"Leaving Bethlehem"

Isaiah 60:1-6

Matthew 2:1-12

We were having some trouble with the locks on the sign that faces Clinton St. in recent weeks. They wouldn’t unlock—so we couldn’t open the door and change the sign. We’re still waiting for the locksmith to come and really fix the problem, but Nan was finally able to get the sign door open last Thursday.

Until then, while time moved on, it looked as though we were still waiting for the coming of Christmas. The rather long title for the sermon on December 23 seemed anachronistic after the start of a new year, as well as that invitation for people to join us for our Christmas Eve worship service.

Nan told me that it looked as though we just couldn’t get over Christmas here—we were holding on with all our might!

That’s not the case elsewhere.

By the third day of Christmas, some stores had put out Valentines.

By the fifth day of Christmas, at least one store was selling Easter candy—the chocolate Santas and snowmen, now deeply discounted, were replaced by bunnies and lambs.

It’s not something to get upset about, really. It’s just commerce.

But is does remind us that Christmas fades, that sooner or later we must leave Bethlehem.

We don’t forget what we have seen and heard and done—the quiet beauty of the candlelight, the joy of the carols, the happiness of giving and receiving and feasting.

But we begin, in these early January days, to shift things, to unlock our hearts and our lives so that we might move in some new directions, so that we might find new approaches to old problems, so that, in the words of Tennyson’s famous poem, we might ring out the old and ring in the new.

I learned as last year drew to a close that in Sweden they read Tennyson’s “Ring Out Wild Bells” every year on New Year’s Eve. They’ve been doing this for over a hundred years—who knew? It’s like their “Auld Lang Syne.”

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light;

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Learning about this sent me back to the version of this poem that is a hymn in the old Congregational Pilgrim Hymnal.

One verse in particular seemed as though it could have been written just for us in our time:

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right;

Ring in the common love of good.

We have a ways to go, still, don’t we?

And then the hymn concludes with its most challenging and enigmatic line:

            Ring in the Christ that is to be.


The Christ that is to be.

The Magi traveled with a question: “Where?”

It’s the question they brought to Herod—of all people—in Jerusalem. “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews?”

That’s curious title—and one that only shows up again in Matthew’s Gospel near the end. Jesus never claims that title for himself.

But it is used by Pilate as he mocks Jesus.

It is used by Roman soldiers as they beat him.

And it is finally placed as an accusation on the cross to which Jesus was nailed to die.

A strange king, this child in Bethlehem: A threatened child. A hope. A savior—if we can discover once more what that might me in our time.

The Christ that is yet to be—the one whom we are called ring in—continues to come to us as one unknown and unexpected, one for whom old, comfortable titles no longer seem to fit. The Christ who is yet to be is the one whom we follow on individual journeys, the one whom we follow as we journey together as a congregation—toward those secret destinations that are unknown to us but will be revealed only as we travel on.

Today we mark Epiphany—the revelation of God in Christ as a light to the Gentiles (that’s us)—and we hear again Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus that lacks shepherds and manger but gives us a star and magi—the astrologers, or wise men, who followed it all the way to Bethlehem.

You know, I like it when things go well. So that scene of the magi bowing before the infant Jesus that you find on Christmas card and that you can see in our crèche set up on the table outside of this sanctuary pleases me.

And you know I like to comfort people—to tell you everything will be all right. It’s one of my faults.

So this morning I want to tell you: Follow your star! Seek the light! Be wise!

But that’s not the whole story—and you know that. Go home and read all of chapter two of Matthew sometime this week.  

Soon after arriving and offering their gifts, the Magi left Bethlehem.

And soon after that, Mary, Joseph, and their son, Jesus left as well.

And all of this happens in the middle of some very disturbing events. Matthew’s story is one of

People fleeing their home out of fear

Children dying because of an enraged ruler

            Arriving at a new home and finding safety.

So, you know, it’s hard to hear this ancient story this year and not think about our own time in which murderous violence compels people to leave the places and the people they love, in which children at our southern border continue to be separated from their parents and two have died while in the custody of our government, in which children in Syrian and Yemen die in air strikes supported by our nation’s vast military power, in which in spite of the great opposition they face, people continue to want to come to this nation and establish a new life in safety.

It’s hard not to think of such things this year.

It’s more likely that we will be challenged rather than comforted by this story this year.

But there is something here beyond parallels between our times and those two thousand years ago.

So the question still comes to us: Who is this Jesus, whose birth is announced by angels, feared by a king, and acknowledged by the wise?

And the various answers will come only as we get on with what the great 20th century African American preacher, Howard Thurman called “the work of Christmas.

Find the lost

Heal the broken

Feed the hungry

Release the prisoners

Rebuild the nations

Bring peace among brothers and sisters

Make music in the heart

Most of the work of Christmas happens beyond these four walls: in homes and neighborhoods, in offices, stores, and classrooms. The work of Christmas occurs in our daily efforts to do what is right, to live with purpose, to follow where Jesus leads as he heals the sick, announces God's forgiveness, and calls people to a new way of life.

We can only do that work as we leave Bethlehem—perhaps thankful for all we have seen and heard, perhaps puzzling over the strange news of Christmas once more.