Don’t Stop, Bethlehem is 9 Miles Farther Still

Text: Matthew 2: 1-12

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.  hen 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,[f] 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.

 

Message:

When I went this May to London, I was amused to see the TomTom which is the automotive navigation system which help drivers to manuevre their cars to the right destination. Before you set out for a journey you need to enter the postal code of the destination. From the time you start a lady’s voice will guide you in your journey. If there is a turn it will clearly instruct “Turn Left and keep going”. I was really fascinated by this device as I am very poor with road directions. I can go to a place a hundred times and still end up at the wrong place when I go next. If you happen to take the wrong direction in spite of the instructions, the TomTom will reroute it and adjust to the new route taken. In a tabloid that week I read how TomTom guided one of the drivers. The driver kept going as per the device. Surprisingly he reached the edge of a cliff. The lady in the device insisted to take a left. If the driver would have heeded to the esteemed instruction, he would have a free fall into the river. Thank you very much.

Today we are meditating on the text that was very popularized by the classic carol “We Three Kings”. We see that three wise men in the quest of child who has been born king of the Jews,   employed the star as their TomTom or the GPS. The Biblical passage says that “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.” (Matt 2: 1) Weird. In search of Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, they reached the palace of King Herod in Jerusalem. Was this a case of dysfunctional TomTom? Before that let us learn something about King Herod. The Roman Senate gave him the title of “King of Jews.” He was called ‘Herod the Great: King of Jews, Friend of Romans’. Herod was famous for huge building projects that he undertook. One of the historian says ‘No one in Herod’s period built so extensively with projects that shed such bright light on a relatively dark world.’ Massive stones of the temple he built along with the various buildings he built defined the landscape of Jerusalem. For the wise men what better place than Jerusalem that is buzzing urban centre with all the spectacular shows of power and riches. If a king of Jews has to be born, where else other than the palace of King Herod, the King of Jews? Sometimes in our journey of faith we get caught up in our assumptions of our destination and we end up in the wrong place. King Herod felt really threatened by this new revelation that he frantically called his chief priests and scribes to find out where exactly the Messiah was to be born. Walter Brueggeman, an Old Testament Scholar says that the coming of the Wise men to Jerusalem can be alluded as the right destination if we read the prophecy of Isaiah in Isaiah 60: 6. ‘Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.’ But the chief priest and scribes settled for much more humble a prophecy by prophet Micah.

‘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[d] my people Israel.’” (Micah 5: 2)

In the lure of the tall buildings and symbols of power, the wise men were off their target by 9 miles, as Bethlehem was 9 miles to the south of Jerusalem. Bethlehem, a small unassuming backward village looked like a joke in front of the glorious Jerusalem. But Jesus was born in an unassuming, backward place that held no promise or hope.

When we today think of Christmas we too think like the wise men. Malls glittering with the choicest decorations, eating joints with the best Christmas offer and lovely Christmas cake is what we call ‘Christmassy.”

But the question is are we ready to reroute ourselves and travel that 9 miles that we have grossly missed. Are we ready to travel in quest of the child, king of Jews in places that has no tall buildings, luxury cars, multiplexes and malls. Because there in an obscure manger, denied room from the inn, lies baby Jesus who would one day grow up and minister and be called “The friend of sinners” which definitely was not a compliment. The gospel of Luke says that the first ones to know about birth of Jesus were the shepherds who were the outcastes of the society. ‘Jesus, The King of Jews, the Friend of Sinners’  was being accessible to those that the powerful and mighty like Herod abused and vilified.

Rev Thomas Kurien is the Associate Director of Navjeevan Centre, Mumbai. He was the former Vicar at the St. Thomas Mar Thoma Parish, Pimpri, Pune. Achen was known for his concerns of reaching out to the society. During his time he tried to reach out to the people in the neighbourhood helping them with financial aid dor surgeries and for life skills. The major focus was the slum near the church. Navjeevan Centre has a ‘Padosi’ (neighbor) Programme that reaches out to the friends of Navjeevan. In this programme the Reverend and his team were visiting the St. Thomas Church, Pimpri. Before he was about to enter the church there was a visitor at the gate of the Church. She was a lady clad in burqha. She greeted Achen with a salaam. They exchanged pleasantries. She handed over a cover to him saying “This is with gratitude for the money received from the church for my child’s bypass surgery. Use it for the project of Navjeevan.” Achen was visibly moved by this gesture and invited her to the church. But she refused to come. When he checked the cover, it was a check of Rs 5000. What better witness of a Church that has made a difference in the neighbourhood.

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Friends today we judge a city by the count of malls and multiplexes. A City is not good if it does not have a McDonalds or a KFC. To be in tune with times we are obsessed with the latest smartphones, tabs, cars and clothing. We have believed that only if we appear to be ‘cool’ and rich do we have some value. This has affected our spirituality and our celebrations of Christmas. But the text today calls us to take a reroute from our ‘Jerusalem’ of comfort to the ‘Bethlehem’ of transformation. Bethlehem literally means the “House of Bread.” It is a call for a journey to share our bread with our neighbours. We live in times where the attitude towards the poor and the not so successful people have become very cruel. These people either have become invisible for us or we conclude that because of their laziness they are poor. The Journey of Christmas is a journey from our self- centeredness to the transformation of self- giving. Let not the noise, music, celebrations and decorations drown the real meaning of Christmas. Hope you reach Bethlehem safe and sound. Let the star guide you beyond the glitter and glamour. Happy Journey. 

