| Matthew 2:13-23
||Sun, December 27, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
|How's your 'Christmas Trivia'? It's that time, you know ... that week between Christmas and New Year's when we get out the jigsaw puzzles and giant crossword puzzles ... that week when we play charades and pictionary and trivial pursuit. So, just in case you get involved in a lively game of 'Christmas Trivia' in the next few days, let me prepare you. There are some 'trick questions' to watch out for ... such as 'who came from the east bringing gifts to the infant Jesus'? Check your Bible before jump in with the answer 'Kings'. According to Matthew's Gospel they weren't kings at all ... but, instead, astrologers (in Greek 'magi') who have been watching the stars and have seen the star of a newborn Jewish king in the heavens. And be careful when you are asked "How many of them came to pay homage to the child?" Be careful because the correct answer is not three. The correct answer is 'unknown' because Matthew doesn't say. You can check your Bible when you go home today. It doesn't say. Just thought I'd save you some embarrassment. Don't mention it.
"But", some of you must be wondering, "but what about today's sermon title. It's there in black and white. 'Two Kings'. If the ones who come from the east aren't kings and if we don't know how many of them there were why title a Christmas sermon 'Two Kings'?". You are sharp ... But you already know that. Here's the thing. There are two kings in the Christmas story. But they aren't the mysterious travellers from the orient. They are Jewish kings. And they are in conflict. Did you catch it? Did you feel the dark and ominous atmosphere of today's gospel reading? Gone are the joyous carols of Luke's gospel that echoed on Christmas eve. The heavenly host is nowhere to be found ... and the raggedy band of lowly shepherds is out of sight. That was a scene of 'Joy to the World' and 'Gloria in Excelsis Deo'. But the scene that Matthew paints is a different scene indeed. It is as if two very different artists paint the same event with very different palettes. One is a palette full of bright primary colours, vibrant and full of life. The other is a palette of dark, muted pastels that communicates fear, terror and grief.
This is Matthew's nativity. It is a nativity that foreshadows the end of the story. Here Jesus' birth looks and sounds strangely akin to his death. The One sent by God is being hunted down by the military police. Will he survive? Will God's will be done? The audience is kept on the edge of its seat wondering how the infant ever made it to adulthood. And the audience hears echoes ... echoes of other stories which it knows well. Joseph dreams ... three times in just ten short verses ... and in every case God sends an angelic message that saves the life of Joseph's young child. This is the same God who once upon a time sent dreams of angelic messengers to save the lives of another Joseph's family of brothers. And there are other echoes .. echoes of another young Jewish baby who miraculously survives the 'ethnic cleansing' of Jewish babies. As Joseph and Mary and their young child Jesus evade Herod's storm troops and the 'massacre of the innocents' the audience cannot help but remember baby Moses being discovered by Pharoah's daughter among the reeds. The Egyptian royal family raises the child who is to be the Hebrew slaves' Messiah. Now Egypt, once again, provides the safety needed for another Messiah to grow. Later, when Matthew portrays the adult Jesus proclaiming his 'Sermon on the Mount', we cannot help but see the parallels with Moses 'Ten Commandments Sermon on Mount Sinai'. Jesus, hints Matthew, is filling some very large shoes. He is a second Moses ... a new Liberator ... a Saviour.
But if we ever imagine that God's Liberator can be born without causing a stir we are sadly mistaken. From the beginning Jesus' spiritual kingship is also about politics. There can be no easy separation of 'church and state' ... no way in which 'spirituality' is not also profoundly 'political'. How else are we to read the story? As soon as the astrologers from the east innocently ask Herod where to deliver their gifts to Israel's new king the hunt is on. King Herod has not survived this long by accident. He is very careful to 'erase', to 'terminate' all pretenders to the throne. Anyone who shows any inclination to take over the throne is dispatched forthwith. So, you see, when you are playing 'Bible Trivia' and someone asks you "How many kings are there in the Christmas story" remember that the correct answer is "two kings ... King Herod and King Jesus".
Of course, you can be forgiven if you didn't know this before. The Christmas Pageants that include King Herod as one of the players are few and far between! And, I daresay, that there has rarely been a Christmas Concert that included the story of the 'slaughter of the innocents'. We want to join in the angelic chorus of 'peace on earth' ... not to hear the wail of all of Judea's mothers weeping for their massacred children. But, guess what. We are not the only ones who read this story. We are not the only ones who teach it to our children ... or let them act it out. Parents and grandparents all over the world tell it to their children. And too many of those parents and grandparents know too well the sound of wailing and loud lamentation that Matthew describes. Too many of them know that their children are born into a world in which one can never predict when violence and oppression will overtake their lives. Guess what. They know this story. They read it to their children. It is contemporary. It rings true to their own stories. And it is gospel ... it is good news.
Good news? You are wondering how Herod's 'slaughter of the innocents' is good news. Look. Jesus is born into the world ... the real world ... not some make believe world that only exists in fairy-tales but our world ... the world we read about in the papers and watch on the news and live in today. Jesus is born into a world of brutality and unpredictable violence. And Jesus is a threat to all of those who deal in the ways of the sword. Herod is right. This tiny infant is a threat ... a real threat ... to his throne. King Jesus will not rule from 'above', enforcing his Kingdom upon unwilling citizens by force. No, King Jesus will rule 'from below', a servant offering citizenship in his Kingdom to all who are willing to die to the ways of violence and be 'born again' to the ways of God. And see ... Herod is unable to kill him. Even with all of the weapons and military force at his control, Herod is powerless against this infant. All it takes is a dream here and a dream there ... and God ensures that the child will survive ... survive not only Herod, but Herod's offspring as well! Here is the good news. In Matthew's telling of Jesus' birth we glimpse the hand of God at work in his life. The same God who raised up Moses to free the people of Israel from Pharoah is at it again. This time, God is raising up King Jesus to free all people from sin ... the sin of violence and oppression that enslaves and entraps. See how the birth of Jesus foreshadows his death. At the very moment when it seems that all hope is lost, God works wonders to save. Just when King Herod seems triumphant, it is King Jesus who God lifts up in glory.
And in your life ... your real life ... not the make believe life of fairy-tales but your real life struggles with despair and doubt ... do you hear the gospel news? At the very moment when it seems that all hope is lost, God works wonders to save. In a world full of too many Herods revelling in their apparent triumph don't forget to teach your children and grandchildren that it is King Jesus who God lifts up in glory. And while you are teaching them ... teach this gospel to yourself as well.