipas, Herod Archaelaus, and on and on!  But, as pastor and author James C. Howell has pointed out, really, “Herod, Herod and Herod are the same guy.  All were egotistical, insecure petty potentates, in bed with Romans and clueless about God.”

However, there’s a valid argument to be made that this Herod, who reigned at the time of Jesus’ birth, was the worst of the lot.  Historians tell us that Herod was growing old and in his aging had become a mentally unstable tyrant who had also become so paranoid about his standing as king that “every whiff of palace intrigue and potential opposition threw him into a murderous rage,” (Thomas G. Long) so much so that Herod actually killed one of his wives, several of his own children (!) and other members of his family, all because he believed they were plotting to betray him! It’s said, in fact, that when Caesar Augustus heard what Herod had done to his own family, he said regarding Herod that he’d much rather “be his pig than his son.”

So… in the midst of all of this here come these “wise men from the East” (and the truth is we don’t know all that much about them, just that they were probably not kings in the traditional sense, but more likely philosophers and astrologers of the ancient world looking to the stars as the sign of something momentous and world-changing; something like the birth of a new King).  Here they come; “traversing afar” across the desert sands, following that “star at its rising,” and yet where do they go to find out what’s happened?  Not to Bethlehem – not yet, anyway – but right straight to Jerusalem and before “an aging, insane, and ruthless Herod, the King of the Jews,” so that they can ask about where they might find the new King of the Jews! I love what Thomas Long of Emory University has said about this; he writes that this “would be like going to the Kremlin in Russia and asking Vladimir Putin, ‘[Soooo….] where’s the new leader of Russia?  [You see,] we’ve come to pay him homage.’”  Needless to say, when Herod realized that these visitors from the East had come looking for a new king of the Jews and that his own reign of power was most certainly coming to an end, “it rattled [him] so badly that he shook like a leaf in the wind, and the whole city of Jerusalem trembled with him.”

Well, you know the story: ever the consummate politician, Herod sends the magi on their way with instructions to report back to him once they’d found the child so that, he said, “I may also go and pay him homage.”  And armed with prophecies about the child’s birth given them by the chief priests and scribes, the magi followed the star to Bethlehem and found “the child with Mary his mother.”  And of course, they’re “overwhelmed with joy” at this discovery and what it all meant – not only for Israel, but for all of the nations, even their own country far from Bethlehem – but once they’d knelt down with their gifts to pay him homage, something very interesting happens.  The magi don’t, in fact, send word back to Jerusalem; but, in a twist that we sometimes tend to gloss over in our telling of this familiar story, Matthew tells us, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

You see, one thing is for certain: once you’ve encountered Jesus, everything changes!  I mean, we’ve seen this all through the Christmas story, have we not:  Mary and Joseph, two impoverished teenagers, become the earthly parents of this “Son of the Most High,”  (Luke 1:32); lowly shepherds run through the streets “glorifying and praising God”  (2:20) for all that they’d seen and heard from the heavenly host; and now, after having had this collective dream that confirmed every bad feeling they’d had about their conversation with Herod “the Great,” these truly wise men decide that it’s not only prudent but the right thing to do to immediately change course and head back home by another way!

It’s true; once you’ve encountered Jesus, everything changes, and that includes how you deal with the Herods of this world! Because as I said before, to understand the place of the Magi in this story we have to understand who Herod was… and, yes, who Herod is.  Quoting Thomas Long once again, “Herod represents everything in human beings and human history that is haughty, cruel, violent and vindictive.”  Herod is the definitive reminder of everything that Jesus wasn’t; in that he was not born in the comfort and prestige of a palace, but rather in the silent simplicity of a stable far apart from the vestiges of riches and power; dwelling not among those who desperately cling to power by means of fear and cruelty, but rather among those whom Jesus would later call “blessed,” the ones who are “the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers… it is among these little ones where Jesus is truly to be found.”

This is what happened at the manger of Bethlehem, friends: where once there was darkness that could overcome the world, now there’s light; where division and hatred ruled the day now there’s a spirit of unity and love; hopelessness has at long last given way to , unending hope, and peace on earth:  all of this and so much more because of this child “who has born king of the Jews.” If it seems as though everything this child is and represents stands in direct opposition to the world as we know it… you’re right!  Because when you encounter Jesus, everything changes; life changes, the world changes, you change (!) and even your journey ahead changes… so much so that like those magi before us you’re compelled to go home by another way!