 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati

Who Defines Us?

Text: Luke 6: 27- 31

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

 Message

Before we go into the message let me share a story narrated by a gentleman David J. Pollay that will set the tone for the message.

“. I hopped in a taxi, and we took off for Grand Central Station.  We were driving in the right lane when, all of a sudden, a black car jumped out of a parking space right in front of us. My taxi driver slammed on his brakes, skidded, and missed the other car by mere inches! The driver of the other car, the guy who almost caused a big accident, whipped his head around and started yelling bad words at us.  My taxi driver just smiled and waved at the guy.  And I mean, he was actually friendly! So, I asked him, “Why did you just do that? This guy almost ruined your car and could’ve sent us to the hospital!” And this is when my taxi driver told me about what I now call, “The Law of Garbage Trucks.” “Many people are like Garbage Trucks. They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment. As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it, and if you let them, they’ll dump it on you.  When someone wants to dump on you, don’t take it personally. Instead, just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on. You’ll be happier because you did.” Wow.  That really got me thinking about how often do I let Garbage Trucks run right over me? AND, how often do I then take their garbage and spread it onto other people: at work, at home, on the streets?  It was that day I resolved, “I’m not going to do it anymore.” Since then, I have started to see Garbage Trucks everywhere.  Just as the kid in the Sixth Sense movie said, “I see dead people,” I can now say, “I see Garbage Trucks.” 🙂 I see the load they’re carrying … I see them coming to drop it off.  And like my Taxi Driver, I don’t make it a personal thing; I just smile, wave, wish them well, and I move on.”

Now this story is a very inspiring one and is in sync with the Bible passage set before us. But before we go any further let us imagine that we are sitting in Church and announcement is going on. One of your friends is sitting just behind you and kicks you for fun. What would be your first reaction and the first word on your tongue? I know my answer and I do not want to reveal too much here. What Jesus is saying in the passage has been a huge stumbling block for many believers. Having faith is abstract but practicing the above said is very very difficult. So how is this ever going to be possible? For that we need to look at Jesus himself. Jesus loved his enemies and blessed those who cursed him. He prayed for his oppressors on the Cross. Reading the Bible one thing stands out when you study the life of Jesus. Jesus was deeply aware of who he was. “I Know who I am. I testify for myself.” (John 8: 18) If I ask myself ‘Who am I?’ on a plain surface it is easy to answer but I seriously do not know the answer yet. Therefore people and circumstances define me. If somebody is rude to me I just react and get back being ruder. But the other person has defined me and my behavior. If the circumstance is favorable I am in a good mood but if it is hostile I change accordingly. So the power to define my behavior and attitude does not rest with me but other people and circumstances define me.

Jesus was deeply aware of His identity and his mission in life. Therefore what people told about him did not define his behavior. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ (Luke 7: 24). If I had such an accusation against me I would have tried my best to prove otherwise and get my reputation on track. “Loving your enemies” is a choice that we have as people of faith to set ourselves free from hatred of people that defines us. I have a choice to love. But it is a tougher choice. Growing with God is a practice that we will perfect. With all our blemishes and shines, by the grace of God we will be comfortable in our own skin. Experience of the deep love of God and the knowledge of being “His Beloved” will enable us to say along with Soren Kierkegaard  “ Now with God’s help, I shall become myself.” I still remember that when I did my first session of counseling in Navjeevan way back in 2005, the children started to run at the very sight of me. They did not like this dude who thought he knew what their problem was. These children just avoided me and hardly tried to talk. This was deeply upsetting. I felt very angry and thought “I have come all the way to understand their problem and they are not even ready to talk to me?” One day when I was all upset Moni Achen, the then  director of Navjeevan understood my predicament and told me “You cannot compel anyone to love you. You as a counselor, remind them of their past that they would love to forget. Therefore they do not like you. You have to give them that freedom. All you can do is, you can choose to love them.” That made complete sense.

These days I am reading the book “ The Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela. His life is a complete inspiration. As a man of faith who truly believed in Biblical justice he sacrificed his life for the people of South Africa. The Apartheid Government of South Africa made all the possible inhuman laws to deprive the Africans of the basic human dignity. In pursuit of the freedom of his people to live like humans, Mandela was imprisoned in Robben Island for 27 long years of his life. The best part of his youth was snuffed out by the Afrikaaner government. In his release in 1990 he strove for a multi-racial platform and was elected the President of South Africa in 1994. There were many in the African National Congress who wanted to eliminate the opponents who oppressed them on the basis of color. There was a worldwide fear of a Civil strife. But once he came to power he formed a Government of National Unity. He set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission where the white oppressors confessed of their wrongs in court and the black oppressed hugged them and reconciled. This move of “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” was hugely a success because of the life and message of Mandela. After losing the best part of his life he had every right to be bitter with his opponents. He was in a position to settle scores and take revenge. But his example of reconciliation and forgiveness became the foundation for a South Africa that was just being born. Nelson Mandela stands out as a shining example of practicing Jesus commands where hatred did not define his actions. He defined the situation with love and forgiveness. These days where he is struggling with life and death, I sincerely pray that Nelson Mandela’s life inspires us to make a choice between liberating power of love and the imprisoning trap of hatred. I pray like him we choose the former. Amen

 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati