Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Sermon for January 8, 2023: Fresh Epiphanies from Familiar Texts based upon Matthew 2:1-12 by Sarah Mills
Matthew 2:1-12: The Visit of the Wise Men
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.
Friends, I wonder if you, like I, often feel like you know a story so well that you can recite it backwards and forwards. You could summarize it in maybe ten words or less. So many of the stories we hear around this time of the year are stories that easily fall into that category. We hear them in songs and we tell them to children. They are tattooed on our collective Christian context.
Well, can I recommend a combination of two practices that work for me when I find myself drifting into this sort of overfamiliarity? The first is to open your Bible or your Bible app or your online search engine of choice, locate the story and read it. And then read it again. And again. And again. This practice of lectio divina or “divine reading” has been a tradition, particularly in the monastic world, for centuries. You meditate on the reading in a way that is different than just hearing it once, maybe twice a year read from the front of a church. And it is this act of really sitting with a text with intention and attention that leads on to the second practice.
Now, this practice is maybe more difficult or unnatural to us when we are faced with one of those ultra-familiar stories. When you read that story for the third or fourth time, step into a role. A role that is different than that of a Sunday churchgoer. Find a person in the story that you will choose to identify with as you read and re-read this story. Take on that role. Put yourself in their shoes during your lectio divina.
Now, I have found that there are a few keys to doing this second practice. The first key is total and utter commitment to the practice. It can be uncomfortable to sit with the point of view of a person or a group of people that our years of Sunday school and Christmas carols have chosen not to focus on. However, that is how our scriptural complacency can settle in. It’s how we think we know the whole story when we’ve whittled it down to ten words. So who are our individuals or groups of individuals in today’s scripture. Who is present in the scenes described? Well, there’s the obvious “stars”, if you’ll forgive the pun, of the show, the three kings. There’s Herod, of course. Then there’s the “chief priests and scribes of the people” who Herod calls to council him. And finally, there’s the holy family, sitting in their modest lodging in Bethlehem. Mary, the new mother, Joseph the (probably equal parts proud and nervous) father, and their vulnerable, tiny child. These are the four groups directly impacted by this story. So now, having identified these players, we turn to the second key to this practice: context.
Context is paramount when it comes to really getting into your role! As any theatre student will tell you, one of the keys to Stanislavskian method acting is to find points of connection with your character so as to more fully inhabit them. You cannot do this if you do not know where they are coming from, literally and metaphorically. So let us add some context to our four key players:
Re-read the scripture now, holding on to your chosen role, trying to put yourself in their place.
Read it again.
Read it one more time.
What was the experience like? Have you ever thought about the story from that point of view? What new insights have you gained? Do you have conflicting feelings about how you would react in those situations? What stories might have happened in between the portions committed to scripture?
Maybe there were hushed discussions in dark hallways of Herod’s palace. Secret conversations in native tongues as you walked the six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Shocked reactions and hurried attempts to clean up when you hear foreign dignitaries have arrived to pay homage to your newborn son.
For me, this is what brings familiar scriptures to life. This scripture that we have heard so many times before can have new life, excitement, and relevance breathed into it. Suddenly, we are given new perspectives to consider, new moral questions to ponder, new reasons to tell the stories again. I encourage you to try this practice with any biblical text you’ve examined before. Or maybe try this combination of lectio divina and individual identification with your favorite story from the Bible. Lay your preconceptions to one side and commit entirely. Enter with context and background information, ready to dive into the story anew. Perhaps you will find yourself surrounded by outsiders, following a star to a great promised king and being met instead by a teenage mother, a worried, watchful father, and a defenseless, tiny baby. Scripture can still surprise us with these epiphanies of imagination, just as God surprises the world by joining creation as the most vulnerable thing imaginable, a wriggling, crying, cooing newborn. May we never take these surprises for granted, seeking them out with open hearts, ready to be moved by the guiding light of God’s love.
Haworth-Maden, C. (Ed.). (2004). The Glory of the Nativity. In The Life and Teachings of Christ. Saraband.
Muddiman, J. (2014). The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford University Press.
Newsom, C. A., & Ringe, S. H. (1998). Women's Bible Commentary. Westminster/John Knox Press.
Walton, J. H., & Keener, C. S. (2019). NRSV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Zondervan.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.