Updated: Apr 7, 2019
Lessons: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Later this afternoon, we’ll be taking down the Christmas tree at our house. We usually wait until today, Epiphany, the traditional Twelfth Day of Christmas or Twelfth Night. We’ll also put away the three nativity sets we put out every Advent. The three sets include different characters. All three sets have Mary and Joseph, of course, and the baby Jesus in the manger. We don’t have the shepherds for one set. Only the Playmobil set, the one our kids could touch and play with, has an angel, a donkey and a camel. All three sets have three kings carrying gifts, just as they do in every Christmas pageant I’ve ever seen, including ours here on Christmas Eve.
Our traditional notion of who belongs in the nativity scene comes from a blending of two different Christmas stories. In Luke’s Christmas story – the foundation for Christmas pageants everywhere – you’ll find Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, the stable, the sky filled with angels, the amazed shepherds – but no kings. Not one king. You have to go to Matthew’s gospel for the kings – well, except, as I told the kids, they aren’t kings, after all – they are magi – Persian astrologers from the east – and it doesn’t tell us there are three of them; only that they brought three gifts. And they don’t find Jesus in a stable; they find him in a house. Matthew doesn’t mention shepherds or angels or the crowded inn.
Part of Matthew’s inspiration for his Christmas story is our Isaiah text this morning. Walter Brueggemann writes that Isaiah 60 is a poem recited to Jews who had been in exile for a couple of generations, and returned to find the city of Jerusalem in ruins. In the middle of this mess, the poet Isaiah invites his discouraged community to look up, to hope, and to expect everything to change. Yes, he says, darkness will cover the earth. But there will be a shaft of light breaking through the gloom: “Rise, shine, for your light has come.” The poet anticipates that Jerusalem will prosper again. “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” So – that is where we get the kings.
Matthew’s magi have seen a special star, and read it as a sign that a new king has been born. They know about Isaiah 60, so they go to Jerusalem and take rare spices, gold and frankincense and myrrh, appropriate gifts to give to a king. But when the current king in Jerusalem, Herod the Great, hears about this, he’s not at all happy. Herod, a vassal of Rome, built his kingdom on political tribute and bloodshed. A new king would be a political rival, and as with his other rivals, including his own family members, Herod makes plans to eliminate him.
A jealous, murderous king, out to get Jesus from the getgo. Matthew tells a very different Christmas story; it makes Luke’s crowded inn seem pretty tame, doesn’t it? But then a strange thing happens. In his panic, Herod gathers the experts on the law and the prophets, and he asks them, “Just what does Isaiah 60 say? What is all this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh?” The scholars tell him: “You’re looking at the wrong story. And so are the magi who have just scared the pants off you by telling you they’re looking for a new king.”
So Herod asks the scholars, “OK, then, what’s the right story?” The king is pretty cranky and the scholars don’t want to be next on his hit list so they tell him. The right story is Micah 5:2 with a little bit of Second Samuel thrown in for good measure: “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.” Not Jerusalem, but Bethlehem.
Now, Micah was a prophet who was not impressed with wealth and power. He’s the one who said, “God has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” Micah wouldn’t be charmed by the high temple towers and great arenas that Herod built, nor with a thriving import-export business in luxury goods, nor most certainly, with kings who hold onto power by assassinating rivals. Micah imagined a different future for the people on the land; he imagined they’d be able to organize and resist rulers like Herod. Besides the “God has told you, O mortal,” verse, another of my very favorite verses in Scripture is in Micah: “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more…” You can find those words in Isaiah, too, but Micah takes it a step further: “…but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”
Their own vines, and their own fig trees – not the king’s, or the landowner’s, or the overseer’s. And no one shall make them afraid. No one shall make them afraid. Isaiah’s poetry is beautiful, but it’s Micah’s story that is about the well-being of the people, not the empire.
Herod tells the magi about Bethlehem, because he wants them to do his reconnaissance for him. The magi travel the nine miles from Jerusalem and Herod – from what is corrupt and deadly – to Bethlehem – to what is humble, loving, world-changing. These educated, well-traveled foreigners choose the other story, and reorient themselves and their lives, all their wealth and learning, around a baby with no credentials.
Matthew’s Christmas story is the story of two different human communities: Jerusalem, the big city center of the elite, and Bethlehem, with its rural peasants. In 2019, you don’t have to be from the country to be marginalized, and you don’t have to be from a big city to be arrogant. So for us, it’s less about urban verses rural, and more about world view. It is still a choice between two stories. A choice between the story that leads to death and darkness, and a story that leads to light and life.
Here we are at the beginning of a new year. 2019 begins with much darkness. Where do I even start? How about with the Camp Fire, the most destructive and deadly fire in California history, consuming the equivalent of one football field of acreage every second and killing 85 people – not to mention filling the air with poisonous smoke for hundreds of miles? And it’s not just wildfires that are setting records. Every year now we are seeing records being set for high temperatures, record-breaking droughts, Arctic sea ice melting and more species going extinct daily. The government shutdown is approaching the two-week mark with no end in sight. And now that the holidays are over, its effects are becoming more apparent – not just on federal workers’ salaries, but on everything from the low-income moms and their kids who may not get nutritional assistance to ongoing science experiments that could be spoiled to the backlog of immigration cases that’s getting bigger. This failure of leadership – and do not hear me put the blame on one person or one party; this is a systemic, cultural problem – but this failure of leadership is focused around the insistence that we need to spend billions of dollars to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border that pretty much everybody who knows anything about immigration patterns and history, as well as the economic back and forth across the border, thinks is a terrible idea. In furtherance of what can only be described as this fearful, racist immigration policy, families have been separated at the border with children – young children – still in detention centers, where two children have died.
Are you depressed yet? Because besides all this, we have our own, deep, personal concerns: illness, broken dreams, broken relationships, fears, loss. We are like the people in Isaiah’s time; we are like the people in Jesus’ time: we, too, yearn for the light to break through the darkness.
In searching for the light in our present darkness we can do things the way we’ve always done them as a nation, in our various communities and as individuals, or we can choose a different story. The political powers still claim to be our savior, our redeemer, and our lord. This is truly fake news in the worst sense of the word, and it is precisely how political power tempts us. It is also what the followers of Jesus reject, for if Jesus is Lord, Caesar and Herod are not.
I love how South African pastor and peace activist Allan Boesak rejects the bad and the fake news, and affirms the other story, the good news of God. Boesak writes,
It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss –
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction –
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.
It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever –
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world –
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers –
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have
It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.
So let us enter [this new year] in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ – the life of the world.
My friends, let us affirm, and live, this other story. This is the invitation of Christmas, and the invitation of Epiphany, the feast of light. This is the invitation of our faith, all year long. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen. And happy New Year.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 Walter Brueggemann, “Off by Nine Miles,” in The Christian Century, December 19-26, 2001, 15.
 Isaiah 60:3.
 The Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew, 259.
 Jona Lendering, “King Herod the Great,” http://www.livius.org/he-hg/herodians/herod_the_great02.html.
 Seasons of the Spirit, Adult Advent-Christmas-Epiphany, 2008-2009, p. 33
 2 Samuel 5:2; see Herman Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976), 67.
 Micah 6:8.
 Isaiah 2:4.
 Micah 4:3-4.
 Dahr Jamail, “Watching the World Burn: Truthout Readers Share Their Climate Stories,” January 4, 2019, Truthout, https://truthout.org/articles/watching-the-world-burn-truthout-readers-share-their-climate-stories/.
 Dakin, Andone, “From Weddings to Beer, the Surprising Impacts of the Government Shutdown,” January 4, 2019, CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/03/us/government-shutdown-impacts-trnd/index.html.
 Anna Núñez, “Immigration 101: Why the Border Wall is a Terrible Idea,” February 7, 2018, https://americasvoice.org/blog/immigration-101-border-wall-terrible-idea/.
 Dan Clendenin, “Advent Reset,” in Journeys with Jesus, December 2, 2018, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/the-eighth-day/current-column.
 Boesak’s original piece translates the Greek word Pistis (Πίστις) in John 3:16 as “believe.” I choose “trust” as the better translation, as it implies a life choice and reliance rather than the intellectual assent of mere “believing,” which tends to make “believers” insiders and “nonbelievers” outsiders. The important part of this verse is that God so loved the entire world.
 John 3:16.
 John 10:10.
 Isaiah 9:6-7.
 Matthew 28:18-20.
 Joel 2:28-29.
 John 4:23.
 Boesak’s credo was written for Advent. I have adapted it for the New Year.
 Allan Boesak, “Advent Credo,” reprinted by Dan Clendenin, ibid.; adapted from a prayer by Allan Boesak which was originally published in “Gathered for Life: Official Report, VI Assembly, World Council of Churches,” ed. David Gill (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1983).