Toorak Uniting Church

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The long way home

Matthew 2: 1 – 12
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
2 January 2005

Introduction to the Sermon:

It felt odd, to come together on this Sunday, worship, read the story of the three Wise Men and think about it as if nothing has happened. Because quite a lot has happened this week, and I think I can safely assume that we have all, in one way or another been affected by the Tsunamis that have hit in and around the Indian Ocean.
The horror of the images, the numbers, the magnitude of the disaster, I think we’re all somehow wrestling with that.
And yet, after giving it quite a lot of thought, I decided we would follow the lectionary, read about the wise men and trust that somehow there would be a message there for us.
After all, it is every Sunday that we come together in a world where people are drowning, not quite as spectacularly as has happened this week, but still, war, illness, poverty, they have been ravaging humanity since the beginning of time. It has never been different. And every Sunday we turn to scripture for guidance, for comfort, for hope.
So that is what else can we do? There are no "appropriate" words when faced with human suffering on this scale, there are no "answers" to our many questions. There is only our own experience of God, our faith that he is anywhere where people need support and comfort, and that he will hold on to us even where death and destruction seem to reign.

More than any other Sundays I felt that was what we had to maintain, against the flood of anguish and pain that has come past us in this week, against our despair at the enormity of what has happened. And trust that God will speak to us, even where we feel it is impossible to find words.

The Sermon.

We find ourselves coming to Christmas from a completely different angle after all that has happened this week and also in the readings. Where last week we celebrated a vulnerable God, born in a stable as one of us, this week we come looking for a great King, whose coming is revealed in the stars, and brings wise men from afar to worship at his birth.

We come from a changed context and with different questions.

Over the last few days I did get entangled in a "where is God in all this" discussion a couple of times. Even at a New Years eve party I went to, and where most of the people didn’t believe in any God at all, the question came up: "If there was a God, shouldn’t he have done something?"
I have to confess that I left the room to go check on the children when that question came up. Not because I didn’t want to search for answers to that very difficult question, or because I am a coward, but because I know from experience that, in such a context it is very difficult to talk about these things. Because the point of departure for me is so very different than for those I would have been talking to.

For me God is reality. God is not only something I believe in, but he is, for me, an intimate reality of faith. And it is from my relation with that reality that I look at what happens in the world and feel that God hurts as much as I do. That is not just a feeling, that is a feeling that has been nurtured by what I have learned about God through scripture: That he comes to be with us when things get difficult, that he carries us through life calling us to follow in the footsteps of his Son Jesus Christ, do justice, bring healing and peace and live a life of godliness and faith. Nothing more, nothing less.

And it is because of that reality that my faith holds out even in the face of all the questions the disaster of this week conjures up. And that I cannot, for one minute, believe that God’s hand was in that sea quake, even if some good will come of it. It is just not the God I know, love and respect, it doesn’t fit with what I know about him from scripture.

The three wise men would have known very little about the Jewish faith and the expected Jewish Messiah. They were probably advisors at the court of some foreign King. Stargazers, scientists, held in high esteem in the pagan world. But regarded with suspicion by scribes and priests in Israel. They served other gods, and they did it in ways that were held to be highly suspect in scripture.

That their wisdom is limited is proven by the fact that they turn up in the wrong place, even while following a star given to them by God. They expect the new King to be in a palace in Jerusalem and not in some lowly dwelling in Bethlehem. As most people would. It is only natural. A king is expected to be in a palace, that would be the natural thing to expect.

There is nothing natural about this King though, as there is nothing natural about this God. It is not power and might with which He comes, it is in humility, fragility and vulnerability the King of the Universe is to be found.

And trying to make the connection with what happened this week it occurred to me that if we went looking for God today, because we, like the wise men saw a flicker of light somewhere, it would be in one of those places where in a matter of minutes everything was flattened to ground zero. But not only there, also in Iraq where it is people that wreak havoc and destruction. Or in Africa where millions are dying of AIDS and nobody seems to be looking to help them. Or even here in Toorak where a homeless men drinks of what is left in the coke bottles teenagers have thrown in the bins.
That God calls us, as he called the wise men, to follow his light and find him in those places where people hurt and suffer. That he calls us to change our lives, our route home, as the wise men did, because of it. Instead of asking philosophical questions I think the fact that this Messiah is not to be found in the palaces of the rich and mighty, but in the dwellings of simple people that have to flee before death and destruction as Jesus did and whose lives are under threat all the time as Jesus’ was, calls us to action, to follow the light to unexpected places and find him among the debris of ravaged countries, in the dwellings of the poor and downtrodden, in the faces of the desperate. And bring healing and peace where we can in whatever way we can, every day and every where. And trust that that vulnerable God that was revealed in the baby born in Bethlehem is with us and holds us, even through the terrors of death and destruction. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2005

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