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No Longer at Ease Here, in the
Old Dispensation

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
January 3, 2016

The Christmas Season is coming to a close. Was it a joy-filled easy time for you? Or were there loses to reconcile, hurts or wounds reopened? Have you been renewed in this season of renewal? Do you expect something new in this new year? Or are you just relieved to get back to the quiet of winter?

Epiphany is the official end of the Christmas Season, set for 12 days after Christmas when the Wise Men are said to have followed the star that led them to Jesus’ home. We learned from our children in their wonderful Christmas Pageant this year that Matthew tells of Wise men and Luke speaks only of shepherds and angels. Usually we simply add the Wise Men to our Nativity scenes set in a barn, but Matthew assures us that Jesus was born at home with Joseph and Mary who already lived in Bethlehem.  Matthew’s story is perhaps more logical. Why would you go somewhere you don’t currently live to be counted in a census? But it is based more on the story of Moses than on historical fact. “Everyone knew” that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Matt and Luke just have different ways of getting him there.

No one knows exactly when Jesus was born. December 25 wasn’t celebrated as his birthday until the 4th Century. That date is based on the idea that he was conceived at the Spring Equinox. Count forward 9 months! Epiphany as a celebration of the coming of the Wise Men from the East was celebrated in the Eastern Church by the 2nd Century. The year of his birth continues to be debated among scholars. From 4 BCE – 6 CE, depending on when Herod ruled Israel.

Each of the gospels reveals a different view of the historical Jesus. Mark, the earliest gospel, is the basis of Matthew, Luke and John in terms of his life, ministry, and death. For Mark, Jesus becomes the Christ at his baptism. The disciples were a bumbling group who fled at his crucifixion.

Matthew focused on Old Testament prophesies and built his story on what everyone in the 1st Century believed about the Messiah. He begins with a genealogy and Jesus becomes the Christ at his birth. The disciples are a little smarter. Moses is the model for Jesus life story.
Luke used prophesy as well as a strong sense of social justice as his foundation for telling the story. He begins with a genealogy and and Jesus becomes the Christ at his conception before birth. Luke wrote to a diverse inner city community of Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor. Scholars now think it may have been written as late as John, at the very end of the 1st Century.

John saw Jesus as being the Christ from the beginning of time, as the Wisdom and Word of God “In the beginning,” his Jesus tells long stories with grand speeches.

Thomas shares much of the teachings and sayings found in the other gospels but with a totally inward perspective and no life events.

The story of Epiphany and the coming of the Wise Men is set in the dark times of King Herod. It is found only in Matthew’s gospel. We hear the beautiful story of Wise Men following a star but end with the ominous words “having been warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” We don’t dwell on what Matthew says happened next: the escape into Egypt (just like Moses), the massacre of the infants (just like the story in Exodus), the return from Egypt and finally settling in Nazareth to explain why Jesus was always known as “Jesus of Nazareth”      
There is no historical evidence for any of these specific events but they reveal a time when Empire was in control of an oppressed people. They set a context for the coming Messiah in desperate times.

Do we live in desperate times? ‘The Journey of the Magi’ by T.S. Eliot that Peter so eloquently read for us was written in 1927.  Hear it again and ponder its power:

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say )satisfactory..
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

1927 was a time between two world wars when fascism was rising in Europe and the economy of most of the Western world was in shambles. People were looking for someone to blame for their problems.
Eliot captures what it would be like to be a proud and knowledgeable person seeing a “king” born into poverty and danger. Are we Wise Ones? Do we feel troubled by the story of Jesus’ birth? Do we feel troubled by what we see happening in the world around us: the poverty, the desperation, the violence, the blaming?

If we saw the King of Kings in such danger that he would soon have to flee for his life, what would we think? What if the children escaping war in Syria, devastation in Africa, poverty in our inner cities, abuse at the hands of police simply because of the color of their skin, was the Second Coming of Christ? What if every child is a sacred being whose life is a manifestation of the divine? Would this change our understanding of the world? Could we go on living “business as usual”?

Are we “No longer at ease here, in the old dispensation”? In this new year is God calling us to some new thing? Is God calling you out of your comfort zone? Are you being asked to find a new depth to your compassion? A new courage to act on behalf of others? God’s love is unconditional and absolute but so is God’s call to justice and growth. If our faith is dynamic and alive it will nudge us. It will make us uncomfortable with being too comfortable.

Old religion taught us just to “believe in Jesus” but our new faith is bigger than that! Richard Rohr said it well:
Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Savior” or continue to receive Sacraments in good standing. The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.

Our world is calling us to step out of our comfort zones and discover ways to act on behalf of those who are poor, and hungry, and homeless and in the midst of violence. We must be peacemakers. We must be courageous. We must be patient and creative and kind.

Eliot described the transformation as a kind of death… foreshadowing Jesus’ death with the “three trees on the low sky.”
In this new year, is there something in you that must die so that your true Spirit can thrive? This is not about sin or guilt, it is about freedom. Dare to imagine yourself as a Wise One who has followed that star to this place and time. Imagine seeing yourself mirrored in the sacred innocence of this child. Imagine yourself renewed this day with a deep and challenging wholeness. Embrace your fears with courage. Discover what comes next for you, for us, in this community of faith and service. Let’s not be too comfortable. Let’s not be at ease here, in the old dispensation. May it be so. Amen.