Monday, January 7, 2008

Reflection on Matthew 2:1-12

After the magi had found the Christ child and worshiped him, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and they left for their own country taking another “way.” Your bibles say “road,” which is fine, but it is literally “way.” They leave taking a way different from how they came. Of everything in this text, this has grasped my attention. I’m not sure what to make of it or what to say about it, but it has at least got my to thinking about how I get to Christ and what I can expect to happen when I leave.

How did you get here today? What route did you take to make it to the worship of Christ this morning? I took the route I always do, highway 220 north. Sure I could take other ways to get up here. I could swing over the mountain into Wyalusing and take 6 up. I could even drive through the gamelands over to the back side of Kellogg Mountain and take 414 into Monroeton and on up to church. But, I don’t. I take my usual path to come to worship. The reasons are obvious. Highway 220 is a straight shot. It is easier. Compared to the gamelands road with a huge “no winter maintenance” sign at its entrance, I consider it slightly more safe. And, frankly, it is what I am used to. It is the best way. In fact, I am certain that God, in God’s divine providence and foresight, had 220 built just so that I could make it up to worship from my home on Sunday mornings. And, I dare you to prove me wrong. What route did you take to make it to the worship of Christ this morning?

The magi took their usual route to find the Christ child. They looked up into the pin light speckled heavens and discerned from the alignment of the stars that a king had been born. And so, they headed off to the capitol city of Jerusalem to find the newborn king. Sounds like a grand quest doesn’t it? The magi sound so noble, don’t they? It is very easy to get to wrong idea here about these magi. Our translation of the Bible calls them “wise men” and others even call them kings. I really don’t want to burst the bubble of any of us who played a king in the Christmas pageant of our childhood; I was the one who gave the gift of frankincense by the way; but these men would have been considered anything but wise and certainly not kings by the first Christians reading this story. These magi were astronomers…astrologers really who looked to the alignment of the stars to guide their lives. They were Deon Warwick with robes. I know I am just about to ruin Christmas and Epiphany for you for the rest of your life, but when you read “wise men” or “king” or “magi” in the future, think of the spaced out, crystal laden, virgo from college who couldn’t wait to get you into her dorm room to discover your moons and houses and tell you what the stars say about your future.

“Here, let me see your hand…yep…oh…hehe…now let me look on page 382 of my astrology guide. Here it is! You will be married to a black haired, brown eyed beauty and have five children. Isn’t that super?”

“Really, I will? That kind of describes you.”

“Yea! You do want to go out with me!”

O.K., when we think magi, that’s who we are thinking about. That kind of person is the last person I would expect to find God and actually lead me to God. In fact, the magi do get lost. Big surprise there. They assume the new king will be found in the palace, and that’s where they go first. It is the priests and scribes in Jerusalem, who know the scriptures well, who are able to direct the not-so-wise men to Bethlehem; the correct place for the birth of the Messiah. And with that correction, the bumbling fortunetellers are led by God’s star to the Christ child.

My point here is that we shouldn’t be impressed by the arrival of these spaced out yahoos and their gold, frankincense, and myrrh (elements of their fortunetelling trade.) What we should be impressed by, and what continually gets overlooked if we make too much of these guys, is that God uses their misguided ways to help them find the road to Christ. They don’t have to learn anything new in order for Christ to be revealed to them. They don’t have to change anything about themselves in order to find their savior. God uses their usual road, the road they know well, to lead them to the Christ child. Maybe, all roads can lead to God. But, not all roads lead away from God. Most are one-way streets.

Notice that the magi leave by a different “way.” Never forget that the early Christians were not called Christians. They were called people of “the way.” Only after the magi discovered Christ did they find “the way;” a different way. They did not leave the same as they came. How will you leave today? Will you take the usual path back home, or will Christ direct you down a different way?

Here is Robert Frost’s famous reflection on finding a different way:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

While in seminary I met a woman who had lost her 16 year old daughter at the hands of her daughter’s boyfriend. Her daughter’s murder sent her in search of God. She wanted a God of justice. She wanted a God who would stand up for her daughter’s death. She wanted a God who would comfort her through her pain. With words such as “justice is mine, says the Lord,” she found a road that led her into a relationship with Christ. But, the road she left by was surprising. The woman was in our class to talk to us about forgiveness and reconciliation. Christ had led her to walk the hard and amazing path of forgiving her daughter’s murdering boyfriend, Lance, and helping Lance recover his parentless, destroyed life. “Someone needs to help raise him into a good person,” she said with mercy and tears glinting in her eyes.

