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January 3rd, 2020

Another Way – The Gift of the Magi

By Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson

January 3, 2021, Epiphany, Matthew 2:1-12  

Since we are nearing the end of the World Junior Ice Hockey Championship that takes place every year over Christmas and New Years and since we’re missing the thrill of being spectators at sports games I want to share a memory of the best hockey game I have ever seen – it happens to illustrate the message I want to share with you today.  The best hockey game I have ever seen – bar none – was the gold medal match at the Sochi Olympics in the winter of 2014.  Canada was playing against the United States.  The Americans were in the lead, up 2-0 with less than four minutes left in the third period – this was it! – the Americans could practically taste the gold medal between their teeth, when out of nowhere Canada shoots – scores! – with the puck just squeaking into the upper right hand corner of the American net.  It’s 2-1, now, for the USA, less than three minutes left in the game.  The Canadians pull their goalie.  With one minute and thirty seconds left on the clock the US takes a long shot at the Canadian net and there’s no player within skating distance to thwart the goal; the US team gets ready to cheer when - boom! - the puck hits the post, just missing the net.  One minute left now in the gold medal game and the clock is running down.  The Americans are 57 seconds, 56 seconds, 55 seconds away from the top spot on the podium when, with 54 seconds left in the game, Canada scores for the tie and brings the game into overtime.  Now who do you think went on to score the overtime goal that would give Canada the win?  Who was it that year?  Sydney Crosby?  Jonathan Toews?  Neither, as it turns out.  The match I just described – the most memorable hockey game I have ever seen – was played by women.  Marie-Philip Poulin scored the overtime goal to bring Canada the win and the gold. 

When women’s hockey was first admitted into the Olympics at Nagano in 1998 I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t think it would be any fun to watch.  I’d heard opinionated people say that women’s hockey would be too slow, that it couldn’t be considered hockey because it would be less rough, that the women would somehow be less competitive than the men – it just wouldn’t be the game we knew and loved.  Women’s hockey would be less exciting, a lot of us thought, and that was just the way that it was, just how women were made, just the way of the world.  But the moral of the story is this: we needn’t be resigned to the way of the world; we must never lose faith in the world’s capacity to surprise us. 

This is also the message of Matthew’s story of the magi’s quest to find and worship the infant Jesus: one needn’t be resigned to the way of the world; we must never lose faith in the world’s capacity to surprise us.  Most people celebrate Christmas just fine, without any mention of Jesus.  But here at church we make a big fuss about him; we celebrate his birth with a whole season – twelve days – instead of just one.  And we tell this fantastic story every year around the 6th of January - the Feast of the Epiphany – about these magnificent astrologers and philosophers who follow a star, to travel who knows how far and who knows how long, perhaps even with whole entourages of vassals and camels, to offer up gifts to Jesus, gifts fit for a king.  It’s a story with one central message: Jesus is a big deal for us!  And it’s a story that helps us to think about why.            

There is an expression people use when they want to describe something normal, something typical, something expected, a condition or state that’s not unusual but to which we are resigned.  We call it, “the way of the world.”  Oh well, we sigh, isn’t that just the way of the world?  Traffic and bills making up our only mail and the news of the day being mostly bad most of the time.  The feeling that nothing changes, nothing ever really changes – isn’t that just the way of the world?  One could describe the way of the world as certain constants that we must accept or find ourselves in a continual state of disappointment.  It’s this kind of resignation that Herod counts on from the people of Judea, Herod counted on the people of Judea to see his way as just “the way of the world,” and so no use fighting it or hoping for another way.  Herod the Great snatched at power in Judea as a seagull would a crust of sandwich or a child at the candy that falls at the sudden burst of a piñata; Herod was willing to scratch, flap, elbow and shove his opponents in order to hoard power all for himself.  Herod was named “King of the Jews,” by the Roman Senate.  There was nothing Herod wouldn’t do to solidify the sense among the people of Judea that his way was just the way of the world.  He built massive fortresses.  He was apparently surrounded by a retinue of 2000 body guards.  Later, perceiving a threat to his power from within his own family, he executed his wife and two of his own sons.            

 It’s no wonder, then, that Herod’s worldview is threatened when he hears about a group of magi asking around Jerusalem for “the one who has been born king of the Jews.”  If Herod’s worldview is a balloon, the magi’s question is the pin that makes it pop.  “How many people had heard the magi ask this question,” Herod wondered?  How many citizens of Judea now had doubts about his way and his authority because of this newborn king?  “[M]agi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’"  It’s such an innocent question, but it threatens to topple Herod’s entire kingdom, his perceived way of the world.  People were suddenly making a fuss; there was talk of a great ruler.  And if this ruler’s star was on the rise, then perhaps Herod’s was about to fall.

Who are the Herods of our day, I wonder, those powerful forces that would have us think the way of the world right now is just the way of the world, so no use fighting it; those people and forces who would have us believe that their way is the only way – just accept it.  Social media companies?  Oil companies?  The Covid-19 pandemic made us confront much of what we’ve all taken for granted as just “the ways of the world:” the warehousing of our elderly, our racial and income disparity – people of colour and low-income earners have been disproportionately affected by this crisis – an overcrowded and underfunded shelter system.  What would you add to this list of woes we have been conditioned to think of as beyond our ability to change?          

