January 9, 2021, Sanctuary Worship Sermon, “Troubling Times”

January 9, 2022

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Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

   We have finally come to the end of the Christmas season.  Actually, we came to the end of the Christmas season on Thursday, January 6.   That is the Feast of the Epiphany.  However, the chances of getting a critical mass together for a congregation on a weathered, winter’s day in the middle of the week is somewhere between slim and none.  So, we’ve fiddled with the church calendar just enough to allow a somewhat belated celebration of Epiphany this morning.

   Epiphany means “revelation.”  In particular, Matthew alone tells the story of the magi from the east coming to visit the Christ-child.  There is one of Matthew’s first lessons to us: Jesus Christ entered the world for Jews and Gentiles.  These magi – whoever they were and from wherever they came – were outside the circle of the people of Israel.  They were goyim – Gentiles – other.

   And their appearance in Herod’s court in Jerusalem caused a sensation.  They arrived with a story.  They had seen the rising of a star and attributed to that star the birth of a new king.  These were, after all, learned men – some say astrologers who knew the position of stars and the meanings they held.  This new star heralded a royal birth and where else would a royal birth take place but in Jerusalem.  So, they went to the court of King Herod.

   Herod was perplexed by their arrival.  No, Matthew tells us that Herod was “frightened.”  And not only Herod, “but all Jerusalem with him.”  That’s a strange reaction to the birth of a child.  Most births are welcomed with joy and laughter.  Most births do not bring forth fear.

   Why would that be so?  Herod served at the pleasure of the Emperor of Rome.  He had been made “king of the Jews” by an earthly ruler.  Rather than placing a Roman on the throne of Judea, Rome was smart enough to elevate a Jew to the throne.  This became a pattern in the practice of empire keeping – think of maharajas in India, local leaders elevated to semi-kingly authority by Queen Victoria and her successors.

   Herod had a nervous quality about him.  He was a builder of fortresses – including the Herodium and Masada.  He built the port city of Caesarea Maritame and the temple mount as part of the Second Temple renovation. His father was a good friend of Julius Caesar, which is how he got his job.  He had to keep the Judeans in line and keep the peace with Rome.

   So, it’s easy to see how news of a new “king of the Jews,” a term we will hear later in Jesus’ life, would be received by Herod.  Had there been born one who would unseat Herod from the throne of Judea?  Had there been born a political rival to Herod’s own power?  Had there been born one who would overthrow the house of Herod?

   Here is the cause of Herod’s fear.  And when Matthew says “and all Jerusalem with him” he is most likely referring to the royal court of Herod – those whose own position and property were due to their relationship with Herod.  Another translation gives it to us in this way: “Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him.”  Jesus’ birth announcement, delivered by the magi, was troubling news to the political authority.  And Jesus continued to trouble the authorities until the authorities devised to silence him once-and-for-all.

   One of my favorite biblical scholars, Dr. Warren Carter, entitled the chapter of his commentary on Matthew’s gospel as “the empire strikes back.”  I’m not sure George Lucas gets any royalties from Dr. Carter, but the title fits.

   Matthew – whoever Matthew was – tells that Bethlehem of Judea is the place from which the Messiah is to be born.  Obviously, Bethlehem was the “city of David” and David’s descendants had far more right to the throne of David that a puppet king of Rome.  The magi travel to Bethlehem, find the child, present their gifts and pay their homage.  Then, in classic Matthew fashion, being warned in a dream not to return to Herod with news of the child’s location, they returned home by another route, avoiding Jerusalem and Herod.

   Now, this part of the story is not in our lesson for the morning.  Maybe it should be.  When Herod realizes that the magi are not going to return, his fear and troubled mind and spirit get the best of him.  Now, no historical evidence has ever been discovered to validate what comes next.  Let’s be sure we understand that.  Matthew is trying to tell us something, not reporting the news.  Herod’s fear gets the best of him and he sends his soldiers into the region of Bethlehem and its surroundings to kill every boy under two years old.

   Here is the empire striking back.  Here is what happens when fear takes over in powerful places.  Here is what happens when the powers of earth seek to dominate the power of God.

The empires of earth deal in fear.

The empire of God deals in hope.

The empires of earth deal in suspicion.

The empire of God deals in trust.

The empires of earth deal in asserting power.

The empire of God deals in service.

The empires of earth deal in despair.

The empire of God deals in joy.

The empires of earth deal in death.

The empire of God deals in life.

In this simple story, Matthew sets up the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ life.  Jesus has come to usher in the empire of God – the kingdom of God – the commonwealth of God – the kinship of God.  Jesus has come to restore the world and its people to what God intended when God spoke the universe into being.  In this infant, adored by magi and shepherds, God takes on our human frailties and lives among us, offering us example and insight into who God is and who we might yet be.

   Here is the very meaning of epiphany. God is revealing Godself to us.  God is drawing back the curtain to allow us to see who God really is.

   Leaders of earth’s empires create preferred images of themselves.  They hire wardrobe consultants to dress them in the most flattering fashions.  They hire speech writers to craft words that will persuade and influence.  They hire pollsters to constantly take the pulse of the people.  They curry the favor of the rich and powerful who will give them money for favors granted.

   The leaders of earth’s empires are a little like the Wizard of Oz.  They seem powerful and fearful.  But when you pull back the curtain, they are usually just frightened men of a certain age and race who are afraid of losing their place and power in the world.

   But, in the Child of Bethlehem, God is revealed to us in simplicity, in poverty, in homelessness, in oppression, in the vulnerability of an infant.  In Jesus Christ, God’s love took on human form that we could see, touch, hear, and follow.  In Jesus Christ, God emptied Godself into a human form and obediently lived and died to show us what authentic life can really be.

   Like Herod, we too live in troubling times.  The reports are all around us.  The pandemic continues to rage.  People are feeling anxious.  The economy isn’t all that it should be.  Violent crime is on the rise.  People are giving up their hope and confidence.

   Maybe that means we need to lean into the empire of God just a bit more.  Maybe the healing and peace that are hallmarks of God’s empire are needed more today than ever.  Maybe entering more fully into God’s empire – through study, prayer, service, and community – will free us from troubled minds and spirits.

   And that might just be enough.  For now and evermore.  Amen.

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