“Downward Mobility”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

January 7, 2018 — Epiphany Sunday

Matthew 2:1-12


When Matt and I were looking for housing in preparation for our move to Woodstock, five years ago this spring, we contacted a realtor, and she lined up appointments to show us several properties in several towns around the area.  To start the tour, we met her at an apartment in Putnam, and almost before we were even out of the car, she gestured apologetically and said, “This isn’t a neighborhood where a nice, professional couple like you would want to live.”

Now, I’ve never really been one to consciously buy in to the myth of the single-family house with a white picket fence surrounding a nice, grassy, well-groomed yard where 2.5 children and a dog play under the watchful eye of their happily-married and well-put-together parents.  I was raised by parents who taught me that success is more about making a difference, about helping others, about finding joy and fulfillment, than it is about bank balances or job titles or brand-name clothes.  But in spite of that, the cultural ideal of success is a powerful and attractive one.

Sitting at the lunch table in the school cafeteria where all the popular kids sit, rather than off in the corner with the misfits and the rejects…  Making the varsity soccer team or first chair in the orchestra…  Earning a diploma with a prestigious name on it to hang on your wall…  Having a nicer car, a bigger office, a fatter 401k…  Getting your children or your grandchildren admitted to the right schools so they can get the right jobs and start climbing the ladder themselves…

I could have said to that realtor, “No, this neighborhood seems just fine, thanks,” but I didn’t.  I let her lead us off to look at other, more “suitable” places, and we ended up finding a single-family house in Woodstock (no picket fence, but still).


The specific details were different, but like me, like all of us, the magi in today’s scripture reading had been taught by their culture what success looks like.  They knew that if they were looking for important people, they would find them in the big city where the buildings were tall and grand, the people were sophisticated and worldly, the temple was gilded and jewel-bedecked, the fortifications were mighty, the palace was glorious.

And so, when the star led them on that long, dusty, desert journey, they got as far as Jerusalem and thought they had made it.  Surely this was where the one they sought would be found.  I picture them looking around, as if they would find the child in the next room of the palace or just around the corner at the temple.  He must be somewhere nearby.  Finally, they stopped a passer-by, perhaps a servant in the household of Herod himself, and asked, “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.”

Now, Herod, a local boy who had pledged his allegiance to the occupying Roman Empire and been named king in exchange—Herod was the epitome of visible, opulent success.  He oversaw the building of colossal projects throughout what is now Israel/Palestine, from the port of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, to the fortress of Masada by the Dead Sea, to the temple of Jerusalem itself.  He built himself a huge legacy, a proud proclamation in stone of his power and importance.

So when word of the magi’s arrival reached Herod—for he, like all despots, made it his business to know when other important people were coming so he could wine them and dine them and impress them and wrap them around his finger—I suspect that Herod thought they were coming to pay homage to him, the powerful leader who had achieved such remarkable architectural prowess.  And when, instead, it was revealed that they came in search of a child who had been born king of the Jews—well, that news did not please Herod at all.

Herod called for his religious advisory council.  He hadn’t heard of any important royal births, and he should know, since he was the center of all important royal events.  “Where,” he asked them, “is this child to be born?”

The scholars consulted their scrolls and discovered a quote from the 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 my people Israel.”  They reported this prophecy to the king, who claimed that he wished to go there and pay him homage (though the magi saw through this lie, for they knew that Herod, like all despots, also made it his business to keep track of and eliminate any and all threats to his power).

But did you notice that after revealing the location of this infant king’s birth, those same scholars didn’t then mount up on their camels or horses or donkeys and set out for Bethlehem with the magi?  They, too, had been drawn in to the cultural definition of success.  They were already there.  They had made it.  They served in the great halls of the king.  What importance could this unknown baby possibly have?  Bethlehem wasn’t exactly a neighborhood where a nice, kingly family would want to live.  Why should they go gallivanting off with these foreigners on some wild goose chase?


It is so easy, isn’t it, to get caught up in the narratives that come at us from every side about what success looks like, about who is important, about what really matters.  The cultural ideal of success is a powerful and attractive one.

But when we fix our attention on the halls of wealth and power, we miss the chance to see God, for God always arrives at the margins, among the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden.  When we set our sights on upward mobility, we miss out on the fact that God’s mobility is always downward, always earthward, always humanward.  Jesus could have been born a prince in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, destined for flowing robes and sumptuous meals and a life of ease and abundance.  He could have been born in the imperial capital of Rome, the son of a general or a scholar or a potentate.  But he wasn’t.  He was born to an unwed teenage mother from a forgotten rural backwater, a child of the occupied, not the occupiers.  And he spent his life among those very people, speaking with and eating with and teaching and touching and healing those who would never been seen anywhere near the halls of power.

Herod and his advisors couldn’t see it.  But with a little help from the prophets, the magi could.  They left the “important” city of Jerusalem and made their way to Bethlehem, where they found the infant Jesus and his family in a rather unsuitable place, looking decidedly unimportant.  And when they found him, to their credit, they recognized him, and they offered their gifts and their devotion.


In this season of Epiphany, we, too, might learn to see as they did.  So let us turn our eyes to the edges, to the margins, to the shadowy corners of our world, to the challenges and hardships in our community, to the struggles and strains within our families, to the poor and broken parts of our own hearts.

For that is where God is even now showing up.

That is where Christ is even now being born.

That is where the Light is even now dawning.

That is where the Day is even now breaking.

That is where God has promised to appear and make all things new.

May it be so.


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