A sermon preached on January 5, 2013, Epiphany Sunday, based upon Mathew 2:1-12.
One of the mothers of our church told me that her six year old son recently switched schools, and that he was having a hard time fitting in among his new classmates — in particular, that he was feeling as if they were excluding him from their pre-existing cliques. She said this is how he put it: “Mommy, you how Pastor Jeff says there’s always room in the circle… for friends and stuff? Well, I think that’s a lie. I don’t think that it’s true.”
I was genuinely moved by the fact that this little boy had so fully taken to heart the ideal expressed in the words we speak each week: that “there’s always room in the circle” — that he’d gotten it so completely regarding how people are supposed to treat one another, specifically, in regard to welcoming the newcomers among us.
It pained me, of course to hear of the distress that this little boy was experiencing when this ideal of how people are supposed to treat one another – the way Jesus instructed us to treat others – came face to face with the reality that too often in this world people don’t treat one another this way, and that he had to have to experience first hand what it feels like to be excluded in this world.
It also struck me how deep seeded this propensity to exclude others is in human nature. These are six year old children we’re talking about, which raises questions: where did this excluding behavior come from? Was it taught, which is to say, modeled somehow by the children’s parents and families and others? Or is it in some sense instinctive, part of the inheritance of our DNA through the ages?
In all likelihood it is some combination of both, which would be the traditional Christian take on what is more generally called “sin” — the darkness that opposes the light. We learn bad choices from others, but there is also something within us that compels us to make destructive choices.
It is striking that the very same struggle between the darkness and the light the little boy from our church came face to face with in his new school is found in this old, old story we hear every Epiphany Sunday of the wise men coming from the east in search of the Christ-child, stopping along the way to talk to King Herod.
The wise men travel a great distance, led by the light of the star in search of a child born of the light; one in whom all the barriers that separate people are overcome. They come from far outside the pre-existing circle with the naïve, almost child-like assumption that they will be welcomed into the circle. It is a Jewish baby they seek, and they are not Jews, and have no intention of becoming Jews, but in the light revealed in this child it doesn’t matter, because the light reveals that we are all one.
Different sorts of people who have taken distinctly different paths to the child’s crib find a welcome there: poor shepherds who were broadsided by angels who spoke of “good news of great joy for ALL people” – not some people, and financially secure magi speaking a different language who by methodically studying the stars have come to a similar truth to the one revealed to the poor shepherds.
There is room in the circle for all, and all are of equal worth in the circle.
But in our bible story the light encounters darkness — the darkness engulfs King Herod. The announcement of the coming of God’s kingdom in the birth of the Christ-child fills him with fear, because it means that in order to make room for the kingdom of God, he must let go of his kingdom, and he’s not ready to do that. He clings to his power.
It is striking that Matthew makes a point of saying that it wasn’t just King Herod who was threatened by the news brought to them from afar of the birth of the Christ-child, telling us that “all of Jerusalem” shared this sense of being threatened. It would have been easier if it were just Herod. If it were just Herod, all we’d need to do is to get rid of the bad apples; we could overthrow Herod and his aides, and then everybody would rejoice in the news that there is always room in the circle.
But unfortunately the same darkness is within all of us, and so throughout history, as soon as outsiders have become insiders, they turn around and lock the doors, defending and abusing their new found power.
All of Jerusalem is threatened right alongside of King Herod, because even though the people may be suffering under King Herod’s rule, at least they are inside the present circle, which means they have people to feel superior to – the people excluded from their circle. That means they’re “somebody”, right? Not some “nobody.” And these foreigners coming from far outside the circle with their news about the Christ child’s birth threaten to take way their sense of being “somebody.”
In John’s Gospel we hear that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
In Matthew’s story, the darkness is revealed, but it does not prevail. The magi are led by the light of the star to the even greater light revealed in the child born to be king.
The darkness tries mighty hard to extinguish the light: Herod will go on in Matthew’s story to try and kill the Christ-child by having all the male infants in the land murdered. It’s horrible, and it expresses the darkness of the violence that has plagued the human race for all of human history right up to the present.
But as powerful as the darkness appears, it does not prevail. The Christ child lives, and grows up to shine his light. And strangely his light will shine the brightest when, at the end of his life, he dies for all people – not some people – nailed to a cross. It is this death we will recall when in a little while we come forward to the table where all are welcome to share in the bread and the cup that reminds us of Christ’s sacrifice offer up for all people.
There are two things required of us as would receive this gift. First, to own the darkness that is within each of us: the ways we cling to our personal kingdoms. Our compulsive need to be right and have others be wrong. The subtle ways we exclude and diminish others in order to feel superior. There is something of King Herod in all of us, and we need to recognize his presence or the darkness will get the better of us.
But the other thing we need to do is to hold onto hope. A new possibility for how people can live in this world came into being when the Christ-child was born, and having once made its appearance, it can never disappear. The light can not be overcome.
If the little boy from our church can find in his experience of being excluded an empathy for every excluded person on earth, his life will be a sign of hope for others in this world. If he can hold onto the truth that there really is room in the circle for everybody even though people routinely fail to live in harmony with that truth, his life will be blessed, and he will be a blessing for others. He will bear witness to the Light.