Sermon preached January 1, 2012
First United Methodist Church, Duluth
Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Welcome to 2012. Welcome to a new year. As with every new year, this one will contain both the new and familiar. For the first time in my life, I am beginning the new year as a grandparent. I have already written Isabelle’s birthday on my calendar for December 2012. We will have a new presidential election that unfortunately will be filled with some all-too-familiar negativity. We hope our economy shows some new signs of life in this new year. North Korea has a new leader who sounds like he will be continuing old policies – meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
And in this new year we will no longer have the band REM with us. Last September REM decided to call it quits after 31 years together. In November they released a compilation of their 31 years of music, “Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage.” One of the songs on the CD is a good new year song – “Begin the Begin” - - - play 1:40 of the song.
The lyrics are interesting. Silence means security, silence means approval/On Zenith, on the TV, tiger run around the tree/Follow the leader, run and turn into butter/ Let’s begin again like Martin Luther Zen/The mythology begins the begin. Huh?? Is this the part that’s garbage?
The mythology begins the begin. Part truth. Important stories shape our lives. What family stories have you told over the holidays which are part of the mythology of your family that helps you understand what it means to be who you are? This Christmas my uncle and aunt brought some pictures that were my grandmothers and my brother and I remembered some Christmases past. Our daughter Beth snoops under the tree before Christmas – she has done that for years and the more we tell the story, the more it becomes a part of who she is. Important stories shape our lives. They can provide a center, and a beginning. The mythology begins the begin.
We have such a story today, a story we have heard over and over again. This is part of Matthew’s Christmas story, the days following the birth of Jesus – days that are perhaps months. Often this story is conflated with the story from Luke, especially in Christmas pageants – where shepherds and wise men gather together. There are no shepherds here – they are in Luke, just as there are no wise men in Luke, only shepherds. We have this well-known, oft-told story: a young child, a king – Herod, wise men – magi, sometimes also identified as kings, and they come from a distance – from the East.
This is a story of new beginnings. There is a star, a star that rose with the birth of Jesus. There is light, as at the very beginning of creation. There is new creation here. There is a child, always a new beginning with children. There are strangers, wise men bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – strange gifts for a child. This is a story filled with wonder and light, with royal beauty bright.
At the heart of this story is a God who is about new beginnings. The God of the child Jesus is a God of new beginnings, of new creation. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The light of God is always rising anew. With God there is always a new day. Let’s begin again – begin the begin.
While this story is full of light it is not a story simply of sweetness and light. It is not a Pollyannaish tale. Isaiah’s words ring true to this story. “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” In Matthew, Herod rules violently, with an iron fist. When he discovers that the wise men from the East have gone home by another way, he reacts violently, ordering the killing of children who he fears may rival him. It is as dark a tale as “The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo.”
We don’t fully appreciate this story from Matthew until we take the darkness seriously. We don’t have to look far. Just this week a three-year old in Minneapolis was killed when a stray bullet came through the wall of his home. There was a story from St. Louis about a new kind of random violence that has become more common – gangs of youth playing something called “Knockout King” where a random person is chosen and the goal is to knock him out. This week, the Mall of America witnessed random violence on a lesser scale as fights broke out among youth and it turned into a more random melee.
There is a certain darkness in the world when after a year marked by severe weather events, including our current snow drought, large numbers of people, including influential voices in our public discourse, simply deny the possibility that human beings are having an effect on the global climate. It is one thing to debate how human activity is having an impact on climate, and to debate the various methods we might use to lessen the negative impact, it is another thing to deny there is a problem. There is a kind of darkness in that denial.
But the darkness is not all out there. There is inner darkness to account for. How many people struggle with patterns of behavior, deeply ingrained, that are not helpful, even deeply hurtful or harmful? Sometimes we call these bad habits, sometimes addictions. Even when we are not deeply addicted, we may see in our own lives unhelpful or hurtful behaviors or attitudes that we struggle to change. When change seems incredibly difficult, we may experience the darkness of despair, or despair may accompany our memories of past wrongs that we seem unable to forgive.
There is the darkness within of crushing disappointment leaving one painfully sad, and making action difficult.
Sometimes we may just feel kind of lost inside. We lose our way. Our sense of self is in disarray, or our sense of self-worth tattered.
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples. Not a very cheery new year’s day message. But it is only part of the story.
“There, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.” “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The God of the child Jesus is a God of new beginnings. With God new beginnings are always possible – begin the begin.
With God there is the new beginning of forgiveness. One of my favorite definitions of forgiveness is this – “forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past” (Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, 25). There may be things in our past of which we are not proud, memories that pain us for our own actions. The past cannot be better, but the future need not be bound by the past. New beginnings with the God of Jesus. Forgiveness. Begin the begin.
With God there is always hope for change. When the wise men came looking for a king, they went to the logical place, the palace. The king was not there, or not the king whose star they had followed. The reigning king is frightened. Who would think that the king is not in the place of power and prestige, but in a small town in a back water outpost of the Empire, the Roman Empire promising peace and lifting up the emperor as a son of god. How things change. New beginnings with the God of Jesus. Begin the begin.
With God the unimaginable gets imagined. New possibilities open up. The writer Susan Griffin tells this story. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Desnos reads the man’s palm. Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy. As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change, but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. (from The Impossible Will Take a Little While)
A man reading palms in an execution line, unimaginable until it happened, then the unimaginable halting of violence happened as well. A star, strange travelers from far away, a mother and child – unimaginable. So what vista of imagination is God trying to open in your life, in my life, in our life together as this church?
Because God is a God of new beginnings we can “open our hearts and homes to visitors filled with unfamiliar wisdom bearing profound and unusual gifts.” Because God is a God of new beginnings, we can pray for God to “visit our rest with disturbing dreams, and our journeys with strange companions.” With God, the new year can be a time of new beginning, always a time of new beginning. Let’s begin again, like Martin Luther Zen. Begin the begin. Amen.