see this site Jan. 5, 2019

Matthew 2:1-12


I’m not sure if this is a trend among UCC clergy or not, but I’ve heard it twice recently as if it were a matter of fact: it’s the notion that Jesus was a teacher and his sole intent was to be a teacher.  This was his calling and his passion.  His role and ministry beyond teaching was the result of choices he made in response to the overwhelming tide of human need that emerged around him, so unintentionally he became a healer, a miracle worker, and ultimately even a dying savior.  Those roles emerged less from design than from circumstance, kind of taking him over when what he really wanted was to hold class.

Maybe this interpretation is a way of reclaiming the humanity of Jesus from a perceived imbalance in that “fully divine” “fully human” relationship of Christian orthodoxy.  Maybe it’s a way of making Jesus more believable and therefore more real.  I’m not sure, but what I know it that it is not what those closest to Jesus came to understand about him.  And, it is not what the biblical authors had to say about him.  Certainly, it’s not true of Paul who referred to Jesus as the “image of the invisible God.”  It’s not true of John whose birth narrative starts at the very beginning of time, saying of Jesus, “The Word was with God and the Word was God.”  It’s not true for Matthew and Luke who give him the Messianic title, “Son of Man.”  And, it’s not true for Mark, the oldest and most “human” of the gospels, which begins and ends with the proclamation that “this man is God’s son.”

So, to say that Jesus was a teacher and only a reluctant Savior is biblically suspect, but what I’m really concerned about is how this more manageable Jesus, this more human Jesus, this more “realistic” Jesus, is a bit too convenient for a culture and even a church that struggles to witness and receive God’s divine action in the world.  When divine encounter no longer matters to most people, when we can flourish on our own, when our visions of the good life and our visions of God no longer coincide, then a misunderstood teacher-Jesus upon whom divinity is heaped will only encourage our blurred sight and our sense that God isn’t to be found.

What I’m saying is, now is not the time to take the mystical from our faith.  The very first confessions of the Christian faith, the ones closest to the life of Christ, were that “somehow, God was in the one we call Jesus from beginning to end, and that, equally, the one we call Jesus was, from beginning to end, in God.”[1]  This is why Matthew writes his gospel and this is why he tells us of wise men from the east (astrologers likely from Babylon) who go to great lengths to make their way to the manger.  They didn’t come because a new teacher was born.  They came because a new king, a new kind of king, a king that is of God had come into the world.

Interestingly, they learned the news of his birth by looking to the stars, to places where insiders wouldn’t have thought to look.  And, upon finding him, despite the strained circumstances of his scandalous birth and humble setting, these wise men still have the eyes to see that the child before them is worthy of the lavish gifts they’ve brought with them.  That’s what speaks to me here.  God came into the world and they were the ones who knew how to see.  They were the ones who had the epiphany.

Would the world now say the same about us?  Would the world say the same about The Church?  Are we the ones who know how to see?

A thought keeps coming to my mind.  Do you know that 9 out of 10 times when I ask people where they find God most powerfully, most intimately, most beautifully, the answer is the same?  They find God in nature.  In fact, much of my sabbatical this summer is designed with reality in mind.  God comes, and the beauty of nature is often our leans.  But, when we think of pollution and environmental degradation do we realize that it’s ultimately a spiritual issue?  It’s posed as an economic issue more often, and any threat to our wallets is a potent threat.  So, care for creation becomes more of a burden than an investment in our ability to see God in our midst.  There’s a snowballing effect to this sort of situation.  The more we make decisions that deaden our capacities to perceive divine presence, the less real God feels, and the less inclined we are to make different sorts of decisions in the future.

Are we a people, like the wise men, capable of epiphanies?  I hope so.  It is why in Advent I had us all sharing in worship around the themes of hope, faith, joy, and love.  It was great to hear from our brave speakers, but just as important were the unplanned, spontaneous reflections that we offered from the pews in response.  The more we share with one another, the more we say the words and hear them from others, the more possible it becomes for us to perceive and claim the realty of God’s life in our lives.  And, when we can do that life becomes sacred.

Incidentally, this is why our ministry with Nourish Bridgeport is so important for us.  I’m remembering the burst of unrestrained excitement that exploded from the kids as Santa made his way into that ESL room last month.  Yes, it was a group of kids who were happy to see Santa.  But, that’s not all it was.  What I felt was liberated energy, and what I saw was a spirit of joy breathing through those kids not because Santa had come but because he had come into a place that is sacred to them, a place that tells them they are sacred.  That joy was a flash of the Holy Spirit who’s long been working but could no longer be held in.

I saw the same Spirit but in a more intimate moment when Pastor Sara lifted a small boy from the stage in her busy efforts to ready the place for the next family.  But, she didn’t just put him down.  She paused and she smiled at him as she allowed the chaos around her to wait.  And, she had a little private conversation with him.  “You know you’re my buddy,” she said.  He smiled, right at home in her arms.  I couldn’t hear the rest of what she said, and I kind of felt like it wasn’t my business to listen in.  But, what I saw was an intimacy that wouldn’t have been except for the ministry that we are a part of.  What I saw was the grace that was beyond that moment, a grace from God that’s getting to us all if we let it.

It’s occurring to me more and more that we wont let it unless that becomes our mission.  More and more I’m convinced that the church’s mission in this world of blurred vision is to make us into people who are capable of epiphanies, capable of spotting divine action, and capable of taking part in it.  Wouldn’t that be something to offer the world?!


[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, page 108.