There is nothing better than Christmas morning with small children in the house. They’ve waited so long for Santa, and finally the moment to see what he brought them has arrived. I remember being especially excited to share Christmas with my son Erik when he was four years old. I got up first and went into the living room to make sure everything was all set, and got the shock of my life. Erik had beat me there, and had opened up every present with his name written on it! He was happily playing with all of his new toys, surrounded by the scattered wrappings, completely oblivious to the fact that his Dad was devastated. I missed the best part of Christmas. I wanted to scold Erik, but how could I? I had neglected to explain to him the rules of Christmas.
Jesus apparently didn’t know the rules of Christmas either. Number one would be “Don’t accept gifts from strangers.” Especially if they have come from the East which means Persia which means heathens who don’t even know who God is. I guess those old rules that were so important to people around Jesus were somehow ignored, and the treasure chests were opened anyway. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh aren’t exactly normal baby gifts, but they’re quite valuable, and who is going to turn that away? It’s interesting, though, that this major breach of Jewish tradition, or rules, is a beloved part of the Christmas story.
The first of my two children was born after a very long wait: twenty-four hours of labor and then suddenly he was there, quietly eying the world around him. After he was brought home, I called the doctor with concern after he slept through the night for ten hours. He was fine; he was just a very calm baby, and he is exactly the same way as an adult. Two years later, his sister was born after thirty minutes of labor and made her appearance on the tile floor of a bathroom, moments after arriving at the hospital. She came out with a holler, and very little sleep was had in the months that followed. Her feisty personality hasn’t changed a whole lot in twenty-four years. I think it’s generally true that infants reveal a lot about who they will always be.
Maybe that was the same with Jesus. He was breaking the rules from the very start. He accepted the adoration of those who according to all of the rules should have been locked out of the house. And that never really changed, did it? Jesus majored on the message of inclusion throughout his life. He infuriated the proper folks by eating with tax-collectors and sinners. He included women in his circle of trusted friends at a time when women were not valued as equal to men. He made Samaritans (religious half-breeds) the heroes of his stories about God’s Realm. Jesus was always pushing the boundaries about who is “in” and who is “out,” and a simple reading of the Gospels makes that very obvious. Even after the Bible’s accounts of death and resurrection, people would point to the arrival of the wise men as a foreshadowing of the welcome of Gentiles (non-Jews) into the life of the emerging Christian church. I guess maybe it’s true that even Jesus as an infant revealed much about who he was and how his future would unfold.
If little Jesus had been at my house on a Christmas morning, and was like my kids, I could hear him saying “Only three gifts? Is that it?!” And knowing what the gifts were, he probably would have just played with the boxes. A lot has been made of the symbolism of the gifts. Gold representing royalty – a gift fit for a king. Frankincense revealing the mystery of incarnation, and Myrrh, an embalming oil given to one who was born to die. But maybe the most important thing wasn’t what the treasure chest held, but the joyous spirit and the adoration that moved it hundreds of miles across the desert on the back of a camel. And maybe one of the important lessons on Epiphany is that Jesus brings out the best in people and that includes the generous sharing of gifts.
I gave Leroy a GPS for Christmas. His old GPS stopped working this past year, and a new one was at the top of his Christmas wish list. He is rather hopelessly challenged when it comes to finding his way without an electronic voice telling him to turn left or right at the next intersection. It sounds like the wise men had the same issue. They depended on a global positioning system in the form of a star that led them to Israel and then directed them further to Bethlehem and the house where Jesus and his family were staying. It doesn’t take a scientist to point out the fact that a body of heavenly matter many light years away cannot provide enough nuance to direct someone from Jerusalem to nearby Bethlehem, just down the road. That’s a level of literalism that the story can’t bear and doesn’t need to.
The wise men were dazzled by the star. They were overwhelmed by an intense light that moved them, literally, to a new place. What dazzles you? I was at the Museum of Nature and Science in Denver on Tuesday, along with Leroy and about five thousand sugar-infused children on holiday break. Even though many of the exhibits are geared toward kids, I was dazzled by the depictions of distant galaxies and magnificent animals, and the minerals buried within the earth. The planetarium gives us close-up views of stars and planets unimaginably far-away. How can we not be dazzled by the universe? No wonder the wise men followed after what appeared to be a new and especially bright star.
Although I don’t often think about it in this way, it’s also possible to be dazzled by people. Television and the movies have their own ways of creating stars. Carrie Fisher didn’t have her own star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, but that didn’t prevent fans from co-opting an empty one and filling it with flowers and mementos. Her mother had her own star, of course. We’re dazzled by the talents of actors and musicians, but we can also be overwhelmed by the light that shines forth from those who are not celebrated by the masses.
Maybe the opposite of dazzled is frightened. Dictionary.com announced recently that its Word of the Year for 2016 is “Xenophobia.” An irrational fear of and hateful response to those who are from other parts of our world certainly doesn’t allow for the possibility of being dazzled by the lives of people we don’t know. When we think of people as simply “them,” we can remain insulated from their experience. When we open our hearts to hear their stories and consider their bravery in the face of war and religious intolerance and even ethnic cleansing, we can’t help but be dazzled by the strength of human character. That motivates us to do whatever we can to protect their safety and their dignity.
2016 was quite a year. Few of us would have predicted that our efforts to advance the progress of human rights and harmony between religions and races would seem at such risk as we start a new year. The work and the witness of a church such as ours has never been more important. This church began as an overtly progressive congregation committed to social justice. I think it’s fair to say that the broad social and political and even religious environment we find ourselves in rather suddenly is more sharply at odds with our values than at any other time in our fifty year plus history. What an amazing opportunity and responsibility lies before us as we keep living our commitment to social and environmental justice. We don’t do so as a political organization, but as a community shaped by the message of Jesus and the wisdom that comes through one another and the universe itself.
The wise men were dazzled by a star; we might be dazzled by the wise men. They were curious. They were unafraid. The brought generous gifts. They had a mission and they went to great lengths to complete it. They lived in a world that held significant danger. Herod was a crafty man who lied to them about his intentions for the baby Jesus. The wise men were realists, despite their willingness to cross a vast distance to honor a new baby. They found a new route home to avoid Herod, and they left a legacy of courage that we remember even today.
Our work for this New Year is just beginning. Don’t lose heart as we face whatever opportunities or difficulties lie ahead. We are the ones who can make a difference for good. The gifts we bring are not gold, frankincense, or myrrh. They are love that is meant for all people, hope that doesn’t give up regardless of what we see happening, and persistence in the face of any injustice. We follow the star and we remember that light is always more powerful than darkness. May God use you in great ways in this New Year.