January 6, 2019
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
One of my friends I spent time with over the holiday was bragging about how last New Year’s Eve she was in bed by 10pm. She is a wise woman. I am envious of her. Of course, I have spent a New Year’s Eve in this very same friend’s basement. This was the same New Years Eve that we freaked out her parents when they heard cult-like chanting coming from downstairs, but perhaps that is a story for another time… or maybe never. In completely unrelated circumstances this is also the year in which a number of pictures were posted to Facebook of many of my group of friends on the basement carpet in exorcist-like positions. But that may also be a story for another time. Accidental cultic behavior is but one of the many memories I have of NYE, even if I would prefer to be in bed.
Staying up for the New Year has never been my favourite, but I feel obligated to spend it with friends or family and usually have a good time in spite of myself. Thankfully, being so tired on New Years Day this year actually helped me repair my fractured post-vacation sleep schedule, and that is a true miracle. God did not set the calendar or the clock but is still certainly watching out for me and that’s a Good Thing. So, on this day that has been assigned the start of a new year, in this year we assume is about two thousand and nineteen years since it happened, let us look at a story of another miracle. This miracle features wise men, people who probably stayed up past their bedtime travelling, reading, and sharing ideas, and maybe we can travel with them for a while.
The central characters in this text are Jesus and Mary (we know them: cool), King Herod (trash), and the wise men (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar). It is these wise men whom we follow in this story though. They are figuring out their own journey, driven by a purpose of finding a Messiah they had read about and set out to find. King Herod is on a journey of his own, driven by a desire to protect his own power. And these are the two forces that are attempting to find Jesus with very different intentions. I think I can safely assume that few people think that Herod is the good guy in this story. So, turning to the wise men perhaps there are a few things to take away from how they act to direct us in this New Year.
The wise men are curious. They embrace curiosity about what they read and what they have seen. There is a tradition that the wise men were Zoroastrian, but we have reason to believe that they were not Jewish, but were aware and possessed Jewish prophetic texts. Wherever the kings are from, they have prophecy about another place and choose to both believe and understand its importance not only for the “Jews” but for all people. SO when they see the star and make the connection, they do not just acknowledge its meaning but then choose to journey out to follow it. Wisdom is continually being curious. It is knowing some things but always wishing to learn more. Wisdom does not end with a fact but continually begins anew with another question.
The wise men seek justice. They respect authority when it is reasonable, and confront it when it is not. When they enter the land of Israel they seek out Herod, in part to make their job easier but also because they ought to do so: they are coming into a country and it seems almost polite to make their presence known and to keep the ruler in the land informed of what is happening. This is respect for authority and leadership and decorum. Civility. HOWEVER, once they learn from their dream that Herod has bad intentions, they no longer pay him the favour of returning to relay their information. It is clear that they no longer want Herod to know of where they have gone and where they are going. Herod gives up his authority after these bad actions and the wise men leave Israel when their work is done by another road. Wisdom is knowing and understanding the status quo, why it exists and why it benefits the world. But wisdom also questions and resists the systems that are unjust and dangerous, never understanding something to be good, sure, and certain simply because of its status. Wisdom makes room for grey areas, and the opportunity to change opinion. Wisdom does not end with a fact, but makes room for a new set of facts.
The wise men accept surprises. They accept what they find as right and correct when it is not what they were expecting. The wise men set out on a journey to find a king, and bring the kinds of gifts one might offer to a king. So when they find a child, it is a different kind of king. But they don’t just leave. They do what they set out to do: they’re like “cool, whatever have some gold,” kneel before a child and let it be what it will be. Wisdom does not end with a fact, it starts something that we could never imagine.
