Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, '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.' When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
"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." '
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.' When 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The story captures our imagination, doesn't it? Wise men, or a "band of scholars" as Eugene Peterson puts it, or the "three kings" according to the familiar carol, coming from the East, on pilgrimage, drawn by a star which they rightly interpret as the epiphany of God's love birthed in our midst. Talk about reading the signs of the times. They got it, didn't they?
They become a living drama of people of prestige bending low by choice and by devotion to humble themselves before one, impoverished and vulnerable, a powerless babe, who will turn the world upside down.
Their journey took them far afield, not just into a foreign and unfamiliar but also Roman-occupied land, where the foxy collaborator Herod seeks to ensnare them in his sinister schemes. But they outsmart Herod and return home another road, and presumably in another way, as changed persons, ones who will never be the same again.
I can relate to that. I too have experienced epiphanies of God's loving presence, often when I have traveled afar, in recent years to Palestine. There, again and again, I have found myself with those whose faith and love and persistent resistance leave me deeply humbled. I have come home in another way, profoundly changed.
Take Daoud Nassar, for one example, a Palestinian Christian whose family's 100 acre vineyard south of Bethlehem is surrounded by ever expanding Israeli settlements and soon to be entirely cut off by Israel's separation wall.
The Israeli government's harassment has been unremitting for over 20 years now: challenging the Nasser family's ownership of the land despite their deed from 1916, cutting off water and electricity to the vineyard, issuing demolition orders for its modest structures and caves, and uprooting hundreds of olive and fruit trees. Hostile settlers, wielding guns, have assaulted the vineyard, claiming "God gave us this land. It is ours."
The challenges are daunting; some might lose hope. But not Daoud. He and his family persist and prevail, deeply rooted in and strengthened by the faith of their forebears and their peacemaking legacy of beating swords into plowshares and studying war no more.
Daoud is an icon of hospitality. "This place," he explains, "is open for all people." He is also an icon of faith, hope and love in action. "We are trying to build bridges of understanding and trust," he explained, "in order for both nations to see each other as human beings and not enemie...We are the ones," he says, "who can keep hope alive. Even in these dark times, there is a way out."
Though afflicted, Daoud is neither defeated nor broken. With every fiber of his being, he embraces and embodies God's love. In him, I have beheld divine presence, full of grace and truth, courage and a fierce commitment to justice. From this visitation I have come home, like the wise men, in another way, a changed person, inspired and renewed in my faith in the light and love that darkness cannot overcome.
God, lead us by your light to those places where your love is born again and again. Open our eyes to perceive and our hearts to receive your presence in the vulnerable and the powerless, in those who keep hope alive and refuse to be enemies. And then, O God, send us home in another way, profoundly changed by our encounters.