The Sunday Sermon: January 3, 2021 – 2nd Sunday of Christmas
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
Fight, Flight or Follow
In three days it will be January sixth – Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, the day on which we traditionally read the first twelve verses of Matthew’s gospel about the arrival and departure of the Magi, and with their appearance our story is complete and we can put it away for another year, sit down, and relax until Lent stirs us again, right? Right?! Wrong! Our story has only just begun …
Pray with me …
It is true that this morning, on this Sunday closest to Epiphany, we have arrived with the Magi in Bethlehem. We’ve arrived at the “house” – no full inns or lowly mangers in this narrative, but the house where Mary and Joseph named their newborn “Jesus.” It is in the verses that we read this morning that the world first hears about and pays a visit to the new reality in their midst. But it’s not the end of the story, it’s only the beginning.
Listen for the Word of God. Read Matthew 2:1-12. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
We are in Bethlehem again this morning. We made it here about ten days ago with Mary and Joseph. We were joined by shepherds on Christmas Eve and now we witness the gifts of the Magi, the wise ones, the Kings as we’ve come to know them. There is symbolism in this visit from Matthew, for all of us. Roles will be reversed in the telling of the story of Immanuel. The wise of this world will pay homage to the meek; powerful Kings of this world and their violent rule will be usurped and circumvented by justice and love; and we, creatures of this world that have strayed from our Creator-Love, will have some decisions of our own to make.
Matthew’s birth story is significantly shorter than Luke’s. We just read the end of what actually began back in the first verse with a genealogy of Jesus that takes up about two-thirds of the chapter. This genealogy serves as Matthew’s “once upon a time,” with the emphasis on time. What he is about to share is the story of something that happened in time, in “history.” Not necessarily a birth in this “literal” way, but a life, a human being, of this “kind” – beyond description, really, but Jesus was a real human being and being human he had a birth, the son of a son, of a son, for forty-two generations.
After the “once upon a time” however, we start to get confused. As we turn from the historical documentation (the genealogy all the way up to Jesus) we never seem to be able to come to grips with the language, the historical realities (people and places) and the extravagant language (angels, kings, and stars).
What kind of story is this? We are fully aware that the most “publicly visible form of our Christian faith” insists that these stories are literal-factual, that what is written here really happened. But we’re also aware that many of us don’t believe that the “truth” of these stories, or the “truth” of our faith, is dependent upon a factual understanding of Matthew or Luke’s writing. So, if they’re not factual, then what are they? What is their purpose?
They are teachings, parables, if you will, about a new reality discovered in the life of an ordinary extraordinary human being whose parents name “Jesus.” The purpose or meaning of stories such as ours this morning doesn’t depend on its factuality. Believe whatever you want about whether any of this actually happened. But ask yourself what this story means.”
Here’s what Matthew’s story in the first twelve verses of his second chapter means: The story of the birth of Jesus is about the true king breaking into the world whom the evil king seeks to swallow up. This is the story of the conflict between the lordship of God in Christ and the lordship of Pharaoh, Caesar, Herod or any of the rulers of this world, in any age, who always try to swallow up the One who is of God … Is that true? I believe that it is. And in our parable this morning, in Matthew’s teaching, we hear how the world receives God’s “breakthrough.” The “world” is curious and seeks to engage it – the Magi. But the “world” also seeks to destroy it – Herod. And the world is … frightened – Matthew says that very directly about Herod and “all of Jerusalem” but the Magi are frightened as well. They’re scared when they come face to face with Emmanuel, God with us. Matthew doesn’t write this as directly, but he gives us another clue.
There’s no reason for us to suspect that the Magi know what Herod is up to as he schemes with his own scribes and Pharisees. Why should they? They have no care for what has been written by Jewish prophets. They stopped in Jerusalem for directions, not a history lesson. It’s only after they arrive, see Mary and gaze into the child’s eyes, Matthew tells us, that they realize something more is going to happen through this life. Matthew notes this realization, this recognition, by having the Magi lay down their gifts and pay him homage. But then what happens? … What happens?
They leave. They leave, they go home by another road. They avoid Herod and the treachery they now know he holds in his heart and that’s a noble gesture, I suppose – not turning the family in to the authorities. But still … they left. In a mystical kind of writing Frederick Buechner puts these words into the mouth of one of these Magi:
“What we saw on the face of the new-born child was his death … It sat on his head like a crown … And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, and (so) we left – giving only our gifts, withholding the rest.”
The Magi were frightened, just like Herod and all of Jerusalem. They left for their own country never to be heard of again. What about you?
As the twelfth day of Christmas arrives in three days, we come to our final Christmas decision. Which road will we choose? Fight, like Herod? Flight, like the Magi? Or will we … Follow, like a disciple?
I want you to think about that seriously this week. Look into the child’s face before you put your creche decoration away (or if you have already, go get the baby out and look into the child’s face). You will see in that face, his death. And your own, too. If you choose to truly follow. Hold that face, the face of God and all that it portends for you in your hearts for another week. Next week is Baptism of the Lord Sunday and our story really begins. For the first time, all four of our Gospels will agree on something: Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan and was baptized. The wait is over. The journey is about to begin … again.
Let us hold our promises in our hearts as we gather at our table and prepare to try again to follow …
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 3, 2021