But all this curiosity and flexibility has to mean more than that, right? Because if it was that easy, everybody would do it. We would all work hard to be open to the world around us, use what we know to make informed decisions, and have the flexibility to adapt. We try to do that, but maybe we don’t always succeed. Maybe some of us shy away from wisdom because it feels like a lofty description that we are not worthy to accept. Maybe it seems like wisdom exists in a bygone time before everything can be looked up my computers we carry in our pockets. Wisdom is elusive.[It feels strange as a young person to be talking about wisdom to a community older than I am. Wisdom is a virtue that is said to be related to age and experience. Knowledge only becomes wisdom when there has been time to reflect on past experiences to turn them into useful lessons for the future. But it is something to work towards. It’s personal value to myself and my life was affirmed when a minister I once had praised me for my wisdom. I was filling-in as the church administrator at the time. She had come to me with a situation to do with ordering items in the service and told me about an inter-professional issue she was dealing with. I weighed in on both, offering what I thought was a clear answer. When she thanked me “for my wisdom” it was a weird moment. I felt that initial rejection of the word (“me, wise? couldn’t be) but really appreciated it. Because when we are described as wise, our thoughts and opinions and perspectives are valued. And that feels good. It doesn’t mean we should use it lightly, but I think we need to reintroduce wisdom and wise people back into our culture. Wisdom comes from the people who have taken the time to reflect on what they have learned from past experiences to turn them into useful lessons for the future.
But why bother? Because wisdom helps. Wisdom does not sit back and exist for its own sake, wisdom helps people. It is knowledge mobilized, turned outward, and connected to others—it demands to be shared. Wisdom calls us to create a culture in which ideas are valued so that we can come into a place where we can, as a community, come up great things together. Though great in isolation, there are some things that will come more quickly if we listen to each other and value our unique perspectives.
The wise men of this scripture text are a traditional sort of wisdom, maybe what we think of when we think of wisdom at first. They were scholars, who took the time to read, know, and understand the prophecy and all else they needed to know to make the journey that they did. Though wisdom requires knowledge and reflection which a scholar makes their life’s work, that does not mean that only scholars are wise. To that end, I would like to tell you of two people, two women, who’s wisdom has had an impact on my life and how I approach the world and the search for wisdom myself.
The first is a professor I had during my undergraduate degree. She was a professor of British history, originally from the UK and exceptionally brilliant. She was an older woman, maybe a little small in stature. She always wore these black suits, really well tailored and put together. But when she stood at the front of a room to lecture, she commanded attention. She was in a room with a group of young students, but you could tell that she was the kind of woman who when she entered a room, she was going to be the one with the most knowledge in that place.
But it wasn’t baseless. I had the opportunity to take a seminar class with her on the Tudor and Stuart monarchs of England and I can remember in particular I meeting I had with her in her office. I was explaining to her what I was planning to present for my seminar presentation, and she really let me fully explain what I was trying to get at. She asked me a few clarifying questions, which I realize now were her way of trying to get me to move in the right direction. She wrote down a list of a few books that she thought would be helpful and that was that.
I think why this stuck with me was the way that this professor employed wisdom. She knows the answers, she knows the topics all her students are doing inside out. But she never pushed me in one direction or another, she used all she knew in order to assist me in doing my own learning. It was a demonstration of how wisdom goes beyond knowledge, beyond the facts, to meet the situation at hand. This professor turned curiosity and flexibility into tools for teaching, using wisdom to direct me along my own journey towards greater knowledge.
The second person I want to talk about is someone my own age. She is a friend I have known for more than ten years now. The wisdom that she has is not built upon years of scholarship or life experience. But it is built upon the experience she does have. She has a way of seeing people when they are upset, isolated, and withdrawn. She has a way of reaching out to those people, knowing how to engage with them in a way that lifts them up and connects them back with the world where that connection is lost. She is able to do this because of her own life experience. She has had many moments of feeling this same distress, isolation, and withdrawal. But what she does so well is take those experiences and makes use of them. In talking with her about these things, she does not realize how wise she is. When she looks at her action, she seems them as natural. But when I see them, I see how she has taken the knowledge she has gleaned from her life and formed into the wisdom of how to meet people where they are and be a light for them. When she enters a room, you see her because she is a light, and she is illuminated by the wisdom of her experiences.
Sage, professor, colleague, friend—wisdom springs from all places. It is within me. And it is within you. Wisdom is not clear all the time where it works, it is subtle. But when I think of how wisdom works I think also of God. I think of how God works in ways that are sometimes strange to us, and other times in ways that sit clearly in front of us as the most obvious thing in the world. God can be subtle, and works within us great things for us to provide to the world. God is in wisdom. This is because wisdom comes from God, and is God, as are all things of the world from the Creator and Mother of this universe.
But wisdom is also Jesus.
The wise men of scripture are not the central part of the story. Their presence is not for their glory or benefit. Their place in the narrative is to help us to understand the importance of Jesus. These wise people took a long journey to reach Jesus and honoured him with their praise and their gifts. This story tells us that Christ, even as a child, before he did anything extraordinary himself, should be looked at as important because these wise men, these important figures have demonstrated that it is so.
