This is my sermon for this Sunday, preached at Living Christ Lutheran in Hanover Park, Illinois. The readings for the week, the second week in Christmas, are
- Isaiah 60:1-6
- Psalm 72: 1-14
- Ephesians 3: 1-12
- Matthew 2:1-12
I vamped a bit on this, and ad-libbed in a few places, like I always do. But there were no substantial changes.
* * *
I want you to imagine, for a moment, what today’s gospel reading looks and sounds like from the perspective of Herod the King of Judea.
Life is tough enough. People know you are really an illegitimate king, that you depend almost entirely upon the Roman army for your position. It was the Roman Senate that appointed you king of this place, and not any real claim to the throne you might have had. This isn’t new — the Romans are here because your ancestors — who were converts to Judaism, by the way — invited them in to help during a power struggle. But it all adds up to a sense people have, something everyone sees as Roman soldiers march through your kingdom, that you really don’t deserve to be king of Israel. That you’re not legitimate.
So how to create that sense of legitimacy? You build. That marvelous temple there in Jerusalem, with its huge stones? You had it built. You’ve spent money you didn’t have to build mighty and marvelous structures to show the people you rule — you are a legitimate king. You’re not just a puppet of some foreign conqueror. You are “The King of the Jews.” You lavishly provide cedar and stone and bronze and gold to make the temple, the house where God dwells in the midst of God’s people, shine and gleam in the noonday sun.
All to show you are legitimately The King of the Jews.
So, one day, three strange priests — Zoroastrian astrologers most likely — show up after a long journey from Iran asking around to see the King of Jews, “for we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
You’re thinking — wait … that’s me! I’m the King of the Jews.
You humor them, and you send them on their way and ask them to report back to you, but it’s clear — they didn’t come looking to worship you. They didn’t even know who you were, you who had spent so much to build this temple, who lavished so much on public works and buildings and projects and whatnot.
The star they saw. It wasn’t yours.
The light they saw. It wasn’t yours.
Notice, it isn’t Jewish priests looking for and finding in the heavens the sign that the King of the Jews has just been born. Or some mad-eyed prophet like Jeremiah or Elijah wandering the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming the Messiah is at hand. These three men are not Jews. They aren’t Israelites of any kind or flavor. They are foreigners, magicians, diviners who seek to tell the future from the stars and from signs and who worship something other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Now, Israel has a long history with Persia — it was the Persian king Cyrus who let the exiles return from Babylon and rebuild the temple after he conquered Babylon, and Jews did pretty well under Persian rule while it lasted. Isaiah refers to Cyrus as “the anointed one” — messiah — for the part he plays in redeeming the exiles.
But that was a long time ago, long before the words in our Gospel reading were written. And so far as we know, Israel’s faith had little influence on religion in the in ancient Iran.
“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose, and have come to worship him.”
It’s no accident it takes these strangers, these foreigners, these idolators, to see that star. To see something that King Herod or none of the priests of the temple can see. Or want to see. A sign that the promise of God,the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, is about to be fulfilled.
Isaiah saw it. Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Upon Jerusalem, upon the people of God. And the whole world, a world mired deep in darkness, unable to see, will suddenly find a light. That light, God’s light, will pierce the darkness, will shine brightly, and no darkness, no matter how pervasive, now matter how thick, no matter how impenetrable, will not defeat that light.
That light is the glory of the Lord. Arise, your light has come, and the glory of the lord has risen upon you.
We are not the light. As the people of God, we merely reflect the light. It shines upon us.
This bears mentioning because we, the church, are struggling these days with what it means to be church. We struggle with the loss of our influence, our power, our prestige — it is not respectable to be Christian anymore, I heard one Texas pastor lament some time ago. And it needs to be respectable to be Christian again. Congregations shrink, money gets scarce, buildings fall into disrepair, churches close, we turn upon each other, and it seems no one out in the world pays attention to us unless someone is saying something foolish, doing something scandalous, or breaking the law.
And many of us, especially those with memories of times when churches were full and pastors were listened to and when being a good American was the same thing as being good Christian — and almost everyone was — shake our heads and say, “If only it could be like it was.”
When people came to see us. To be like us. To be one of us. When you couldn’t get ahead in business or be prominent socially or even thought a decent, respectable person without without being in and belonging to church.
We lived for so long with this that we came to mistake ourselves for the light. “We have what the world needs,” reads a banner I have seen hanging in another Chicago-area Lutheran church. We are the bearers of the light. People come to us because of our buildings, because of our status, because of our power, our influence, because of our programs and our fellowship, because that’s how you become a good person, because it’s good to be associated with such things.
We are the light, we have said to ourselves, and we keep the darkness at bay. And so the world comes to us.
Or at lest it damn well ought to.
But those three Iranian astrologers bearing their gifts did not come to see Herod, or his temple, or his works, or his so-called glory. Or to hear the words of the law. They saw a star in the heavens, and it wasn’t him. They saw a light, and it wasn’t him.
There is a light in the world. And it isn’t us.
If anything, we who are the church have become part of the darkness, attempting to overcome the light. Or thinking somehow that we are the light, or that we own the light, that we can possess and control it, turn it on and off, dole it out in little bits, or not at all if we don’t like you or think you are somehow too sinful. Or simply not respectable enough.
We’re like Herod. Confused. Frightened. Angry. How can there be a King of the Jews that isn’t me? How can there be a light in the world that isn’t us?
Because there is a light in the world. And it isn’t us.
Those who see the light, who are drawn to it the way Isaiah describes, don’t come to see our works, our buildings, our power, our influence, our rules, or our glory. They come to see a child, God wrapped and swaddled in mortal flesh, weak and powerless. A child living in a hovel, playing in the dirt, wiping his runny nose on his sleeve. To worship THAT child! A child who will grow into a man who will live in our midst, who will eat with us, teach and heal and call us to follow.
And who will die with us. At our hands.
He is the light of the world. Not us.
Now, there’s good news here. Isaiah says that once we can get past our sense of self-importance, past our pride in the works of our hands, past our delusion that we are the light of the world, then we can see that light for what it is — that it is for us, the people of God! It rises on us, shines upon us, shows itself to us! It is the light of our salvation, of our redemption! It is our light, and it shines on upon us first.
But … Isaiah also tells us that the light will draw all manner of people. “The nations shall come to your light, and the kings to the brightness of your rising.” Not only will that light shine on us, but the world will see it as well. And all kinds of people — foreigners (that’s what the word “nations,” or גוי means here) with strange faiths and strange ideas, the dispossessed, the disreputable, people we would expect would never find their way to the light. Persian astrologers. Misfits and malcontents and nonbelievers of all kinds who will see in that light goodness and grace and reconciliation.
When we stop being Herod, when we stop depending on the Romans for our power and position, when we stop trying to subdue the darkness with our bare hands, or thinking we ourselves are the light, and simply let the light of God’s presence shine upon the earth, then we will see. We will truly see.
We will see there is a light in the world.