There is a painting by Leonardo DaVinci (actually one of his earlier works, created around 1481) entitled “A Study for the Adoration of the Magi.”  I just sort of found this painting while in the midst of my study this week, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  What’s interesting about this work is not simply what’s in the foreground – Mary and Jesus, surrounded by the Magi all kneeling in adoration of the Holy Child – but also everything that makes up the backdrop of the scene; which, in stark contrast to the calm and quiet visage of a starlit manger, actually depicts something of a ravaged world, complete with ruined buildings, fighting horsemen, men quite obviously engaged in warfare, and a landscape that’s clearly jagged and rocky and in great need of repair.  Apparently, there even looks to be something of a self-portrait of the young Leonardo, standing off to one side and yet surrounded by all this chaos and decay.  I’m not great interpreter of art, friends, but for me the message of the painting is clear: that it’s precisely into this kind of a world, a world that is teeming with all manner of sin and death, that Jesus has come; and it’s why you and I stand in the need of a Savior.

Maybe for you this morning it’s not so much the “chaos and decay” of life and this world that surrounds you; maybe for you it’s found in the weight of all the sadness and grief that you’ve been carrying on your shoulders; or perhaps for you it’s in the relentless struggle to live life with purpose and a modicum of integrity;  could be it’s in trying so hard to keep the faith even as the rest of the world spins increasingly out of control.  I dare say that figuratively, literally and yes, even spiritually, there are more than a few King Herods out here that would smack us down given the slightest opportunity!

But here’s the good news, beloved… Christ is born and light – true and brilliant light – has come into the world!  Jesus, who is the new King, the Messiah, the Lord (!), has come to us and now the world changes; and by his life-giving, sin-forgiving, hope-renewing word, so do we.

And lest that anyone of think that the time for bowing down at the manger has long since passed, the notion of paying homage to the new born king now to be stored away for another year along with the rest of the nativity figures, I’m here to tell you that even now we have this opportunity to fall down in worship in this amazing, life-changing gift of a Savior who has promised to be with us even unto the end of the age, and makes that promise palpable for us in a simple meal of bread and wine.

So let us come to the table; let us rejoice in his presence and power… let us be nourished and strengthened in this Holy Meal, and then, when we’re done, let’s resolve to outsmart Herod and all the rest of his minions… and go home by another way!

Thanks be to the God of Light and Life who has come to us in Jesus our Emmanuel.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Simeon’s Song: Worth the Wait

(a sermon for December 30, 2018, the 1st Sunday after Christmas; last in a series, based on  Luke 2:22-40)

Sometimes the only thing you can do is sing.

An old friend of mine from my seminary days, a bright and bubbly older lady who went by the name of “Mickey,” used to tell the story of how one snowy winter morning in Maine she’d decided to go cross-country skiing along a beautiful wooded trail that she knew, one that stretched far from any nearby roads, houses or people. The idea, she said, was for some spiritual solitude, but as fate would have it somewhere deep in the woods Mickey fell off her skis and managed to fracture her ankle; so now not only was she injured and unable to make her way home, but also, ironically enough, she was totally alone!

Now, given that this was a time long before cel phones and with no other way of calling out for help out there deep in the Maine woods, most people might have panicked under those circumstances; but not Mickey!  Surely, she reasoned, on this beautiful snowy morning someone else would be out skiing or snowshoeing and happen by, so she’d simply wait there in the snow until someone came by who could help her!  And that’s what she did; however, as the hours began to pass and the snow accumulated all around her Mickey started to wonder, however fleetingly, when or if help would ever come!

So she started to sing.

Actually, she started by reciting psalms and other passages of scripture she’d known from childhood (“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” [Psalm 121:1-2] Actually kind of fitting when you think about it, she said afterward) And then, it was Christmas songs, followed by verses from all the old hymns and snippets from choir anthems that she’d sung at one time or another and had always remembered. And as that long day went on Mickey just kept on singing, singing everything and anything she knew how to sing and even a few songs she didn’t!  She sang through her pain and she sang through her fear, and she even sang a bit through her doubt, but above all Mickey sang out of a faith-borne assuredness that the Lord was with her and that she would be alright!  And when eventually, just as darkness had begun to descend, another pair of skiers did happen by so to bring her to safety, they asked how she was doing and Mickey simply smiled and replied in very typical Mickey fashion, “Oh, I’m fine… I hadn’t run out of songs yet!”