This story comes from Matthew’s gospel. There are no heavenly host of shepherds to demonstrate the divine impact of this birth. That role is filled by the magi, the wise men. Their coming affirms the message that Mary and Joseph receive before their son is born: that he is a savior for their people and is also the son of God. Wisdom approaches the child Jesus and kneels down before him and offers itself up to Jesus for him to use at the appropriate time.
Other gospels approach this in other ways: Mark shows how the Holy Spirit enters into Jesus at this Baptism, empowering him to begin his teaching. John in the first chapter says that Jesus is the Word, something that was with God at the time of time of creation but was sent to earth in the form of Jesus. Luke details the episode where Jesus, as a child is in the temple and conversing with teachers of the scriptures at an astonishing level.
Christ and wisdom are intertwined. They cannot be separated out. The gospel writers want you, in this time, to know this: the things that Jesus will say over the course of his life are not just new ideas thrown haphazardly to the wind. These are things that have been reflected upon, that are in touch with and bound to divine intention for humanity. They are wise teachings that all who hear them should consider. That is the way to best honor them.
If you take anything away from all of what I have said, I hope that it is these two things. First, I hope that you remember all of the wisdom that you have received over the course of your life and all of the wise people who have passed through you life and left a part of themselves in you. I hope that you feel uplifted and surrounded in those experiences and that you can experience all over again and the care and compassion that came with it. Second, I hope that you hear me when I say that the same root of wisdom that is in the wise men, that is in Christ, is inside of you. You have wisdom to give to world, and I pray that in your journey you come to a place where you can continue to share the precious gift of your light with the world.
The Winnowing Fork of Christmas?
December 16 2018
When you think of Joy, what do you think about? Probably not this scripture passage, because in terms of happiness the ratio is pretty low. Armed with a pitchfork and unquenchable fire Jesus is coming to chop us down and burn us up because we are all snakes. So maybe we can start somewhere else. I think growing up, for me the joy of Christmas was in the presents. There are other components: there are decorations and music and family and all of those kinds of things that really defined the season for me: things of beauty and things that called back to a tradition that made me feel like I was part of something larger, whether that be my family unit, my Christian faith, or my place in a greater human community of love and generosity. But the gifts are inexplicably part of those memories. But I won’t be too hard on myself: that is what Christmas was and I was in a position to take those kinds of things for granted.
Christmas tree decorating maybe gives you the best picture of Christmas in my house growing up. The tree was always set up in the room with the piano, in a bay window looking into the backyard. My dad would put on the lights when the tree went in. The colours varied: I can remember a number of years where the lights were multi-coloured and we had to go through the string to find the burnt out bulbs, replacing them with the same colour to maintain the order of them. In later years, in a post LCD world, we had blue lights some years and white lights on others. But there was always a colour pallet to consider. On the evening we decorated the tree, we would gather in the living room, plastic bins of decorations neatly laid out, a set of our standard Christmas albums on the stereo (the Rankin sisters, Jewel, the Cambridge children’s choir, and Rosie O’Donnell’s “Another Rosie Christmas”) and set to work. The first thing to go on was a set of coloured glass Christmas balls that each came on a hook. Some years it was blue and silver, other years it was gold and red. But never a different combination: that was part of the pallet. Then, each of the five of us had a freezer bag of our own ornaments, collected over our lifetime from various places. Many of them were really nice ones we got as gifts and we still had construction paper and macaroni “art” we made as kids in our early school days. The system was laid out, the nicest ornaments went towards the front of the tree, and the… less fortunate looking ornaments would still be hung, but around the back side so they couldn’t be seen so well from inside. When I remember Christmas traditions and joy, I think about this scene. It was a time of beauty and music but it was also a time of organization and administration. Which isn’t joyful on the surface but I think we can agree that growing up can be chaotic and sometimes pretty difficult. These kinds of Christmas traditions, knowing that there was going to be certain things happening and a certain time to celebrate the season was a source of joy for me. It is not the obvious place to find it but I found it.
