Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
January 6, 2019
Matthew 2:1-12; 13-23
Here we are, the end of Christmas tide. The New Year began, liturgically, with Advent and in the modern Western world with January 1st.
We have a theme today in the service, have you picked up on it? You might have to strain a bit… what do you think?
Since Epiphany (January 6) fell on Sunday this year, I decided that we needed to hear this story and consider it again. So here we are wading deep in stars and kings and extravagant gifts, an angry murderous king and a family on the run for their lives. What can I say…Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Matthew is the only Gospel writer who has the story of the Magi’s visit. Therefore, no matter which schedule you are in on the lectionary, Epiphany has the same texts. Matthew is fan of Joseph and so he tells mostly what Joseph does to secure his family and follow God’s direction. (Matthew is interested in non-traditional family structures that must echo the community he is writing for). Joseph’s name also echoes another Joseph of Genesis fame (you may remember his technicolor dream coat?) he expects his hearers and readers to associate with this story. Matthew is a writer who knows Hebrew Scripture and quotes it often to set the revelation of God in Jesus into its context… he sees Jesus as fulfillment from his very beginning of the Scripture’s revelation of God. Whereas Luke only worships Jesus after the resurrection, Matthew honors him from day one and reads Jesus through the Scripture that he fulfills. Those of us who find the indwelling of God in flesh, Emmanuel (God with us), the incarnation is radical and the act that saves us, we have a friend in Matthew. After reciting the family tree, he quotes Scripture in every paragraph until the Sermon on the Mount. Presbyterian/Reformed approaches to Scripture relate here – reading every part through the witness and lens of the whole also connects to the gospel writer. The library is connected by the Holy One who is revealed in it, so we never read a piece on its own.
I have a soft spot for the wisemen/magi, a.k.a. wise people. A Bible scholar friend (Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget) reminded me that grammatically the masculine plural is used if there is any man in a group… so there is no textual evidence that it wasn’t a mixed group of folks. They weren’t kings either… but those gifts and the strangeness of the group, sure makes sense how the story changed over time.
We are still surrounded by beautiful nativity sets. Since I was quite small, I loved the camels and the visitors in the nativity sets, enjoyed the journey taken, considered the strange gifts … but most of all I played with the various figures. We were a family who did not add the baby until Christmas day. The magi started from a distance and slowly made their way closer. Shepherds too and their flocks moved… it was an always changing presentation. The hardest parts of the scene were securing the angels and the star (we lost a few of those over the years). My parents now have a small LED light that temporarily sticks to the wall above the creche, they had it on all week when we were there this year. It makes a pretty good nightlight if you’re navigating a dark room.
There’s a witty set of folks on Facebook behind the Wandering Wisemen page who have modernized that tradition. Not a little like that terror Elf on Shelf in interaction, but for churchy folks, they record the imagined shenanigans on the journey the magi take every year via photos and commentary… they are of course Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar (names given in various traditions beyond the Bible) and their camel is Hezekiah. I encourage you to look them up –it is amusing and provides a churchy way to wend one’s way through advent anticipating the birth.
Let’s turn to the text this morning to hear a bit about those strangers from the east – most likely Persians (sages/astrologers from a former occupying empire in this land), Persians also would conjure up for Matthew’s first readers, tales of Cyrus, the king who conquered Israel and restored the peoples from Babylon and reinstated worship practices so he was hailed a messiah for the difference in his rule from that of the Babylonians… all of the texts this day are Messianic – so that little connection matters. What this story does tell us is that Jesus’ birth makes a public impact, it sets the story on a wider stage from the outset.
Herod in this text is Herod the Great who ruled for about 43 years. He is not the one referenced by John the Baptist or the one who returns to the gospels in Passion week – that’s one of his sons, Herod Agrippa. This Herod was not born a king… he received rule by war and politics, negotiated with Egyptian and Roman powers. He excelled at tyranny (suppressing revolts) and in collecting taxes which impressed successive emperors and generals. You can imagine, he was jealous of power and accumulated as much as he could… he rewarded his friends with lavish gifts and vanquished foes violently, (sound familiar?) in Herod’s case, mostly killing them (in battle, by assassinations, or in courts through capital punishment as he did with at least one son). He had 10 wives and many children – he killed 2 wives and at least 3 sons). He built many beautiful palaces, towns, and is credited with starting the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. He was Idumean (of mixed heritage, not from Israel or Judah). He is illegitimate, a client-king.
I begin the reading in the 2nd chapter of Matthew at verse 1. Listen for a word spoken to you and to this church:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.’
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“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.” ’ (Micah 5)
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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.’ 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.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
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.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Going home by another road is familiar to many of us. How often are detours part of trips, part of lives, part of careers, part of families?
