Yet Another Road

The Sunday Sermon:  Second Sunday of Christmas – January 5, 2020

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12


Yet Another Road

And so … it is done. Right? This is the Sunday closest to Epiphany, which is actually tomorrow, January 6th, 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. We can put it all away for another year, sit down, and relax until Lent stirs us again in late February, right? Right?! (Someone please let me know if you think our story has ended …) Wrong! Our story has only just begun …

It is true that this morning we arrive with the Magi in Bethlehem. We’ve arrived at the “house” – there are no “full Inns” or “lowly mangers” in Matthew’s narrative, but a “house” where Mary and Joseph named their newborn, Jesus. In these verses, as the Magi enter this house, Matthew introduces the world, represented by these foreign travelers, to the new reality in its midst. But it’s not the end of the story, it’s only the beginning. Matthew sets the stage for his telling of the Good News of God-with-us through his birth story found in the first two chapters of his book. (Luke does the same, interestingly). In those two chapters are found the themes that will recur in “the rest of the story”: Jesus is the Davidic “king” who will re-establish peace on earth – not through violent coercion, but through non-violent love; Jesus is the new Moses who will deliver his people (and the world, if it allows it) from bondage; Jesus is the fulfillment of the sacred scripture. These are the themes of what is to come for Matthew. Chapter one and two are the overture, as it were. But as we all know, the end of an overture signals the beginning of the “opera,” of the actual story. So, we continue … but first:

Let’s pray together …

We’ve arrived in Bethlehem, again, as we set out to do this Advent. We made it here earlier, a little over a week ago, with Mary and Joseph and then with the angels and shepherds, but now we’ve come again with the Magi, the wise ones, the Kings as we’ve come to know them. This is the last “theme” in the overtures that are our birth narratives in Matthew. It is a theme of reversal that will be one of the biggest parts of the story ahead in the Gospel of Matthew, the life of Jesus. How, with this “advent” of Emmanuel, God with us, the wise of this world will pay homage to the meek; how powerful Kings of this world and their violent rule will be usurped and circumvented by justice and love; and how we, of this world, will have some decisions of our own to make.

As we, too, “enter this house” … decisions, decisions, decisions.

But let’s hold off on those for a few moments, lighten up a bit, remove ourselves from the crisis of this moment to try and understand what Matthew is trying to tell us in this part of his birth story. It’s a delay tactic, to be sure, we’ll still have to make our decision when it’s all said and done. But let’s take a moment to explore a bit deeper.

We have two stories of the first Christmas in our four gospels, as we’ve noted, one in Matthew and the other in Luke. These two stories are quite different from each other. We are all aware of that, on some level. To begin with, Matthew’s birth story is significantly shorter than Luke’s. We 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. In that birth he was given life … And that life will be a light to all people … once upon a time – history.

After the “once upon a time,” however, we start to get confused. As we turn from any historical documentation we can find of this human’s existence, to Matthew’s story about Jesus’ birth, we never seem to be able to reconcile the historical realities (people and places) with 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 this birth story, or Luke’s, for that matter. So, if they’re not factual, then what are they? What is their purpose?

I’ve already mentioned that they, the birth stories, serve as a sort of overture for us, presenting the themes of the real story of Jesus of Nazareth, his life, death and resurrection that will follow. These birth stories, may also be understood as “parables,” teachings of what the life of this human being in your own life is going to mean. A parable, as we know from Jesus himself, is a form of language, a narrative or a story that is not at all concerned about factuality, but is concerned with meaning. We don’t ask whether the prodigal son really slept with pigs, or if the Good Samaritan ever really lived. We ask what those stories “mean.” To understand the birth stories as a parable, then, means that their meaning and their “truth” does not depend on their factuality. If and as we are able to accept this approach we are able to get to the real “point” of this literature: “Believe whatever you want about whether this actually happened this way or not. But let’s talk about what this story, these stories, mean!” So let’s get to that with our final theme, the final lesson in our parable. After all, remember: like Herod and the Magi we have a decision to make when all is said and done, we have a road to follow, should we choose to do so.

The clash of kingdoms is the context of our Christmas story, the conflict between the kingdom of Rome and the Kingdom of God. The community into which we are called, the church, foreshadows the Kingdom of God and that kingdom is profoundly counter-cultural. (I know it doesn’t seem like that sometimes, but we ought to be.) So how do the Magi and Herod and the roads they’re all traveling “fit” into the teaching? What are we supposed to learn and to know about what is coming from this part of the “parabolic overture?”

Here’s what Matthews 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 (who is more than one person in one time) and the lordship of this world’s rulers – Pharaoh, Caesar, Herod, or any ruler of this world, in any time, who try to swallow up the One who is of God, the One who seeks to transform the way things are, to empower and enrich the disempowered and the disenfranchises. Is that true? Do the rich and the powerful seek to maintain their wealth and their power at all costs? Do we?

In our reading, our lesson, this morning, in Matthew’s teaching, we hear how the world receives God’s “breakthrough.” The “world” is, at first, curious and seeks to engage it – the Magi. But the “world” is also frightened and seeks to destroy it – Herod and all Jerusalem with him. But, then, the curious of the world also, often, become frightened – again, the Magi, perhaps you and me. We get a scare when we come face to face with Emmanuel, God with us. Let’s take a close look.

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 just stopped for directions! 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, and then … what? What happens after they lay down their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh? Do they stay and turn to face Herod and all he represents? Do they make a stand with the Love incarnate now in their world? No … They leave. They leave, they go home by another road. They avoid Herod and the treachery they now know he holds in his heart. That’s a noble gesture, I suppose, not turning the family in to the authorities. But still … they leave. Why?

There’s a haunting writing by Frederick Beuchner that imagines the Magi’s assessment of what is going to happen now that this “new authority” is in the world. He writes as one of the Magi, themselves, saying:

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.[1]

The Magi leave. They go home by another road. Not Herod’s road, but not God’s either.

And so, finally we come to our last Advent decision this morning, though the season has been over for two weeks. I told we would get here: decisions, decisions, decisions. Which road will we choose? Fight, like Herod? Flight, like the Magi?   Or will we Follow – knowing that to stay this course will require us to die to old ways of being?

I sincerely hope the answer to that perennial question is clear this year. We will follow. In the weeks ahead we’re going walk alongside Jesus. He grows up quick in our scripture readings. Next week he’ll be at the River Jordan as a thirty year old man. And we’ll be there with him. And then we’ll hit the road and “follow” like the disciples we are and the disciples we long to be . The overture is done, the opera is about to start.

As we gather at our table, we fortify ourselves for the journey ahead. We have seen the star, we have recognized the true Lord, and we are staying with him to sing the song that may save the world.

Amen.

Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor

Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 5, 2020

[1] Beuchner, F. The Magnificent Defeat. 70.