Sometimes, you see, the only thing you can do is sing… but when singing is an act of faith, that may well be enough!

In our text for this morning, Luke’s gospel tells us that at the time of Jesus’ birth there was “a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon,” and Luke makes a point of letting us know that this Simeon was a good man, “righteous and devout,” and as The Message puts it, living “in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel,” that is, waiting for the coming of the Lord’s Messiah.  We’re also supposed to surmise from this passage that Simeon was quite old and that he had been, in fact, waiting just about all his life for this singular event to take place; but, you see, that was alright. For as Luke tells the story, “the Holy Spirit rested” on Simeon and that same Spirit had “shown him that he would see this Messiah of God before he died.”  That’s it… no angel making an “annunciation,” as what was given unto Mary, nor even any heavenly rebuke as what happened to old Zechariah back at the temple; and as for that “heavenly host” that they’d heard about from a bunch of random shepherds?  There was certainly none of that for Simeon; no miracles or signs or wonder, just simply and profoundly this continued assurance from a truly Holy Spirit that this thing was going to happen, it would happen in Simeon’s lifetime… and it was definitely going to be worth the wait.  So keep the faith, Simeon… keep on singing and just wait for it.

So now it’s about 40 days after the child was born in the manger of Bethlehem; which means that Jesus was around a month and a half old and the time had come both for “their purification” (which actually had more to do with Mary than with Jesus, as it was required by every Jewish woman after childbirth) and for Mary and Joseph to come to the Temple and offer up a sacrifice (which because of their poverty, amounted to “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”), so to consecrate their child to the Lord.  Understand this was a sacred ritual, a duty required and performed by all faithful Jews; and so you have to imagine, as David Lose puts it, that Mary and Joseph “must have been in a reverent, even solemn mood that day, the way many young parents in our congregations are when their first child is to baptized.”  So also imagine, then, how started, even frightened Mary and Joseph might have been when in the midst of this quiet procession into the holy courts of the Temple, here comes “Simeon, old beyond years and beaming with ecstatic revelation, coming up to them to touch the child,” and then, as if that weren’t enough, he starts singing!

You see, on that day of days Simeon was guided by the Holy Spirit to go – go now (!) – to the Temple because there at long last he would see the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit’s promise and the consolation of Israel.  And so, make no mistake, there’s absolutely no reluctance, hesitation or even any kind of appropriateness here on Simeon’s part; I mean, you don’t just run up to new parents and just pick up their baby, but here’s old Simeon fairly well running into the Temple and scooping up the baby Jesus away from Mary and Joseph, all so he can hold this child in his arms; and once Simeon’s seen that angelic little face, once he’s touched his little fingers, maybe counted his toes and then marveled how something so tiny and so delicate can be so… divine, that’s when Simeon’s song begins, a song of praise and thanksgiving for this child who was and is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

In Latin, it’s referred to as the Nunc Dimittis, which means “now send away,” and it’s actually used today both during services of holy communion and as a funeral liturgy, for not only is this song this incredible proclamation of God’s salvation prepared for all people, it’s also Simeon’s joyous affirmation that now that the Spirit’s lifelong assurances of a Messiah had come to fruition Simeon himself could die in peace.  In other words, my waiting is over, your work is done, so as in the elegant words of the old King James Version of scripture, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

There are some, you know, who tend to read the words of Simeon’s song as something rather morbid; I mean, why would he even want to talk about death and dying at a time like this, when the light and life of Christmas, to borrow a line from Jean Shepherd here, is at its zenith and all is right with the world?  But you see, Simeon knew that everything in his life had led up to this particular moment of this particular day, and that now that he’d literally seen and held God’s promise in his hands, “after touching and feeling the promise of life which God had granted to him through Christ…” (David Lose, again) then he could accept death “courageously and confidently in the light of God’s promised salvation.”  He could let go now, because the promise had been fulfilled and it had most definitely been worth the wait.

Of course, it needs to be said there that Simeon’s song wasn’t entirely one of joy and praise.  After he’d blessed this child and his parents, Simeon then looked to Mary, and as though to perhaps warn her of what was to come (?), he sings a second verse of his song, of how this child was to “be a sign that will be opposed,” – a “figure misunderstood and contradicted” – “so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”  And, oh yes, Mary, by the way?  “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

It turns out, you see, that there will be more to this story than merely a tale of angels and shepherds and Magi from the Far East bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  This child, this baby whose is named Jesus, Emmanuel, Messiah, Christ the Lord… his story will continue; beginning with a baptism of repentance in the River Jordan through great acts of healing, miraculous signs, teachings that change lives and the world, and at the last a triumphal entry into Jerusalem that leads inescapably to the cross.

