Good morning, Friends!
This morning is kind of a strange and special time in the calendar. Christmas was just a week ago. Everybody has opened their stockings and presents. A lot of you have already taken your decorations down, and put them away for another year.
But there’s a feeling of holiness to the Christmas season. We don’t want it to be over. It feels like the air is still tingling. We don’t want to lose that special feeling.
Usually at Christmas time, we lump all the Christmas readings in together. We treat them as though they were a single story.
But as you know, in the Bible, there are several Christmas stories. And they’re all originally intended to be read and thought about separately. Last week, on Christmas Eve, we read the story of the angels and the shepherds.
Today, we’re going to look at “Part B” of the Christmas story. It’s familiar, but I want you to listen to it with fresh ears if you can.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. Herod called together all the chief priests and teachers of the law. He asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the wise men secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. Herod sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they heard Herod, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another way.
– Matthew 2:1-12
I want to ask you all a question. What did everyone in the story do after Christmas?
When all the holy, special moments were over, when the angels had gone back into heaven, when the star had blended back in with all the other stars again – what happened next?
Some of the people’s actions we have to guess at.
The innkeeper probably went back to work the next day – welcoming guests, telling people where to park their donkeys and camels, that sort of thing. Maybe the innkeeper welcomed people more warmly. Maybe he was a little more willing to stretch a point when people had no place else to stay.
I don’t know. It would be nice to think that. But there’s no indication, in the story, that the innkeeper changed very much at all.
That’s an important point. Does Christmas change change our lives? Does it make any difference? Or are we just the same? It’s a challenging thought.
The shepherds – OK, it says “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them.” (Luke 2:20)
The shepherds at least had an idea that something special had happened. They saw what’s normally invisible to us – they saw countless angels, messengers of God, bursting into our world, singing at the top of their voices.
Maybe angels are singing all the time, and we just don’t hear them. Maybe God was so busy, what with the birth of Jesus and everything, that the angels just got off the leash there for a little while.
But the shepherds were definitely impressed. This was something different. They went back to their sheep, but they were changed. From just being John Doe and Joe Schmoe, Shepherds Anonymous, they turned into the Singing Shepherds, “glory and praise songs our specialty.”
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe Christmas means we should all sing at work a little more. We’re not just supposed to go back to business as usual. Maybe our working world is supposed to be different.
Christmas is about hope. Christmas is about joy. Christmas is about glory to God, and peace on earth, among all people.
Maybe we need to start singing more. Maybe our lives should include more praise. Maybe, instead of looking down at the sidewalk all the time, we should be heads up, alert, looking for the glory of God wherever we can find it.
Maybe instead of being the “quiet Quakers” all the time, we could try being the “singing Quakers.” People would know about us, because we’re joyful. What if we gave up being gloomy, and praised God more often? It’s worth thinking about.
The angels are still there. I believe that. Messages from God can still get through to us. We’ve just got to listen.
And what did the wise men do after Christmas? They’re the ones we heard about, in this morning’s Scripture reading.
It says that they followed the star, to Bethlehem.
They didn’t have a road map from Triple-A. I think it must have been sort of like one of those talking GPS units people have. I’m sure you’ve seen one of them. “Take the next exit. OK, stop at the next light. Turn here. Oops, you went too far. Recalculating! OK, go around the block. Follow, follow, follow the gleam. Arriving at your destination, on right.”
Following is an important spiritual life skill. Most of the time, we want to strike out on our own. We want to race ahead. We want to get out in front of God.
Doing it on our own doesn’t always work. One of the most basic things we can ever learn is to follow. Just take that one step that God says, instead of taking the hundred steps that God didn’t say.
Following takes real faith. Those wise men probably thought many times along the way that God was crazy. “You want us to go where? You want us to stop here? OK, OK, we’ll do it!”
It also says that the wise men bowed down. Theologically, the point of the story is that the wise men saw that here was a newborn king, to be honored. Jesus was greater than the actual, ruling king, Herod, so they bowed down to Jesus instead.
Later in the Bible, it says that “at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. . ” (Philippians 2:10-11)
The wise men were just the first ones in line for the bowing. They bowed first, and they gave the first gifts. They set the example.
