Sometimes, Christmas can be less than God intended it to be. Sometimes, we fail to see the beauty of Jesus’ birth, God with flesh on incarnate in our world. Sometimes, all the stuff of Christmas can get in the way of actually celebrating Christmas.
In 2008, Jdimytai Damour was assigned to work the Black Friday morning shift. He was a part-time seasonal worker in Long Island, NY, whose job was to man the front door when the store opened in on that morning at 2008 at 4:55 a.m. But that morning, the door malfunctioned, the crowd become incensed,the people surged, and the door crashed down on Damour. While the majority of the crowd went over or around him, pinning him down, three of those nearly two thousand people tried to form a barricade around him. How many of them were good people? How many of them were Christians? Only three of them could see that their Christmas activities didn’t trump their Christian beliefs that day.
Hundreds of people missed the point, which is ironic, isn’t it?
In the Greek of the New Testament, the most frequent word used for sin is “hamartia,” which literally means “to miss the mark.” Like an archer setting out to shoot a target who fails to hit the bullseye, hamartia means that we have failed to follow what we should, that we have failed to follow the marks laid out before us by Jesus’ example and teaching. But sin isn’t just something we can put on someone else – we must recognize that sin is something we must wrestle with ourselves and together.
As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Following the path matters, but we must first identify the way.
In our Scripture today from Matthew 2:1-12, it says that Magi – or wise men, astrologers, or kings – showed up seeking a king they had heard about and pursued from the East. They naturally go to the resident king and ask about the new king – a bit too proactively, maybe. But they followed the star and they pursued the vision for the king they were seeking.
Herod sees the Magi’s arrival as the chance to smell out and destroy a would-be usurper, a potential rival. He thinks he can set these Magi up to do his dirty work, to get rid of an enemy. So the Magi keep following the star – and they come to a house with a child inside. While this is part of our Christmas story, we understand that it would truly have been several years after that first Christmas, as the Christmas story rolled into the experience of people even after the fact.
These wise men – three, thirty, three hundred? – come and present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These wise men celebrate the birth of a miracle child, of a king honored by the arrival of a star – not the typical happenings for a typical day. But having been warned in a dream – they avoid Herod and go home a different way.
Here, our three kings have an interaction similar to those individuals in the stories we’ve studied in our Do Not Be Afraid Series – Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. The voice of God – here, called in a dream, while before it was via an angel – showed up and told the wise men to avoid the things which society (and maybe common sense) would have pushed for: to be afraid of Herod.
Instead, the wise men were inspired by God to move differently, to not be afraid. They were expected to do one thing, to succumb to power and privilege and fear, and instead, they obeyed God and went home by another way.
While the wise men went home having been moved by what they saw – and we assume, forever changed – the world around them wasn’t immediately different. Caesar Augustus still led the Roman infestation of Israel and Judah, the poor were still poor, the abandoned didn’t even know that the God of the universe had come down as a newborn baby.
Fear still existed and evil still appeared to have the upper hand. And yet, we will sing, with candles lit,
“Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright,
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child!
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!”
But all is not calm; all is not bright … yet.
Mary births the Son of God; Joseph accepts this son as his own; the angels pursue the good news that is delivered to them in the field that night. The wise men witness this Son of God and go home with the good news to tell others that Jesus has come.
It’s still dark out there, right? But something changed that night.
That first Christmas, people who were afraid stopped being afraid. People who were poor and powerless and struggling with their place in the world found that God cared, that there was purpose, that the future was bright.
This Christmas, all is still not calm – it is not bright for everyone. In the midst of this service, we will celebrate candlelight – the fact that it is dark around us but that we, the people of faith, represent millions of tiny points of light.
By ourselves, our single candles do not seem to do much to break into the darkness, to break apart the darkness, but together …
Together, our candles are strong. Together, our candles illuminate our own faces with light left over to shine onto the next person, to help them see a little better, to push back some of their darkness.
Together, we illuminate by community through the life of Christ.
Together, we are called to stand as one.
