Sermon: Strangers from the East

A Sermon from Matthew 2:1-12

What a strange story. This story of the Wise Men and their visit to Bethlehem doesn’t show up in Luke’s birth narrative. This is the only account we have of these Wise Men and their journey and I find myself wanting more information here. How did they know to follow the star? In what ways are these strangers following and aware of the writings of the prophets? What is happening here? It’s all very strange, the people, the circumstances.

I have friends who grew up playing with nativity sets. Their Ninja Turtles would visit the manger scene along with the shepherds. They remember lighting the Advent Candles with their family or watching others light the candles. Filling their worship space with the signs of the coming King was all a part of their yearly routine. But I grew up in a Church of God, which comes out of the Pentecostal movement. We celebrated Christmas for sure, but there was no Advent observance, there weren’t special prayers and signs, and there was no Christmas Eve service. So, when I discovered the United Methodist Church as a college student, all the things they did seemed very strange.

The thing was, I LOVED the strangeness of it all. Now, let me be clear, I grew up in a church with Pentecostal worship, we’re talking speaking in tongues and the whole nine yards, but, for me, the ornate sanctuary and rituals that were 1,000 years old were strange.

Now that it is such a part of my life, the rituals and liturgy have become grounding to me. No matter what kind of chaos I encounter during the week, I can count on confessing my faith here each week. I can count on praying the prayer which Jesus taught me along with this great group of believers. This order in the midst of my life of chaos has become a cornerstone of my life. But, I think it’s probably helpful for us to recognize and remember that what we do here each week is a little strange.

We live in the south where it’s fairly common to be asked, “where do you go to church?” But we live in a world where that is an increasingly strange question. Perhaps the strangeness is a good thing. After all, the whole nativity scene is kind of strange. I mean, think about it. We’ve gotten used to it because we see it every year. But it’s rather odd, isn’t it? The shepherds, dirty and stinky. From tending the flock. Mary and Joseph, tired and worn from a long journey plus Mary’s exhaustion from childbirth. The animals trying to settle in, wondering at the strange commotion. The heavenly beings gathered around singing. It’s strange… But, it’s also oddly beautiful. Perhaps the whole beauty isn’t in the strangeness, but it’s definitely a part of it.

And then here come the Wise Men from the East. If this whole thing wasn’t strange enough, now it’s even more so. Who are they? Where in the East? What is their purpose? We have no idea. And yet year after year we come back to this story. These are the first of many strangers that Jesus meets. It is clear that Jesus’ influence goes far beyond his immediate community. But it’s also clear that this baby is different.

Imagine, if you will, being in Mary or Joseph’s shoes. You’ve just been a part of the birth of this baby boy who Angels have told you is God’s very own son, Emmanuel. And yet, it happened in a stable because no one had room for you. Dirty shepherds and livestock were the welcoming committee for your son. And now, after things have finally calmed down, these strangers show up from “the East,” (wherever that is). They don’t look like you, they don’t sound like you. Why are they here? You probably shouldn’t let them in to see your son. These people are strangers, which makes them strange. It’s in the word.

We don’t particularly like the idea of strangers. We don’t really want them around us, but we definitely don’t want them around our children. There’s just no telling what they might do. We don’t know them and so we don’t know whether or not they’re safe. And that’s scary.

And yet, we find ourselves here at Epiphany. Reading this strange story that we read every year. A story that reminds us that some of Jesus’ first visitors were strangers from the East. A story that reminds us that strangeness is not evil. A story that reminds us that Jesus and his kingdom are not limited to a particular people.

This story is strange and it makes me a little uncomfortable. It challenges me, suggesting that I might have to change the way I look at and think about things that are strange.Things that operate differently than I’m used to, people who look and talk and act differently from what I’m used to, all of that which seems downright strange to me. And I’m not sure what this means for me in practical terms. I know I’m being called to draw the circle wide; to welcome as family people from all walks of life. But how wide am I willing to draw that circle? Where am I not willing to open my arms? Some strangers and some strangeness is fine. Others…am I willing to go there?

I may not know the answers to all of our encounters with strangers and strangeness, but I do know that there’s far more than Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh on the line.