Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-15
Good morning. Happy New Year! I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and a safe New Year’s Eve, and that you got to spend lots of quality time with loved ones, wherever they may be. These holidays remind us what matters most in our lives: God, who loved us so much that he came into the world in the person of Jesus, and our earthly families who loved us into being, or who you loved into being—I know that several of you traveled to be with your kids and grandkids.
I officiated two funerals last week. Neither of the deceased were active members of this congregation. The truth is, I’ve officiated more funerals for people who weren’t part of the congregations I’ve served than I have for the church members of the congregations that I served.
This may sound strange to some of you, but I love funerals. I believe I am called to walk into dark places and offer words of comfort, peace, and hope. This is true in situations other than funerals—and frankly, it’s true for all of us—but funerals are where I can share some of my unique gifts. And, in a sense, funerals are a space for evangelism. I don’t shout, “Come to Jesus!” or even, “Come to First Presbyterian Church!” But I do get the chance to connect with people who aren’t part of this congregation; I get the opportunity to listen.
Often, I hear a lot of reasons why a person didn’t go to church. People are quick to tell me that they believe in God and they love Jesus, even if they haven’t been to church in thirty or forty years. They tell me that they still pray, and some even read the Bible occasionally, but they don’t feel the need to go to church.
To be fair, I hear this at the cigar shop, too. I’ve got a buddy who says he’s glad he grew up in the Church, it gave him a good foundation, taught him morals, but church just isn’t for him anymore. It’s a common sentiment. But it’s a little different when I hear it at a funeral.
When people tell me this at a funeral, I think they’re looking for some kind of absolution; they want me to tell them that it’s okay that their husband, or wife, or father, or sister, or son, or daughter didn’t go to church. They tell me how kind their loved one was. They want me to tell them that’s good enough. They are anxious about the loved one who died, and they might be anxious about their own decisions.
Of course, that’s not how it works, but a funeral is not the place for me to correct years of bad theology. However, it is a place where I can speak into the anxiety and fear that accompanies the passing of a loved one.
Anxiety is dangerous.
Anxiety can lead us to make bad decisions.
Anxiety is one of the central themes in the story of the Epiphany.
In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi have come to bring gifts to the baby Jesus. But they don’t go straight to Bethlehem, they go to Jerusalem, where they visit King Herod.
The word Magi comes from the Greek word magoi, and it doesn’t mean wise men or astrologers. The name magoi indicates that they are priests who serve a Persian god named Zoroaster. This also tells us that they were outsiders, foreigners. Yet they saw a truth that few people recognized.
That truth made Herod very anxious. Herod thought he was king of the Jews, but his authority rested on the Roman Empire. His people feared him; they didn’t love him. Herod was a convert to Judaism; Herod most certainly wasn’t born as the king of the Jews. If those pesky priests from Persia were right, Herod had a real problem on his hands. Someone with true authority might take Herod’s kingdom away from him.
To put it another way, Herod sat at the center of his own universe. Yes, the real power was in Rome, but Herod could maintain the illusion of control as long as the taxes flowed back to Rome. But a true Messiah could disrupt that illusion. So, Herod did what all empires seek to do: Herod tried to eliminate the threat. Herod didn’t care how many people he needed to slaughter; he was determined to keep his crown, and the illusion that he was the center of his own universe.
Herod’s plan failed. The Magi didn’t lead him to the baby Jesus. And then an angel came to Joseph and told him to take Mary and Jesus, flee from Bethlehem, and seek refuge in a foreign land. So, they fled the violence that was coming their way.
There are a lot of refugees in this world and I could go in a lot of different directions with this story, but I want to focus on spiritual refugees. In my ministry I meet a lot of people who have left the church over the years. I meet them at funerals. I meet them at cigar shops. Some were loosely connected and drifted away, while others stormed out. Still others left because of abuse by members of the clergy, while many more left because they saw their fellow congregants as judgmental and hypocritical.
Whatever their reasons, the people who have left the church have found ways to get along without it. They have come to believe they can do it on their own. They don’t need to come to worship to satisfy God. This borders on works righteousness—that’s the idea that we can work our way into Heaven.
We can’t. And we know this. There’s no amount of good deeds that can buy our way into God’s good graces. Perfect church attendance won’t do it. Neither will obeying the letter of the law, all the time. There’s no magic formula. We depend on God’s grace and mercy. It’s a mystery.
When we come to worship, we remind ourselves that we are not the center of our own universe. Through praise and study and hearing the Word of God, we are reminded that God is at the center of the universe, and that we should put God back in the center of our lives. When we do this, when we are at our best, we push our fears and anxieties away from the center of our lives, because God is there.
But we’re not perfect. Like Herod, we are anxious, too. We are always anxious about our numbers. And in our anxiety, we look for simple solutions that don’t call for us to change. Many people say, “we need to get young families back into church.” Sure. The next thing that people say is, “Let’s start a praise band!” Because, hey, it worked forty years ago and young people today are exactly the same now as they were in the 1970s and 80s. Right? Of course not.
We added nine new members last year. Three of them were under the age of 40 and they brought young children with them. That’s great! That also means that the other six new members were over the age of 40. There are lots more like them outside of these walls.
What we have in here is a place where we can lay down our fears and anxieties. We have a place where we can restore our relationship with God and with one another, and in doing so, we are healed, we are made whole.
What we have outside of these walls is a whole lot of people who need healing. These are the refugees from the church, and you probably know some of them. You might even be able to build relationships with them and bring them back into the fold. Not by telling them the error of their ways, but by listening to them, and then showing them that church has changed.
The grace in our readings this morning can be found in our reading from Isaiah. This passage was probably composed after many Jews had returned to Jerusalem, from their exile in Babylon. God is speaking directly to the exiles who have returned; God is telling them stand up and shine with the glory of the Lord. God is telling them to be a light to all the nations.
If you need to be reminded of what that looks and feels like, look at the grace that is on display at the communion table. Also, remember how it felt in this sanctuary on Christmas Eve. The pews were full. There was no fear or anxiety in the room. But there was plenty of love and joy to be shared by all. We are called to share that gift with everyone. We can bring back the exiles and the refugees. We can all put God back at the center of our lives. Arise! Shine! For your light has come! Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that there are a lot of spiritual refugees outside of our walls. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!