Against the darkness, with our little bit of light.
Together, we can choose not to be afraid. Together, we can choose to seek God’s will above the will of the world, and the powers that threaten to derail us from being who God calls us to be.
We can be more. We can choose to live without fear. We can still follow the star.
We can do more than shake our hands and pray; we can move.
If we’re going to learn from the wise men’s search, we’re going to have to dig deep and remember that what we expect isn’t the same thing as what God’s looking for. We need to recognize that God is playing from a different set of rules; God is focused on different things.
When God sent Jesus to be born in a manger, to an unwed mother and a homeless carpenter, he set up for all of time that Jesus lived in the real world, not a fantasized picture of what life looked like.
When God sent Jesus, he reminded us that Immanuel, which means “God with us,” isn’t just a cute bumper sticker, it’s the reminder that God made himself like us and with us to understand what life is really like for us.
God wasn’t willing to let people say, “well, you don’t know what it’s like!”
God sent Jesus into a world of people who were seeking something, anything, to hold onto to show us that we are not alone, that God is here, and that God wants to be with us. Littered through the Scriptures are reminders:
The times that Jesus asks his audience, whether it’s an individual or a group, “what do you want me to do for you?”
The offering up of his body and blood on the cross, after sharing the Last Supper, when he says, “this is my body which is given for you” (Luke 22:19).
The reminders from the apostle Paul that “if God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)”
Too often, we come to church and Christmas, and we’re expecting the wrong thing. We’re seeking temporary happiness or immediate financial security that seem to wear off before the Super Bowl; we’re looking for love and peace of mind in all the wrong places, like failed relationships and jobs we don’t really like. We’re not changing the things that matter but pursuing a difference by running after the wrong things.
And then the wise men show up, strangers in a strange land, who realize there’s something different here.
Sometimes, we have to recognize that what we’ve been looking for isn’t what we’ll find, but that it’s better. That the unexpected is actually exactly what we need.
We can either be the wise men or we can be Herods, we can be Scrooge or Bob Cratchit. We can be full of wonder and pursuit and purpose, or we can be stuck on ourselves, and our fears, lusts, and expectations. We can strive for the sacred or be stuck in the mundane. It’s not a pretty contrast, is it?
I encourage you to reflect on the story of Jesus’ birth. Maybe you’ve heard it a million times and it feels like the same old trite story. Maybe tonight is the first time you’ve heard about the baby Jesus in context. Either way, hear the good news:
The God who created the world, created a unique you for a unique purpose. Because we don’t always do what we should, we find ourselves separated from God and from who we are meant to be. Because God loves us so much, he sent his one and only Son to live our life, to teach us a better way, and to die on the cross so that all the things we shouldn’t have done are dead and gone. And we can be who we were meant to be, uniquely, as a blessing to others in relationship with God.
Somehow, the wise men figured out that their lives were different, that they met the sacred in the life of this young child. And they worshipped. We worship a lot of things, like money, and power, and beauty, and fame. We worship ourselves and put what we need high above everyone else. We worship getting by and getting ahead, instead of recognizing that the great God of the universe wants us to see ourselves as we really are.
Like a child. Like his child.
And he wants us to love him like a child loves a parent or grandparent, and knows that it is loved in return.
You matter to God. You are loved, redeemed, cleaned up, turned around, picked up, tested, saved, made whole, put right, and FORGIVEN.
All because of the sacred in the little child that the wise men went searching for. All because God wanted love to grow between you and him.
I don’t know what you came seeking tonight, but I hope you find more than you expected. I hope that you recognize, like the folks on the Westjet flight, that there’s more in store for you than you can imagine. That God wants to love you and make you whole, and give you what you need, right now.
This Christmas, I hope you recognize the path that God has called you to, the stars God puts in your life to follow. I hope that you can see in the midst of the turmoil you find yourself in, in whatever darkness you see in the world, that the light still shines.
That God still shows up in expected places.
That people who are wise still seek.
That the angel still shows up, with the voice of God whispering,
“Do not be afraid.”