Sunday, January 11, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Out of Bethlehem"

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.”

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)

“Out of Bethlehem,” Matthew 2:1-12

I have to be honest—I struggle so much sometimes with the commandment against lying.  Not because I’m a habitual or compulsive liar, mind you—I’m not.  Nor do I think for a second that lying doesn’t usually do damage in the end.  But sometimes…oftentimes, in the midst of a massive, monumental crisis, it is by far the lesser of two evils.

In the defining crisis of our era—September 11, 2001—I came across this story about the heroic efforts of the search and rescue dogs, hundreds of them, that were deployed to find any survivors…which, of course, on that day, were few and far between to be found.  And that grim reality ate at these canine rescuers in ways I honestly did not realize, as Petcentric emphasizes:

(9/11) created a remarkable elevation of the human-canine bond, where dogs and people worked together, understood each other’s needs, and helped each other on physical, emotional, and even spiritual levels, to get through a crisis neither species understood…

As the dogs worked with their handlers up to 16 grueling hours a day, it soon became apparent that the dogs were nearly as distraught as the human rescuers when there were so few survivors to be found.  For the human rescue workers, the lack of survivors made the attacks feel ever more horrific and tragic.  For the dogs trained to find survivors, thought, it felt like a personal failure.

From a SAR (search and rescue) dog’s perspective, being a good dog means you do your job and find the people you’re supposed to find.  The long days of climbing through rubble, squeezing through tight spaces, sniffing every nook and cranny and finding no living people caused the dogs great stress, and they seemed to think this failure was their fault.  Handlers and other rescue workers had to regularly hide in the rubble in order to give the dogs a successful find to keep their spirits up.  (emphasis mine)

I mean…if its deception, it is the most kind-hearted and generous sort of deception I can possibly think of, especially considering just how demoralized the human handlers themselves had to have been.  But that has always been the way of things—or should be the way of things, I should say—in times of great crisis: you take great care to look out for one another, even at and especially at the risk of putting your own needs and your own wants on the back burner.  And that’s what the magi do.

On the surface, I think this story about the magi (or wise men, or astrologers, or rocket scientists, or what have you…) tends to get swept up in the rest of the sweetness in the Christmas story, and I imagine there are a lot of massages taking place today about the generosity of the gifts and the reverence of the worship and that sort of thing, and that is all well and good, but it is also incomplete. If that is all the story were about, Matthew could have and would have dispensed with it in just a few sentences, not twelve verses.  

In all actuality, this story is in fact an incredibly harrowing tale of palace intrigue and, ultimately, of betrayal of a king—King Herod, who summons the magi for a specific reason: to ascertain a threat to him.  Jesus.

Herod is asking the wise men to do this in secret—as Matthew writes in verse 7, “Herod secretly called for the wise men…then he sent them to Bethlehem.”  What we remember today as an act of devout worship of the Christ child by complete strangers in fact began as a cloak-and-dagger spy mission of sorts—Herod is basically charging the magi to go and see what this new king is really like and report back on whether or not he is a real threat or not.

Of course, Jesus is a true threat to Herod, but not this particular Herod—this Herod kicks the bucket not long after this whole escapade, and it is his son, Herod Antipas, who ends up having to deal with the adult Jesus, as Luke’s Gospel tells us that Herod Antipas interrogated Jesus at Pilate’s behest during the Passion, all to no avail.

And here, 30 years earlier, Antipas’s father, Herod the Great, likewise goes to great lengths in his efforts against this Jesus of Nazareth, and likewise it is ultimately all to no avail.  Herod the Great, though, is far more barbaric than his son, and when the magi do not return to Herod, he orders the murder of every boy in Bethlehem under the age of two in the hopes of exterminating said threat to his kingship, but by that time, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are in the wind and on their way into Egypt.

They are out of Bethlehem.  They are out of the dragon’s nest.  They are out of the place that should have been one of great joy for them—after all, their son was born there, and Joseph’s family is originally from there (because he is of the line of King David, who was from Bethlehem), and instead what Bethlehem becomes is the site of yet another slaughter at the behest of a strongman who couldn’t bear to countenance the thought that his precious hold on power might one day end.

And so the magi end up lying to protect the baby Jesus.  They deceive Herod utterly, and leave him in the lurch by returning to their homeland rather than to Jerusalem to report back as presumably had been previously agreed upon.  They repay Herod’s own secrecy with still more secrecy, but every indication is that the world, and humanity itself, is far better off for them having done so.

This level of duplicity and deception is actually a tradition the church can be proud of: from hiding European Jews from Nazi soldiers during the Second World War to smuggling persecuted Christians out of danger in Central American countries run by Cold War dictators throughout the 20th century, there is in fact a long and great history of the church helping its brothers and sisters in Christ do what Jesus, Mary, and Joseph did once the magi had departed: get out of Bethlehem.

Realistically, we do not have anything as dramatic as an imminent massacre of our newborns to escape from, but each of us does, I think, have things that we can, we should, we need to escape from: whether it is addiction, or our treatment of people we think of as different or less than us, or the exploitation of child labor in our shopping habits, there are any number of horrific sins we uphold in our daily lives, maybe without even thinking about it.  We may seek the Bethlehem of Jesus’s birth, but what we are prone to creating is the Bethlehem of Herod the Great’s slaughter.

In this way, sadly, while we are clearly meant to take after the wise men in their loyalty to, and reverence of, Jesus, we really ought to remind ourselves more of Herod…if we are to be truly honest with ourselves.  But if we are able to engage in such naked honesty, we are also capable of realizing that we truly need not be that monster.  We are better than that.  We are better than Herod.

That is why we are capable of creating the lies that build up, say, search-and-rescue dogs whose work, even when ultimately fruitless like it was on September 11th, is still of such great importance.  It is why we are capable of creating the lies that protect the newborn Savior of humanity.  And it is why we can still lift each other out of the destructive Bethlehem of Herod and back into the peaceful Bethlehem of David and of Jesus.

May that be our goal this year, and the year after, and after that, as we strive to remain true to the devotedness of a small band of believers who came to worship Christ at great risk to themselves.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

January 11, 2015

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