Part of the reason we have this tradition of giving gifts to each other at Christmas, is because of the wise men. It says that they were overwhelmed with joy, and they gave their greatest treasures. Gifts are good!
Before they left, I think they must have dropped some hints to Mary and Joseph. They were smart guys. I’m sure they saw right through Herod.
“Whatever you do, never tell anyone that this child was born to be a king. Something might, you know, happen? So, don’t tell anybody. You never know who might be listening. And one more thing – this conversation never took place. Hasta la vista.” And they were gone.
Actually, it says they were warned in a dream not to go back the same way they came. “They returned to their country by another way. . .”
That’s a part of the story I wish we knew more about. What road did they take? Did they see anything else on the way home? What did they tell people when they got back?
“Where did you go?”
“What did you do?”
“Oh, not much.”
Did they disguise themselves on the way home, so Herod couldn’t find them? Did they tear up all their motel receipts, so that nobody would ever know where they’d been?
Along with the hidden angels and the singing shepherds, I have this great mental picture of wise men who are incognito among us – people who have seen the newborn king, who have bowed down and knelt before Christ, but who are trying to be inconspicuous. They’re heading home, by a different road.
I wonder if wise people are still among us. Are there people who are still out there, seeking Christ? Do they follow a star that no one else can see? Do they march to a different drummer? Do they make their way home on a different road from the rest of us? I wonder.
I believe that there is one God. But I think we all take a different journey. We’re all headed home, but we all get there by a different way.
I think that people today are still seeking Christ. But the way back home is often different for each of us. Your way back home may be different from mine.
When we talk with people who may seem to have a different idea about religion than we do, be slow to judge them. Might could be they’ve been hurt or turned off by a conventional church experience, or maybe they’ve got their own problems. People sometimes need to head home by a different way.
Some people reach home through journaling or private prayer. Some people reach home with the help of friends in a small group or AA. It’s all right!
If you read on a little farther, it says that after Christmas, that “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you. . .’”
We forget that Jesus and his family not only had no place at the inn, but that they were refugees. They fled for their lives from the violence which would have killed the baby Jesus. Jesus spent the early part of his childhood in a foreign country as an exile.
They went over the border to Egypt, where they probably lived among their fellow Jews. At that time, there was a very large expatriate Jewish community in Egypt. There may have been as many Jews in Egypt as there were in Israel.
But Jesus’ family, when they got there, had nothing. They fled in the middle of the night. They had the clothes that they wore on their backs, and nothing else. No tools of Joseph’s trade. No household goods. No dishes. No animals. Nothing.
When we talk about the homeless today, or about people from other countries, we should be careful before we judge them. Jesus said, “When you feed the hungry, or give a drink to the thirsty, when you welcome the stranger, you’re doing to to Me. . .”
Jesus knew what it was like to be hungry and thirsty, to be unwelcome and without a home. I’m sure, when Jesus was a little boy, that his family prayed, every day, that God would help provide them with whatever they needed.
Maybe that’s why, when Jesus grew up, the prayer he taught his friends said, “Give us this day our daily bread. . .” Jesus knew about poverty. But he also knew about prayer, and about depending on God.
When they went back to Palestine, a year or two later, they didn’t go back to Joseph’s family, in Bethlehem. There was no welcome there for them, anyway. And even though Herod was dead, Herod’s son, Archelaus, was almost as bad as Herod.
Instead, for safety, they went north, to Galilee, which had a different ruler.They want to a small town, a town so poor that people made jokes about it. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” they said.
Joseph and Mary still probably had nothing, except for what few things they could carry. There were no moving vans from Egypt in those days. U-Haul meant the back of a donkey.
As we continue to celebrate Christmas, and as we assimilate our new gifts into our daily lives, let’s remember the Christmas story.
- Do we go back to business as usual? Or do our lives change?
- Are we silent, or do we sing more often?
- Do we give thanks and glory to God, or do we forget what we’ve seen, and take things for granted?
- Are the angels still near us? Are the wise people still seeking?
- Are there people among us who are going home by a different road?
- Do we welcome the stranger and the foreigner, and remember that Christ himself was once an exile, and grew up in poverty?
What happens after Christmas?
That’s what I’m asking.