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Three Wise Women

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Dec 28

 Text: Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

I love the Christmas story, don’t you?  I love the details, and the imagery, and the songs.  I love the children and the costumes and the choreography that help a timeless story to come alive each year.  And I love the way that the story becomes a mirror, reflecting back to us the ways that God comes among us in some new way each year.  As we reflect on our year past, with more than its share of unrest: with racial tension and threats of violence, with an environmental carbon crisis and economic injustice, what does the Christmas story say to us this year?  Where is the wisdom we seek? 

When the season of Advent began four weeks ago, we began a new liturgical year, Year B in our three-year cycle, which means that we’re reading the gospel of Mark this year.  Each year, the first week, just after Thanksgiving, we read the traditional first Sunday of Advent gospel: “The Son of Man – the Son of Humanity -- is coming, you better keep awake.”  Matthew, Mark and Luke each have their versions of this same passage.

Then, the second week of Advent, we read about John the Baptist.  It’s in the third chapter of Matthew, and the third chapter of Luke, just after those gospels begin with the story of the angels and the shepherds and the baby Jesus.  However, when we read Mark’s verses about John the Baptist, they began with Chapter 1, verse 1: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  He begins right away with John the Baptizer appearing in the wilderness, all in the first four verses of the first chapter.  For Mark, that is the beginning.  No angel Gabriel speaking to the young pregnant teenager.  No dreams for Joseph.  No journey to Bethlehem, or busy innkeepers, or wise men following a star.  So what do we do as Advent brings us to the twelve days of Christmas and into Epiphany if we’re following the gospel of Mark?  How do we have Christmas readings in year B if there is no Christmas story in Mark’s gospel? 

Each year, on this Sunday after Christmas, the lectionary leads us into a story about Jesus’ childhood.  Two years ago, we had Luke’s story of the 12-year-old Jesus getting separated from his family.  Last year, it was Matthew’s story of the Flight into Egypt, drawing parallels with the story of Moses.  This year, without anything available in the gospel of Mark, the lectionary includes another story from Luke, this time about Jesus being brought to the Temple as an infant.  The details about the Temple and Simeon and Anna are only told in Luke’s version. 

This story about the infant Jesus being brought into the Temple for the first time always reminds me of Hazel Chellis.  Hazel was the oldest of the widows who were active in my first congregation – a wonderful, small-town church matriarch with a sweet sense of humor and kindness.  Her long-time friend Howard often referred to her as “the late Mrs. Chellis,” as she was often running a bit behind schedule, but she was there every single Sunday without fail.

One morning, as the first people were arriving and milling around the sanctuary, Howard called to her from one aisle to the other, “Hazel!  Would you stop talking and sit down in your pew, so that the rest of us know where to sit?”  She always sat on the center aisle, on the right side, about the fourth row.  Another morning, her nephew said to her, loudly enough that everyone could hear, “Hazel, I haven’t seen you in church in weeks!”  She didn’t miss a beat, “David, that’s because you haven’t been here!”

Hazel’s family had been in town for generations, and owned the local telephone company.  In 1987 when I moved to the village, people still just dialed four numbers to make calls in town.  The old switchboard was located in the Chellis farmhouse, and Hazel was the operator; she was literally at the hub of the activity in the small village.  By the time I arrived in town as the new, young, fresh-out-of-seminary minister, Hazel was in her mid-80s.  Her husband had died 20 or so years earlier, and they hadn’t had any children.  Her niece and nephews were grown, but she endeared herself to the children of the church when they visited her by serving chocolate milk “from the carton”, unlike what they got at home.

Each year in this growing congregation of long-time members and new young families, we would come up with a different way to act out the Christmas story.  Like in our unrehearsed First Church Unpageant, the children dressed up as angels, or shepherds, or magi as the story was read and the carols were sung.  One year, someone had the idea to make sheep costumes (complete with sheep’s ears) for the toddlers, who played their part very well, wandering around the sanctuary.  Another year, we had so many infants that we dressed them in something sparkly and invited their parents to wear dark clothes, so they could sit on their parents’ shoulders, and play the part of the stars twinkling in the Bethlehem sky.  As the children grew up, they progressed from stars to sheep to angels to shepherds to magi, weaving together Matthew’s and Luke’s stories into the Christmas story we have grown up with.  And each year in our pageant, a newborn baby born would play the part of the baby Jesus. 

Our Christmas pageants always weave together two very different stories – one from Matthew and the other from Luke.  In fact, Matthew and Luke tell very different versions of our story – in Matthew, we have the star, and Joseph and his dreams, and the Wise Men.  In Luke, we have the angel Gabriel, and Mary, and the shepherds and the innkeeper.  The Wise Men are only in Matthew’s version.  Yet, however the Christmas story is staged, Luke’s angels and the shepherds always get to the stable first, before Matthew’s Magi arrive.  Some traditions will tell you that the Wise Men journeyed for two years, arriving in Bethlehem when Jesus was a toddler.  Other traditions have them arriving on Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, the day that celebrates the light of the star of the East.  The Wise Men often appear at a distance, either because they were late and couldn’t get too close to the action, or because their regal attire and ornate gifts set them apart from the poverty and simplicity of the rest of the cast.  Yet they stand with the rest of us, according to Matthew, bearing their gifts, and their knowledge of astronomy, and gifts from afar.  We don’t know too much about them, although legend has decided that there were three of them and given them names: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

On the other hand, we know much more about the wise women in Luke’s story.  Elizabeth, you may recall, was the mother of John the Baptist.  She was quite old when an angel of the Lord came and promised that she and her elderly husband would soon have a child.  In fact, she was so overwhelmed that she hid herself for five months, not sure just what to make of this late-in-life pregnancy.  Then, her young cousin Mary arrived from Nazareth.  As she greeted her relative, Elizabeth is startled by her baby, who leaps in her womb for the first time.  Life stirs within Elizabeth and she knows that she is filled with the Holy Spirit.  Elizabeth’s wisdom in recognizing this holy spirit comes from her long life experience and her belief that the word she received from God, that she would bear a child, would truly be fulfilled.  So, we’ve got Elizabeth as one of our wise women for today.

