Have you noticed what is important in the car advertisements today? In my earlier days of interest in cars, it was about horsepower and how long it took to accelerate to 80 mph. Talk of torque and cubic inches of engine, suspension and acceleration, styling and feel of the dream car were important. Not so today. The car ads don’t mention those things at all. They may show them, because we are no longer a verbal society, here in North America, we are a visual one. What is seen to be more important is comfort, fuel efficiency, connectivity (how you can use your cell phone legally while driving), and the navigation system.
People are impressed by a gadget that gets them to their destination in short order. The more sophisticated systems can help you avoid traffic jams and get you around construction detours. You can actually ask where the nearest library, United Church, or fast-food establishment is located. Who needs maps? What you need are Apps!
The writer of Matthew is not the first to imagine wise men from the East coming to Jerusalem. His story line reflects Isaiah 60, a poem recited to Jews in Jerusalem about 580 BCE. These Jews had been in exile in Iraq for a couple of generations and had come back to the bombed-out city of Jerusalem. They were in despair. Who wants to live in a city where the streets are unsafe and the economy has failed, and nobody knows what to do about it?
In the middle of that mess, an amazing poet invites his depressed, discouraged people to look up, to hope and to expect everything to change. "Rise, shine, for your light has come." The poet anticipates that Jerusalem will become a beehive of activity, prosperity, a center of international trade. "Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…" We could imagine caravans loaded with trade goods from Asia and great prosperity in the land. What a cause for celebration! God has promised to make the city work effectively in peace, and a promise from God can be depended on.
Both Matthew and the wise men knew about Isaiah 60. They know they are to go to Jerusalem and to take rare spices, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Most important, they know they will find the new king of all peace and prosperity. But when Herod hears of these plans, he is frightened. This new king is a threat to the old king and the old order of doing things.
Then something strange happens. In his panic, Herod arranges a consultation with leading Old Testament scholars, and says to them, "Tell me about Isaiah 60. What is this reference to camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh?" The scholars tell him: You have the wrong text. And the wise men outside your window are using the wrong text. Isaiah 60 is misleading you because it suggests that Jerusalem will prosper and have great urban wealth and be restored as the center of the global economy. In that case, the urban elites can recover their former power and prestige and nothing will really change.
Scholar, Walter Brueggemann suggests that Herod did not like that verdict and asked defiantly, "Well, do you have a better text?" The scholars are afraid of the angry king, but they tell him, with trepidation, that the right text is Micah 5:2-4, "But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah…from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old,…
This is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with Hollywood heroes and hopes of a return of big oil to help our land prosper. A voice that proclaims substance over style-sustainability over short term gain. It is a voice that is not enamored with high hotel towers and great arenas, banks and lofty urban achievements. Instead, it anticipates a different future, as yet unaccomplished, that will organize the peasant land in resistance to imperial threat. Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by paying attention to the folks on the ground.
Herod tells the Eastern intellectuals the veiled truth, carefully ‘couching’ his intentions. Herod actually speaks with trepidation about this "king of the Jews" who would upset his control over land and people, but he lets them in on the information from the priests and scribes. So, they, ‘on orders’ head for Bethlehem, guided by a celestial GPS that now stops "over the place where the child was". Without that direction and Micah’s map they would have never gone to that rural place, dusty, unnoticed, and unpretentious as it was. It is, however, the proper place for the birth of the One who will offer an alternative to the arrogant learning of intellectuals and the arrogant power of urban rulers.
For the narrative of Epiphany is the story of these two human communities: Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises. We can choose a "return to what we have always known"-seeking what the world has ‘taught us’-striving for a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it, the seeds of our own destruction. Or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that overturns our preconceived ideas of what the future should be. We can receive life given in vulnerability.
Did you ever ponder, ‘the great epiphany’, the surprising action of those wise men-learned, logical, astrological, scientific types? Those wise men do not seem to resist taking that alternative, but go on to the village. Rather than hesitate or resist, they recognize their wealth and learning, and ‘turn their lives around’, 180’-because of a baby with no credentials at all.
Bethlehem is 8 kilometers (5 miles) south of Jerusalem. The wise men had a long intellectual history of knowledge and education. They were sophisticated and masters of their practice. But initially (they went to Jerusalem at first) they missed their goal by 8 kilometers. It makes you wonder, how might the story have gone had Herod’s interpreters not remembered those words of the prophet we find at Micah 2?
Brueggemann concludes that our task is to let the vulnerability of Micah 2 disrupt the self-congratulation of Isaiah 60. Many of us are looking in the wrong place. We are off by about 8 kilometers. We may be striving for self-sufficiency as an individual or part of a small comfortable group. The Jesus way is instead about vulnerability, neighbourliness, generosity, compassion, sharing and in so doing finding abundant life.
There was a story reported in the news earlier last year. It didn’t appear on the front page of any paper and I doubt it got television coverage. It was about Reem Sahwill, a young teenager, a refugee from Palestine whose family struggled 18 months ago to stay in Germany. The future looked bleak and they were to be deported after 4 years of life in Germany. But the story of this teen’s plea to German Chancellor, Angela Merkel went viral-here a bright young girl had learned the language, excelled at school, and wanted to build a life in Germany along with her family. This encounter put refugee policy on the front burner. Of course, Germany has been a world leader in opening the door to Syrian refugees.
In the late shadow of the changing year, Canada began to officially open its doors. Welcome to Canada, "Ahlan wa sahlan," You’re with family now. And your presence among us makes our Christmas season of peace and joy just that much brighter.
A year ago this was the editorial comment-The people of Toronto are honoured to greet the first group of the 25,000 Syrians who will arrive in this country in the next few months, and who have chosen to make a new life with us. It’s been a long trek, but you are no longer refugees. Your days of being strangers in a strange land are over. You’re in Canada now, with all the rights and protections and possibilities that confers. These were the opening words of one of Canada’s major newspaper on a day when 150 refugees landed at Pearson International Airport. Since then we have heard of the difficulties of these newcomers-many of the children coping with the memories of trauma in refugee camps.
May this be one of the ways we can continue to participate this year in setting our spiritual GPS to live in Jesus’ direction. That is the way of vulnerability, neighbourliness, generosity, compassion, sharing and thus finding abundant life!
Acknowledging inspiration from
a Christian Century article, December 19-26, 2001, p.15 entitled, Off By Nine Miles, Walter Brueggemann