Rev. Rainey Dankel | Sermon 1.3.21
Some years ago I was visiting the Episcopal students’ center at Duke University. A large poster there had this pronouncement: “He came to take away your sins, not your mind.” At a place where learning is valued, the chaplain wanted to emphasize that believing in Jesus did not require giving up one’s intellectual capacities. Many of the students had come from religious traditions based in literal readings of the Bible, where questions were not encouraged, and faith was in conflict with historical or scientific understandings. When confronted with the apparent inconsistencies of such approaches, many students found themselves alienated from their churches and looking for a different approach.
The story of the wise men in today’s Gospel is a story that honors seekers. It is one of many stories that make up the Christmas narrative, a beautiful collection of characters and images that offer us a variety of ways of coming to Jesus. The wisdom here is that really seeing Jesus– recognizing and acknowledging the coming of Christ–is a gradual process. We are not presented with one magic moment and given only one opportunity to see Jesus and accept him or not. It’s not that simple. We are given multiple glimpses and therefore many moments of seeing, from different angles.
The process of coming to faith begins with Mary and Joseph, the earthly parents of Jesus, and Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist. Angels take up the chorus and invite the shepherds to come and see. In Luke we read that they tell others, praising God for all that they had seen, as they return to their homes. In Matthew, we read of the magi—wise men—who come from far away also hoping to see Jesus. They consult with King Herod, who talks to his advisors. The stars and the prophecies seem to converge and point to a miraculous birth. The magi find the child and offer their tributes. But they ignore Herod’s “request” that they tell him where to find the child. They recognize that Herod’s interest in the child is not based in devotion but in jealousy and deceit. Herod doesn’t want to see Jesus—and he doesn’t want anyone else to see Jesus.
In these stories, different people, with different backgrounds and life stories, are drawn towards the Christ Child. They receive messages and summons; they respond faithfully in their own ways. They learn to see Jesus in ways consistent with their own lives, and they are radically changed by their encounters. The shepherds see Jesus in an animal stall, with a manger for a bed. These are items from their own experience, which are made holy by a miraculous birth. The magi are used to studying the stars for significance in human lives. They follow an especially bright star and it leads them to see Jesus in “a house.” They respond with gifts from their own culture—valuable spices and minerals, signs of their own wealth and their desire to honor this special baby.
The stories of Christmas draw us in, with our own individual stories and lives, and encourage us to come to see “just as we are,” that is, in ways consistent with our culture, education, resources, and experiences. Each of us can learn to see Jesus. All are welcome.
So what is particularly significant in the narrative of the Magi? I’d like to emphasize two points.
The first is that the magi are not Jews. They are Gentiles—people from the east—probably Persian, followers of Zoroaster. By including these people in the birth narratives, Matthew’s story makes clear from the beginning of Jesus’ life that God is expanding the idea of chosen people. Gentiles are invited to see Jesus from his very birth. He is to be a different kind of king, someone who will “rule over” all peoples.
Jeremiah offers a similar picture of salvation as he speaks to the returning exiles who will rebuild Jerusalem. God’s light is dawning in this restoration. But unlike the first Temple in Jerusalem, now “all nations” will come to this light. People from far and near are to be part of the salvation found in the New Jerusalem. Young and old will rejoice as they come home. The scattered sheep will be brought together. Jeremiah’s theme of inclusiveness is grasped by the writers of the New Testament, and the images of light, celebration, and journeying home become part of the Christmas story.
So the first message I hear in this passage is that God is expanding our understanding of what it means to be God’s chosen people. God is appearing to peoples from all lands, from different ethnic groups, those of varying status. All are welcomed to come and see the light of Christ, born as a human child and bringing God’s love and power in human flesh.
The second point is that the magi are the scientists of their day. They studied the stars, probably in a combination of what we would call astrology and astronomy. The distinction between “magic” and “science” would not have been as meaningful to them, as it is for us. The point is that these were people of study, men who devoted their lives to understanding the mysteries of the world around them, including the lights in the heavens that we now call planets, stars, and other celestial bodies. And their studies lead them to travel to look for Jesus.
Educated, thoughtful people are welcomed to Jesus’ birth. They are not required to give up their wisdom, their knowledge, in coming to see Jesus. They are rewarded in their quest, guided by the star they have followed, by an experience of worship of Christ. They see Jesus in royal terms, as King of Wisdom, as ruler of their searching of the skies. In the Epiphany story, the scientists of the day are invited to see Jesus, and they respond in adoration. They find the goal of their search in this encounter.
This story helps us get beyond the supposed opposition of science and religion. Certainly, we have seen disastrous effects when we try to drive a wedge between using our minds to understand God’s world and using our hearts to worship God. Rejecting the results of scientific endeavor as incompatible with faith in God is a backward step that fails to honor God’s wisdom in creation. Probing the mysteries of the universe can increase our ability to see Jesus, just as it did for the magi. We are not required to turn away from God in order to embrace the truths that science can offer.
Perhaps you know the work of John Polkinghorne, a physicist and Anglican priest, who has written extensively on the interrelation of science and religion. I especially like a little book called Testing Scripture, subtitled “A Scientist Explores the Bible”. The work is specifically designed for laypersons and avoids some of the theological and scientific details that would be unfamiliar to the general reader. He speaks clearly about issues we encounter in studying the Bible and affirms a non-fundamentalist reading of the Bible as opening up a deeper understanding of God and God’s creation for modern people.
You don’t have to look far to see the terrible consequences of rejecting science as incompatible with religious faith. Working to slow down and then reverse the environmental disaster of climate change is completely compatible with our understanding of God’s loving purposes in Creation. For people of faith to continue our selfish patterns of exploitation of the earth is a sinful rejection of our role as stewards of God’s handiwork, a clear message of the Bible.
Even closer to home are the claims of some that to accept the science of the pandemic and take steps to keep each other safe are signs that we do not trust God. “I trust Jesus to keep me safe from the virus,” one woman is quoted as saying. Her pastor, who also runs a senior living facility in Baltimore replies, “Yes, I trust Jesus too, and I wear my seat-belt.” Rejecting the gifts of science, especially in the creation of life-saving vaccines, is a rejection of the God-given abilities we have to work together with God for healing, through all the means at hand—prayer, support, treatments, and vaccination. It is especially important that faith communities work to break down barriers to life-saving measures, barriers that often result from inequality in access to medical care and sometimes outright deception, as in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments from 1932-1972. Here in Richmond, Dr. Robert Winn, director of the Massey Cancer Center at VCU Medical and a Black man, understands such mistrust and is working to cross the boundaries of race and culture to assure equal access to medical care. He is joining with local Black pastors in a weekly conference call entitled “Facts and Faith Friday.” They begin each meeting with prayer.
The Bible is not a book of science. But it is a book for scientists. Just as it is a book for shepherds and homemakers and carpenters and kings. It is a record of experiences—people and events–through which God’s will is revealed. It is a record of encounters, through the people of Israel, the early church and most especially through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, with the divine will of the Creator and Redeemer. We are also invited into this encounter and are assured through their examples that we too can see Jesus.
Christmas is good news because it signals a continuing breaking down of barriers that separate people from an encounter with God. All people—Jews and Gentiles—native-born and immigrants—of all complexions and languages—from near and far—educated and illiterate—young and old—on foot and on camel–are invited to see the Christ Child.
May we find our place in this invitation. And may we learn to extend it to all people. For we all need to see Jesus. And the newborn child is waiting for you.