Saturday, January 12, 2013

Even people we thought were enemies long to see the Light

Jan. 6, 2013
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ps. 72
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

In our hyper-rational world, dreams are the product of a troubled mind. We have alarming dreams of forgetting a homework assignment, of missing an exam, of showing up at a job interview in our pajamas. We have terrifying, strange dreams, finding ourselves at the brink of death, waking up heart pounding and haunted. And occasionally we have dreams of astoundingly wonderful wish fulfillment, dreams from which we never want to awake.

We no longer view dreams as things which tell us what to do, as dreams told the wise men to avoid Herod and go home another way – as dreams told Joseph to flee with Mary and the child to find safety in far-away Egypt – as dreams told an earlier Joseph, of the coat of many colors, how to save the people of Egypt from famine by storing up their bounty for the hard years ahead. When the famine came, it was his brothers that Joseph was also able to save – his brothers, the children of Israel, who had sold him in slavery in Egypt in the first place. Dreams in those “old days” were like twitter feeds, e-mail announcements, facebook posts: dreams were how people interpreted what they were experiencing when they were awake. Dreams were how people understood what they events of the day meant.

It is easy to get caught up in the magic of old language like these bible stories. The old language can distance these stories from our current lives. Those “magical” things happened then; this is now. But let’s look again at this story of the wise men: Matthew was trying to tell his readers something important, in the words they could understand – what is he trying to tell us?

The wise men – and Matthew doesn’t tell us how many there are – come from “the East.” From Asia, Persia, Babylon. From the place where hundreds of years earlier the people of Israel were held in captivity by their conquerors. People from “the East” are the enemies of the people Matthew was writing to. Yet even these people see something important in the birth of this child. These people can see it in the world around them – in a star, in a wonder of the natural world. Everything points to this birth as something miraculous, something awaited – the ultimate “aha!” moment – the key interpretation that unlocks the meaning of the dream that everyone has been having.

The other theme in Matthew’s story is that of Herod, the frightened, the powerful, the violent. Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, and here he depicts Herod, the leader of the Jews, as reprehensible and cruel. Herod is the one who does not dream. Herod is the one who wants no interpretation of the world around him other than his own – that it is a world completely under his power and authority. Soon after this passage, of course, he looks for the baby Jesus, and when he can’t find him, he kills all infant boys. Herod’s world is the world of ultimate rationality, ultimately ruled by fear.

Our two readings from the Old Testament – the passage from the prophet Isaiah and Psalm 72 – tell us what all the dreams point to. They tell us what Matthew had in mind, when he described Jesus as the true king and Herod as the false one. God’s vision for the world has always been one of justice, one of abundance, one of mercy. This is the light God shines on all the world – all the peoples – not just the ones who came out of Egypt as “God’s chosen people.” The kings who rule as God would have them rule defend the needy and rescue the poor and crush oppressors.

Given human nature, it is likely that there will be more people like Herod in this world, people who get power, and fear loss, and take revenge by shedding blood. But lessons like these let us know that we are not alone in condemning that way of doing things – that even people who we thought were our enemies yearn to live in peace and prosperity – that peace and light and justice are not only vague dreams but the means by which we interpret what is going on around us, even now, even today, “as the day dawns, and the morning star rises in our hearts.”[1]

[1] 2 Peter 1:19

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