This morning we picked up the story in Matthew’s Gospel where we left off on Christmas Eve. The wise men found the baby Jesus and “offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” That’s where we left off on Christmas Eve.
Recently Tim and I watched 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 this scene, 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 interrupting 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 dissenting social and political movements, out-of-touch and buffoonish 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 as a vehicle for analysis and interdisciplinary critique.
My favorite scene in the movie 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, which then spends two minutes in a Star Wars-like space battle. The spaceship crash lands and deposits Brian exactly where he would have landed from his fall. The story continues as if the alien spaceship interlude was just a dream and plays no further role in the movie.
Life of Brian director, Terry Jones, died in January 2020. In the April 2020 Journal of Religion & Film, in honor of Jones, Robert Cousland writes wonderfully 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, this is other-worldly, 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 question I have been asking myself over and over again during this currently bizarre time we are in is: Where do I go from here?
The wise men, “warned in a dream,” “left for their own country by another road.”
I’m already in my “own country,” yet the effects of the pandemic 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’m like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. In the book, Dorothy says, “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”
I crave 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 anymore!
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. Some people, however, 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, of course, but about spiritual direction, maybe a new trajectory for life’s purpose?
After nearly a year of sheltering in place, occasionally, I feel trapped in a “rudderless universe, dominated by chance.” In our present circumstance, the chance act was a completely natural act of a virus jumping from a single bat to a single human on the other side of the planet. Think what you will about everything that has transpired since the pandemic started a year ago, but I think there is little denying how jarring and bizarre our current reality is. No matter our views on the virus and our reaction to it, it is a shared experience that we feel like we are living in a Twilight Zone episode or in the alien spaceship interlude. I am having a difficult time making sense of whatever this is that we’re living through, and, I suspect, so are many of you.
Some people may be wondering, 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 I will not learn some deeper spiritual truth about myself and society from this dislocated episode of life.
Where do I go from here?
Maybe, like Brian Cohen, after the alien spaceship interlude, I simply wind up right where I was.
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 Bablyon 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.
But here we are, here I am, asking: Where do I, where do we go from here?
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,” 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, celebrating another holiday season, and, yes, dealing with all of the anxieties and worries of life and human society.
But God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
Sometimes we don’t need to go anywhere, physically or spiritually. Maybe the direction I am looking for is rather a blessed lack of direction: I’m at rest, I’m pausing from the chase of life’s purpose, I’m contemplating the wonder and absurdity of life. 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