Matthew brings the world to the toddler Jesus. Magi, diviners, kings, sages, whomever… they are important persons acting on their expertise and seeking to meet a new king through insights from their non-Jewish world (an expert knowledge of stars and their import) … they have with them extravagant gifts, fit for royalty… they come, find joy and give homage, and depart different. The joy is a surprise – they are overwhelmed… (even Gentiles recognize God in encounter and respond) I can imagine after such a long journey, knowing that a great king is born, traveling with fitting gifts and finding a small house, a young mother and a young child (as expected but in humble estate). And yet, joy, homage, gift giving. A completed task. A successful journey. They aren’t going further from home they are done and can turn toward their country. Can you relate?
Sure, there’s the looming threat of Herod, but they have greeted a proper king, properly. Matthew uses this tale to critique Herod, a false, idle king surrounded by idle scribes who know but don’t move. He uses it to set up themes and stories that will come in this remarkable life. Perhaps it is midrash… but it tells something important about Jesus and it meant so much to the communities that followed that it was kept and protected and saved and sealed into the book we now know as the Bible.
Some folks like to say this is the first Gentile expansion of the Covenant… but Jesus doesn’t have a ministry yet, so he isn’t making disciples yet… though he is attracting folks to him from far away, well beyond Israel… and they are acknowledging him as important in the world writ large. This one is marked for greatness, Matthew claims. Heady stuff, but attention is not welcome when one is so vulnerable. The responses of the powerful create danger. Quickly – immediately dreams are delivered. Herod is coming (when he is afraid, he attacks), and the child and his family need to leave… the magi leave too.
Words and ideas have some difficult connections – this time of year, right after the solstice we often talk about light overcoming darkness (literally and politically). That can evolve into an association that harms. Ideologies are rooted in words and language can carry other messages with them… light is right, dark is evil, it’s not a long toss to get to white is right and black is cursed.
Stars are out all the time, but only the night shows them off. Light too can be dangerous. Darkness may be a refuge, providing cover, allowing for growth and preparation. So even as we celebrate a new light dawning, we should think about the words and what else we are carrying into the world.
David Lamotte (musician from Black Mountain, NC) has a wonderful song I have been singing to myself most of the last year… in Just One Candle he sings, “All the darkness in the world can’t extinguish the light of just one candle… its not light that is fragile, it’s the other way around.” Reversing the expectation of what is fragile – not this one flickering flame (in my mind’s eye) but the darkness that surrounds it. That holds on the line, I think. Fragile infant travels afar… mighty king, so fragile, frightened by a baby.
Wil Gafney is a Womanist Bible Scholar at Brite Divinity in Texas – I learn something from her even by following her on social media. This week she posted, “Just as the light that is Christ did not seek to overcome the holy darkness of his mother’s womb, neither did the light of creation seek to overcome the holy darkness in which it was conceived. The light and the dark have been in a holy dance since the beginning of time.” She too is playing with reversals, something the Bible does all the time.
What a wonderful image… light and dark dancing from the beginning – like the breath of God over the waters of creation, before God made the light… the goodness of darkness, the danger of light, the scary unknowns and clear directions. How do these images work for you?
Dancing was in the news this week… older and white politicians and pundits will use anything to criticize what they don’t understand, and 29-year-old congresswomen of color are at the top of their list this week. They underestimate her savvy and courage, she had fun with that one. So much dancing and difference, all celebrating the first day of the 116th Congress. One that has more women than ever before, more folks of color, more non-Christians… the world is gradually, and in fits and starts, changing. Some find that scary. The magi remind me, God uses all, even unbelievers for God’s purposes and God cares for the least, the vulnerable and the displaced. Good news – worthy of a gospel writer.
Psalm 72 holds up the measure of a great king …in contrast with Herod and most fall way short, this song indicates something important about the promised deliverer. How shall the Messiah, an exalted king rule? What is a measure of his greatness? Can you hear its echoes as Matthew writes late in 1st century (of the common era) for a Jewish and Gentile church? Who is of greatest concern to the Holy One? Set against the events in Bethlehem, another ripple in the surface of revelation seems to appear
12 …he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
13 He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.
What an indictment of earthly leaders – Herod doesn’t match up, neither does the current resident in Washington, either by pedigree or by substance. Herod like his kith and kin are earthly powers, outshone by divine power… which is deeply concerned with life and limb of the vulnerable.
Scholars believe that Matthew is writing for a community that is financially comfortable and that he needs to remind them of the vulnerable and their need to act… seems like he may be worthy of our attention. He criticizes the scribes of the Jerusalem court when he praises the magi for their action, despite not having divine insight, they are acting on slight knowledge, filtered through stars (God will find a way)… a popular science of the day… one that Herod is familiar with and concerned by… he has enough faith in it to be frightened by the visitors and their journey. Does he know of messianic rumors? His leadership certainly inspires resistance and rebellion, especially in the later period of his reign (according to Josephus, historian).
