Lauren J. McFeaters
January 1, 2017
Late last week, before Christmas, I left the office early one afternoon to sneak over to Cranbury to catch an evening worship service. In the blur and grief that has been a part of our season I really needed the quiet of a prayer and the calm of sacrament and song. I needed to catch my breath so I could be at my best for Christmas Eve and beyond.
I found a pew, snuggled in, and let the service wash over me. Candles were lit. The communion table laid with bread and cup. It was composed and meaningful, just the balm my soul needed.
The pastor rose to pulpit and offered words from Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
And before she could say another word, a brass band outside the church door broke into a lively rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The pastor proclaimed, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” And the brass answered, “…had a very shiny nose.”
“And he shall be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God… and if you ever saw it… Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…you would even say it glowed…”
I am not kidding. Do we laugh or cry? The scripture and Santa Carol were in perfect rhythm. And then silence. The brass band stopped and all was quiet. I thought, I just love small town life, someone had already rushed outside and alerted their friends in the band that worship had begun, so move farther down Main Street.
Again the pastor read Scripture: And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” And as if on cue, right outside the door, the brass – which had gone NOWHERE – struck up a blaring rendition of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.”
“Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, lean your ear this way… And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them… Don’t you tell a single soul, what I’m going to say. Christmas Eve is coming soon, now you dear old man… Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people… Whisper what you’ll bring to me. Tell me if you can… For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
I thought, we’re doomed! The preacher is next and he’ll get to the heights of the proclamation: “Christ is born for THIS!” and we’ll hear, “Children laughing, people passing, This is Santa’s big scene, and above all the bustle you hear – silver bells, silver bells…” Then the Lord’s Supper. The pastor will break the bread, pour the cup, and proclaim, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and we’ll be clobbered by “jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…”
I had been waiting all week to sit quietly in a sanctuary to sing and pray and listen, to tranquilly soak it all up, to cocoon myself in the warmth and goodness of it all. And instead, the outside world had come crashing in. Oh, brother!
And I sat there feeling mighty irritated and grumpy. God was giving me an Epiphany of my own. What an idiot I am, I thought. What a juxtaposition God has given, what a contrast. As if I could shut out such a festive and joyous brass band, as if I should want the world to remain outside the doors of the church (as if it could), as if worshiping God is a thing of quiet and calm, passively soaking it up rather than singing boldly of a birth in the stable that was filled brass and angel choirs, shepherds and animals, all noisily proclaiming “the great joy, which shall be to all people.”
What an epiphany God gives us! What a revealing God hands us when the world comes to church with treasures of trumpet and tuba and trombone colliding into carols and candlelight, reminding us that the world doesn’t come crashing in on Christmas, but Jesus Christ comes crashing into the world. It’s Epiphany: the jolting manifestation of the Word made flesh, the smashing revelation of a child come to save, the impact of discovery that the world belongs, not to ourselves, but to the Lord of the Manger.
All that we know of this certain star[i] that once hovered above the Christ Child is that God led us there by three wise men, traveling desert ambassadors, seekers and stargazers, gentile Magi, emissaries carrying gifts.[ii] “And they were staggered with joy… they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”
So who are these Wise Men? We know them as intelligent and discerning, persevering and adventurous. But it is oral tradition and not scripture that has given them the title of Three Kings, has chosen their number as three, and has given them names and kingdoms: Balthasar from Arabia, Caspar from India, and Melchior from Persia. We don’t even know that they were men. But whatever their number or identity, most important to our Gospel lesson is that the wise men are Gentiles. The first seekers and travelers to find the holy child are those outside of the covenant. All people shall see it together.
And yet for all their wisdom, they are of course not mind-readers. The wise men possess no special knowledge that allows them to travel directly to Bethlehem. And they’re naive. Dealing with stars and charts, their eyes on the world above them, they have not understood the likes of Herod – the very one who would use their plotting of the stars to plot a death.[iii]
“Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Gold – a gift for a King, precious and costly.
Frankincense – a gift for a priest to use in the temple, so sweet-smelling that it provides a sense of mystery and holiness.
Myrrh – a gift for one who is to die, a burial spice, a fragrance used to embalm.
And there it is, God’s gift, tucked into countess nativities and pageants. Right there, laid before us, as the Magi stretch out their gifts, lies the true gift himself: our King, our Priest, our Salvation. And like it or not, Christmas or not, he heads, even now, to Calvary. Due north, up the road, and over the hill.
It’s a sobering message, this epiphany. There seems to be no respite for the Christian, but:
- Always that constant foretaste of the passion;
- Always his sacrifice at the center of our belief;
- Always being his witness for those who need our compassion and care;
- Always holding the world to our hearts – and especially today for those in Istanbul, Baghdad, Syria, and South Sudan.
- Always recognizing that the Christian life is not birthed in sweet gentleness. It is exhilarating and stirring, yes. Sweet and mild, no.
And then we look at his table. And with the Wise Men we are staggered by joy. This is Christ’s treasure.
He lays before us gifts of hope and remembrance and gratitude.
That the body broken and the blood poured out announce, in the face of the Nativity, in the face of the world crashing in, in the face of any Herod the world can produce:
“For unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given.”[iv]
Come. His table is set.
[i] This line and the sermon title come from Robert Browning’s poem entitled “My Star.”
All that I know
Of a certain star,
Is, it can throw
(Like the angled spar)
Now a dart of red,
Now a dart of blue,
Till my friends have said
They would fain see, too,
My star that dartles the red and the blue!
Then it stops like a bird; like a flower, hangs furled:
They must solace themselves with the Saturn above it.
What matter to me if their star is a world?
Mine has opened its soul to me; therefore I love it.
[ii]. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 10NT.
[iii]. John Indermark. Setting the Christmas Stage: Readings for the Advent Season. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2001, 68-70.
[iv]. Inspired and adapted from a poem by Ann Weems, “The Christmas Spirit,” in Kneeling in Bethlehem. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1987, 51.
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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