Even after the shepherds have gone back to their flock; even once the star overhead has faded to blend in with the rest of the night sky and the Magi have opted to go home another way; even after Mary and Joseph settle in to the business of raising an infant even as they’ve had to flee to Egypt as refugees, the story goes on. The baby Jesus, you see, grows up… and his journey, as well as ours, is just beginning.

You know, it’s always struck me as a bit odd that we inevitably end up viewing Christmas as an ending rather than really what it should be, a new beginning.  I realize that this comes in large part because since before Halloween (!) this world has been wholly focused on the run-up to everything surrounding the Christmas holiday, and so once December 26 comes along even the most ardent of Christmas elves are apt to breathe a sigh of relief!   And even here in the church, for over four weeks we’ve devoted ourselves to Advent waiting and watching for the coming of Christ; and so yes, I have to confess that there’s a palpable sense of conclusion in our finally arriving at the manger.  In other words, we’ve come to worship, we’ve sung all our songs and now it’s time, like the shepherds and wise men before us, to return to life and the world and business as usual.

But I ask you, is that actually the case? Is Christmas truly over?   Have we really run out of songs to sing?

Not yet.

Because despite whatever closure we have by our taking down decorations or switching to music other than the holiday variety (!), the fact our journey to Christmas has not so much ended as it is just beginning!

You might have noticed that our text this morning contains a bit of an epilogue to this story of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple and Simeon’s song of praise and glory.  It seems that there in the Temple was also “a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.” Anna was an 84-year-old widow, and in fact pretty much lived at the temple, “worshipping night and day with her fastings and prayers,” [The Message] and we’re told that at the very same moment Simeon was offering up his tribute, Anna also showed up and “broke into an anthem” of her own, one of “praise to God,” and one that was apparently reprised again and again as she began “to speak about the child to all who were look for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

That’s the key, you know… that’s how Christmas becomes for us the starting place of our journey rather than its conclusion.  It’s in our proclaiming the good news of his coming; it’s about telling the story of his holy birth, yes, but it’s also continuing to tell of his presence and ministry among us and of the price he paid for our redemption before God.  It’s in the work of Christmas that we are called to do: in those powerful words of poet Howard Thurman:

“To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.”

Yes, to “make music in the heart!”  Christmas is always about singing out our praises unto the Lord each and every day that we live and breathe; it’s about singing through our pain, and singing through our fear, and even at times singing through our doubt; but it’s ever and always singing out of that faith-borne and faith-full assuredness that the Lord is with us and that we will be alright!

Christmas is not over, beloved; in fact, it’s just getting started!

So let that journey of prayer and praising and service begin with us here and now… and let’s keep singing, because there are plenty of songs yet to sing!

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2018 in Christmas, Jesus, Maine, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series, Worship

 

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The Song That Never Ends

(A Meditation for Christmas Eve 2018, based on Luke 2:8-20)

It is most decidedly not a Christmas song; and in fact, I’d suspect that the only way you might even know it is if you had little children in your life round about the early 1990’s.  As performed by puppeteer Shari Lewis and “Lamb Chop,” it went a little something like this:

“This is the song that never ends,
Yes, it goes on and on my friend.
Some people started singing it,
Not knowing what it was,
And they’ll continue singing it forever just because…
This is the song that never ends….”

You get the idea; this truly is a song that once begun, goes on and on and on… suffice to say it’s a melody tailor-made for long car rides and antsy kids (if not for the parents or grandparents on board who are at the end of their last frayed nerve!).  Indeed, it’s one of those songs that’s silly and fun and all manner of irritating, all at the same time!  And the truth of it is, and here’s the reason I risked putting that tune into your heads tonight, this is pretty much how some people feel about Christmas music!  Even I must confess that as much as I absolutely love the music of this season, nonetheless there are some songs in the holiday canon that just seem to be played on an endless loop! I mean, especially given all the discussion this year, how many versions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or “Santa Baby” can there actually be?  It’s no wonder that there are those out there who are very ready to be done with these songs for another year (not me, not yet…. I’m just sayin’!).

