Thursday, January 10, 2013
No post card moment or Christmas card image...
Every year pilgrims throng to Bethlehem but the first of them were the Magi we heard about in the Gospel for today. Now there is a great deal of romance about little Bethlehem. Not the least of which is fed by the Christmas carols (one of which we just sang). But the romance of a quiet little village that slept while Christ as born is perhaps a little too much imagination and a little too short on reality. If you go there today you find a large Palestinian population in a still small city targeted toward tourists, with souvenir shops, the usual tourist traps, and, also, soldiers with guns making sure it is safe to visit.
The Bethlehem of the Magi, like the Bethlehem of today, is no Christmas card or carol image. Though the night when Jesus was born the city was bustling with people who came to their ancestral home at Caesar's behest, the Magi found a quieter village still in the dark about the Jesus whom they neither expected nor sought. Jesus was still hidden in the anonymity of a world sleeping and waiting for the voice of John the Baptizer to awaken it. Without the star, they would surely not find anything worth finding at all in Bethlehem's recesses.
Theirs was the journey of a lifetime but these Magi ended it by staring into the face of a baby. The light of the star and the advice of Herod’s experts pointed them to the place but was it just a baby they had come so far to see? These Magi admitted no disappointment. They had passed grander views and scenery but they were content to kneel in worship, to give their gifts, and to rejoice in the promise that was kept. Where is He who is born King of the Jews? Messiah long promised? Savior of the whole world? Ah, here He is... a Babe, the child of Mary.
But Christ was the one they came to see. The saving glory of God was hidden in the face of this child. Here was flesh to hold the Son of God. Here was the glory of God revealed – the same glory that once thundered from mountain tops, burned in bushes, and made a path in the midst of a sea, to a land of freedom, milk, and honey. But there was not much milk and honey here. It was not a pot of gold under a rainbow but a treasure only faith could see and fathom.
There in Bethlehem was the love that would bind together Jew and Gentile, chosen and goyim. Imagine that. The Magi were the first of a whole Gentile church waiting to unfold at the preached word. It was as if God was insisting that He would draw all people to Himself but they come in Christ or they don't come at all. These Magi were the first of many – of folks like you and me, to find a home in Christ who shows us the face of God.
He was set for the rising and falling of many. The first born sons of Bethlehem would feel the first dart of death hurled toward the Savior. Life would be hidden in death. Victory in seeming defeat. Triumph in the sacrifice of a will to save an unwilling people. Here was He who shines with the brightness of the one true Light. Here was hope for a people lost in the despair of disappointment and broken promises. Here was a holy life strong enough to cover the unholy in righteousness. Here was a blood strong enough to scrub the sin from our mortal flesh.
What did the Magi come to see? No Christmas card picture, that is for sure. No sweet scene sung in a carol. They came amid the dirty reality of a world too used to despair and disappointment. They came with the fear of a people who wondered if the journey would be worthwhile. They came like we come today, seeking the hidden in a world where sin and death are far too obvious. They came bidden by a beacon of light and hope that came from God Himself. They came not to find an answer but a person, the flesh and blood of a Savior. This is how we come today.
We come here as the Magi of old. Not as religious explorers but as those sought out by God and led by His Spirit to the One who is the source of light in our world of darkness. It amazes me how easy it is for us to think of the Sunday morning gathering here as an accidental assembly of people. There is no accident here. If we come, we come at the bidding of the Father shining His light through the Spirit and not on our own impetus or desire. We come as sinners seeking not to be excused but forgiven by the love strong enough to love us while we are yet sinful and unclean. We come for the grace to cleanse us and make us new in a world fresh out of second chances or real hope of redemption. We come as those made wise by the God who is our wisdom. For the wise still seek Him where He has made Himself known.
We come to Bethlehem, literally it means house of bread. For it is in this house and in this bread we find Him still. We are pilgrims still – earth is our temporary home and heaven our citizenship. We come according to the map of God’s Word and the leading of His Spirit. We come not as gawking tourists for a tale to tell or a photo to show - we come as those made wise by faith – still seeking light, truth and life in the face of Christ. We come finding it exactly where God has promised. Still in the flesh given for the life of the world and the blood shed to wash us clean. The cross became His manger for a time, then the tomb held Him three days, and then He rose to come in the manger of this Sacrament, where those bidden still meet Him and those made wise by faith still greet Him. We come to offer our gifts in joyful response to the Savior whom the Father has sent, for the promise kept, and for the redemption won by His sacrificial offering in life and death for us.
Sometimes we fear that God is looking for a picture perfect people, with fairy tale lives, Christmas card images, and the romance of a carol. But just as Bethlehem was no romantic image, neither does God meet us in the what ifs or what might be of life. He comes to us still amid the dirt of sin, the mire of disappointment, and the darkness of death. He comes to shine His light upon us, to call us into His presence, and to see with eyes of faith that redemption has come for you... and for me. Amen