This was certainly the road less traveled. This was certainly not the way she took to find Christ. But, as Christ usually does, he sent her down a different way. And it has made all the difference. How did you come today? Was it your usual way? What way will God send you as you leave?

Frost, Robert, Road Not Taken, Copyright © 1962, 1967, 1970 by Leslie Frost Ballantine.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Reflection on Luke 2:1-20

The people who have walked in the darkness have seen a great light, and that light is Christ the Lord! Christ the Lord, God come down to us, to be a human like us so that we might hear and see how God feels about us in words and ways that we as humans can understand. We are not gods after-all, and not being gods, I think it is safe to say that none of us inherently understands the ways of the Lord.

My cat Kit also is not a god, though being a cat she surely thinks that she is. That is not quite true; with most cats that would be the case, but Kit, our small, grey, obedient, striped cat does not see herself as a God. My wife and I are her gods. We send manna from the heavens that magically makes its way out of the Walmart Special Kitty Bag into her dish. We send rain down into her water dish and her cup overfloweth; providing for her thirst. We have led her to soft areas through the house, my bed, my chair, my blanket…we have led her to the soft pastures of our blankets and furniture and she is given the chance to relax and restore her kitty soul.

I say “given the chance” because I’m not sure how completely she is able to restore her kitty soul. You see, no matter how much I show her love by feeding her, giving her water, and petting her, she still fears me. She fears my feet in particular. Apparently, some other god that was given the opportunity to take care of this little creature did so with an iron foot. She had obviously been punished in the past by heavy feet and no matter how much love I give her today, she is still fearful that she will be punished instead of loved.

What if I could become a cat like her? What if I could take on the flesh of a cat and, in a cat sort of way, tell her that I am not that punishing god that she fears, instead I am a loving god that forgives and pets? I would surely need to come as a submissive, servant cat; one who turns over and exposes the belly, and takes on the job of cleaning her feet and ears and face. I could not come as the king of the cats, or she would simply continue to fear me. I would probably have to hang out with other downtrodden cats so that she could gain my trust and finally see, in that cat sort of way, that I can love a hurt and broken cat such as her. I wonder what God would do to prove to us that we are special and loved, even though we are broken?

A story comes to mind; one whose familiar old ring hums with new resonance this night. It’s a story about a loving God who wants nothing more than to tell each person that they are still loved. These are people who were personally molded and shaped by God, but who now have some scratches and chunks broken out because of someone else’s or their own carelessness. In an attempt to deliver this message, this God passes over Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinias and the palaces in which they live, and settles instead in the little town of Bethlehem, in a cattle stall, as a baby. This baby will not grow up to be a great, rich, and powerful king. Instead, this baby will be a servant. He will wash the feet of those he loves. He will serve them while in pain and heal their wounds. He will feed them with a feast of love that will nourish and bring life to long hurt and hopeless souls. And, maybe, just maybe, when those broken people come into contact with him, they will finally believe that God is loving all the time. God is not the one who broke and hurt them in the first place. Perhaps, all creation will finally see and understand that God is loving all the time. In the story, it is hoped that such knowledge of great love will have a profound effect.

Will it work? I don’t know. But, the future looks good. Three smelly, dirty, despised shepherds have felt welcome enough to enter into the stable and visit this God as a child. They have been seen coming from the stable with joy on their lips and praises of God on their mouths. Maybe, just maybe God’s plan is working and broken, hurt sinners such as themselves are being forgiven and healed. Maybe, just maybe, when you go to the Lord's Supper and Christ comes to you in the humblest of meals, bread and wine, and you hear those most precious and loving of words “broken and shed for you,” you too will leave with joy on your once broken lips and praises on your newly restored mouth.

Come to think of it, as a pastor on Christmas Eve who is telling the story of Christ coimg down to be with broken and dirty people, I’m dressed a little too nice. This nice white alb with all of its intricate designs seems a little too rich and great doesn't it? Maybe I need to reconsider how I present myself for Christ’s sake and for the sake of those who cannot dress so nice. Sometimes I wonder if the bearers of the Christmas story dress too nice. It would be a tragedy if Christ’s followers made themselves appear better than the one born in a stable and surrounded by smelly scoundrels. God chose to come as one of the lowest, so that the lowest might hear the good news of God’s love. Who am I to question God?