The Epiphany of Our Lord
Texts: Matthew 2:1-12;
Isa. 60:1-6; Eph. 3:1-12
A GIFT OF LOVE TO SHARE
Discuss best Christmas gifts with children. What makes for best gifts? Is it the ones that cost the most? The ones we use or play with the most? The most fun? How about the one we share the most with others? [Use cards with key words on it: Cost, Play/Use, Fun, Share.] The Magi brought the first Christmas gifts to the baby Jesus in celebration for the gift of God’s love that God was sharing with the whole world. It is a gift that we can share with others, too.
Why does the God whose love fills all of creation need to come into world through a baby? Isn’t creation itself gift enough? Isn’t this miraculous thing we call Life gift enough? Why does it take a gift of Love in human form meant for the whole world, beckoned by a star that can be seen by all, even those from across the world?
Herod’s reaction to the gift provides a big clue. He’s afraid — and “all of Jerusalem” shares his fear. Herod’s own power is based on fear, and the law and order he maintains under the Roman guard is based on fear of his authority to punish. The Magi bring news of a new king out of nowhere — a king who will mess with his authority and threaten law and order.
How many of you enjoyed going to a movie over the holidays? Did any of you see Les Miserables? I think that movie was very much about our human law and order vs. God’s justice of mercy and compassion. I need to issue a bit of a spoiler alert, but I’ll try not to give too much away!
The two main characters are a fugitive, Jean Valjean; and Javert, a police officer obsessed with capturing him. Jean Valjean’s life began in the desperation of a poverty that forced him steal food for his sister’s dying son — the crime for which he was convicted. After completing his sentence, Inspector Javert bids him goodbye with the warning that he better not break his parole, or Javert will dedicate his life to tracking him down.
Taken in by a Bishop in a monastery, Valjean almost immediately breaks parole by stealing silver from the monastery. But the Bishop shows Jean Valjean a completely gratuitous mercy. He tells the police who arrest Valjean that he gave him the silver. It is a gift of mercy that changes Valjean’s life. He begins his life anew dedicated to sharing and to passing on the gift he has received, trying his best to show mercy and compassion to all.
Inspector Javert does not care that Valjean has changed. His whole world is based on living under the authority of laws that punish to keep the order. Over the next seventeen years their paths cross several times, with Valjean eluding Javert’s capture each time. Through a series of events, tables are turned and Inspector Javert’s life is put in Valjean’s hands. Javert is at his mercy – Valjean can easily kill him. But instead, Valjean passes on the gift of mercy to Inspector Javert and releases him. Javert’s eyes have been opened to a new world based on mercy revealed to him through Valjean. Can he leave behind his world of strict law and order? Can he even conceive of living in a world of mercy and compassion?
Several of the most moving songs in Les Miserables are prayers to God. Valjean prays in the monastery after receiving his gift of mercy. He prays later in requesting mercy for others. What makes the gift of mercy most special to him is a life of sharing it with others. Inspector Javert also has a majestic song praying to God on a rooftop high above the city. From the heady heights he is praying to a God who keeps law and order, providing the authority for him to be an enforcer. It is striking that there could hardly be two more different gods: Valjean’s God of mercy and compassion and Javert’s God of wrathful punishment, who keeps the order.
Here’s the million-dollar question: Does the true God who gives the gift of Jesus to the world resemble either of the two gods in the movie? Or is the true God somehow both, the wrathful God who stands behind our human justice and the God of mercy and compassion who sometimes subverts our law and order?
For centuries the Church has told us: “both.” There is the wrathful God whose justice demands punishment, and whose wrath must be satisfied. The death of everyone in the world would not be enough to satisfy that wrath and bring justice, because our sin is too great. But there is also the merciful God who sent Jesus, the sinless one, to satisfy God’s own wrath meant for us. The cross is like the bishop’s act in Les Miserables. Those who believe in that mercy can count on not having to die under eternal condemnation from God’s wrath. They can relish in the mercy of that act and share the gift by telling others and helping them believe for eternal life.
The main problem with this version of God is that the wrathful face of God fits our own human way of keeping order, and not necessarily God’s way that we see in the gift of Jesus. If we stick with the story of Les Miserables, we see in Jean Valjean a true conversion to the way of mercy and compassion in this life. The gift of mercy he receives isn’t just something nice to stick in his back pocket until judgment day and give him comfort for the afterlife. No, he takes that gift of mercy and compassion as the Way to live in this life under all circumstances, even when faced with his enemy who would imprison or kill him. Jean Valjean, in short, lived his life more like Jesus, who came to show us the way of mercy and compassion in all circumstances of life — even and especially in going to his death on the cross.
Valjean and Javert represent the choices we all face. Is it conceivable to live in a world of mercy and compassion? Or is it easier to continue living under condemnation in this world because we can’t let go of wrath and punishment despite the example of Jesus? I think this is a big part of why so many young people have left the church. Many Christians they meet are more like Javert, hanging on to a God of wrath in this life when their sense of law and order seems to depend on it. They see Christians who serve a two-faced God, one who is merciful to those who believe a certain way, and one who is wrathful to the rest. What they don’t see in many Christians is a Jesus who lived the way of mercy and compassion through his entire life, even to his enemies.
But we are slowly changing. If we look at the literal example of Javert as representing a system with no compassion, look how far we have come. Jesus’ way of love and mercy is evidence in a system that now offers treatment — a way to healing — instead of always meting out punishment. Peace officers working for departments of public safety — not to be feared, but to serve with compassion.
So back to the first question: Why does the God whose love fills all of creation need to come into world through a small baby? Why does it take a gift of Love in human form meant for the whole world, heralded by a star so spectacular that it can be seen throughout the world?
Here’s the answer I stake my life on: because we humans have this sinful problem with idolatry. We created our own gods of wrath to back up and justify our own systems of law and order. And the only way the loving Creator of all could break through that idolatry was to send that divine love in the person of Jesus — the gift of a precious baby, who grew up for a showdown precisely with our system of law and order. God sent the Son into the midst of our human system of law and order knowing it would break Jesus’ bones and spill his blood and at last take his life. God did this in order to raise Jesus again to redeem us all from our human-made wrathful system of law and order. Jesus’ death and resurrection brings us God’s way to maintain order based on a power other than force. It is the power of love. It is the power of mercy and compassion that is bringing all of Creation into harmony. It is the gift of forgiveness that can even begin to redeem our idolatry of wrath.
You and I are called to follow the Magi in responding to this gift. You and I are called to be like Jean Valjean who takes this gift of incredible mercy and compassion as a gift to share with others by the way we live our lives in this redeemed world. It’s a gift of love made even more special by sharing! Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, January 6, 2013