Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sermon for Epiphany: Matthew 2:1-12

Jesus the King

In the strange language of Anglican Church politics, ‘Archdeacon’ sounds like a weird sort of title. In most dioceses, an archdeacon is an administrator, the one who’s in charge of keeping the diocesan organisation running smoothly. When my friend David Ashdown was Archdeacon of the Diocese of Athabasca, he applied for a Telus calling card – those were the days before cell phones were so common – and he filled in his application as ‘Archdeacon David Ashdown’. When the card arrived, the name on it was not ‘David Ashdown’ but ‘Arch Deacon’! A title had been mistaken for a name.

In the Christian world we’ve got a long history of mistaking a title for a name. We call our Lord, ‘Jesus Christ’, and a lot of people seem to be under the impression that ‘Christ’ is Jesus’ surname – as if he could be addressed formally as ‘Mr. Christ’. But that’s not the case; ‘Christ’ is in fact a title. It’s the Greek form of the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’, which means ‘anointed one’ – in other words, ‘King’. To call Jesus ‘Christ’ is to call him ‘King’.

In today’s gospel reading Matthew is teaching us that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised King, and that his arrival means that God’s kingdom is now very near. But as I said, the word ‘Messiah’ is Hebrew, and these ideas are very Jewish. How can you and I relate to them today?

Actually, I don’t think it’s all that hard for us to relate. We all dream of a better world, a world where there would be no terrorist attacks and no inequalities between rich and poor. We’d all like to see a world where hatred between different races is unknown, where there is no crime, where people don’t die from strange killer diseases. And we also have dreams for our own lives. No doubt some of those dreams are in the order of the Barenaked Ladies’ song ‘If I had a million dollars’! But in our better moments we also dream about reaching our goals for personal growth, about finally getting free of our negative habits and becoming the kind of person we wish we could be.

The Christian good news tells us that these dreams are not just wishful thinking. The reason we have them is that God put them into our hearts. They point to a deeper longing yet, a longing for the restoration of God’s original plan for his creation. This restoration is going to take place. The day is going to come when evil is eradicated from God’s creation, and when all people experience the peace and justice which is God’s original dream for us.

The Jewish people called this hope ‘the reign of God’ or ‘kingdom of God’. Many of them believed that God would send them a human king to establish it. He would be a good king, like their ancient king David. They called this king ‘the Messiah’, and many of them saw him as a political or military leader. That’s why they were surprised by Jesus, because he came as a servant king, and instead of ‘taking out’ his enemies, he allowed himself to be ‘taken out’ on the cross for all people. The reason he took this route was that he knew that before the world could be changed, human hearts needed to be changed. Our human rebellion against God’s plan has broken our relationship with God, and we need to be reconciled to God. And so Jesus died to heal our broken relationship with God, and he now invites all people to turn from their sins and to follow him in seeking first God’s kingdom, so that the whole world can be healed.

Some of the details in today’s passage serve to convince Matthew’s first readers that Jesus is in fact the Messiah their scriptures had foretold. The scribes quote the prophecy from Micah, which identifies Bethlehem as the place where the coming king would be born. The gifts that the wise men brought were gifts fit for a king, and the fact that they knelt down and did homage to Jesus as a king would reinforce the point.

Matthew is announcing good news to us. God’s kingdom is close at hand! The time will not be long! And in his Gospel he gives us an invitation to come and be a part of God’s kingdom. We’re invited to become part of an underground resistance movement, working together in the last days of the old kingdom of evil to subvert its values and to prepare for the loving rule of God over the whole of creation. And we do this work, not out of desperation, but in the sure and certain hope that God’s promises will be fulfilled.

So you and I are invited to participate in the coming kingdom of God. What is our response to this invitation? This story shows us three different responses to Jesus. My concern in pointing them out to you is not to ask “Am I Herod?” or “Am I a wise man?” The truth is that at times we’ve all acted like Herod, and at other times we’ve all acted like a wise man. The point is to acknowledge this, and to do all we can to turn away from the Herod in us and to strengthen the wise man - or wise woman - in us. Let’s look at these three responses in this light.

Let’s start with Herod. Historians actually know quite a lot about Herod, and the picture Matthew gives us certainly rings true. He was a fanatically jealous and insecure ruler; he had his wife, his mother and some of his children murdered because he suspected them of plotting against him. So it is not at all out of character that he should react to the news of the birth of the Messiah, first by attempting to trick the wise men into leading him to the baby, and then, when that didn’t work, by killing every boy in Bethlehem under the age of two just to make sure he wiped out any threat to his throne. After all, he knew that the Messiah was God’s coming king, and that he was to usher in a realm of peace and justice. Do you think that would sound like good news to a despotic tyrant? Herod was addicted to his own power and autonomy, and he had no intention of submitting to another king.

What part of me does Herod represent? Probably the part that will accept no one’s rule but my own. Jesus the Messiah asks for my allegiance. To accept Jesus Christ is to give up my own autonomy and to accept his rule as my King on a daily basis. Until I do that, Jesus can’t really set me free from my inner enemies – the sins and fears that trap me and hold me back from God’s best for me. Jesus is like a doctor who wants to help his patients, but can’t do so if they won’t trust him enough to put their lives in his hands and do what he tells them to do.