So what about the brood of vipers? Can there be joy in that? John the Baptist doesn’t play around. People often talk about Jesus as fulfilling the role of the Good Shepherd. But Jesus didn’t tell us about the Bad Shepherd: he goes out and finds the lost lamb and then brings it home and yells at all the sheep and calls them snakes. He’s doing good work, trying to give good guidance to the people, shepherding them along before Christ arrives on the scene, but it isn’t quite what we are used to hearing out of the Gospels. He uses this violent imagery because it is the easiest way to get across what he is trying to say. When he refers to the people listening as a brood of vipers, that’s going to catch you off guard a little bit and maybe put you on the defensive. It may even turn you off, make it difficult to hear anything good that John has to say. But that’s why this is such an interesting strategy: because John’s promise of a powerful savior draws us in. People get caught in this tension where they want to accept what John is saying about the coming Messiah, it is still a message of hope, but are also faced with what John is saying about their own imperfection, their insignificance in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and the promise of divine judgment.
A perfect, lighthearted tone for this Christmas season.
The question is whether these troubling parts are doing anything to help us. In a way it seems like a distraction. We’re trying to talk about joy here, and talk about Christmas. That is, the birth of Christ whose teaching is not disagreeing with things that John in preaching, but has a very different tactic. But looking as John’s message for what it is, there is something there. It’s reality that people are not always kind or good, and it’s reality that people need to be told not to extort money or share with the less fortunate. Because what John is up against is a culture that is being affected by Roman imperial influence, and a Jewish interpretation of the law that favours control of authority rather than the things that Jesus was going to bring forward. In this kind of environment, when you’re preparing the way for an imminent arrival of a Messiah for your people, what is one supposed to do but try to snap them out of their stupor into a new way of seeing the world and imagining their circumstance.
This is a pretty rosy perception of a tactic that is everywhere nowadays. We live in a time where the issue is not introducing a new mindset, as it was for John, but instead we are faced with too many new ideas. So people who are about sharing their message, corporations, political groups, and important people, have gotten good at getting your attention. It takes incredible amounts of trial and error, but in this media environment you’ve got billions of eyes for doing this testing and great technology for keeping track of results. The result is that we get messaging that knows exactly how to access your brain through your emotions: the entryways that work best and the ones to avoid.
John hasn’t reached that level yet. He’s still working out the best way for his message to reach people. But it’s not like he’s going at this with no strategy at all. It just isn’t as honed as what we are used to in this age.
Of course, we all know the unfortunate nature of this optimized clickbait strategy. This past week The United States House Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing to question CEO Sundar Pichai. One thing to come out of that event was a question about how YouTube’s algorithms seem to promote content in a way that becomes increasingly extreme with every video clicked. Because of the nature of the YouTube algorithm, which has the goal of extending the amount of time each user spends on the site, and thereby maximizing ad revenue, the videos it is most likely to show to a particular user are ones that evoke an emotional response that draws one to click and watch. Political conspiracy theories were on the mind of Congress in this case but it is possible to show how doing an inane search with a person’s name could end up somewhere far removed from that in terms of what is suggested. And it only gets more targeted as Google learns about you more based on your viewing history and your web history in general.
But all this is to say that we live in a John the Baptist world. In some ways that’s a world of discomfort and mixed messages and trying to figure out what can be taken away. It is a world where it becomes hard to trust in what you read because you can’t be sure if it is the truth or if it’s
AND YET, a John the Baptist world is exactly the kind of world that we should be living in. Because John the Baptist makes an impression, makes you uncomfortable, and makes you confront the fact that God has directives for humanity that are going to make it better.
People do not like to feel uncomfortable. It is not the preferred posture, it is easier to avoid the harsh realities that challenge our sense of self and our sense of our own existence. It threatens our physical, mental, and emotional safety to engage with issues that throw us into a new place.
I think it is the most tricky to negotiate for us because we aren’t bad people. I think our Christian identity and context in the United Church attracts people who are open minded, who want to learn from diverse perspectives and work for justice for the marginalized. So then it hurts more when we feel called out for not being perfect. It begins to feel like we are being blamed when it is brought up with ways that we can improve. We can respond with getting defensive. I think one of the more troubling moments for me was when I found this defensive response welling up inside of me. In a paper I wrote in seminary a few years ago I referred to accents as being a communication barrier. The way I phrased it, a professor remarked, sounded like I was saying that other people have accents and that the North American accent is the default.
