Old Testament: Jeremiah (31:7-14 )
Thus says the Lord: “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel’ See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.’ For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,” says the Lord.
The Response: Psalm 84
1 How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
2 The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
3 Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.
4 Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.
5 Those who go through the desolate valley
will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
6 They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.
7 Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
hearken, O God of Jacob.
8 Behold our defender, O God; *
and look upon the face of your Anointed.
9 For one day in your courts is better than
a thousand in my own room, *
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.
10 For the Lord God is both sun and shield; *
he will give grace and glory;
11 No good thing will the Lord withhold *
from those who walk with integrity.
12 O Lord of hosts, *
happy are they who put their trust in you!
The New Testament: Ephesians (1:3-6, 15-19a)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.
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. Mike Kreutzer
Our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus is framed by the two timeless stories that lie at the heart of this season. It begins on Christmas Eve with St. Luke’s beautiful narrative that includes the familiar elements of a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem only to find no room in the inn, the child placed in a manger, and a glorious scene filled with shepherds and a choir of angels. Then, here at the end of the twelve days of Christmas, our festival concludes with the story that we just heard, taken from the gospel according to Matthew.
Strictly speaking, Matthew doesn’t have a birth narrative. He seems to assume that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, in the home of Mary and Joseph, just like every other baby is born. There are none of the familiar elements of Luke’s story. Our reading begins, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…” Despite our Christmas practices and displays, Matthew seems to begin this story when Jesus is a year, or maybe close to two years old.
Luke’s account is the sentimental favorite: an ideal portrait of a grace-filled and beauty-filled silent night. But Matthew’s account of the arrival of a group of exotic visitors seems to have served as an even more enduring source of inspiration for artists, both visual and literary.
As early as the second century, scenes featuring the coming of the magi appear in the catacombs of Rome. And, over the next few centuries, both visual and literary representations are found throughout the Roman world. In general, they tend to stick closer to Matthew’s imaginative story than do many or most of our modern versions. First of all, the colorful visitors are not kings; they are magi: wise men who understand the mysteries of the world, including those revealed in the stars. Then there is the fact that Matthew never sets their number at three; ancient versions present scenes that include as few as two and as many as twelve magi, knocking unexpectedly at Mary and Joseph’s door.
Throughout the centuries, those who have listened to this inspiring tale, one that expresses eloquently a resurrection faith, have loved the scene of the visit of the magi. But if, like Matthew when he composed this story, we allow our imaginations to carry us and try to picture how the people of that time would actually have responded to such a group of visitors, we might approach it somewhat differently.
Imagine yourself living in the relatively small village of Bethlehem around 4 BCE, when an exotic-looking band of strangers suddenly comes into town. How would people react? How would you react? “Would you look at that? Who in the world are these guys? Where do you suppose they came from, and why in the world are they here? Their outfits aren’t like anything that I’ve ever seen; they kind-a look Persian or something like that. Nobody seems to understand what they are saying – why can’t they just talk like the rest of us? They just stopped at the carpenter’s house down the street and gave him and his wife some gifts for their little boy. I heard they brought some gold (we could all use that); and some incense (but that stuff just makes my eyes water and makes it hard to breathe); and some myrrh (what in the world is that anyway, and why would anybody want it?).” Such a group of foreign travelers would certainly have raised a lot of questions, and probably some uneasiness and outright fear.
That often happens when we encounter people who are different from those with whom we are most familiar. Even if we know there is no rational reason for our suspicions and for keeping them at a distance, we just can’t help ourselves. Despite the old definition, we humans are not simply “rational beings.”
Among the shut-ins that I used to visit on a regular basis was a very nice woman who lived here in Dayton her entire life. She and her entire family were white, until she was in her late eighties. Then her only granddaughter married a man who is black. This elderly lady would tell me: “He’s one of the nicest people I have even met. He is kind, thoughtful, hard-working, and he obviously loves my granddaughter very much. He is always good to me. He’s everything I could want in a husband for her. I know there’s no reason not to welcome him into the family whole-heartedly. But there’s still a little something in me that holds back, just because of his race. I don’t know what to do with it; it was just the way I was raised back in the thirties and forties. So I start each day asking God to forgive me for whatever that feeling, that prejudice is that still bothers me, and asking him to help me.”
That elderly lady is certainly not alone. People often have something intangible, left somewhere deep inside them, that holds them back from fully accepting those who appear to be different from them in some way. For some, it has to do with people of a different racial background. For others, it might be people who have a different sexual orientation than they do. For others, it might be about people who come from another country, or who come from a different part of town than they do and who exhibit attitudes and behaviors that differ from their own. We know there is no rational explanation for that little feeling deep inside us; but it is there anyway.
Maybe we, too, like the elderly lady I used to visit, need simply to admit our residual prejudices to ourselves and to God, asking for God’s forgiveness and healing. It could just be that the strange and unfamiliar people who come into our lives have important gifts to share with us. They are probably not gold, frankincense and myrrh. More likely, they are non-material gifts that enrich our lives and our awareness of the marvelous diversity with which God blesses the human race: gifts enabling us to experience more fully the amazing variety of peoples and cultures and perspectives that can enrich our lives.
And it just might be that our honest acknowledgment of our own attitudes, along with our willingness to turn to God in learning to deal with them, serves as the star to light our way to recognizing God’s greatest gifts.