This morning we enter the story in Matthew’s Gospel after the wise men found Jesus and “offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Matthew 2:12: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

Both stories–the visit of the wise men and the family’s flight to Egypt–strike me as disruptive interludes to the overall birth narrative. These interludes remind me of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Made in 1978 and released in 1979, the movie is full of crude, and what was called at the time, “blasphemous” humor. Life of Brian begins with the three wise men looking for the newborn Messiah. Instead of finding the baby Jesus, they find the baby, Brian Cohen, and his mother, who rips into the wise men for rudely intruding into her dwelling. When the wise men realize their mistake, they take back their gifts and give them to the baby Jesus, who is lying next door in a glowing manger with his glowing parents.

The movie irreverently parodies biblical movies. It also skewers the infighting of political movements, out-of-touch governmental elites, dogmatism and intolerance, the weird ancient language of scripture and prophecy, the hysteria of crowds, and it all ends with the gleeful yet glib song, written by Eric Idle, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” sung by a chorus of the crucified.

The movie is crude and lewd and definitely not for children, and it remains controversial four decades later. However, over the years, scholars have used the movie for analysis and critique.

My favorite scene is the most nonsensical one that breaks entirely from the pretext of the movie about Jews and Romans in the first century. Brian falls from a tower and is saved by landing in a random alien spaceship flying by, and then there’s a two-minute Star Wars-like space battle. The spaceship crash lands and deposits Brian exactly where he would have landed from his fall. A bystander calls Brian “lucky.” The story continues as if the alien spaceship interlude didn’t even happen.

Life of Brian director, Terry Jones, died in January 2020. In the April 2020 Journal of Religion & Film, in honor of Jones, Robert Cousland wrote about the brief “alien sequence” that “the supposition of a rudderless universe, dominated by chance is a mindset very familiar from the time of Jesus. The random and unexpected rescue of Brian by unidentified aliens is not at all inconsistent with such a perspective.”

Warnings in dreams, angels, mysterious wise men from afar following a star, all of these bizarre presences in the scriptural story of Jesus’s birth make a major point: this is out-of-the-ordinary, supernatural forces are at work, pay attention!

The Gospels weave together scriptural and prophetic references with the details of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection to demonstrate that it all happened according to God’s plan for the purpose of salvation. But when we read the story, it is filled with plot twists and uncertainties, as experienced by the characters within the story. It is only through hindsight that we can view the story as carrying out God’s plan for salvation.

This is what can make living our own individual life so difficult at times, that we don’t know how our own earthly life will ultimately turn out.

The wise men, “warned in a dream,” “left for their own country by another road.”

I’m already in my “own country,” yet the toll of the pandemic and the danger posed by extreme political actors make me feel like I’m trapped in a dream that won’t end. I want to wake up and get back to my “normal country.” I feel like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

During the shutdown of the pandemic, I craved the mundane life of going to eat in a restaurant, to watch a movie in a theater, to enjoy a live musical performance, to worship together in the sanctuary, to simply not have to deal with the pandemic!

I questioned myself so many times, and still do question myself:

Where do I go from here?

“… an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt …’”

For me, I don’t need to escape murderous tyranny and flee to a different country. However, some people do escape murderous tyranny and flee to my country.

Where do I go from here?

This question I keep asking myself isn’t about going somewhere physically but about my spiritual direction, a new trajectory for life’s purpose?

Some people wonder, is this jarring break from our comfort zone some kind of divine punishment? Is divine revelation breaking through to reveal that we should be more thankful for what we have? And what of all of the pain and suffering? It could be that we will not learn some deeper spiritual truth about ourselves and society from this dislocated episode of life.

Despite our disagreements, we have a shared experience that we feel like we are living in a Twilight Zone episode or in the alien spaceship interlude.

Where do we go from here?

Maybe, like Brian Cohen, after the alien spaceship interlude, we will simply wind up right where we were.

Jeremiah used Rachel “weeping for her children” as a metaphor to refer to the dislocation of Judah from their homeland when they were conquered by Babylon and taken into captivity. Matthew quotes one verse from Jeremiah out of context, as if it were a prophecy of Herod’s massacre of the innocents. This is, to stick with our theme, a weird interlude.

The more interesting thing here is that Matthew, by quoting from Jeremiah 31, smuggles in the grand theme of redemption.

Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the LORD:
there is hope for your future

It almost sounds like the lyrics from “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life:”

If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle, that’s the thing

There is deep irony in Matthew invoking Jeremiah 31 in the midst of the murder of children. The prophet preached the Gospel good news hundreds of years before Herod and Jesus!

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant … It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors …, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make …, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Isn’t that interesting?! God says he will write his law, his teaching, on our hearts, and his instruction will be so ingrained in humans that people will not even have to teach about God! We will have God’s forgiveness dwelling perfectly in our hearts!

“I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

That’s the “new covenant!” God’s forgiveness will live so perfectly within us that we will literally forget all of the absurdity of sin! The Jewish scholar, Marvin Sweeney, commented on this passage: “This idea is developed in later Lurianic kabbalah, which maintains that all persons have a divine spark within. Since it is so inscribed, there will be no need for the Torah to be taught.”

Some Christians tend to think the New Testament explains and ushers in this “new covenant” in which Jesus died for our sins to solve the problem of sin. That’s it, over and done, now we can move on.

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is kind of like the alien spaceship episode in Life of Brian. Yes, we’re “saved” from the “Fall,” from our “sin,” but we’re also placed right back where we were intercepted by Jesus, right here on planet Earth, the third planet from the sun, celebrating another trip around the sun in the new year, and, yes, dealing with all of the same anxieties and worries of life and human society.

Yet here we are, here I am, asking: Where do we go from here?

In Dr. King’s “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, April 3, 1968, the evening before his assassination, he started his speech by contemplating a “panoramic view of the whole human history … [and his] mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land … by Greece, … [the great philosophers] assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality … the Roman empire … the Renaissance … Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church in Wittenberg … [and] Abraham Lincoln [when he signed] the Emancipation Proclamation.”

King eventually got to the reason for why he was there in Memphis, to support the sanitation workers’ strike, and then he ended his speech by recounting how he was almost killed in September 1958 by a deranged lady who stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. Here he was, ten years later, contemplating his life and the duty of living for nonviolence and for justice in the current moment of history. In the final paragraph of his final speech, he said, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.” If King were alive today, he would be 95 tomorrow.

The way King framed his final speech makes the ten years of his public life–from the stabbing to his assassination–sound like the “alien sequence” of Life of Brian. Because the blade was so close to the main artery of his aorta, he said of the stabbing in the “Mountaintop” speech: “It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died. … I am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters,” and then he named major events of the Civil Rights movement that he was involved in.

Brian Cohen was “lucky,” the bystander says, when he crash lands back on earth from the alien spaceship. In the end, Brian is crucified.

Was King “lucky” to have survived the stabbing only to be assassinated ten years later?

Ten years after King, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was an entertaining critique of “God’s will” as an absurd concept. For King, however, living within “God’s will” was not absurd but covenantal, because without “God’s will” for justice, we are simply puppets of random “luck,” and there is no trajectory to history.

King knew where we came from, and he could see where we were going, not by luck, but by God’s providence, beyond the mountaintop, to the promised land!

The worldviews of Life of Brian and of King are quite different, but I find solace in both worldviews finding rest in our individual ability to embrace our own mortality and our will to live. As Eric Idle’s song goes:

For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin
Give the audience a grin
Enjoy it, it’s your last chance anyhow


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