Sunday, January 12, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "All Jerusalem"

Matthew 2:1-12

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote: 6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah, because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel.”[a] 7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” 9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route. (Common English Bible)

“All Jerusalem,” Matthew 2:1-12

It was at a Shari’s.  I am convinced that many—not all, but many—higher-plane spiritual experiences take place at a Shari’s.

This one happened to be in Pendleton, Oregon, just off of I-84 in eastern Oregon.  I was driving home to Kansas City from Portland, Oregon, after my junior year of college, and I stopped in Pendleton for gas and lunch.

While at Shari’s, this other fellow who arrived just before me and I are both waiting an interminable time to be seated.  When someone finally came around to seat us (as you can tell, it took a long time because I have since lost all my hair), even though this guy had beaten me to the door and presumably was hungry, he let me take the table.  And I still remember what he said:

“Dude, I just got married!  We’re actually on our way to Seaside for our honeymoon.  So it’s all good.  Seriously, it’s okay, just take the table!”

And he said it with such a wide, clearly giddy grin on his face, that I knew it would be no use trying to out-courtesy him.  This was a guy so in love with the world, so in love with life, so in love with everything because he had just married the one whom he loved the most in the world, in his life, in, well, everything.  There was just no talking him out of it.  So I took the table.

I was touched by the encounter so greatly that I ended up blogging about it that night when I reached my hotel in Tremonton, Utah (look it up in an atlas!).  I wrote about how this is what marriage should look like because, you know, a 21-year-old degenerate knows so, so much about what it means to be married!  But then I talked about what it was like for me, as a traveler.

And I wish I could quote that part to you verbatim, but silly Xanga decided to delete my blog from the internets after I hadn’t updated it in, like, seven years.  But what I can tell you is that I believed then—and I believe now—that part of the ardor of traveling comes from having to expect nothing from the people you may be traveling with, that way they cannot possibly disappoint you.  Of course—and this is especially true with air travel—you still end up being disappointed anyways by a surly seatmate or a screaming child.

It could still be worse, though.  The magi were probably disappointed by an entire city.

 Let’s set the scene here: King Herod has heard of Jesus’ birth from the magi, and he has heard that Jesus is meant to have a title that he thinks belongs to him: the king of the Jews.  And that is enough to send the king into a right tizzy.  And in an absolute monarchy, when the king is unhappy, everybody is unhappy.  So all of Jerusalem is frightened along with King Herod.

But, as New Testament scholar Rudolf Schnakenburg points out, “Not only the king is seized with fear, but Jerusalem itself…(but) None of Jerusalem’s inhabitants bothers to go to nearby Bethlehem; yet Gentiles come from afar...The astrologers are symbols of a journey now being undertaken by the nations, the floods of Gentiles entering the church of Christ.”

Put simply—even though “all Jerusalem” was located very near to Bethlehem and could have gone to see for themselves this newborn Jesus at a much smaller risk to themselves and their safety than the magi, nobody actually bothered to.  Hence the probable disappointment.

And I know that when you are traveling far from home, you don’t really expect the kind of spontaneous hospitality of someone giving up their table to you simply because they can.  None of us would expect that today.  But you can bet your bottom dollar that the magi probably would have.  I’ve made a big deal of it so far in my Christmastime sermons: hospitality in Biblical Israel was an obligation that greatly exceeded our understanding of hospitality today. 

The whole Jesus-washing-His-disciples-feet thing?  That was a gesture of hospitality—a homeowner (or their servant) was expected to do that for a visitor to wash the dirt and dust and grime from their sandaled feet.  But we most certainly do that.  We say, “We do the barefoot thing here, so if could just leave your shoes by the foyer…”

The whole Jesus-being-born-in-a-barn thing?  Like I’ve said the past two weeks, that circumstance was necessitated by a violation of hospitality: Joseph and Mary probably weren’t trying to get a room at the Holiday Inn (could you imagine how awesome Jesus’ miracles would have been if he had stayed at a Holiday Inn Express?!), they were probably trying to score the guest room at the house of one of Joseph’s relatives.  As a consolation prize, they got the garage.

And the whole magi-having-to-leave-Israel-by-a-different-route thing?  Yeah, that doesn’t happen unless the bridge you arrived across was incinerated.  Which it was.  By King Herod, and, by extension, all Jerusalem itself.

So I have come to believe that just as the magi represent, as Schnakenburg says, the journeys of people of all nations, coming to worship Christ the King, so too does Jerusalem represent another journey: the journey of someone in thrall to an oppressive ruler, of someone under the thumb of an abusive spouse or parent, of someone precisely for whom Jesus makes His presence known and available, even if that someone—that is to say, us—does not yet realize it.

Because while it might be easier or more convenient for us to identify with the magi in this story—hey, we too would come from the ends of the earth with lavish gifts to offer baby Jesus!—the truth is, we are probably sometimes closer to being an inhabitant of Jerusalem than we are to being one of the magi.  We still harbor our insecurities and our frailties, we still pay more heed to the leaders of men than to the counsel of God.  And we likely could just as easily miss Jesus’ presence in our lives, even if he were as close to us as Bethlehem was to Jerusalem.

Magi from across the world, with the help of a star, found the Savior with pinpoint accuracy.  May they be the ideal we aspire to.  May they guide us, and all Jerusalem, out of the threats and dangers of this world and into the promise of salvation and security in the next.  And may they represent our willingness to be guided by God, to wherever that may be, whether halfway around the world in Bethlehem, or simply right here in Longview...may God guide you there.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 12, 2014

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