"Ending Up Where we are Supposed to Be"

Date Sunday January 07, 2018
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
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Epiphany of Our Lord

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

     The week before Christmas, I made a quick trip to Nebraska for my Aunt Ruth’s funeral. She was age 94, my Mom’s sister, the last close family member of that generation. Thankfully, she was active and interacting until shortly before she died.

     During that last week, Aunt Ruth was hospitalized following a fall in which she broke her pelvis and at least one vertebrae. She was being medicated for the pain, of course, and was not as alert as was usually true. In order to distract and comfort her, my cousin suggested that she and her sisters read the Christmas story. “You always liked the Christmas story, Mom,” she said, taking the Bible in hand, “Let’s see, it’s in Matthew….” To which my Aunt, a long-time adult Sunday School teacher and Bible reader, opened one eye, looking perturbed she said to her daughter, “It’s in Luke.” We laughed about that later; not much got by Aunt Ruth.

     The fact of the matter is that there’s a reason we read from the Gospel of Luke, rather than Matthew, on Christmas Eve. First, it’s where we find the story of the night Jesus was born while Matthew records what happened before and after his birth. Also, a close look at Matthew’s account reveals more than a quaint story of exotic looking travelers bringing gifts for Jesus. What’s obvious in Matthew’s account is the fear and opposition stirred up by Jesus’ birth from the start.

     First, let’s remind ourselves of the fact that the bright star, and the arrival of the Magi, signal Jesus’ importance. These visitors were not kings, but instead were from the court of the Persian royalty and were astrologers or magicians who saw a change in the night sky that they believed signaled the birth of someone important. Since the Jews were waiting and watching for a King (a Messiah), the Magi were authorized to journey to Jerusalem and gain political points for Persia by honoring this new arrival.

     So it is that the Magi demonstrate that Gentiles can respond to God’s work, and that while Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, his ministry will embrace all nations.

     But, let’s get back to the fear and opposition that their coming creates; it’s obvious from the beginning of the second chapter of Matthew. Let’s read it again: “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….”  King Herod does not greet the news of Jesus’ birth with joy; he’s afraid and so is the rest of the city, realizing that Herod was more than capable of taking out his insecurity on them.

      As commentator Dr. David Lose points out, the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power. Since Herod has a reputation for seeking his own ends rather than serving the people, he is immediately threatened by the mere mention of another – and therefore rival king. It also is, no doubt, true that Herod is afraid of change, especially of the God-inspired variety. The presence of the Magi, and their quest for God’s messiah, announces that the world is changing, that God is approaching, and that nothing can remain the same in the presence of God’s messiah.

     For Herod the star is a sign, but not a good one; it lit the way to a new way of God being with God’s people. Of course, he did not grasp that, Herod just feared loss of power. So, in response to their fear, Herod along with the chief priests and scribes, conspire to find the Messiah and kill him. (1)

     It’s no wonder that we do not read Matthew’s account – or at least not all of it- as the nativity story. Yet, Matthew’s version is realistic; it’s an accurate picture of our world in which fear leads to violence, and violence lead to fear, and the powerful protect their power. Yet, in the midst of the fear-fueled violence and power-protecting scheming, Jesus survives. Why?

     Look back again at the scripture passage. We read that Herod’s intention is that the Magi will return to the palace after they find Jesus and report his whereabouts. But, having been warned not to do so, they go home by another way. If we had read further, we would have seen that Joseph also was warned in a dream to leave Palestine, and so he took Mary and Jesus to Egypt where they lived as refugees until Herod’s death.

     Tragically, Herod was so infuriated and so insecure that he had every male child under age two in Bethlehem killed. Despite his violence, he fails. Why? It’s because both the Magi and Joseph chose to listen to God.

     Now, I realize that – choosing to listen to God - sounds simplistic, but there is something to it. I wonder how often people are so distracted by fear, anger, insecurity, greed, pride – the list could go on and on – that they do no choose to hear (see, sense) how God is directing them?

     In his sermon on this text, Pastor Charles H. Bayer asks this question of King Herod: “Was it worth it, Herod? The death of all those children; the dismantling of all those lives; the destruction and terror you produced? Was it worth it?” (Especially since Jesus escaped.) Pastor Bayer surmises that Herod would have justified his actions as an act the nation’s best interest.

     And, he writes, when you consider the change Jesus brings to the world, perhaps Herod had reason to be afraid. That’s because, for those who are listening, Jesus offers a new way to live in which the last are first, the excluded are included, the other cheek is turned and good is given even when evil is received. The question is, really, will we choose to listen to, and to follow, this new way?

     Pastor Bayer felt very strongly about this 25 years ago when he wrote his sermon; I’ll quote him: “We must decide whom we will hear, and whom we will follow. Shall we trust the voices of the world’s Herods? Shall we give our consciences to those who tell us that and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is the only way possible…. Or, shall we listen to another voice which tells us that for some things – the most important questions of life and death – Herod cannot be trusted?” (2)

     The Magi did not trust Herod; responding to the Divinely-inspired star led them to Jesus, and listening to God led them home by another way. I like what one commentator I read said: “none of their old maps worked anymore. They would find a new way home.”

     Choosing to listen to God, whether it’s through scripture, the Sacraments, music, the voice of a friend, prayer … or even dreams … requires us to set aside the old maps (or GPS) that have been guiding us and pay attention to new directions. It’s not a one-time event; it’s a process that sometimes we are better at than others. But, as we strive to listen … to see … to sense… what God is communicating to us, we are more likely to end up where we are supposed to be. AMEN


              (1)   “The ‘Adults-Only’ Nativity Story” by David Lose, December 30, 2012, www.workingpreacher.org

(2)   When It Is Dark Enough: Sermons for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany by Charles H. Boyer, 1994, CSS Publishing, pgs. 54-55.