Sermon “The Journey Begins”
I have a Christmas Crèche collection. It began with one from Peru that was a gift to me from a friend that teaches Political Science at the University. That was the beginning, so with each country Lynda and I visited there were only two items I looked for: a new golf hat and a Christmas Crèche.
They are from from Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, an Aboriginal Nativity and one from Bethlehem complete with the wall.
They all have Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Angels, Shepherds and an assortment of animals: sheep, cows, a donkey, a lama, a bison and a wolf—depends on which country it came from.
I have just finished reading Peter Wohlleben new book, The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion – Surprising observations of a hidden World. So, I began to wonder about the animal’s reaction to Mary and Joseph entering the manger, the birth of the child, the angels singing, the arrival of the shepherds and the gift bearing visitors from the east.
For sure the lamb would see a brother in the manger, for it was the lamb of God come to take away the sins of the world. The donkey would know that the child he sees will be carried by his offspring during the fateful journey into Jerusalem. The bison would say, “what are you thinking David, bison don’t live in Israel, read your Bible.” So, knowing that if a bison ever speaks to you, you had better listen. I cracked open the Bible and reread the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, to discover what animals I could use in this sermon. What their reactions were.
Now, assuming that you all know these passages well, we are going to have a test. I will name all the possible animals and if you believe that they were there on that holy night, raise your hand.
First, animal: a lamb. Second: a cow. Third: a donkey. Fourth: camels. Fifth: a dove. Sixth: Rudolph the red nosed reindeer. Seventh: none of the above. If you guessed none of the above, you are correct. There is not a single mention of any animals in the Biblical birth narratives.
So, why do you we think they are there. It is because of the Christmas songs we sing. So, we are now going to have the second test. What animals are in the songs we sing? Not to worry this is an open book exam.
First, is there a duo “ox and ass” in the songs? Yes, in Voices United 35, 54 and 74. Good Christian Friends Rejoice, Unto Us is Born and What Child is This.
Second, is there a cow. Yes, number 69, “Away in a Manger.”
Third, how about the donkey. Yes, in number 56, “Jesus our Brother” and here not only the donkey, but also a cow, a sheep and a dove; each offering a gift to the baby.
Now if you actually read the words, to this hymn it maybe (and should be) that the presence of a lamb or numerous sheep are not there. Nor, should they be in spite of every Christmas Nativity display where the lambs are gathered round. Both the Bible and Songs note that the shepherds rushed to Bethlehem and left they flocks in the fields abiding.
No lambs, no animals. So, much for that sermon idea.
Our gospel reading this morning is about strange gift bearing visitors from the east who followed a star to Bethlehem.
You may be aware that some people have spent a great deal of time attempting to calculate the exact date of the birth of Jesus by figuring out what the star it might have been that guided them to Bethlehem. What they fail to consider is that this is not a historical event. It is a story Matthew created to make a theological point.
Pause here a moment and consider another story. Once there was a garden in the east, a man and a woman, and a snake that through a tempting argument got here to eat from the fruit of the forbidden tree. Now, you know that this is a story and you know that snakes don’t talk. But that doesn’t matter, what is important is what the snake said.
John Dominic Crossan, in a lecture I attended, said, “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
So, the story of the “Three Wise Men” is a story; but an important story so that we are prepared to know beforehand that the way Jesus is what should rule our lives.
So, the story should be told and it has been in many different forms. In the Bible, it does not say there were three wise men, there gifts, but no number of wise men is mentioned. But it makes for a great song, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”.
Then there is the story of the Fourth Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke.
A priest of the Magi named Artaban, one of the Medes from Persia. Like the other Magi, he sees signs in the heavens proclaiming that a King had been born among the Jews. Like them, he sets out to see the newborn ruler, carrying treasures to give as gifts to the child – a sapphire, a ruby, and a “pearl of great price”. However, he stops along the way to help a dying man, which makes him late to meet with the caravan of the other three wise men. Because he missed the caravan, and he can’t cross the desert with only a horse, he is forced to sell one of his treasures in order to buy the camels and supplies necessary for the trip. He then commences his journey but arrives in Bethlehem too late to see the child, whose parents have fled to Egypt. He saves the life of a child at the price of another of his treasures.
He then travels to Egypt and to many other countries, searching for Jesus for many years and performing acts of charity along the way. After 33 years, Artaban is still a pilgrim, and a seeker after light. Artaban arrives in Jerusalem just in time for the crucifixion of Jesus. He spends his last treasure, the pearl, to ransom a young woman from being sold into slavery. He is then struck in the head by a falling roof tile and is about to die, having failed in his quest to find Jesus, but having done much good through charitable works. A voice tells him “Verily I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these, thou hast done it unto me.”(Matthew 25:40) He dies in a calm radiance of wonder and joy. His treasures were accepted, and the Other Wise Man found his King.
A great story, building on the one that Matthew told in the first place. After giving up the book “The Inner Life of Animals” as a way to do this sermon; I discovered a new story about the Wise Men recently translated from an ancient Syrian text that a scholar, Brent Landau, found buried in the Vatican archives. Sounds like the beginning of a Dan Brown novel doesn’t it.
Written in the first person, the Revelation of the Magi narrates the mystical origins of the magi, their miraculous encounter with the luminous star and their equally miraculous journey to Bethlehem to worship the child. So, let me tell it to you (shortened version) in the first person.
We are Magi, called that because we pray in silence, without a sound, to praise the God of all, by whose word and will, has come to be all that is, all that exists and arises, and all that is going to be.