One of the serious questions the early Christians faced – one of the serious questions Matthew faced as he was composing his gospel and this account of the magi from the East – was how they could possibly believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, a new kind of king, the savior of the world, the ultimate change-bringer, when he had been killed.  Jesus’ movement was clearly threatening and the powers of his day sought to have him silenced - isn’t that just the way of the world?  “You go ahead and make all the fuss you want to about Jesus,” people must have said to Matthew and the members of his community; “we’ll just keep waiting for a real savior.”  Still, Matthew wrote the story of the magi’s visit and gifts.  The irony of the story of the magi’s quest to find and worship Jesus, the newborn king, is that when Jesus is finally crowned it’s fashioned from thorns and placed on his head by soldiers who mock and taunt him as he walks to his death, a convicted dissident of the Roman Empire.  A wooden sign reading, “This is Jesus, King of the Jews,” is nailed above his head as he hangs on the cross.            

One image to which I have referred for inspiration when it comes to understanding the message of the story of the magi’s visit is this one.  More than five hundred years old, it’s called “The Adoration of the Magi,” by an artist of the Italian Renaissance named Andrea Mantegna.  I first discovered it through the Getty Centre museum in Los Angeles when my family lived there for a year.  It’s the perspective in this painting that I find so provocative; the artist painted as though he, too, were kneeling alongside the magi.  It’s a perspective that encourages us as viewers to adopt the same stance, to look up at this baby as though we, too, have fallen to our knees and are ready to present our gifts.  Why do we make such a fuss about Jesus?

Sometime near the end of his life Andrea Mantegna sat staring at an empty canvas.  A few years earlier his beloved wife had died, along with one of his sons.  Another son had been banished from for crimes which had brought Mantegna deep shame and humiliation.  At one point he had been paid one of the highest salaries of his day, when he worked as a court painter for the ruling family of Padua.  He should have felt abandoned in that moment, alone, an old man, in his studio, defeated by the world.  Nothing more was expected of him – we don’t tend to expect new life or joy or beauty to bloom inside of people who are grieving, people who have made mistakes in life, that’s just the way of the world; we don’t expect much.  So what a surprise then, that from this old man from whom nothing was expected, summoned from the wreck of his life we get a beautiful painting, creativity, inspiration.  What came to Andrea Mantegna and was expressed on his canvas was a deep sense of the One called, “God with us,” a deep and real sense in Mantegna of a different power protecting him; he need not be resigned.  “We sing of Jesus, a Jew, born to a woman in poverty, in a time of social upheaval and political oppression.  He knew joy and sorrow.  So filled with the Holy Spirit was he that in him people experienced the presence of God among them;” new life and possibility and wholeness and growth where all the powers that be had said these were impossible.   In all the usual ways of the world Andrea Mantegna should not have thrived again, but his painting expresses what was with him – a deep sense of God’s power and presence, incarnate to the world in the Christ Child.  That’s why we make a fuss about Jesus. 

Much has been revealed to us this year about the ways of the world – especially during this pandemic – but what is more remarkable is all the conversation we’ve been having about whether we want to accept all this anymore as “just the way things are,” the ways of the world.  2020 was a challenging year, but haven’t we been surprised by our collective energy and willingness to tackle change?  To not stay resigned to the ways of the world?  Ontario has launched an independent commission into Covid-19 and long-term care.  Last spring and summer saw huge crowds take to the streets in this city and around the world to demand justice and fairness for people of colour, to say loudly and clearly, “we won’t be resigned to the ways of the world.”  We’re talking now as a nation about a guaranteed basic income.  We’re talking about the funding municipalities need to truly and effectively provide safe housing for those in need.  For people like myself – whose job it is to point to God’s surprising presence and transformative Spirit with us in the world – it’s been an inspiring and invigorating time.  The Spirit of God who came into our world incarnate in the Christ Child born in Bethlehem has been so active and visible this past year.  We needn’t be resigned to the ways of the world; our faith proclaims the power of another way.            

We must never lose faith in the world’s capacity to surprise us – God’s capacity to surprise up, to recreate and make new.  Church people make such a fuss about Jesus because in his life and in his death he shows us that this is, in fact, God’s wondrous world.  It is our conviction that God raised Jesus to new life and so we have faith that what we call the “ways of the world” are not the final way and that they will not receive the final say.  To this truth Herod himself offers a powerful testimony.  If Herod was truly convinced that his way was just the way of the world and everyone should just get used to it, he could have ignored the magi and their question; it wouldn’t have disturbed him, festering in his conscience, like a splinter or a hangnail. 

If Herod was truly convinced that his way was just the way of the world then he could have told the chief priests and the teachers of the law to ignore any questions that came from the people about the newborn ruler.  Instead Herod frantically gathers them all for insider advice.  In our story Herod reveals that he is, in fact, fully cognizant of another way and he shows us as much because he’s frightened.  Herod knows in his bones that he has been trying to thwart this way for a very long time but the real way of the world cannot and will not be held back.

In a world that has known its fair share of Herods, those who maintain that their way is just the way this world operates, what inspires some, like the magi, to ask the innocent questions that might topple entire kingdoms?  Questions like, who says women can’t skate as fast or that our game wouldn’t be as exciting as men's?  Questions like who says I haven’t got anything to say, a message to pass on, a canvas to fill?  What inspires us, like the magi, to ask the questions that threaten to topple entire worldviews?  Here at church we’d say it is our conviction in another way.             

Our world needs people who are not resigned, people who have faith in this world’s capacity to surprise us, to be made new.  People with victories to claim, healing to promote, communities to build.  It’s why we here at church make such a fuss about Jesus and why we tell the story of the magi’s quest at this time every year: that we might gain our own epiphany - our own insight, our own reminder - that there is indeed another way of the world.  We call it God’s way, this promise to make all things new - it’s a promise for you and for me and for this church community and this city and yes, even Herod.  This is God’s wondrous world, and it is constantly surprising.