Light shining in Darkness

The Welcoming Face of God

  • Isaiah 60: 1-6 ‘Arise, Shine; for your light has come…’
  • Matthew 2:1-12: A Star lights the way to Jesus

Isaiah 60:1-6 – Hear the Word of God from the Prophet Isaiah

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
   and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
   and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
   and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
   and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
   they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
   and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
   your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
   the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
   the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
   all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
   and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Holy Wisdom, Holy Word!

The Gospel according to Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking,
‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
For we observed his star at its rising,
and have come to pay him homage.’

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;
and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people,
he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

They told him,
‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men
and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying,
‘Go and search diligently for the child;
and when you have found him,
bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’
When they had heard the king, they set out;
and there, ahead of them, went the star
that they had seen at its rising,
until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped,
they were overwhelmed with joy.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother;
and they knelt down and paid him homage.
Then, opening their treasure-chests,
they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another road.

Holy Wisdom, Holy Word!

[I am indebted to biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann for a meditation on Isaiah 60 and Matthew 2 called ‘Off by nine miles’ ( http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2103 or www.textweek.com ) and to Gene Stotlzfus in a blog ( http://peaceprobe.wordpress.com . 12/31/08) on the tragedy in Gaza today. Gene was founding director of Christian Peacemaker Teams for almost 2 decades. To receive Gene’s occasional commentary contact him at genestoltz@yahoo.com .]

Wise Men: For just such a time as that

When Matthew wrote his gospel he was not the first to imagine some wise men from the east going to Jerusalem. Matthew knew the story as a poem from the prophet Isaiah (chapter 60) first heard by Jews in Jerusalem nearly 6 centuries earlier (580 B.C.E). These Jews had been exiled in Babylon – Iraq today – for a couple of generations and had come back to bombed-out Jerusalem. In despair they lamented returning home to a city with towers torn down, the economy collapsed, and nobody capable of bringing change.

In the midst of their despair and surrounding chaos, a prophetic poet listened to God and challenged the discouraged community to look up, have hope, change is in the air.

‘Arise, shine, for your light has come.’ The poet anticipates that Jerusalem will become a beehive of productivity and prosperity, a new center of international trade. ‘Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.’ Caravans loaded with trade goods will come from Asia and bring prosperity. God has promised to make the city work effectively in peace, and a promise from God is very sure.

Like Matthew, the wise men know about Isaiah 60. They know they were to go to Jerusalem carrying gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. More important, they expect to find a new king of true peace and prosperity.

When Herod hears about the wise men, he is frightened. A new king is a threat to the old king and the old order. Herod panics and calls for scholars, demanding, “What’s this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh? Tell me about Isaiah 60!’  The scholars assure Herod: ‘No worries.’ The wise men have the wrong text. Isaiah 60 misleads readers into thinking that Jerusalem will be restored and prosper again as a wealthy urban center of the global economy.

Herod is not convinced and demands again, “Do you have a better text?” In fear and trepidation they tell the angry king that the proper text is the prophet Micah:

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah . . . from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old . . .And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord…and they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace… (5:2-5a).

This is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great…achievements. It anticipates a different future, as yet unaccomplished, that will organize the peasant land in resistance to imperial threat. Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to the folks on the ground.

This is brief background of the encounter of wise men and Herod. The wise men head off for Bethlehem – an unpopular and unpretentious no-place in contrast to Jerusalem.

It is, however, the proper [place] birth of the One who will offer an alternative to arrogant learning and arrogant power…

This epiphany scripture is the story of these two contrasting human communities:

Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises…

It is amazing — the true accent of epiphany — that the wise men do not resist this alternative but go on to the village. They reorganize their [thinking] and reorient their lives around a baby [in Bethlehem rather than a king in Jerusalem].

Bethlehem is nine miles south of Jerusalem. The wise men had… missed their goal by nine miles. It is mind-boggling to think how the story might have gone had Herod’s interpreters not remembered Micah 2.

Most of us are looking in the wrong place. We are off by nine miles. We are now invited to travel those hard miles away from [Jerusalem to Bethlehem]. Epiphany is a good time to take the journey, for September 11 reminds us of the shambles that can come through our excessive pretension. The way beyond is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity, a future with spears turned into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares.

Gaza Today: Just such a time as this

An irony of this Christmas season is that Bethlehem is more peaceful than it has been for several Christmas seasons. Pilgrims can again visit Bethlehem. The tragedy is that that around Bethlehem that holy land is anything but peaceful.

As I pondered Isaiah’s words and the Wise Men’s ways during these days when bombs are dropped and rockets are launched over Gaza and Israel I have been bombarded with viewpoints called ‘news’ and ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ about the tragic events in Gaza and Israel. In my pondering I consulted with Gene Stotlzfus who shared a blog he was writing reflecting on ‘Gaza: Just Such A Time As This’ (12/31/08). I want to end with some of Gene’s words as a way to ground us in this biblical word for these times.

Today I am in sorrow over what is happening in the region of Gaza. Is there anything I can do? Am I limited to government statements, last minute diplomacy, or immobilizing personal outrage? How do I respond from this place of despair? What do I tell the children? Is this the time when the posture of prayer may provide the spirit of openness for a solution waiting to be recognized from the treasures of mystery?

What is at issue in this crisis? Israel is outraged due to persistent rocket attacks from Gaza. Hamas is outraged by the Israeli authorities’ ongoing harassment at border checkpoints where supplies and people must travel from Gaza’s confined space to the rest of the world.

There is also an elephant in the room that most governments across the world are ignoring; the attack and destabilisation of a duly elected government. In the most recent elections in the Palestinian territories including Gaza, Hamas won with wide popular support…. But when democracy is promoted across the world and the people elect a government that other nations do not like, by what guide of democracy can the outside world unilaterally decide that this is not acceptable and deliberately undermine that election? Grumbling about an elected government is part of democracy everywhere, but destabilizing an elected government is not a part of the democratic way of life.

There is also a stark military economic inequality between the two sides in this violent conflict….

Where do we turn for a resolution?…..Can the fruits of our imaginations be ignited through the Gaza crisis of 2008? Can we believe that our collective imaginations of this day might help? Have we been given one more opportunity to sharpen our seeing and listening for what wants to be revealed from divine mystery?

People who are deeply committed to social justice and peacemaking… are suspicious that meditation belongs only to the pious and spiritual ones who hide behind their exercises to avoid engagement. The split between people of action and people of prayer is a false dichotomy that appears in every tradition. If political analysis, dissecting the holy, the manipulation of shame and guilt, or raw activism could have provided the basis for peace in this region of God’s earth, it would have happened long ago. What has been lacking is the acknowledgement of the mystery of unknown forces at work among and through patterns of violent conflict so heavily focused on Israel and Palestine.

The war in Gaza today invites me to prayer. I don’t promise that prayer will enlighten my imagination in a fresh way. I will try because I know that liberation from false myths of security is born in moments of irrational violence. I share our common desperation for a break through. When a sign or nudge to action comes I hope I have the courage to acknowledge it. And if it comes to me or you, we can share it with the people on the peace councils, in diplomatic corps, or organizations, share it with all the people on this journey with us. We may be here for just such a time as this .

On this Epiphany, at the climax of this Advent-Christmas season, our hearts cry out in prayer, ‘God have mercy!’ with our ears open to the prophet’s cry, ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come!’