The Matthew passage moves on to tell what comes next… the parallels Matthew wants his ideal Jewish audience to hear are thunderous… angels warning, refugees fleeing, vengeful king, innocents slaughtered, waiting for another sign, return to Israel out of Egypt… Joseph (Jacob’s son, whose brothers sold him to slavery)? Moses (rescued from the water by Pharoah’s daughter when the Hebrew boys were being murdered and as an adult departs with the people after the plague angel passed over the Hebrew houses while killing the children of Egypt)? Yes, all of that and more to come from this little one cradled in his mother’s arms.
As we read these terrible tales, our minds may fill with visions of a migrant caravan seeking safety in numbers this year, seeking asylum today, waiting at the border and in ice cold detention centers, being dumped in parks with nothing, traveling by bus across this nation to find refuge from violence of all kinds… and some of them, children dying on our watch.
This is not just 2 thousand 19 years ago, it is today…
And we weep too. We can name two of these children… 8-year-old Felipe Gómez on Christmas eve and 7-year-old, Jakelin Call laid to rest on Christmas day.
Warsan Shire writes in her poem Home that no one leaves home unless home is the open mouth of a shark… Jesus’ father and mother were seeking to keep him safe from harm, from threat of a ruler who wished him dead… they left the ancestral town of Bethlehem and sought refuge in Egypt, like many ancestors before them… Mary, Joseph and a very young Jesus were refugees, crossing borders and seeking safety. Joseph risking to ensure the wholeness of his claimed family… and following the lead of a dream… just as he had when they went to Egypt, fleeing Herod.
And here again, Joseph responds to an angel’s words with action, fearful but still moving in it, and uproots his family to go to a remote village in a place away from Archelaus, a dangerous son of Herod the Great in Judah. Matthew calling out another political rogue. He has no qualms of challenging leaders. Naming the corrupt ruler and indicating God’s protection of the socially vulnerable. They go out of Egypt another way… avoiding Judah, if the text is accurate. Serene Jones (President of Union Seminary in NY) posted this week – “civil disobedience lies at the heart of Epiphany,” an unjust order defied by magi and by the holy family. Like the magi, traveling different paths home. Going is dangerous too. While the Pax Romana made travel more accessible, it was still rigorous. Nazareth is tiny, in a far region of Galilee, a backwater north of Samaria. Far from Archelaus’ land and very far from Egypt. It had to take a long time and a lot of diligent, effort and yet, Joseph went, afraid, unsure but on the path, step by step.
Believers don’t just know, they do. When they act they receive joy and protection. Light draws them into the world and even if it darkens again, they know they are not abandoned, not alone, not un-cared-for. God is deeply interested in the light-bearers, the darkness carriers, the ones who act on what they know and what they hope. And God is with us (Emmanuel) – robed in flesh, knows the vulnerabilities of being human and meets us there. Be encouraged.
I loved learning about these texts this week and I barely scratched the surface… about all the things I saw in these texts that connect to where we are, here in Crescent Hill, … it’s been a hard year, a learning year, a year that reminds us of all that is ahead… we have a lot going on today and I wanted to invite you to a new practice in 2019 that connects to the call God has for us.
Epiphany star words are a practice I’ve been seeing for over 10 years… at least that’s when I noticed them. There are articles and blogs if you are interested. I have friends in Idaho, and Texas, California and Ohio who swear by the insights gained and value added to their devotional lives and to their congregations’ witness by these small tokens.
In the next few minutes (while we sing) we are going to distribute star words. When I shared the idea a while back for consideration for today, Debbie and Connie improved on it by suggesting they be magnets. You can place them on the fridge, or a file cabinet, bathroom mirror, or any metal place where you will see it regularly. Every star has a different word. Every person can take one.
The words are intended to invite each of us to look through a new lens for the world and our faith, to be a guide for devotional practice, a window for reflecting on our day, a meditation on an attribute of followers of Christ, a focus for inviting new insights. Some of these will land hard when you see them, I encourage you to keep it anyway. When we focus our attention, what will the Spirit do to open new vistas for considering God’s presence in our lives and in this church family? Our loving God is tenacious and stubborn – loving us in the hard and in the easy. We may only see the light of the star when we are in the hard moments. When you encounter dark nights of the soul and bright days of joy, the star words will reflect differently. Practice looking for the connections you make to the word/idea.
Adjust your sight, tune your ears, consider the wonders God might work here in this place with these people and out in the world.
Open yourself to what will come to you.
And as you seek your stars… let’s sing together the words in the bulletin.