So here’s my first challenge. I have to turn away from the ‘Herod’ in me, give up my own autonomy, and trust and obey Jesus as my King. What’s my second challenge? It’s to obey in practice, not just in theory.

I once knew a man who was very well informed about the content of the Bible. He loved studying it and discussing it, and would even open it up and teach others about it. All this was very admirable, but my admiration was somewhat limited by the fact that I knew he was committing adultery against his wife at least once a week, and had no intention of stopping. He knew that what he was doing was wrong, but God would forgive him, he said, because he was a Christian.

His story reminds me of the Jerusalem scribes we read about in today’s passage. When Herod wanted to know where the Messiah would be born he turned to these men, and they were very quick with an answer: Bethlehem. They knew their Bibles very well and had no difficulty answering the King’s question. But did they go themselves and worship the newborn king? Not at all. Their faith was all theory and theology in their heads and didn’t lead them to any action whatsoever.

This is a real danger for those of us who were brought up in the Christian faith. We go to church regularly, we hear the scriptures read, we read the Bible and pray. But what difference does this all make to the things we actually do day by day? Do we act any differently? Or is our faith just a theory, a fascinating Bible study that touches our thoughts but not our concrete actions?

This is an error that it’s very easy to fall into. When Christians catch themselves acting like Herod they recognise immediately that there’s a problem, but you can go for years acting like the scribes without realising it. That’s why we need to make doubly sure that we are putting our faith into practice, and not just talking about it.

Many years ago I was driving out to an Indian reserve to take an afternoon service. On my way into the reserve I saw a car in the ditch beside the road, with a couple of people standing around it. I knew that if I stopped I would be late for service. I was about to go by when I remembered Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan and how the priest and Levite ‘went by on the other side’ and didn’t help the man who had been beaten by the robbers. Was I about to be like them? I decided I’d better stop and help!

So my second challenge is to turn away from the ‘scribe’ in me; to go on from just studying the scriptures to actually doing what they say!

My third challenge is the challenge of wholehearted commitment to Jesus, exemplified for us in the ‘wise men’ or ‘Magi’. Bible scholars have speculated for years about who the Magi actually were. We sing about them in the hymn ‘We Three Kings’, but the text doesn’t say that they were kings and it doesn’t say that there were three of them, either; only that they brought three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. The most likely explanation of them seems to be that they were astrologers; belief in astrology was almost universal in biblical times when almost all peoples except the Jews took it for granted that the movements of the stars influenced human affairs. So these Magi were Gentiles, and God spoke to them in a way that would have made sense to them, by the appearance of a star.

What actually did they see? Again, there has been a lot of speculation about that. Some scholars point out that Halley’s comet would have been visible about 11 B.C., but that seems a little too early. In 7 B.C. there was a brilliant conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Saturn was held to represent Israel, and Jupiter was the royal planet, so they may have deduced from this that a great king was about to be born in Israel. We don’t know for sure, but one thing is certain: unlike the scribes, they took their studies so seriously that they were willing to do something about them.

Notice their willingness to give their search priority in their lives. Their journey may have lasted for as long as two years, during which they were away from their homes and their other commitments. I love it when I see people taking their walk with God this seriously. As some of you know, I quite often go down to Regent College in Vancouver for summer school. Many of the people who attend are ordinary Christians who are taking some time out of their summer holidays to study the Bible or to think in a Christian way about the concerns of our times. Nobody is paying them to be there, and every week they spend there is one week less holiday time for them. But they do it because they are committed to their walk with God, and time at Regent helps them in that journey. The Magi show me that accepting God’s invitation involves this kind of wholeheartedness: as Jesus said, to ‘seek first the kingdom of God’, before all my other concerns.

When they found the infant Jesus, the Magi knelt before him in homage. This was how you pledged your allegiance to a King in those days. The Magi knew that this allegiance took priority over all other allegiances in their lives. For instance, it took priority over their duty to Herod. They had told Herod they would go back and tell him where they found the child, but instead, having pledged their allegiance to Jesus, they ‘returned to their country by another route’ (v.12). This was perhaps the first act of Christian civil disobedience! Like the Magi, I’m called to give my first allegiance to Jesus, ahead of all earthly rulers, governments, nations, families, and even ahead of my own selfish will.

All this sounds tough and gloomy, but it’s not. Notice what verse 10 says about the Magi: ‘they were overjoyed’. To follow Jesus as our King is a joyful thing, because to serve him is to really be free for the first time in our lives. When I was a young Christian we used to have a phrase we used about people who had discovered a new experience of the power of the Holy Spirit; we said that they had ‘joined the silly grin club’. After all, the first Christians on the day of Pentecost were so overwhelmed with joy that they were accused of being drunk. That should tell us that to know God and to discover God’s will for us is the deepest joy we can imagine – deeper, in fact, than we can ask or imagine.

So we are invited to participate in the Kingdom of God. This invitation goes out to you and me, today and every day, and we are expected to make a response. Sometimes, like Herod, our response is “No thanks, God – I like my plan better”. And sometimes, like the scribes, we say “Yes” in theory, but don’t actually do anything about it.

God’s dream is that we would respond as the Magi did, with wholehearted commitment to Jesus as our King. And I suggest to you that you and I make that commitment in a fresh way today. Let’s resolve to put our trust in Jesus and do our best to follow him as our King, and let’s pray for the help of the Holy Spirit so that we can keep that resolution.

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