Old Testament: Isaiah (60:1-6)
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
The Response: Psalm (72:1-7, 10-14)
1 Give the King your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the King’s Son;
2 That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;
3 That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.
4 He shall defend the needy among the people; *
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
5 He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *
from one generation to another.
6 He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *
like showers that water the earth.
7 In his time shall the righteous flourish; *
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
10 The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, *
and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts.
11 All kings shall bow down before him, *
and all the nations do him service.
12 For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, *
and the oppressed who has no helper.
13 He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; *
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.
14 He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence, *
and dear shall their blood be in his sight.
The Epistle: Ephesians (3:1-12)
I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—assume that you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
The Gospel: Matthew (2:1-12)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
On at least one occasion over the years, I have cited an aphorism that, depending on the source, is attributed to one of two, 19th-century American writers, each of whom used a pseudonym. One called himself “Artemis Ward”; the other, “Mark Twain.” Each would probably have been happy to take credit for the remark: “What gets you into trouble is not what you don’t know, but what you think you know for sure that just ain’t so.” It’s not hard to see that observation played out in every age.
We all, for example, think we know the Christmas story. But, as those who participate in our Adult Forum realize, there are two very different Christmas stories: the one from Luke, which we heard on Christmas Eve, and the other from Matthew, part of which we heard three Sundays ago and the other part of which we heard today. But in our nativity scenes, in some of our familiar Christmas songs, and in our imaginations, we combine the two in a way that their authors never intended; and, in doing so, we miss out on the unique message of each of them. Then we add other details that don’t appear in either of them.
In Matthew’s story that we heard today, for example, Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem, and Jesus is apparently born in their home — no census, no journey from Nazareth, no stable, no manger, no angels or shepherds; all these are in Luke. I know that we just sang “We Three Kings,” but Matthew never says how many there were, nor that they were kings. Early Christian art usually pictures two or four magi, while some medieval Eastern lists include twelve of them – with names, no less. And since Herod, using information from the magi, subsequently orders the death of all boys under the age of two, it seems that Matthew is picturing Jesus as a toddler, running around the house, by the time the magi arrive and the family has to flee to Egypt.
There are a lot of things that we think we “know for sure that just ain’t so.” Some of them don’t actually make a great deal of difference, other than shattering some long-held images; but others directly affect people’s lives and the way that we relate to them.
I wonder what things the characters in today’s gospel story thought that they knew for sure that simply were not true. What kind of reaction, for example, do you think the magi, a group of exotic-looking travelers — from Persia or Iran, no less – what kind of reaction do you think they would have received from the people in Jerusalem? “Who in the world are they? And why are they dressed like that? And what do you think they are doing here? Since we live the eastern border of the Roman Empire, these strange-looking characters are obviously foreigners. They don’t even speak the same language as we do. They don’t act like us. Maybe they’re spies who have come to infiltrate our country. They look dangerous to me; and they sure don’t belong here. They’re obviously up to no good. That we know for sure!” The things we think we know for sure that just ain’t so…
Of course, Matthew’s story about Jesus’ early years doesn’t stop with this account of the magi and the star. His second chapter continues with rumors that Herod is planning a massacre of all boys under the age of two, and of Joseph and Mary fleeing with their young son into Egypt. What kind of reception do you think they received there? It probably wasn’t any better than the magi got. “What’s this Jewish family doing here? Why didn’t they stay in their own country, with their own kind? The man said – at least I think he said: those foreigners are so hard to understand! – he said that he is a carpenter, that they are refugees, that their son’s life was in danger back home, and that he and his wife are just looking for a safe place to live and to raise their son. But you can’t trust them. They show up here without any documentation. How do we know why they are really here? And even if he actually is a carpenter, then he’s just another alien who’s going to take a job away from one of our own people. We need to figure out a way to get them deported. We need to do that for our own safety. That we know for sure.” Again, the things we think we know for sure that just ain’t so…
What do we think that we know for sure that maybe just isn’t so? What do we think that we know about people who appear to be different from us, but which is based on misconceptions and outright lies that we have heard, and which maybe just isn’t so?
Just as there would have been in ancient Jerusalem and Egypt, so people today continue to be suspicious of those who come from other countries and cultures, who speak other languages and practice other religions. We don’t always understand them. We don’t know them. And, instead of welcoming them and getting to know them as individuals and as families, there are far too many people who think they know for sure that these people are dangerous, a threat to them and to the way of life to which they are accustomed: more things that we think we know for sure, that simply may not be true.
But we also display our ignorance of others, and ignorance that leads to fear, even toward people who live in our own community. Some in our suburbs avoid coming into our central cities, supposedly “knowing” that they are dangerous. Members of majority groups – whether racial or ethnic or religious or any other majority – keep their distance from and hold to negative views about various minorities; and members of the minorities hold to the same sort of ignorant biases against those in the majority. Those living in affluent neighborhoods cling to negative stereotypes about those living in economically distressed parts of town; and those who are struggling cling to similar stereotypes about those who are financially better-off, both groups responding to the other out of ignorance. “What gets you into trouble is not what you don’t know, but what you think you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Today’s first reading begins with an overriding theme of our liturgy this time of year: light breaking into darkness: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” This might just be a good time for us to resolve to make a concerted effort this year to open ourselves up to God’s light, to allow that light to shine in our darkness, to go out to those whom we don’t really know, to those whom we might even fear, to get to know them, and maybe even come to see in them the face of Christ: the one who has come to be the light of the world.