Isaiah 60 : 1 – 6, Psalm 72, Matt 2 : 1 – 12

Saturday, according to the church calender, was Epiphany when the some churches celebrated the coming of the men from the East.  They were the ones who followed the star to pay respect to the Baby Jesus.  Also on this day, Moderator Marion Best asked us to think about the plight of the vulnerable people in our country.  It is interesting to compare the two things that we are about to reflect on today. 

Those men who came to give homage to the baby Jesus were astrologers.  They should not have had anything to do with the Jewish Messiah.  Studying the movements of stars to tell fortunes was not quite the practice of the Hebrew people, thus those men were so-called foreign pagans.   Marion Best wrote a letter to all of us, commenting on the situation of the poor and the sick, and she was accused of stepping out of her line of work.  She was severely criticized by Canada”s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, for being naive about economy.  But the important question is:  "Isn”t Marion Best telling the truth, just as much as the men from the East revealed the truth about the birth of Jesus?"

According to the accounts by Matthew, those men came from the East following a star and looking for the king of the Jews.  Astrology was more widely observed by the Babylonians and the Persians, present day Iraq and Iran, not by the Hebrew people.  In other words, these men of the East were not familiar with the Hebrew prophesy; they were considered pagans.  This is why they needed help from specialists to know the exact location of the birth of the Messiah.  Of course, the specialists, priests and scribes – ministers and theologians, had all the tools for research and could tell them that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

But those priests and scribes did not go to worship the Messiah, even though he was supposed to be theirs.  Those foreign practitioners of a pagan religion did.  The political situation was too complicated for the experts to just get up and go.  The priests and scribes had too much investment in the existing order.  Knowing the kind of man King Herod was, they could not simply declare that the Messiah had come.  They had to carefully calculate the implications.  So they just sat and witnessed the slaughter of the infant children in Bethlehem by the jealous king.  It was too risky to commit themselves to another king on account of a mere prophesy.
On the other hand, those star gazers packed their bags and took off.  No one knows where they came from.  But surely they came from far.  And travelling in those days was not easy.  It was expensive and dangerous.  It was not like packing a few things to fly to Florida.  There were no seat sales in those days.  There were no buses nor planes.  You had to pay the full fare, and often pay with your own lives, too.  Those men from the East gambled everything and travelled many days to find the Messiah.  What were their rewards?  No one reported if they gained anything from this gamble.  Were they crazy?  Maybe.  But thank God for them.  They did not use political complications as the excuse to stop doing what they had to do.

Sometimes, the people who make amazing discoveries are not experts.  A large number of astronomical discoveries, for example, have been made by amateur star gazers, who watch the stars in their spare time, only for the love of doing it.  They have no preconceptions.  Everything they see through their telescope is a miracle and a wonder.  They take note of everything and check it, often to the annoyance of the experts at the observatories, who have to validate their claims of discoveries.    But because they do not take anything for granted, they find stars the experts might have missed.  They may be crazy, but they run into wonders of creation which until then were not known.

When Marion Best wrote to all United Church congregations asking us to think about and pray for society”s most vulnerable people, who were being affected by the governments cutbacks, she did not expect the thunderous wrath of the editorial board of the Canada”s biggest national newspaper, The Globe and Mail.  I don”t think she expected any big reaction by saying things that are almost customary for the church to say before Christmas.  But the Globe and Mail roared; "How easy it is for United Church Moderator to say such an irresponsible thing from a cosy protected pulpit, surrounded by pious like minded people, without having to cope with the reality of life!  How naive!  Doesn”t she realize that our social policy is bankrupting the country?"  The thunder was so loud that, I wonder if Marion”s argument touched the nerves of the advertisers in the Globe and Mail.  It sounded like an anger of an expert who was upstaged by an amateur.

How little do they know.  Marion Best is a nurse, who practised until recently and knows the sick and the weak.   More recently, she was a free lance consultant, helping hard pressed United Church congregations to readjust and reorganize themselves to survive  harder times with fewer members and lower giving.  She knows  finance from the perspective of the grass-roots and small struggling congregations.  How wrong they were if they thought that Marion Best was like a bishop in his colourful clerical splendour, living in a palace like the Pope.  She simply asked, "if the government is in a serious deficit situation, is it the fault of the poor and the sick?  Could it be because of years of bad government management and small minded politics?  She does not deny that the deficit is a serious problem.  What she is asking is:  "Is it the poor and the sick who have to pay for someone else”s mismanagement?"  In this case, an amateur, not the economic gurus, hit the sensitive truth.  It is like the time when those pagan practitioners found Baby Jesus because they were ready to gamble their own lives in search of him, while the experts who should have looked for him were not. 

We must remind ourselves that, just like the case of amateur discoverers of stars, the humane conditions of our society have often been improved by a few dedicated people who naively asked simple questions.  Like those crazy Quakers in Britain during the last century, who asked the question, "Is it right to buy and sell people like cows?"   They began, in effect, to dismantle one of the most established components of the human economic structure – slavery.  We thank God that there were some people, crazy enough to  ask the right questions.  It would have been much easier to not challenge the accepted order of things, and keep slavery.  Slavery lasted so long because it was so very profitable; it made good economic sense.  Like those priests and scribes who surrounded King Herod, keeping quiet and saving their hides, many people who felt slavery was immoral kept silence.  But those Quakers and other visionaries took the risk of appearing to be naive fools.  They asked embarrassing questions.  Were they naive?  Maybe.  But were they telling lies?  Definitely not.  Were they crazy?  Yes.  They were crazy enough to say exactly how it was, without avoiding the issue by saying, "it is rather complicated."
We should not forget the fact that among those Canadians, who dreamed up such a crazy idea as making health care available to everyone, were a United Church minister and a Baptist minister?  James Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas.  Were they fools?  Now Marion Best, a lay woman and faithful Christian has tried to raise the question of what will happen to our society if we risk doing away with such a social safety net.  Because of her concern for the vulnerable and her belief in justice, she too has risked sounding economically foolish.

Celebrating the role of the Hebrew people who would give the world its Messiah, Isaiah said, "Arise, shine, for your light has come."  Later the Evangelist John said in regards to the light,  "When the light shone in the darkness, the darkness did not accept the light."  Of course, light is the end of darkness.  Yet we often find it impossible to acknowledge the obvious and the inevitable, like the light which shines in the darkness.  We always say that abolishing something is not that simple; life is too complicated.  But often the so-called ”complication” is a smoke screen to hide something quite simple.  It is our task to join the ranks of other faithful amateurs like Marion Best to clear the smoke away, and challenge the opinions of the experts.  We are invited to follow an unpopular and unusual path with her in search of an epiphany for our present day.

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