Mary, on the other hand, was a very young woman.  She too believed God’s promise to her, that she would bear a child who would change the world.  When Mary heard that her relative Elizabeth was also pregnant, she left quickly and eagerly for the hill country of Judah.  She went, perhaps, to celebrate Elizabeth’s pregnancy or, more likely to offer her help in childbirth.  Mary understands in the promise of her pregnancy the promise of liberation for all people, and more importantly, she connects it to the tradition of her Hebrew people as she speaks the poetic words that we have come to know as the “Magnificat.”  Mary’s young wisdom enables her to act with eagerness and to connect herself and her tradition with the circumstances around her as she shares her good news with Elizabeth and the world. Mary is our second wise woman.

And then, the third of our wise women joins the story after Jesus was born, when his parents brought him to the Temple, as was the custom.  There they met Anna, a prophet, one who was recognized by the community for her gift of discerning God’s words and interpreting them for the people.  She was old, 84, and had been a widow for most of her life, maybe as long as 50 or 60 years.  In a world where a woman’s identity came from her husband, Anna remained independent.  Her gift of prophecy blossomed and flourished.  Maybe it was that gift of prophecy that enabled her independence, while it gave her the time and space to spend her days and nights in the temple, praying and fasting, opening herself fully to the word of God.  When the baby Jesus was presented in the Temple, Anna recognized him and spoke of him to all of the people.  Anna’s wisdom was developed and refined by her dedication to a life of prayer and fasting and openness to God. 

Back to the story of the Christmas pageant in my first congregation.  One year, we had a big dilemma in our small town.  There were two babies due in the late fall.  It became known as “The Baby Jesus Contest.”  We decided that the baby born first would be the baby John the Baptist, and the second, closest to Christmas, would be the baby Jesus.  So that year, we began our pageant with the elderly Zechariah, and Luke’s story of the angel of the Lord appearing to Zechariah and telling him not to be afraid, for his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, who should be called John.  We continued with the infant stars shining in the Bethlehem sky, and the toddler sheep wandering around the sanctuary.  We had Luke’s familiar angels and Matthew’s Wise Men, and the stable and Mary and Joseph, and the baby Jesus.  But that year, the story didn’t end there. 

We continued with the part that we read today, about how they brought Jesus to the Temple, where he was blessed by two elders, Simeon and the prophet Anna.  In our special pageant that year, we invited the two oldest people in our congregation to take part.  We told Hazel that all she had to do was to walk forward at the end of the pageant and sit in the big chair – and that’s when Mary and Joseph placed the newborn baby Jesus into her arms, and we concluded our pageant with “Joy to the World!”  That’s how I imagine the prophet Anna – the wise woman of the congregation, the one who is always there, reliable and true, full of wisdom, maybe with a bit of a sense of humor, whose words and experience are respected and revered. 

These three women, through whom Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth, give us a glimpse of the wisdom that dwells in human experience.  Elizabeth trusts in God’s promise to her of new life, Mary connects that promise of life with God’s promise of liberation, and Anna proclaims to the people that the promise has been fulfilled in the baby Jesus who has been brought to the Temple.  Their wisdom is not gained from the study of the stars and things distant, but comes from their own life experience, as God has revealed it to them.  It is divine wisdom and human wisdom together, one a gift, the other developed.  Divine wisdom rooted in human experience. 

That, to me, seems to offer a clue about what we’re missing these days.  I came across the quote that I’ve included in the bulletin from Isaac Asimov, the Boston University biochemistry professor who has the distinction of having published works in nine of the ten sections of the Dewey Decimal cataloguing system.  He was a prolific writer of science, and the history of science, and the future of science and science fiction and biochemistry, and all sorts of things.

“The saddest aspect of life is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

We are short of the wisdom we so desperately need to hold it all together.  I invite you to reflect on that this week, to reflect on where wisdom is lacking in the world, to think about what we might do to change that, to each do our small part to bring that wisdom, that wisdom that we gain from our experience of looking for God in this sanctuary, in this century.

As the new year dawns on our horizon and as you make your new years’ resolutions for 2015, think about what small piece you might be able to contribute to do your part to help society to gather the wisdom that we need, to use our technology, to use our inventions, to use our power and study and our intellect for good and for the future of our planet. 

May God add grace and wisdom to our reflections during this Christmas season.  Amen.

 

Who would think that what was needed to transform and save the earth
Might not be a plan or army, proud in purpose, proved in worth?
Who would think, despite derision, that a child should lead the way?
God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day.

Shepherds watch and sages wonder, monarchs scorn and angels sing;
Such a place as none would reckon hosts a holy helpless thing;
Stabled beasts and by-passed strangers watch -- a baby laid in hay;
God surprises earth with heaven coming here on Christmas Day.

Centuries of skill and science span the past from which we move,
Yet experience questions whether with such progress we improve.
While the human lot we ponder, lest our hopes and humor fray,
God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day.

 

 

 

 

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