the Epiphany of Our Lord

06 January 2019

Matthew 2. 1-12
God’s love turns the world upside-down!

I guess it’s a part of that “American Exceptionalism” we hear so much about.  Always the brightest and best.  Always the greatest and grandest.  The strongest and most powerful, the richest and most prosperous.  When we Americans talk about ourselves, it’s always in superlatives.  This week, I got to thinking back two-or-so years ago to the summer of 2016 and the Rio Olympics.  Two hundred seven nations.  Eleven thousand, two hundred thirty-eight athletes.  Three hundred six events.  Twenty-eight sports.  And of course, the good old U.S. of A. was number one.  Forty-six gold medals.  Thirty-seven silver.  Thirty-seven bronze.  Nearly as many medals as the next two nations combined.  And that’s the way it is with everything we touch.  Unfortunately, we don’t notice, don’t realize, that out of those two hundred seven nations that competed that summer?  A hundred and twenty didn’t win a single, solitary medal.  A hundred twenty didn’t win, place, or show, in even one event.  And of those hundred and twenty, seventy – seventy – have never won anything, anywhere, anytime.  Not summer.  Not winter.  They were there, simply, to play the game.  They were there, just because they loved the sport.

American Exceptionalism.  For us, winning’s not everything.  It’s the only thing.  In sports.  In business.  In war.  And even here, in the church.  We approach life from the top down.  Always with the viewpoint of the movers and shakers.  Always from the perspective of the mighty and high.  Always through the eyes of a winner.  After all, that’s what’s become the American Dream.  Anyone – if they work hard enough, if they work long enough, if they work well enough – or if they pick the right numbers in the lottery – they, too, can become a Bill Gates or a Jeff Bezos, a Sam Walton or an Elon Musk or a Warren Buffet.  That dream’s in the air we breathe.  It’s in the water we drink.  And it’s so much a part of us, we miss Christmas.  Like the rich man in the parable, we just steep right over it, each morning, on the way to living.

The other day, I was watching one of the morning news shows on television.  One of the contributors – a presidential historian – was starting to wax poetic on the true meaning of Christmas.  That’s, usually, my cue to go for another cup of coffee rather than endure one more load of codswallop.  I’ve found most commentators – progressive or conservative – are, shall I say, theologically-challenged.  But I stayed.  Figured I’d risk hearing what he had to say.  And I’m glad I did.  “Christmas,” he said, “Christmas is when kings kneel down before babies.” 

Christmas is when kings kneel down before babies!

And you know, I think we Americans forget that.  We forget that.  We get so busy climbing ladders that we forget all about the people who don’t.  We forget about all the people who aren’t.  The people that we leave behind.  Christmas isn’t about glory or splendor or wonder.  It’s not about pride or overconfidence or self-importance.  Christmas is, instead, a time for lowliness and humbleness and modesty.  It’s not a time to look at the world from above down.  But it’s a time to look at the world from the bottom up.  Not from mountaintops, but from valleys.  Not from Temples, but from stables.  Not from satin sheets, but from straw.  That analyst was spot on.  This is a time of kings kneeling down before babies.  But he was about a week-and-a-half off.  Twelve days off, to be exact.  At least, as far as kings go.  They’re a part not of Christmas, but of Epiphany.  But either way, Christmas…  Epiphany…  each serves one purpose…  to turn the world upside-down!  We’re not here, today, to kneel down before kings.  Like the kings, we’re here to kneel down before a little child.

But, then, it’s hard for us Americans to wrap our minds around that.  We can’t imagine our heroes kneeling down before anyone!  John Wayne?  Chuck Norris?  Sylvester Stallone?  Bruce Willis?  All this around us isn’t here for the exceptional.  It’s here for the ordinary and the everyday.  This isn’t here for the remarkable.  It’s here for the run-of-the-mill, the unrefined.  Just think about the story I read, a few moments ago. 

First of all, setting the record straight, they weren’t kings.  And they weren’t wise men.  They were magi.  Priests.  Astrologers, following up on something they saw “in the stars.”  These priests, these astrologers, went to the place they expected a king to be born.  To Jerusalem, the capital city.  To the palace.  To the king.  And the present king had no idea what they were talking about.  He brought together the chief priests, the scribes, and he asks them where the king was born.  They looked through scripture and they said, “You might want to check out Rankin…  or McCamey…  or Stanton…  or any of the small towns along the border…  And Herod and the magi just scratched their heads.

It was all so counterintuitive.  It wasn’t logical.  It didn’t make sense.  It went against everything they thought, against everything they believed.  They, too, were exceptionalists.  But they went.  To Bethlehem.  A small town no better, no more, than any small town in the West Texas oil patch.  They found the child.  And they knelt down before him!  They knelt down before a peasant.  Needy.  Poor.  Someone just like Elton John sang about.  “Born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas day!”  They knelt down before a child who was no one, who was nothing.  And they gave him – him of all people – gifts fit for a king!  Gold!  Frankincense!  Myrrh!  And the whole scene was odd, strange, absurd.  And the world was about to turn.

The lowly lifted up and the mighty pulled down!  The hungry filled with only the best and the rich sent empty away.  And we Americans, we exceptional Americans, look in the opposite direction.  Instead of pointing to a manger, our priests point to the sky.  Instead of directing us to Bethlehem, they guide us to the stars.  And in the end, we overlook, we ignore, we fail to see the very place god appears! 

And we wonder why nothing ever changes.  We wonder why everything stays the same.  We wonder why no one ever seeks out churches like this.  We expect love to trickle down from heaven.  We believe mercy falls like rain from above.  But it just doesn’t work that way.  Love doesn’t trickle down, it bubbles us.  Mercy doesn’t fall like rain, it rises up like dew.  Not from heaven, but from the earth itself.  Jesus didn’t come for god’s sake.  He came for ours.  And we’re here for the same reason.  Not for the glorious and grand, but for those crumpled up and tossed aside.  Not for the wise and the strong, but for the foolish and weak.  That’s where we find the king – our king.  Not coming on the clouds of heaven, not seated on a golden throne, but with, among, between the people who need him.  With, among, and between those who have no place – in the inn or anywhere.

Faith isn’t being better.  Faith isn’t becoming best.  Faith isn’t gold or silver or bronze.  It’s not gold or frankincense or myrrh.  It’s kings kneeling down before the lowest.  It’s kings kneeling down before the least.  Because you see, my friends, that is what love does.