Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Gathering

The Gathering
A Communion Meditation

Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Matthew 2:1-12
Ephesians 1:1-12
Epiphany Day, January 6, 2008

The Sunday or two after Christmas day every year are hard Sundays for modern preachers and their congregations. Having thrown ourselves into planning and celebrating in the days leading up to Christmas, the Sundays after inevitably strike us as a bit of a letdown.

What are we doing here? The baby’s been born, Christmas is over, it’s not nearly time for Easter. And why are we singing these suddenly tired-sounding Christmas songs? I noticed that the first of the annual advice for ways to unload the now unwelcome Christmas tree appeared in newspapers on Christmas day this year! Has no one at a newspaper office or radio station ever sung “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” The twelfth day was yesterday. What do they think it is about, a special leap year with twelve December the 25ths?

Probably many – even most – of us have already pulled the decorations off the tree and set it out on the road, boxed up the other decorations around the house except for the one you won’t find until you move the sofa to clean under it in May, ceased turning on the outdoor display, and have considered Christmas only in the past tense for several days now. More’s the pity. For centuries, the church has called Christmas a season, not a single day. It runs from December 25th to Epiphany, which is today, January 6th. We gather today, then, on a special day called “Epiphany,” more familiar to Orthodox Christians, the day of the light – from the Greek word “phanos,” the word for light. Orthodox Christians wait until January 6th to celebrate the arrival of the Christ child, because that is the traditional day to recall the arrival in Bethlehem of the magi from foreign lands – people foreign to Israel and her God as we would be without that child.

So we are gathered here in our now treeless and poinsettia-free sanctuary. What brings us here today? For some of us, it is a late coming to Christmas, but as with the magi, what matters is that we come, late or not. This gathering in this room takes place every Sunday, and we are all late by the measure of the shepherds and angels of the birthday, but on time by the measure of magi who came seeking the light.

Did you hear what Matthew reported about the arrival of the visitors from the East? Are you sure? Often these familiar stories are almost too familiar, and we fail to see anything other than what we have always seen in them. We could check Mark, Luke and John for second or third opinions, but we will find nothing about magi there. Matthew is the only one of the four gospels to report these foreign visitors, so if we want to know the details, we will have to look here.

And did you notice what wasn’t said about them in the gospel lesson? For starters, they are not referred to as kings – as in the famous Christmas carol – but as magi. The word Matthew uses – “magi” – the beginning of our word for “magic” – literally means, astrologers, or star-gazers, people who sought to know about current and future events from the alignments of the stars in the sky. These were people who were considered wise in some eastern gentile cultures in New Testament times, though today their successors are relegated to a marginal existence in the Life section of the newspaper with the daily horoscope. I think it is instructive that though we may not lend too much credence to astrology today, in that season even the stars pointed to the one for whom all creation waited, whether those waiting were wise or not.

Many of the manger scenes which adorn our homes and hearths at Christmastime include a variety of barnyard animals along with the holy family, shepherds whom Luke said came to see the infant Jesus, and these magi whom we find in Matthew. But Matthew doesn’t have anything to say about a manger or an innkeeper. The wise men inquired of Herod of the one “who has been born,” and Matthew says, “On entering the house, they saw the child...” On entering the house, not the barn or stable of Luke’s Christmas story, they saw, not the infant (brephos) of Luke’s Christmas day account, but the child (paidiou), which was the word Luke used when speaking of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple with the elders. “Child” refers to a youngster well past the newborn stage. No wonder the church actually reserves the commemoration of the visit of the magi for January 6th, after the 12 days of the Christmas celebration which only began on December 25th. Their visit came much later than the shepherds’.

Matthew also did not say how many magi there were. Our Christmas traditions have assumed there were three, because that is the number of gifts laid before the child, but Matthew never numbered them. Tradition has even given them names which we do not find in scripture: Caspar — the friendly magi who brought gold, Melchior who brought the fragrant frankincense, and Alberto, that’s Balthazzar, who brought bitter myrrh, best known in the first century for its usefulness in embalming.

So, we have done all we can to help get the wise men there on time, but try as we might, we have to realize they were late, too late for the first birthday. They were not called by the obstetrician anyway, but by the light, the special star. We also have to realize that we have arrived late, too. None of us was there on that first day of Jesus’ life. Yet something calls us here today. I wonder what it is. I wonder if we are not more like the wise men than the shepherds, called simply because something tells us there is light here in this gathering of people who claim the name of Christ.

Though these gentiles did not have the benefit of the scriptures of Israel, we find the startling news in Matthew’s gospel that they have made their way to the infant savior by the light they did have, the light of the star in the East. All of creation, apparently, is in cahoots with the God who has plans to seek out even star-struck foreigners and bring them home to Jesus.

I once had an opportunity to hear a pastor speak about the magi, thinking of those folks who go through life rejecting the church even though they do not know it well, because they do not want to look like hypocrites who go to church without fully believing what the church says. I notice that the magi made no further appearances in Matthew’s gospel or anywhere else for that matter. Who knows if they became believers. Perhaps they were hypocrites! But I don’t think so.

I prefer to think of any of us who come looking for light as seekers, for that is what we are in these days after Christmas, you and I. There must be more to this story than the account of a birth of a child, and though we may not know what more there is, much less whether we can trust it, we come seeking, searching for a place that understands our preoccupations with material things like the gold of Caspar, our need for the things of the spirit, like the fragrant offering of Melchior, and our hope that someone can make sense of the death we must all come to know, symbolized in the embalming gift of Balthazzar.

Whether we think of it in just these words or not, we all desire someone or some cause worthy of the offering of our material lives; some commitment which will nourish our flagging spirits, someone worthy of our reverence and worship; and someone who brings good news to a bad news world.

The magi were the first of the non-Jewish world to recognize that Jesus would be a king like no other king. They came to worship him, and that gathering for worship continues to this very day right here in this place.

Paul wrote about gathering and its meaning for believers. As he began his letter to the Ephesians he said, With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Gathering up all things? All of them? Jesus will gather up even strangely bedecked astrologers from foreign places? Even things of earth as well as things of heaven, such as gold, incense, embalming material? Even you and me as we sit here this day, not too sure about the one who calls us together here, but sure of our need for some calling at least? Even if you only know enough of Christ to recognize in him some light, come to this gathering with other seekers again. Come and see and worship and find whether or not this will be the one who will one day give you and me the very Word of life. The story we track from this day throughout the rest of the year is nothing less than that story of Jesus, and how he came and what he did, and how he lives on through this gathering of his people.

Come to the gathering, Sunday after Sunday, and like the magi, bring your best to this table of our Lord, so that what we offer may in some way respond to the glory which God has offered us in Jesus Christ.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved