Overwhelmed with Joy

I’m really happy that our church doesn’t have one of those signs out front with moveable letters that are used to post catchy sayings each week. That’s a lot of pressure for pastors to come up with something that clever that often. When I pass signs like that, I often find them theologically distressing or just downright silly. One church, though, gets kudos from me for the sign they posted this week: “A long time ago, in a Galilee far, far away…”

I’m never been a fan of science fiction. My taste in movies runs toward biographies and other human dramas. But in the interest of keeping an open mind and of being a supportive husband, I agreed to see Star Wars on New Year’s Day. I’m a little embarrassed to say that this was the first of the Star Wars films that I’ve ever seen. I really like it. Along with the strange creatures and spacecraft and light sabers, there was enough human pathos and humor to keep me hooked from start to end.

During the movie, I had my sermon about the wise men and the star of Bethlehem on my mind, and I couldn’t help seeing parallels when the character Finn was told to “follow the light” and when Rey knelt down and opened up a treasure chest, just like the wise men. Instead of frankincense and myrrh, she reached in and believe it or not put her hands on…. If I told you what she found, I’d spoil the movie if you haven’t seen it.

During the movie previews and pleas to turn off cell phones, I asked a friend next to me if there was a difference between Star Wars and Star Trek. Knowing my ambivalence about science fiction, he rolled his eyes and replied that Star Trek is about the exploration of space and Star Wars is about the cosmic conflict between good and evil.

That basic conflict is a familiar theme, and it’s the basis for most of the epic tales we enjoy. It’s even at the heart of today’s gospel reading. A serious conflict arose between those who were following the light to Bethlehem and the one who was trying to destroy that light. The star over Bethlehem unleashed what we could call a “star war” as Herod plotted to deceive and to kill in order to preserve his own power.

During the Advent season, almost forty of our CUCC members attended at least one session of a series on the different gospel accounts and how they contribute to the Christmas story we know and love. When we looked at Matthew, where the wise men appear, we discussed how the writer was trying to convince faithful Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. He starts with a tale of good and evil that echoes a familiar story from the book of Exodus. Everyone loves to hate King Herod for his lies and for the unconscionable killing of innocent children under the age of two in an attempt to obliterate Jesus. Many hundreds of years earlier, another child was born in humble circumstances. His name was Moses. In the Exodus drama, the villain was Pharaoh. Like Jesus, Moses was born to fulfill a plan to deliver God’s people. Like Herod, Pharaoh tried to thwart that plan, and as a result, innocent children died as the Angel of Death passed over.

The parallels are strong, and whether we regard Matthew chapter 2 as historical or not, the age-long conflict between good and evil is clear. For the writer of Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses who has come to finally deliver all who seek salvation from tyranny.

The good guys with the white light sabers, of course, are the wise men. Much has been speculated and written about these travelers from the east. It’s generally agreed that they were gentile God-fearers: non-Jews who were open to spiritual truth. The studied the signs in the sky and followed an especially bright star to the place where they believed a new king had been born.

Herod, the antithesis of goodness and spiritual openness, was a king in the sense that he had responsibility to oversee the region of Judea on behalf of the Roman Empire. He was so thirsty for power, and so determined to control those around him that he had his own wife and son put to death when he thought they stood in his way. Herod was responsible for the deaths of many Jewish rabbis.

It’s pretty easy to identify who is good and who is evil in this story. It’s more or less black and white; not much gray. In the struggles that we ourselves face in trying to right wrongs in the pursuit of peace and justice, it would be nice if everything was as clear as it is right here in Matthew. Our heroes and our villains too often reflect our own mixed bag of motives.

I’m intrigued by the emotions in this story. Two stand out in stark contrast. The first is fear. When Herod heard about the birth of a new king, he was frightened. We know that fear can cause people to do terrible things. In this case, it led Herod to murder innocent children in the quest to kill Jesus. We know what fear looks like in our world today. The fear of tyranny and terrorism and unemployment and people who don’t look like us or speak our language can cause us to do terrible things to others. Fear is contagious, and I’m fascinated by the little phrase in Matthew about Herod’s fear that says “and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod’s anxiety apparently spread quickly to others. We see that happening today in regard to Muslims who are productive members of our own communities, and we are rightfully concerned if the spread of fear becomes a political tool. That seems to be what happened in Judea under Herod.

Fear is natural. It isn’t good or bad in itself. Fear can actually motivate us to take positive action. If we’re not afraid of the effects of climate change on this planet, then we’re not paying attention, right? And hopefully that fear will make a difference in how we live. But if we are overwhelmed by a threat that does not exist, then we have succumbed to the dark side. Herod’s crown was not going to be taken by the baby Jesus, and some of what we fear is much the same.

Near the end of the story is another powerful emotion: Joy. When the star that the wise men followed for many days stopped in the sky, they rejoiced with “exceeding great joy.” It’s kind of interesting to consider what it means that the star “stopped.” This is a bit like the place in the Bible where the sun is said to have stood still in the sky. We know the Bible is not intended to be a science book. We also know that the sun has a fixed position in our galaxy. And that stars from other galaxies (far, far away) don’t move fast enough for us to observe. What appears to be movement is our own orbiting. That’s not the point of the story, though. Somehow the travelers understood that their journey was over and that they had found what they were seeking. And they were overjoyed.

It’s good to know that people telling the stories of the Bible were human like us and understood the importance of emotion in the events they described.

What emotions do you feel at that start of this New Year? Are you enthused, tired, happy, sad, concerned, optimistic, angry, grateful?

Fear and joy are polar opposites like good and evil. We rarely experience them in their pure form, at least not for long. Hopefully fear with loosen any grip it may have on us so that we can understand that God’s greater plans will prevail when we’re willing to cooperate. And hopefully we will experience greater dimensions of joy when we consider what God has already provided for us.

Many have experienced deep sorrow in the past year. There have been many changes and losses and it may be hard to imagine how exceeding great joy could be felt again. The mystic Rumi wrote about joy and said, “Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow.”

When the wise men approached Jesus they brought expensive gifts from far away. The greatest gift they possessed, though, was curiosity. And openness. And a willingness to push through fear and the unknown to discover joy. That gift is ours, too. We’ve arrived at the day of Epiphany. Christmas has ended, but the light ahead is clear and strong. A new era has dawned. Step forward and find what God is preparing for you.

Amen.

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