Forward in faith

December 1st, 2019

Matthew 2:1-12

Our family took a walk this week to get a closer look at the nativity scene three blocks from our house. Mary is, as usual, dressed in blue. Jesus, who looks about two years old, is wearing pajamas—not the normal translation for “swaddling clothes.” Joseph and the sole shepherd could be twins. Apparently this shepherd isn’t good at his job; there’s only one sheep. An angel playing a harp leans against the flagpole. Santa Claus is shimmying down a rope while four reindeer wait on the roof. Over to the side, three turbaned wise men stand in line. The magi are bringing, according to my children, a jewelry box, a golden football, and a silver sausage. The visitors from the east look at least as out of place as Santa.

Matthew’s version of the first Christmas has little in common with Luke’s more popular account. Trying to put the two stories together is confusing. The shift is dramatic: exit shepherds, enter wise men; exit stable, enter palace; exit poverty, enter wealth; exit angels, enter dreams; exit Mary’s lullaby, enter Rachel’s crying. One of the few things Matthew and Luke agree on is an emphasis on traveling. The story is about people making trips: from Nazareth to Bethlehem; from the fields to the manger; from Judea to Egypt. The best known, longest, and most unlikely of the journeys is from Persia to Palestine, a trip for which MapQuest wouldn’t even try to give directions.

This unreasonable trip couldn’t have a reasonable beginning. What could have possibly started them on their way? Matthew implies that the trip began with an unexplainable longing. Something unaccountable led them to follow a light without knowing where it would take them. The Gospel tells us little about the wise men. They are described as “magi” or “astrologers.”

The word magi is the root from which we get our word magician. Something like magic may be the point. In Ordinary Magic, John Welwood writes: “Magic . . . is a sudden opening of the mind to the wonder of existence. It is a sense that there is much more to life than we usually recognize . . . that life contains many dimensions, depths, textures, and meanings extending far beyond our familiar beliefs and concepts” ([Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1992] xiii).

Matthew wants us to see something beyond the familiar. Every one of us has a longing for God deep within us. We don’t always recognize this desire for what it is, but we feel it. Our spirits hunger for meaning, our souls for hope, and our hearts for love.

Why do we go to church? We have mixed motives, but at least part of our reason for going is the faint hope that we will feel God’s presence. We go in response to a longing even if we can’t name it. We have been called forth like the magi, led by the light of a star. We have felt the pull of God’s love.

The longing is so deep and the voice so distant that even in those moments when we think we might have felt something or heard something we don’t often take even a single step forward. It’s less frightening to stay where we are than it is to move toward a light that we’re not absolutely certain we saw. For every three far-seeing, truly wise persons, there are a hundred who won’t see beyond their noses. Most of us are too practical to chase stars.

When the magi ask about the new king, Herod fears for his job. He asks the reference librarians for help. The scribes point to Bethlehem. Herod tries to hoodwink the magi into coming back to tell him the child’s location so that he can pay the child a visit, too. Herod knows that anyone worthy of worship is threatening.

The appearance of Jesus disturbs the status quo for everyone. Everything we own, claim, or dream is threatened if a new king takes over. The baby grew up and changed all the rules. Jesus taught a revolutionary ethic of unconditional love, stubborn forgiveness and radical hospitality to those who were marginalized in his society. Jesus got into a lot of trouble for teaching and living out his notion of what God’s kingdom looks like.

None of us wants to lose that to which we have grown accustomed. Our trivial desires obscure our genuine longing. We know much of that to which God invites us, but we don’t want any part of it. God invites us to spend less money on ourselves and more on those in need. God calls us to waste less time amusing ourselves and give more time to our family, friends, and strangers. God tries to gently persuade us to turn our attention from the temporary to the permanent—from passing time to investing in eternity. We know far more about God’s invitations than we admit. If we don’t listen for God, it may be because we’ve already heard God.

Are we courageous enough to seek God in the common questions of ordinary life? In each confrontation, at every stage, we go forward in faith or shrink back in fear. We are tempted to lie at anchor when we are meant to sail with the wind; tempted to hide in the darkness, when we’re called to follow the light.

The wise men followed even though it seemed foolish. They wanted to see Jesus more than they wanted to keep their treasures, more than they wanted to play it safe, and more than they feared the difficulties of the journey.

The Christian faith is not a set of beliefs, but a willingness to travel, to pursue God’s gentle light. Christianity is not a place to stand, but a direction in which to move. God invites us to follow the star.

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