Dream A Little Dream
A Meditation on Matthew 2: 1 – 12
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church January 6, 2019
Y’all know I love the humble children’s Christmas pageant with pipe cleaner halos and bath towel tunics. I love the unpredictability of wondering where children might take the story. There is a fabulous example of this that making the rounds of social media since this Christmas. A group of well-rehearsed – and very young – children is gathered around the manger: Mary, Joseph, an angel with a halo as big as her head, and sheep. Docile, sleepy sheep…or are they?
The congregation sings “Away in a Manger,” and the “little Lord Jesus” baby doll is “asleep on the hay.” It’s a picture perfect moment, until one of the sheep becomes, well, restless. Let’s face it, some of us just can’t stand still when we hear music. The sheep rises or her stubby little sheep legs, and in one swift motion, frees the baby from the manger, and joyfully dances with him to the strains of the carol. The adults are amused, the baby Jesus, is probably amused, too. After all, he couldn’t see anything from his little bed.
While Jesus and the sheep may be enjoying their little dance, Mary is not amused. Draped in traditional blue, Mary is a picture of reserved concern: she wants the baby to be in the manger. After all, they are singing, “Away in a Manger” not some shepherd jig. Mary, in her five year old determination, firmly but quietly tries to take the baby back, but the sheep isn’t having it. The sheep wins the Jesus tug of war and gets back to dancing. But Mary is a momma bear and she wants her new born to get his sleep. She grabs the sheep in a headlock and pulls her down toward the manger. As the camera cuts out, you wonder if that the sheep will end up in the manger, holding the baby or if Mary, sheep and Jesus will all tumble to the floor! (And Joseph, he doesn’t have a clue what to do! His expression says, “Mary, you are on your own!”)
To want to hold the baby that much. To want to dance and rock the baby Jesus so much. Or to want to protect him. He’d probably prefer that we not fight over him…but to take that childhood longing and translate it into our lives…what would that become in us? What would that inspire in us? Are we willing to take risks? To embarrass ourselves? Both in our dancing and in our determination? Why is there an expectation that when we grow up, we must let go of wonder? A life of faith is a life of wonder, of questions and curiosities and dreams. Which brings us from nativity struggles to wandering magi.
Astrologers, astronomers, dream interpreters, not kings.
Mystics, travelers, hope-seekers, not kings.
Visionaries, gift-givers, magicians, not kings.
They themselves were not kings, did not claim to be kings, but instead came In search of one they believed to be a new king. Unlike kings, they did not rule over others, they held no political power. What they had was something much more mysterious: a fascination with the stars above us, a curiosity about their movements and alterations, and an appreciation for the gift of night-time visions. They helped people unpack their dreams and nightmares. They were a fascinating combination of scientist and mystic, as we would hope all scientists and mystics might be. More like priests than kings.
Today, Epiphany, is the day that we remember and celebrate the unexpected visit of a group (of unknown size – were there 2? 4? 20? 100? That would certainly have been a concern to King Herod!) of star gazers, who came in search of a new born king. Can you imagine if our nativity scenes had to include 20 magi? What a mess…to be honest, we need two different nativity scenes: one with the infant Jesus, with shepherds and midwives and family; another with the toddler Jesus, at home with his wide-eyed parents, entertaining a group of dusty but enthusiastic astronomers.
Rev. Niveen Sarras reminds us that these magi were very probably Zoroastrian priests of Persia, “well known for telling fortunes and preparing daily horoscopes. They were scholars of their day and enjoyed access to the Persian emperor. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world which is still active in Iran today. It was the official religion of Persia before Islam.” Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion in which the struggle between good and evil is represented by two opposing spirits. Followers believe in free will, in life after death and in the eventual triumph of good over evil.
Sarras continues, “Zoroastrians believe that [Zoroaster, their primary prophet] was miraculously conceived in the womb of a 15-year-old Persian virgin…He predict[ed] that ‘other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.’ Zoroastrian priests believe[d] that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars. Like the Jews, Zoroastrian priests were anticipating the birth of the true Savior.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931)
Luke gives us shepherds. Matthew gives us magi. Each group outsiders in their own way. Shepherds, probably Jewish, unclean, yet necessary to sustain the economy and culture. Shepherds, who received an angel-delivered personal invitation from God to go and meet the baby. And who can fathom this? What new parents want a visit from complete – and far from well-regarded – strangers? Luke insists that they were there, even celebrates their presence, and from this we are reminded that whenever we create hierarchies, either placing ourselves above others or others above ourselves, we are denying the truth of Jesus’ birth. Seeing ourselves above others allows us to blind ourselves to our truths, (“at least I’m not like that!”), while placing ourselves a rung or two below others allows us to – inappropriately – free ourselves of responsibility. (“not my problem!”)
Shepherds had no choice. They were outsiders simply by trade. The smell of their clothes, the rough way they lived. Not the first on anyone’s baby shower invitation list unless you are God. These magi, these dream interpreters, however, could have been insiders if they had wanted to be. They had marched right in to see Herod when they arrived in Jerusalem. They had foolishly assumed that Herod, a Jew, would also long to meet the messiah whom they were seeking. These magi, who held respect, but not political power, mistakenly believed that Herod would also want to seek deeper truths. But they were wrong.
These magi, who listened carefully to dreams, who helped others explore the seeming perplexity of nighttime stories, must have been deeply acquainted with the common fears and anxieties that humans share. So often our dreaming is about these very things: issues beyond our control, mistakes we have made or fear making, questions for which we seek answers. They would have been very familiar with the depth of human vulnerability. So while it may have surprised them, initially, that Herod could see a baby as a threat rather than a blessing, they quickly came to understand his heart. Understanding, they would then not participate in any activity which stood in opposition to God’s mysteries. They would choose to side with the spiritual, with the powerful workings in the heavens rather than one man’s need for domination. At risk of their own lives. They chose to be understood as outsiders to the culture.
It’s fascinating, when you step back and look at this story. Bishop Craig A. Satterlee interprets it like this: So these Wise Ones from the East were scientists and practiced other religions, and God used their faith and knowledge to bring them to the Christ. More ironic, God used scientists who practiced other religions to let King Herod and the chief priests and scribes of the people in on the news that their Messiah had been born.
God seems to do whatever it takes to reach out to and embrace all people. God announces the birth of the Messiah to shepherds through angels on Christmas, to Magi via a star on Epiphany, and to the political and religious authorities of God’s own people in through visitors from the East. From a manger, where a child lies wrapped in bands of cloth, God’s reach, God’s embrace in Christ Jesus, gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners. Jesus touches people who are sick and people who live with disabilities. Jesus even calls the dead back to life. Ultimately, Jesus draws all people to himself as he is lifted up on the cross. In Christ Jesus, no one is beyond God’s embrace.
Shepherds, for whom night time was a threat…magi for whom nighttime was a blessing. To all of them, God shined more light. To each of them God arose…with angel brightness, with new star wonder. What if we were willing, like God, to do whatever it takes to reach out and embrace all people? People on both sides of the aisle, people with whom we have nothing in common, people for whom God is dead…what if?
I believe it begins by picking up that baby, and like a determined sheep in the Christmas pageant, getting him out of the manger and into the world. At least we know this: we don’t have to fight over him. There is enough Jesus to go around. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Link to youtube video of “lamb” stealing baby Jesus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2PP1Ey3NEk