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Sermon: The Widest Horizons

December 24, 2010

Matthew 2:1-12

The great thing about Christmas is that we’re all so much more magnanimous during the season.  There are certainly those grouchy moments in heavy holiday traffic or in crowded malls, but more often than not I truly feel a more generous, open and caring spirit, even though most of the year I am a curmudgeon.  I just can’t help myself.  I love everybody around Christmas time—even the people I can’t stand.  It happens to a lot of us.

Then, Epiphany rolls around, and it is time to put the decorations away, and by the middle of January I am back to my old grouchy self.  I try to resist.  I try to keep Christmas in my heart, but, darn it, I’m just not a people person.  But as I said on Christmas Eve, the Christmas event is part of God’s self-revelation.  Christmas tells us who God is, and it turns out that God is full of the Christmas spirit all the time—with everybody.  God is a people person.  So even if I have a hard time holding on to the peace, love and joy of Christmas, it is in God’s character to love us with the same overwhelming generosity all year that we experience during the Christmas season.  That’s pretty good news.

This is not a new idea.  God did not suddenly decide to become generous around the time Jesus was born.  God’s character did not change on that first Christmas, but the birth of Jesus Christ does allow us to experience the goodness of God in a new way.

One of the helpful insights of Christmas comes from the gospel according to Matthew.  Matthew’s gospel is the only place we read about these magi, these astrologers, these wise men from the East.  (I mention this fact every year, but it bears repeating yet again: despite the fact that our beloved hymn calls them “three kings,” Matthew did not tell us how many wise men there were, and he never called them kings.)  I believe the magi are important because they clue us in to how marvelously boundless is the love and generosity of God that is so evident in the Christmas story.

But again, Christmas is not the beginning of God’s love.  That story starts with the words, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).  God has been in love with Creation since the moment light first blazed out of nothingness.  God has been generous to humanity from the time that God shared with the first human beings everything they needed to thrive.  For Christians, the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus represents the pinnacle of God’s love for Creation, but not the beginning of that love.

Not only is the love of God longer lasting than my own Christmas love of humanity, which extends only long enough for me to get the dry-as-kindling Christmas tree out to the curb, God’s love is much wider, too.  God’s love embraces all that mess of humanity out there, so much so that in God’s love, no one is a stranger.  In God’s love, no one is a guest.  Every one is at home.  Those wise men from the East are signs to us of the wideness of God’s love.

The story of the Old Testament is primarily the story of God’s love for and journey with the Chosen One, the Jewish people.  It is their history.  But Matthew saw in it hints that the story is also for us.  One of the earliest hints is when God sent Abraham off to find a new home.  God promised Abraham that he and his offspring would bless “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).  The prophets, too, spoke of a restored Israel and Jerusalem as a true light to the entire world.  The most well known verses come from Isaiah, and we read them every Christmas:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.  Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.  (Isaiah 60:1-3)

This text, that promises that nations and kings will recognize God’s reign, may have been the inspiration for the idea that these wise men were really kings.  Yet the point is that the story of God’s love for the people of Israel also contains clues that God’s love is much wider than any of us might imagine.

As we read Matthew more carefully in the coming year, we will see how this author believes that one main purpose of the mission of Jesus Christ is to send the Good News far out into the world, well beyond the borders of Palestine.  God loves Israel, but God also loves other people on other shores.  This is part of the message of the magi.

Though there is not full agreement, many scholars believe Matthew intends for us to see that the magi were not Jewish, that they came from that wider gentile world as prophesied by Isaiah.  The star was a sign to them that they, too, are included in God’s wide circle of love, and it drew them into the heart of love, where they discovered and worshiped the child king.  They knelt down before him, gave him gifts, and paid him homage before they returned home by another way.  Perhaps they were the first evangelists of Jesus Christ, carrying God’s love with them to unknown places.

In any case, these magi, astrologers from another land, would never have been expected to know about let alone recognize the Messiah of Israel.  Yet God communicated to them through the star.  God led them on a journey of faith across the desert.  God invited them to the manger, where God’s most powerful self-expression of love for the world lay.  Foreigners, strangers, magicians.  God loved them from the beginning of time, too.

We have a manger here.  Everyone is welcome to drink in the glory of God’s love at this manger, too.  We have a cross.  Everyone is welcome to come in and kneel at the foot of this symbol of God’s great love.  And, perhaps most important of all, we have a table.  You are all welcome at this table to share a simple meal of bread and wine, this meal that reminds us that Jesus Christ was sent by God for us, and ironically, that baby in a manger was born not only to live, but also to die, so that we might truly live.  Whether you are Herod in his palace or a shepherd in a field or a wise man from the East, this baby was born for you.

It is hard to remain a curmudgeon after one has experienced that kind of love.

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