A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, January 2017
Outside of the main city, down through the wilderness, is the lost city of Petra. The intricately carved rock edifices bound deep valleys and lead for miles. Once a bustling hub of economic activity, the city fell silent as trade routes moved and migrated away. Now, archaeologists work to excavate temples, tombs, homes from under the red sand.
Climbing out of the valley, we reached high points, each peak claiming to have the best view in Petra, or the best view in Jordan, or the best view in the Middle East.
It was here at the top of the world, found and lost and found again, that I encountered the silence. For a few seconds, suspended between earth and heaven, time and eternity; I realized how unsilent our world has become, when I found myself finally with no electric hum, no background traffic, only the empty air and a beating heart.
And it was there, at the peak of nowhere, that I noticed the side of a shelter, a booth constructed for the comfort and refreshment of passing tourists like me. I saw that it had for its siding a piece of heavy vinyl case wrapping, imprinted with the legend: UNHCR Refugee Relief.
Even into that warm silence, a shiver sounded the echoes of war, and the history of a people riven and driven from place to place, displaced by war and tyranny.
And into the midst of this history, halfway from Abraham to us, breaks the story of Jesus, born into the scandal of a holy city desecrated by the power of a proud humanity; a temple of peace perverted by the pride of kings and cult of emperors.
On a silent night, God breathes into a history of human hubris and violence. On a holy night, God brings kings to their knees and makes the heavens gasp out loud with the simplest act of love.
It was not a political coup. Herod need not have been so afraid, nor become so murderous – his fear of losing status, losing what little power the Romans allowed him led him to horrors beyond our imagining, although we still see them on our news screens today. Pilate would come to make a similar error, confusing loyalty to Caesar with faithfulness, confusing convenience with justice, and suppression of critical speech with keeping the peace.
Yet this was not a political coup. Jesus would instead grow up to work in the ordinary lives of ordinary people: healing, leading, proclaiming good news to the poor, raising the dead. He blessed the meek, the peacemakers, the persecuted.
The season of Epiphany begins with a visit from the wise men, who followed a star, a sign in the heavens, to find the baby born King of the Jews. It ends with the mountaintop, the revelation of Jesus as the Word of God, flanked by Moses and Elijah, lit up from within and from without with the very Light of God. And Peter will ask to build booths there, using whatever comes to hand; the debris of human sin and violence, and the remnants of repentance and the attempt at restoration: wrappings of refugee relief humanitarian aid packages.
The story of Jesus, in the manger, on the mountaintop, takes place in real time, in real places, touching real lives. It is not outside of history, but it echoes within it.
These men who came to visit the holy family in Bethlehem, they are described as wise. They are wise because they follow the signs that God has placed in front of them. They are obedient to God’s call. They are wise because they offer worship to Jesus, the Son of God, placing before him the best that they have to offer, even if his needs seems humble. They do not hold back, nor place their pride before his humility. They are wise because they avoid the machinations of Herod, refuse to play into his political games. They go home by another way.
There is trouble here. Herod is about to commit atrocities. Children will die, and families will suffer. But the wise men turn away. In doing so, in skirting the city and slipping through the intelligence nets, they buy time for the family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to flee to Egypt. They may even have saved this family’s life, these wise men.
In the face of the grief that is soon to befall Bethlehem, it hardly seems enough; but I think of those others, who hid a family from the Nazis, even though they couldn’t stop the Holocaust; or airlifted a child out of the reach of the napalm bombs, even though they could not yet stop the war. One who drove an ambulance in wartime, to offer what solace and service they could, even though they could not save everyone.
The world is not ours to save. The wise men knew that their role, their call was to follow God, obediently and with curiosity and courage. They knew that they were to worship only Jesus. They knew that they were not to succumb to the political machinations of Herod and his ilk. They knew that, even if they could only save one family, that is not the same as hopelessness, or helplessness, for that one family was important. That humble child was necessary. That little life was worth saving.
Their wisdom was in doing what they could, whatever they could, and it was no small thing, to journey so far and to defy the king and to offer homage to a child. Their wisdom was in doing what they could, and returning home quietly, trusting God to take up the story from there.
And that remains our call. To recognize the call of Christ, and to obey it with curiosity and
courage. To worship with the wise, kneeling before a God who stoops to meet us. We practice homage, offering our gifts to the lowly and the holy. We are not afraid to consult with kings, nor even to proclaim the gospel before them; but when we are blocked by powers and principalities, we find another way home. We find another way home, following the pole star of Christ’s love made manifest in the world.
We cannot escape our history, our time and our place within it. Even in the high places and the lonely places, the signs follow us, siding built out of refugee wrapping. Yet we do not, either, escape God: the silence of a holy night, an act of love breathed into the world, breaking open history, politics, geography; filling them with the grace of a child born for us and for our salvation: Jesus, Emmanuel, God is with us.