We are from the land of Shir, which is the outer part of the entire East of the world inhabited by human beings, east of the land of Nod where Adam dwelt and where Adam transgressed the law of God. We are descended from Seth, the third son of Adam, who received the commandments and wisdom from his father with a pure heart. This was then set down in books and have been passed down through many generations.
Now those books of hidden mysteries were placed on the Mountain of Victories in the east of Shir, our country, in a cave, the Cave of Treasures of the Mysteries of the Life of Silence. And our fathers commanded us as they also received from their father, and they said to us: “Wait for the light that shines forth to you from on high in the form of a star over the Mount of Victories and comes to rest upon a pillar of light within the Cave.
And you will see a great and amazing sign, God appearing in the bodily form of a human being, unsightly, poor, imperfect, frail, lowly, even the sign of the cross appearing upon him. And you will go before him with love and joy, taking with you your gifts, and you will worship in the presence of the child, despised, poor, and killed. And you will offer him your gifts, and you shall receive from him the blessing salvation and shall partake with him in the joy which he will give to all.
Then, when the time and fulfilment of what was written in the books happened, we saw the form of a pillar of light descending, and we were afraid and shook when we saw it. And we cannot speak about the brilliance of the star of light, since its radiance was many times greater than the sun.
And we knelt upon our knees, and we stretched out our hands according to our ancient custom, and we praised in silence the vision of its wonders. And gain, we saw that heaven had been opened like a great gate and men of glory carrying the star of light upon their hands. And they descended and stood upon the pillar of light, and the entire mountain was filled by its light. And a humble and kind voice made itself heard by us, which call out and said to us: “Enter inside without doubt, in love, and see a great and amazing vision.”
And when it had appeared to us in the bodily form of a small and humble human, and he said to us: “Peace to you, sons of my hidden mysteries. Take the treasure that was deposited in this cave by your fathers and I will guide you for a journey you are to travel, seeing signs, glorious wonders, and you will see the completion of all the mysteries in Jerusalem.”
And we descended from the mountain and each of us spoke about what we had seen, but our visions did not resemble each other. There was one of us saying, “I saw a light in which there were so many images that were amazing.” And another, “I saw an infant who had unspeakable forms.” And there is one saying: “I saw a youth who did have a form in this world.” And there was one saying, “I saw a human being who was humble and poor.” And yet another, “I saw a cross and a person of light who hung on it, taking away the sins of the entire world.” And another, “I saw him ascending to the heavenly height and angels opening the gates of heaven before him.”
And while we were still praising these things, a voice with light and kindness, said to us “Everything that you have seen, and heard and discussed is but one drop of salvation in the vast ocean of the thoughts of the Father. And no one knows the Father except the voice bringing forth the word of salvation.
And so we got ready with our whole encampment, with our provisions and the pure and holy gifts. And we went forth with joy. And we had no need of the light of the sun or of the moon, because we walked day and night in the light, exulting and rejoicing without weariness. And even our provisions were abundant and did not decrease but rather from day to day they increased. And it gave rest to us from all our fatigue as if we were not journeying on the road, and it made mountains, and hills, and rugged places level before us.
And when we arrived in the region of Jerusalem, its nobles and rulers were disturbed and troubled, and they asked us: “On account of what cause have you come here?” And Herod, the governor of the region, called and sent for the honourable elders of the city, and asked them: “Where is it written that the king messiah, and saviour, and life give of the worlds is to be born?
And all of them said “The village Bethlehem, as was said by the heavenly majesty to our father David, the ancient prophet who lived a long time ago.” And so, we went to Bethlehem and there we saw a cave like the form and appearance of the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries, which is in our country.
And we saw the pillar of light, and it stood in front of the cave, and the star of light descended and stood with the angels. And a compassionate voice instructed us, “Enter inside,” and we went in after it, and we took our crown, and put them under his feet, because the everlasting kingdom is his. And we knelt and worshiped before him upon the earth, because every knee that is in heaven and on earth bows to him and worships him. And we opened our hidden treasures and the glorious infant opened his mouth, and he said to us with a love of abundant and sweet mercy: “Peace to you, sons of my hidden mysteries, sons of the East, O the heavenly light, because you have been found worthy to see the ancient everlasting light. For it was I who was revealed to you in your land; I became the guide for you to this palace and again, I shall be with you till the end. And again, you shall be witnesses for me in the land of the East together with my disciples, those who are chosen by me to preach the gospel.
And we returned to our land and the faith of salvation increased in the land of the East in those who heard.
Matthew’s story reminds us that the message of Jesus is for the whole world, (Matthew 28:19–20 NRSV) “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Henry van Dyke’s story of the Fourth Wise man, expands on a single text from Matthew’s story, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me.”
The Syrian text, although unknown appears in many medieval works of art and even influenced explorers of this land over five hundred years ago as they encountered indigenous cultures. Two examples.
The Augustinian monk in Peru was amazed at the similarities between their traditional religion and Christianity. So, he concluded that the Apostle Thomas and the Magi had previously travelled to Peru.
A Franciscan missionary and historian noted that just as the Magi had stood atop the Mountain of Victories awaiting fulfilment of their prophecy, so too the Aztecs await the return of Quetzalcoatl.
Brent Landau, the translator of the text, suggests a more provocative idea. “Instead of seeing non-Christian religions as products of human vanity or demonic inspiration, as most ancient Christians did, the Revelation of the Magi sees potentially all revelation as coming from Christ…and because the star-child never reveals himself to the Magi as Christ, perhaps having an experience of Christ’s presence is much more important than being a Christian.”
May God give us light, understanding, compassion and love of all.