As much as I hate to admit it, I’m aware that even some of the sacred carols of Christmas – the beautiful songs that we’re singing here tonight – sometimes risk having that same effect on people; but I dare say for a different reason than sheer repetition.  After all, Christmas carols by their very nature are non-traditional and even a bit irregular, both musically and lyrically.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that (!); as the late Halford Luccock once put it, some of the best hymns are the ones that are labeled “irregular,” especially at Christmas.  “Irregular?” he wrote.  “I should say so! The whole thing was highly irregular!  A baby in a barn.  What could be more irregular than that?  Shockingly irregular!”  But then again, that’s the way of God, isn’t it; if there’s no room in inn, “God will find a barn or other place in which God’s new word can be born.”

The truth is, friends, is that ours is an irregular God who is utterly determined to come to us and abide with us, even in the guise of a tiny, helpless infant born in a stable surrounded by farm animals; and that is the reason that we sing… again and again, and on and on!

In our worship yesterday we talked a little bit about the angels’ glorious song of peace and joy on that first Christmas night, and also about the shepherds “living out in the fields” who were the ones blessed to hear it.  It was, in the words of the old hymn, “music of the spheres,” a heavenly song sung by a heavenly host, a song as bright and as bold as the star that shone overhead.  It was truly “good news of great joy for all the people… a Savior, who is the Messiah the Lord,” and it was, to say the very least, a singular, revelatory moment for the shepherds just as it was for all of creation; it was in every describable way, a song for the ages.

That said, however, I wonder how it was for those shepherds “after the angels had left them and gone into heaven,” and after the song was done and all that was left was the enveloping quiet of that holy night, a calm only broken by the occasional bleat of the sheep who’d been sleeping nearby.  We know, of course, that their first instinct was to go immediately to Bethlehem to “see this thing that has taken place,” but what I want to know is if as the shepherds went “with haste,” as Luke puts it, were they singing?   That incredible song just sung by a literal choir of angels; was that still going round and round in their heads?  Was the song on their lips, were they trying to emulate the melodies and harmonies as they rushed into town, or could they have been simply whistling as they went?

Well, Luke doesn’t say exactly; we’re only told that just as they’d been told they could, the shepherds did find the manger and Mary, Joseph and the child within, and that when they did see this new, holy family, the shepherds were compelled to tell Mary and Joseph about everything that they’d seen and heard earlier that night.  And don’t know about you, beloved, but I have to believe that as they did, those shepherds sang!  And you know they sang with joy, they sang with enthusiasm, they sang loudly and maybe even a bit off key (!); the kind singing you do when you’re so filled up that you don’t even care how it sounds to those around you!

And the thing was, those shepherds were just getting started!  Even as they left the manger, even as they knew they needed to get back to the fields and the business of tending the sheep, all the while they were “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”  And why not? The child was born, the Messiah had come and now the world and their very lives had changed forever!  This song, the song the angels sang, the song that was forever on their lips and in their hearts, this song of God’s redeeming love in Jesus who is called Emmanuel… this was, and is, the song that never ends!

And even now, over 2,000 years later, we still sing – again and again, and on and on – in joyful praising of the God who loves us so much that he will not rest until each and all of us have been embraced and so caught up in his tremendous and infinite love that we have no other choice than to sing!

Beloved, if I have but one prayer for you on this holy night, it would be that you’re singing; really singing, not just tonight in the beauty of candlelight and in the fellowship of kindred hearts together on Christmas Eve, but always… after Christmas Day, into the new year and beyond… that you will be so moved by the gift of this holy child and in him the presence of the living God that you will be singing with joy and faith and purpose that divine song of peace and love that never, ever ends.

The late Ann Weems once asked if “there are still those who long to hear an angel’s song and touch a star?  To kneel beside some other shepherd in the hope of catching a glimpse of eternity in a baby’s smile?  Are there still those who sing ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all’? If there are,” Weems prayed, “then O Lord, keep ablaze their flickering candle in the darkness of this world!”

Well, here on Mountain Road in Concord, the candles are flickering and the light of the Christ Candle is about to be shared among us in this beautiful and sacred space, cutting through the darkness of this night and of the world that surrounds us.  May this light truly fill us with all HOPE in believing; may it awaken us to the PEACE that only Christ can bring; may it fill us with JOY and make us aware of divine and infinite LOVE…

…and may it inspire us, today and always, to SING!

Merry Christmas, my dear friends, thanks be God, and

AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2018 in Christmas, Jesus, Joy, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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