“The Hand Beyond Our Grasp”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Epiphany – 1/6/19
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (NRSV)
“Faith,” says Frederick Buechner, “is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.”1
By that definition, the visitors in Matthew 2 are men of deep and dynamic faith. The disciples who leave fish nets, families, and lucrative government contract jobs at least have someone looking them in the eye when they hear the words, “Follow me.” As Matthew describes the visitors from the east, they step “out into the unknown” following nothing more than a hunch that wormed its way into their imaginations when they observed some sort of celestial anomaly. With that vague hunch drawing them toward God knows what, they have much in common with Moses and Abraham – men who journey on a hunch, and who upset established orders.
These visitors are a mystery. Magi seems more accurate than wise men orkings, since they are, most likely, astrologers. But are they Arabs, Persians, Babylonians? We’ll never know, and it matters about as much as whether there were three or thirty of them. Three is just a convenient inference from the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
What matters in Matthew’s story is that the first witnesses to the arrival of the Messiah are Gentiles – and not just any Gentiles, but foreigners. People who look different and speak a different language. People who know a different history, culture, and geography. People who engage the world according to different categories and standards. People who are quite thoroughly otherwhen compared to the political and religious institutions of Jerusalem – institutions symbolized by Herod and the Temple.
This is important because the Temple has lost its way. In the name of privilege and self-preservation, its leaders are capitulating to Herod the Great, a leader remembered by both ancient and contemporary historians as a greedy autocrat for whom no measure was too ruthless when it came to protecting his power and advantage. Matthew alludes to this uneasy syncretism when he says “King Herod…was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” When Herod realizes that he’s been hoodwinked by foreigners looking for a new king of the Jews, he attempts to purge the threat by ordering a wholesale slaughter: Kill every childtwo years old and younger. Herod’s atrocity remembers and eclipses Pharaoh’s instruction to kill all malechildren in Moses’ day. (Ex. 1:15-22)
Trusting the manipulations of fear and violence is a signature of failing institutions. It’s how they opt for the devil they know over the devil they don’t – even if the latter is God. That’s been true before and since the first century. When opting for familiar devils, religious institutions are trying to stay alive without living by faith. They prefer to follow a hand they can hold rather than one just beyond their grasp. That hand may be a controlling and merciless theology of retribution. Or it may be a political or human hand, even one with blood on it. Either way, that hand seems a more certain thing. Since the days of Constantine, the Christian Church has reached for Herod’s hand saying, He’s protecting us.But every such reach denies, deserts, and crucifies Jesus.
One truth conveyed in all this is that it often takes outsiders to help those who have been institutionalized into clay-footed inertia to reawaken to the possibility and hope they proclaim. People who have nothing to lose and everything to gain will cross distances and clamber over obstacles that those hiding behind ramparts of contrived superiority and self-righteousness will not. The magi take that risky journey as they follow the star to Jesus, who also proves to be a disruptive outsider.
Consider that star. Human beings had been navigating by the stars long before the magi’s journey. A star is a wonderful metaphor for something beyond anyone’s grasp. And starlight, like all light, can’t be held. Even when holding something like a flashlight, we’re not holdinglight itself. We’re holding a source of light. And it’s only helpful to us when we follow it.
As the Light of the World, Jesus is the hand that is always just beyond our grasp. We follow him in faith; and the moment we claim to hold him as closely and tightly we hold a flashlight, or a wallet, or car keys, we are no longer people of faith. To quote Buechner again, this “is the only way it [can] be. If [all that we believe] could be somehow proved, then…we would lose our freedom not to believe. And in the very moment that we lost that freedom, we would cease to be human beings.”2
The gospel affirms that Jesus is a real and particular human being living in the midst of real and particular people, places, and events. Paradoxically, the all this particularity declares that the Incarnation happens for the sake of allhumankind – individuals and communities who are free to believe and trust the mystery of the gospel – or not. So, as Paul says, we’re called to “walk by faith, not by sight,” (2Cor. 5:7) We’re called to trust a hand that is, like the magi’s star, just beyond our grasp. And like both the magi and John the Baptist, we are not the light. Through faith, we simply “testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, [has already come] into the world.” (John 1:8-9)
When we follow that teasing light gratefully, generously, humbly, and compassionately, the Holy Spirit creates in us a kind of glimmer. A light not of our own making, but a light that shines through us and bears witness to a reality we may name, talk about, worship, and even love, but which remains a gracious mystery just beyond us. And in that truth lies our hope, because it reminds us that right now we “see in a mirror dimly” (1Cor. 13:12) and trust a wholeness that shimmers just past our fingertips.
To live by faith is to engage the all-too-tangible ordeals of Herod’s realm with realistic, unsentimental, and courageous love – that is to say, as followers of Jesus.
Who is, for us, the true and lasting star.
The Light of the World.
1Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, HarperSan Francisco, 1966. p. 99.
2Ibid. p. 88.
*To read sermons, newsletters, and other posts from earlier years, please visit: https://pastorallentn.blogspot.com