Following the Light
Pastor Rick Danielson
I rarely stay awake until midnight on New Year’s eve, but it’s always my intent to watch the ball drop in Times Square. Imagine my delight to realize last week that I could watch it at 10 pm on CNN and still get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Just one more reason to love living in Colorado!
That ball is pretty interesting. The original from 1907 was made of wood and iron and was lit by 125 25-watt bulbs. The newest version is enormous – 12 feet in diameter – and weights almost 6 tons. The ball is bright and colorful. It’s made of Waterford Crystal with more than 32,000 lights with a palette of over 16 million colors and billions of possible light patterns. Believe it or not, the ball is exceedingly energy efficient and it consumes the amount of energy per hour that is needed to operate two traditional home ovens.
So there we have it: A brilliant light shining in the east, drawing people from afar to celebrate an important event. The Times Square ball drop sounds a little like the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew! The story of the Wise Men who travelled a great distance to see Jesus is one of the most beloved tales of Christmas, although it likely happened about two years after Jesus’ birth. It has been fodder for countless Christmas pageants with aluminum foil crowns and bathrobes and jewelry boxes as absolutely essential props. I think ours at CUCC was probably the best of them all!
I love this story. It’s not Christmas without it, even though we are at the far end of Christmas now – technically it’s the eleventh day … when my true love gave to me eleven pipers piping. Tuesday is the day we call “Epiphany” to remember the day the wise men following the star finally made it to the manger.
There are some amazing characters in this story. Good guys and bad guys and others somewhere between. All of them earnestly seeking something important. When I look closely at those characters, it seems to me that there are three kinds of people in the story that we might be able to relate to.
First of all, there are those with faith but no knowledge. These are the wise men who are sometimes referred to as “Magi”, “Kings”, or “astrologers.” It is unceasingly fascinating to me that the people who traveled the farthest to see the “King of the Jews” weren’t even Jewish. If they were asked at the border to cite their religious preference, they would have probably checked the box marked “Other.” The term “Magi” indicates that they were part of a small pagan sect called Zoroastrianism. They were star-gazers and astrologers and we get the word “magic” from the word “Magi.” So… they were non-Jews from across the border and they were there. Jesus threw open to gate to the manger to welcome those considered the “other” and it’s recorded here because that is important. The radically inclusive message of the Christian gospel is demonstrated right there in Bethlehem. Everyone is welcome.
The wise men possessed a remarkable measure of faith. We could call it “faith with feet on it” since it propelled them through deserts and dangers to Jerusalem. But their faith was lacking knowledge. They faithfully followed a star, but at the end of the journey they needed more information. You’ve probably heard why we call them “wise men” and not “typical men”, right? It’s because they stopped and asked for directions! They were filled with enthusiasm and hope and expectation, but without the final, critical information, they would have only wandered aimlessly. They had faith but lacked knowledge.
There are also characters featured in this story who had knowledge but lacked faith! We call them the chief priests and the teachers of the Law. We’ll hear much more about them when Jesus grows up and confronts the powers that be in the temple. They show up in this Christmas story because King Herod needed help to locate the baby. The priests and teachers were a veritable storehouse of helpful information after devoting their whole lives to understand the Hebrew Scriptures. They spent much time discussing and debating the finer points of religious law, and they examined Messianic prophesies carefully. One of those prophesies said that a young woman would give birth to the Messiah in Bethlehem, so they shared that information with King Herod, and Herod in turn told the wise men.
The teachers and priests played an important role that day in Jerusalem, but ultimately, in the whole scheme of things, they were persons of massive intellectual head knowledge who lacked the essential and simple element of faith. The brilliant star of Bethlehem was shining down on them urging them toward the home of Mary and Joseph even as they gave their answer to Herod, but they were looking down, not up. They lacked imagination which is a necessary component of faith, and they missed out. It’s not that they weren’t religious. They were, but apparently faith is much more than that.
So there are those with faith but no knowledge, and those with knowledge but no faith. But there is someone else, even more impoverished, in this story. The author of Matthew tells us about one who had neither knowledge nor faith. Someone who was utterly clueless. And that person, of course, is King Herod himself. Unlike the wise men, Herod was Jewish. So you’d think he would be a person of faith. Unfortunately, his religious heritage was overshadowed by his desire to rule over others. He was given an important position by the occupying Roman government, and he ruled with a very big fist. He was known for his ruthless killing of anyone who got in his way, even if they happened to be his own wife or his own son. Herod’s favorite title for himself, one that was officially granted to him in Rome, was “King of the Jews”. No wonder his ears perked up and he was enraged to hear about a child destined to be the King of the Jews.
Herod had no idea where the baby was, of course. He might have been Jewish, but he didn’t bother to educate himself about biblical prophesy. So he lacked knowledge. He also lacked faith! Clearly he had little interest in what God might be doing; his only interest was the preservation of power. The result was tragic, though not surprising. The story tells us that he ordered the deaths of all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem.
So… some in the story had faith but lacked knowledge.
Others had knowledge but lacked faith.
And one had neither faith nor knowledge.
This story is greatly loved and it is central to Matthew’s introduction of Jesus to the world. It is filled with movement and drama, international intrigue and wonder, and right in the middle is this unexpected message: How great it is when knowledge and faith come together.
One of things I love about this church is the wide variety of understandings of what is meant by faith. Some of us hold to rather traditional concepts of God and what it means to relate to God with both our mind and our heart. Others might define faith differently and may not see belief in God as necessary to live a rich and abundant life. Relating to all of you is continually teaching me new things and challenging my ideas about faith. I think that’s good, and accepting differences is part of creating the community we value. So when we talk about faith here, I believe it is correct to say “faith as we understand it.” Faith in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God. Or faith in the message of this child Jesus who ultimately became a man who spoke words of wisdom and proclaimed justice and peace. Or faith in humanity’s ability at its best to overcome evil with good. So I’d ask you, in light of today’s gospel story, “What does faith mean to you, and how has that understanding of faith made a difference in your life?”
Faith without knowledge can result in something we may call faith but is little more than sentimentality or superstition. Knowledge without faith forgets the power of imagination and any possibilities beyond our own selves. When both knowledge and faith are absent, we see the greatest abuses of power and the disregard of God’s good gifts, as was the case with King Herod.
Christmas was put away at our house on Friday. Normally I like to wait until Epiphany, but Leroy returned to Buffalo yesterday. It was only fair for him to pack up most of the decorations since I had put most of them up on my own before Christmas! Among the carefully wrapped and stored family treasures is an olive wood nativity that I bought almost thirty years ago in Jerusalem. The kings are easy to distinguish from the shepherds and Joseph by their wooden crowns and treasure chests.
They are now wrapped in tissue paper and quietly resting until next December. Their message continues, though, through everyone who embraces the twin gifts of knowledge and faith, which together propel us forward into a new year.