Signs and Mystery

January 6, 2019 

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Introduction to the Second Text:

The core claim of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, which in ancient Greek is translated “Christ.” To say “Jesus Christ” is to say, “Jesus the Messiah”; it’s the same word, but one is Greek, the other Hebrew. The writers of the New Testament went to great lengths to interpret the Hebrew scripture to show how Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise that the Messiah would come to save God’s people; that Jesus is the Christ.

At the same time, one of the great surprises of early Christianity was that the Gentiles, or non-Jews, embraced Jesus more than the Jewish people themselves. How was it that Jesus’ own people did not see that he was the Messiah, the Christ? And how did it come to be that God’s grace extended beyond the God’s own people?

It was the Apostle Paul – a righteous Jew, with the most elite pedigree – it was Paul who brought the message of Christ to the wider world. In our second reading this morning, we hear Paul explain this special call.

Ephesians 3:2-12

Surely you have heard about the special responsibility God gave me to extend God’s grace to you Gentiles, right? And how the mystery was shown to me in a revelation, as I mentioned briefly before. As you read this, you’ll be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ. Earlier generations didn’t know this mystery, but now, thought the Spirit, God has revealed it to his holy apostles and prophets. 

And this is God’s plan: that Gentiles would become fellow heirs with Jews of the riches inherited by God’s children. They are members of the same body, and they will share in the promises of God in Christ Jesus.  

By God’s grace and mighty power, I have been given the privilege of becoming a servant of this good news. God gave his grace to me, the least deserving of all God’s people, to bring the good news of the immeasurable riches of Christ to the Gentiles.  God sent me to bring to light the mystery that had been hidden for the ages by God, who created all things. God’s purpose now is to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the rulers and heavenly powers. This is in accordance with the eternal purpose God has accomplished through Christ Jesus our Lord. Because of Christ, by the faith of Christ, we may now come into God’s presence boldly and confidently.

* * * * *

It was such a surprise: that the good news of the immeasurable riches of Christ was meant for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. It was not at all what anyone had expected. All those prophecies, all those promises of scripture, that the Messiah would come… Who knew it was meant for the whole world?

Like those wise men from the East who came to worship Jesus… These foreigners were not only welcomed at Christ’s birth, they were invited there by God himself. The real irony was, they came to worship Jesus when the religious leaders stayed home. It’s a pretty shocking claim Matthew makes in his Gospel story: that it’s not the religious insiders but total outsiders who notice a sign from God, and make the journey to worship the Christ-child.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard offered this harsh critique:

What a contrast! The three kings had only a rumor to go by. But it spurred them to set out on a long, hard journey. The scribes, meanwhile, were much better informed, much better versed. They had sat and studied the scriptures for years, like so many dons. But it didn’t make any difference. Who had the more truth? Those who followed a rumor, or those who remained sitting, satisfied with all their knowledge?[i]

But then, he warns, that critique can fall on us, too.

“Similarly,” he warns, “we may be able to explain every article of our faith, yet remain spiritually motionless. The power that moved heaven and earth leaves us completely unmoved.”

Ouch. I’d like to think I’d be with the wise men. I’d like to think I’d be there with the sages, not stuck in Jerusalem tone-deaf to God’s voice, blind to God’s signs.  But Kierkegaard’s right, I’m afraid. It is way too easy to tune out God. It is easy to miss the mystery.  Especially when we’re just so busy. Even if we’re busy doing good things; even if we’re busy being ‘good Christians.’ It’s easy to tune out God.

But maybe it’s more than busyness. Maybe we like it this way. Maybe, if we’re honest, it’s just easier if we leave God out.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber talks about how strong the impulse is in us to resist the whispers of God... “Each of us,” he says, “each of us is encased in an armor whose task is to ward off signs.” God is dangerous; God asks things of us; God demands risk. So, he says, “from generation to generation we perfect the defense apparatus.

All our knowledge assures us, “Be calm… it is just the world, you can experience it as you like… whatever you make of it…  nothing is required of you…. Each of us is encased in armor which we soon, out of familiarity, cease to notice. There are only moments which penetrate it and stir the soul…”[ii]

 Ironically, it may be our very knowledge that we use as part of that suit of armor. The very thing that could help us see the signs from God can become a tool to avoid them.

When I was reading to prepare for this sermon, I came across an idea that intrigued me, about how we approach things we don’t understand. There is a difference, the author suggests, between approaching things as a mystery, or as a puzzle.  A puzzle is solved by getting more information. You have enough data, you can come to a conclusion, a solution, if you will.

 But “mysteries require judgment and assessment of uncertainties.”

The problem comes when we treat faith as a puzzle to be solved and not as mystery, the kind of uncertainty that challenges what we think we know for sure.[iii]

Puzzles are a challenge, and when I solve them, they make me feel smart. They give me the illusion of control. There’s one right answer, and with enough patience and perseverance, I can solve it.

But mystery…

Mystery I can’t control.

Mystery makes me question things.

Mystery… can shake me to the core.

Mystery is the language of God: Signs, that invite us to see a new reality. Signs, that take us on a journey from what is familiar and safe. Signs, that ask things of us.

As Martin Buber describes, sometimes

The signs… are not something extraordinary, something that steps out of the order of things; they are just what go on time and again, just what goes on in any case…. The waves of the ether roar on always, but for most of the time we have turned off our receivers.

It’s safer that way, isn’t it? To just ignore these little signs from God, the things that  come in ordinary things, like stars, or a baby’s sighs, or a wind, blowing through our midst… The words someone says, the news, that person we don’t really want to notice, the gnawing or stirring in our own heart.

We don’t have to respond. We really don’t. It is a choice, whether to go and worship, or stay secure in our chairs, solving puzzles.

But be aware, the moment will pass…

For some time now I have kept a poem on my dresser in my room, where I read it every morning when I get ready for the day. It’s called “Annunciation,” by Denise Levertov

When roads of light and storm

open from darkness in a man or a woman

are turned away from

in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair,

and with relief,

Ordinary lives continue.

            God does not smite them.

But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

As for me, I want the courage to follow mysteries.

I want the courage to go with the wise men.

[i] “Daily Dig” email daily devotion, Plough, January 1, 2019; citing Watch for the Light.

[ii] Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 10-11, quoted by Patrick Willson in an unpublished paper on the passages for Epiphany for the Moveable Feast, 2005.

[iii] Calum I. MacLeod, “Star Light,” Sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, January 7, 2007, 4-5. He cites an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, in which Gladwell references the work of Gregory Treverton.