Journey to Bethlehem

Meditation on Matthew 2:1–12

Pastor Karen Crawford

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Epiphany: Jan. 2, 2022

Link to a recording of the live-streamed service: https://fb.watch/ahDjcSZfyC/

Link to downloadable bulletin:

       On New Year’s Day, I got a call from my aunt, uncle, and sister, who live in Maryland. They live in a suburb of Washington, D.C., where I am from originally.

     Uncle Mel and I were talking about journeys—figurative and real ones. We talked about the journey that the pandemic has taken us on. We have all had different experiences, but there are patterns and similarities. He shared how he missed many of the activities he used to do, the people he used to see, and the conversations he used to have before the pandemic. What did we talk about before we talked about the virus?

     He misses the Israeli dancing he used to do once a week and his volunteer work as a docent in two historic homes in his area. While he used to attend Shabbat services at his local synagogue, the rabbi now leads them for worship on Zoom.

    The four of us marvel at how different our lives and routines are since the pandemic began—almost 2 years ago now. We spend a lot more time at home than we used to, though we are vaccinated and boosted. We are more careful of where we go, what we do. The world seems to us to be a more dangerous place.

    And yet, we journey on. We journey on to a new year with hope and anticipation of the goodness of God in 2022.

***

     The wise men in our reading in Matthew today are led to take a dangerous journey, although just how dangerous, they haven’t a clue. They are magi, a word that shares the same Greek root as our English word magic. Other magi show up in Acts 8 with Simon the sorcerer, who amazes the people of Samaria with his magic tricks until they hear the testimony of Philip, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus. Then,“ Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.” (Acts 8:13)

    But the magi in Matthew aren’t so much magicians like Simon. They are astrologers, those who practice an ancient pseudo-science—studying the night sky for signs and portents of significant events. From what they see, the magi are stirred to travel weeks if not months to look for the child born king of the Jews.

    Why do they care at all, some of us might wonder? They aren’t Jewish!

    God has chosen them. These Gentiles, says one theologian, are the first ones “to recognize the coming of the Messiah and to foreshadow the comprehensiveness of the coming kingdom he will one day proclaim.”  (Barbara Brown Taylor.)

     “The magi’s journey to Bethlehem,” says another theologian, “exposes God’s intention to welcome everyone ‘into the joy of God’s home not made with hands, but eternal in the heavens,’ and remarkably, on earth as well.” (Stephen Bauman)

    This passage makes me think of modern-day seekers. People try out all sorts of churches, denominations, and religions, but still, they aren’t satisfied. There will always be seekers—until Christ comes again. As Augustine of Hippo said in his book, Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.”

     The startling thing about the wise men’s journey is that they go to Bethlehem by way of Jerusalem—to Herod, of all people! The wise men’s arrival in Jerusalem frightens Herod and ALL Jerusalem with him. Jerusalem is right to be afraid, for Herod will call for the slaughter of all male children in the region, aged 2 and younger, to ensure the death of the one Herod fears would replace him and his heirs as the Jewish king.

    The arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem signals the declaration of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah 5:2 of a ruler being born in Bethlehem and the fulfillment of NT prophecy, as well. For Simeon told Mary in Luke 2:34-35, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposedso that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

    What would become of the wise men who were drawn to embark on such a dangerous journey? Leaving Herod, they set out to Bethlehem and, once again, see the star they had seen at its rising. It leads them to Jesus and Mary. They are “overwhelmed with joy.” They kneel down and worship him. Opening their treasure chests, they present gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some believe these gifts are symbolic—gold for a king; frankincense, an incense, a symbol of his divinity; and myrrh, an oil used for embalming, a sign of his death. For the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.

    Miraculously, the wise men evade Herod. They are warned in a dream not to return to the king. They go home a different road. Changed in the presence of Christ and by their journey seeking him, they carry with them the good news that will transform hearts and lives for centuries to come: Christ the Savior is born!

    We, each of us, my friends, are on a lifelong journey to Bethlehem—drawing nearer to the only one who will give us peace, a peace not like the world gives.

      On my New Year’s Day call with my family in Maryland, we talked about figurative and real journeys of the past, present, and future. I shared with them that I am leaving for another journey, a week from today.  I am flying to Austin, TX, to begin a part-time program of study leading to a doctor of ministry degree. For the next 3 years, I will be traveling two weeks a year for seminars in January and June. In the final year, I will be working on an integrative project in my own congregation.

     These next 4 years will be, for me, a journey of formation and transformation, enrichment and discovery. My hope is that I will learn and grow and be strengthened and equipped for the next 10 to 20 years of parish ministry—so that I can help the Church become all that God wants us to be.

     I am tempted to dwell on fearful possibilities as I prepare for this particular journey: my flights could be delayed or cancelled. I could be exposed to the virus and bring it home. May the Lord grant me patience, peace, and grace as I step outside my comfort zone, once again.

    You know that when I go to Austin, I take you with me in my heart and hold you in my thoughts and prayers?

    We are on this journey together—a modern day journey to Bethlehem, seeking our Savior, drawing ever nearer to him, wanting to know and love him more.

    Listen to the promise for those who seek him. “Ask, and it will be given to you,” Jesus says in Matthew 7:7, the Sermon on the Mount. “Seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

     The one thing I am sure about for our future is that it will be full of surprises.

     Yes, the world is a dangerous place. But the Light of the Risen Christ still shines for us, drawing us to take faithful journeys, knowing that God is with us wherever we go.

    And the Light of Christ shines through us, proclaiming with words and the witness of our lives the good news of the kingdom and the Savior, Jesus Christ.

Let us pray. Holy One, thank you for drawing the magi to Bethlehem to the Christ child, foreshadowing the door opening wide to salvation to the Gentiles, as well as the Jews. Thank you for all the gifts of the Spirit you lavish on us as we seek to follow your Light in our modern-day journeys to Bethlehem. Help us to keep on seeking you, knocking on the door that will be opened to you, seeking to be obedient to you, to be transformed in your presence. Give us courage, peace, and patience throughout this new year, Lord, with all its surprises and challenges, but also many blessings of love and joy. Help us to see your goodness and shine the light of Christ through our words and the witness of our lives. In the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Rory, a standard poodle.

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