Maybe you are thinking now “that’s not that big a deal.” And I don’t think my professor was suggesting that it was. But my guard immediately went up. I knew that was not what I was implying, I know that everyone has an accent, I was not trying to play into this Western-centric view of the world that I felt was being put upon me by this outside viewpoint.
It took me a while to really separate myself out from that immediate reaction and see it for what this challenge was. It may not have been what I intended, but phrasing matters. If something that you say or do is misconstrued, that can have consequences and lead to disagreement that was not intended. For someone going into a community-building career in ministry, my professor was clearly trying to point out the ease with which this can happen if something becomes unclear. Suppose I was working with someone with a different accent and made it seem like I though that they were lesser, or less deserving, or less Canadian. What would someone who overheard that think of me, and what doors might be closed or made more complicated in my ministry if that happens? But that wisdom was not clear to me in the moment of first reading that feedback I was given. I was defensive and I was losing the important message that was hidden beneath the hard shell of my own making.
Maybe it is a bit harsh to just cast down my lot as part of the brood of snakes that John calls the people but in a sense it isn’t wrong. We all can get defensive and make mistakes and do things that we are not proud of later. It doesn’t mean that we’re bad people, it just means that we aren’t perfect. When John says that we are not special, that if we are not living by God’s laws that we do not have to be the ones to receive God’s grace, that we can be cut down easily because the axe is readily available by our roots, that perspective has some merit.
My favourite part of this passage, though, is the ending: “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” It calls upon a harvest metaphor that I had to go and look up because I grew up in the city and in a technological age. In the harvest of wheat, the grain itself has to be separated out from the chaff, which is the outer casing. So first the wheat is “threshed” by crushing and then “winnowed” which involved throwing the crushed grain into the air, allowing the lighter chaff to be blown away by the wind and the heavier grain to fall straight down. There are videos online that show the process being done by hand.
The Message translates this passage differently: it talks about the true being separated out from the false and being preserved. And that is what I see being the best interpretation of this passage. On Wednesday in the study group we were talking about the sheep and the goats, a passage in which Jesus implies that there are good people and there are bad people that are going to be separated out and only the good people are going to receive divine salvation. But this passage always strikes me as being different, even though it is also about sorting the unwanted things from the important things. We are wheat people, not grain and chaff. Both of those parts are part of us as a whole. What is done through Jesus is the act of winnowing, separating out the rough and hard parts to reveal the goodness, the truth that is inside. We are products of our environment. We live in a world that causes us to have these shells of falsehood. Even though we are thoughtfully and meaningfully made by God, our society and the world we have made with God is not and still rests in the systems of power that John was reacting to in his day.
Winnowing cannot always be done in a single step. You can’t get all of the chaff in a single pass through. It can take work, and multiple attempts to break out all of the falsehood that hold us back. But Jesus is patient. Jesus isn’t going to stop working on grain that isn’t ready for the granary on the first try. Jesus will toss you up into the air again so that the wind can have another go at you. It’s going to be uncomfortable and distressing and it may not be clear where things are going, but I think we can trust that Jesus is taking care of all of that.
Hidden within the discomfort is the potential for joy. Joy isn’t easy. In a world like this one, joy is hard. It is a grain wrapped in a hard shell that has to be crushed and thrown around to get off. Because joy means more when it is hard-won. It means more when what comes out of your work was not easy. There are many ways to decorate a Christmas tree, but the process that I remember, that brings me the most joy, was involved and resisted simplicity and maybe a bit intense. But it was full of heart and joy and it is one of the most precious things that comes to my memory in this season. John the Baptist resists simplicity and calls us to do the same. Joy still exists in a world that is less than rosy. It can still exist in the regimented justice-making and the calling-to-account of all of humanity. Underneath it is the promise that God through Christ is coming to be with us on Earth, and is never going to give up on us.
John brings to us a challenge: do all you can to live up to the grace that God is giving to you. Be flexible, be willing to shake off all the bad stuff and the lies and the biases to see the good at the heart of it all; we need to be willing to see ourselves as imperfect creatures but that we have the potential to be more than we are and get at the joy that Christ offers to us. It is the winnowing fork of Christmas: the promise that Jesus is working in our hearts in this time and in all time. And that is a precious gift. I’m not planning of sticking a pitchfork on the top of my tree anytime soon, but I appreciate John the Baptist for trying. Maybe next year.