“Honored & Threatened”
Matthew 2:1-15, January 6th, 2019
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
“Hear now these words as recorded in the gospel according to Matthew, chapter two, verses one thru fifteen.”
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 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.”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘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.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
8 Then 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.”
9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
11 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.
12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13 Now after they had left, 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, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
“Having listened to this scripture lesson let us reflect on its meaning and how we can use this lesson in our present time.”
“Honored & Threatened”
Let us now reflect on these two occurrences: first the coming of the three wise men from the East; secondly Herod’s seeking the child to destroy him! I know, it seems conflicted to mix overwhelming joy with the harshness of humankind’s darker side, that of fear, jealousy and greed; a looming shadow of the evil that lurks within the very nature of our humanness! Yet, we must be reminded that our excitement and joy over the birth of the Christ Child, so long, long ago, is just that, a memory. The celebration of Christ’s birth was just that, an annual celebration. Today, we are living in the Twenty-First Century, a century filled with human treachery and hatred, deceit and betrayal. Therefore, it is important that we spend time each week, studying and reflecting on the historical accountings of what occurred so long ago. For surely, history continues to repeat itself, as history is driven by human nature and that has not really changed, all that much, over the course of the ages. Our lesson this morning begins with the sojourn of the wise men, as they followed the rising of a star in the sky. It leads them first to Jerusalem where they ask for information, ultimately from King Herod. The king was frightened of the ancient prophesy, as the scriptures foretold of the coming Messiah, the rising of a ‘new’ king. However, the king sends the wise men to Bethlehem, where the child is to be born. But Herod has a hidden agenda – with evil intent.
Let us first look more closely at the significance of our tradition regarding the three wise men, whom follow a star to where Jesus is said to be born. They, like us, were drawn to the prophesy that out of Bethlehem would rise a new king in Bethlehem of Judea, a Messiah, whom would once again free them from their oppressors. The birth of Christ is referred to as Epiphany. According to definition: “Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.” (The festival commemorating the Epiphany on January 6; a manifestation of a divine or supernatural being; a moment of sudden revelation or insight.) /Wikipedia/ These three sojourners, these visitors were gentiles, like most of us, they were not of the Hebrew tribe of Israel. Simply meaning, they, like ourselves, are not Jews. It is believed that the reference to the gifts had symbolic meaning. “That the gold was presented to the infant King in token of His royalty; the frankincense in token of His divinity, and the myrrh, of His sufferings;” /Jamieson, Fausset and Brown/
At least one other theologian has written about the gifts of the magi. “Epiphany – The First Baby Shower” Written by Robb McCoy, whom is quoted as saying: “To a modern reader, the gifts of the Magi seem strange and impractical. To explain these peculiar gifts, many have placed dubious symbolic meanings on them. Instead, I feel it much more likely that these gifts were extremely practical.” /Robb McCoy/ He is suggesting that the gifts were meant to be the vehicle by which their pending escape from Herod would depend. Yes, there is a lot of dialog written about the meaning, the symbolic meaning behind these gifts. I am sure we could fill this hour just discussing this single point. However, let us keep it simple. The writing of this journey of the wise men from the East was meant to add to the celebration of baby Jesus’ birth. Surely, this is how it is celebrated within our modern understanding of these historical and ancient writings!
Today’s lesson is indeed about celebrating that all humankind, not just the Jewish tribe of Israel, were intended to receive the ‘Good News” of the birth of the Christ Child, the birth of the long-expected Messiah! Everyone needs a rescuer, a savior of some sort. Even if we can not fully agree on this definition or the intent of the scriptures foretelling, we all need help in this very real creation we find ourselves journeying within! The sad irony of our lesson today, is that we still suffer from the human condition, just as surely as King Herod, the Magi, and Jesus along with his parents did. A respected theologian David Lose, explains it this way. “And that is what is at the heart of Matthew’s darker, more adult-oriented story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that… this people so mastered by fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves… this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies.” /David Lose, adapted/ It is hard to accept at times, that is, the truth of what is being said here. Truthfully, if it were not so prevalent in this time in which we live, many of our Churches, Temples and Mosques, they would be empty! It is our need for the intervention of the Divine Power which keeps us searching for the truth. It is our hope that peace will one day be a word everyone can experience. Then, true joy will fill the hearts of all humankind, allowing the love of God to fill our essence, as-well-as our actions, allowing the Light of Christ, God incarnate, to shine throughout the entire population of this place we call Planet Earth, and beyond! It is then that the concept of “worship” will become so prevalent that the current houses of worship would be too small to house the grateful crowds!
Alan Brehm tells us, “We celebrate Epiphany because it’s a time to remind ourselves that in him (in Christ Jesus) a light has dawned that will never go out; a light of faith, and hope, and joy that shines in all the kinds of darkness that can afflict this world.” /Alan Brehm/ We still need the hope which this celebration offers! For as many religious leaders, pastors and teachers firmly believe, there are still king Herod’s in this world. There is still hatred, driven by fear and jealousy running rampant across the continents of the world we live in. If it were not so, the closing references in our scripture today, would not resonate in our hearts so clearly. As a youth I never gave it much thought. Even as a student in Seminary it did not take on the meaning it does today. But the adult truth is written here for us to look at, reflect upon and talk about. Because of King Herod’s fear and jealousy of a rising star that pointed to Bethlehem where “a new king of the Jews was to be born;” /Matthew 2:2/ “Where the Messiah was to be born;” /Matthew 2:3/ Jesus and his parents were forced to “flee to Egypt”. /Matthew 2:13/ This scripture lesson is telling us that baby Jesus and his parents were forced to escape the tyranny of the current king by traveling to Egypt; where they lived as migrants, immigrants in a foreign land.
What makes the dawn of Epiphany, as celebrated by Christians, so exciting? Christ was born in poverty, Christ was forced to leave his place of birth because of tyranny. As Christians, we believe that God, was born incarnate, personified, embodied and alive in Jesus. Inferring of course, that in Christ, God, has personally suffered our human pain and anguish, thereby, God, fully understands our human predicament! In the larger world, this is the most misunderstood and disputed point of Christianity. This is true, mainly, because we all have different views of who and what our God is. One way to simplify this and not get all twisted up in the technical details, which have been disputed since Jesus’s birth, is to look to the few absolutes which most religious folks agree upon in principle. There is only one God Head, manifested, displayed and revealed in different ways to us humans. If we start here, there is hope that we can all remain civil as we discuss what our understanding of the Holy One is all about! If we hold our biases at bay, perhaps we will hear what others are saying to us and they then may listen to us. What a concept, huh?!
The season of Advent, the celebration of Christ’s birth, and the epiphany by which Christ came to save all of humankind, including all of us non-Jews; exciting isn’t it! This creates a question, “How do you share (your) enthusiasm (as you grasp this reality!)?” /Christopher Burkett/ (If you are passionate about your love for God, like was celebrated on Christmas Day; if your spirit is on ‘fire’ for the love of the uniqueness of this your church, then share this with everyone you know: friends, relatives, neighbors and your buddies on Facebook and other methods of social media!) “I mean, (are you now ready to) share (this special) something (which) really stirs you, heart and soul, with someone who doesn’t share your keenness, (your zeal)?” /Christopher Burkett/ Let us allow today to be, the beginning, of something truly new, a ‘New Beginning!’ Let us be challenged this day to be part of the forward movement of God’s abundant love, sharing this with others, rather than keeping it a secret locked deep in our hearts! This is how we honor the gift of Christ and the Living Spirit of God in our lives! This is how we fight tyranny and evil.