A sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas, January 4, 2015
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
“O God, who didst wonderfully create, and yet more wonderfully restore, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity…”
God created human beings with dignity. Fundamentally, from the beginning, that is the faith that all Christians share. God created ALL human beings with dignity.
And no matter how much we do to mess that up, whether it is by humiliating others or otherwise doing things to take away the dignity of others, or whether we surrender our own dignity through selfishness or fear, no matter how much we mess it up; God restores our dignity through Jesus Christ. This is the message of Christmas and of our Christian faith.
The Gospel lesson today is the story of the Magi—the three kings that brought gifts to Jesus. These are mysterious characters—they come from somewhere to the east—probably far away, maybe Persia, that is, Iran. And the word in the Gospel of Matthew probably means astrologers—scientists or magicians, probably not kings. They were from far away; they were not part of Israel or Judaism; they were from nations and cultures completely detached from the community of Joseph and Mary.
They read the signs in the stars. They knew that something great, something world-shattering, was happening. They set out on a long journey, calculating where the sign in the heavens was leading them. This kind of sign, this star, it was the kind of sign that something great was happening in the world, it was the kind of sign that would accompany the birth of great world leaders, like Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar. People whose influence touched the lives of everyone in the known world. These Wise Men knew a lot, but only so much, the rest they filled in from their experience.
So the star is leading them to Judea, and where would you look for the birth of someone who was going to affect everyone? They concluded that they should go to the royal palace. Where else would there be enough dignity for such a sign? So, like the rest of us, the Magi, these sages from the East, made a pretty serious mistake. They showed up at the palace of King Herod, looking for the newly born king.
Herod the Great was a brilliant politician and ruler. He built numerous fortresses, he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, and most remarkably, he was able to continue in power as a client ruler in the early Roman Empire. He had supported Mark Antony, and when Augustus defeated and killed Mark Antony, Herod convinced the new emperor that he would be the most reliable ally to rule Judea for the Roman Empire. He was always ruthless and always ruled for his personal self-interest. By the time Jesus was born, he was old; and probably paranoid—although with rulers in those days, it was a bit hard to tell, since if you thought someone was plotting to kill you, you were probably right.
So these distinguished people sought out dignity where people tend to look for it, in the center of power and wealth. What they ended up doing, however, was to attract the attention of something quite the opposite of human dignity, the fear and rage of a selfish ruler.
But then they were sent to their real destination: a humble house in a small town. The dignity of human nature was wonderfully restored in that baby, unassuming and gentle. That one who would grow into the Jesus we know, whose love is so constant and courageous that we too can live without fear. And those wise men brought gifts from the ends of the earth to celebrate this great event. In Gold they brought all the riches that are due to the One who brings us everything: all life, all dignity, all hope. In Incense, all the world worships the true God, who restores dignity and life to all people, starting with the poorest and most humble. In Myrrh, that spice used in burial of great dignitaries, they worship Him who gives all of his life for all people, bringing restoration of human dignity in his death and resurrection.
The love of God is not manifested as the Magi expected. God’s love surprises all of us, both in its simplicity and its mystery. We rejoice with those travelers. God has brought us the greatest gift of all, let us praise God for surprising us by being in the midst of us in that baby and in the dignity he gives to each of us in making us his own.
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.