Sunday, January 7, 2018

This Week's Sermon: "God Still Remains," Matthew 2:1-12

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)

Epiphany 2018/ “From Slave State to Refuge: Ancient Egypt and Contemporary America,” Week One

Do you know someone, or are you such a person yourself, who only watches the Super Bowl for the advertisements? Well, that’s how I’ve come to read airline magazines.

Especially after the disappearance of SkyMall (rest in peace, you entertainingly demented market of assorted junk), I typically only read those airline magazines for the ads, which can be just as funny as SkyMall was. Hats that grow your hair back. Plastic surgery for body parts you didn’t know you had.

But buried in United’s Hemispheres magazine as I was returning here from my parents’ home in Kansas City was a story about a Torah scroll that was originally from then-Czechoslovakia and had recently resurfaced. It was one of hundreds of precious and monetarily valuable items looted by the Nazis from its Jewish victims, and the retracing of such items has often taken decades—eight in this case.

There is the added dimension of the Torah’s financial worth. Unlike Bibles, which are mass-produced and can be purchased by you or me for a few dollars, Torah scrolls are painstakingly composed by hand by specialized professionals, using highly specific components and ingredients. The scrolls take months, if not years, to produce, and typically cost tens of thousands of dollars.

And this particular scroll survived the war, and all the privations that would have entailed. It got its own first-class seat back to the Czech Republic, where it was reunited with the descendants of the community that was its original rightful owners.

A massacre of a scale never before seen had taken place. Yet God’s Word had survived. There is something profound in that. And we should pay attention to it.

This is both a new sermon series and the day after a very special holiday on the liturgical calendar. January 6 is Epiphany, the day that tradition says the Magi finally arrived to present Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is the beginning of a very violent, very sorrowful chapter of Matthew’s Gospel that entails the massacre of all the infant boys in Bethlehem on orders of the Israelite king Herod the Great (who was, in turn, a vassal of the Roman emperor Augustus). To prevent Jesus from meeting that same fate, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt and remain there until Herod is dead, at which point they safely return to Israel.

The Holy Family’s flight into Egypt is what fundamentally informs this new sermon series, which will last the entire month of January, because it is a flight that we should be increasingly familiar with by dint of the news cycles circulating around the immigration debate taking place in our country. As we’ll see in later installments of this series, Egypt holds a terrifying legacy of slavery and displacement for ancient Israel. Yet in the moment, it acts as a refuge for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

There is an obvious parallel for us in the United States today. How can we be a place of safety and refuge for, say, the courageous people in Iran protesting their regime today, if we have also banned them from entering our country?

So let’s talk together today not so much about the actual Epiphany story—which I imagine most of us know well enough—but about how we arrive at the Epiphany story to begin with.

The background of the whole journey by the Magi is fraught with palace intrigue and politicking, as Herod demands to know who this boy king might be who could possibly usurp him as monarch. He elects to send these Magi on a reconnaissance mission of sorts, under the guise of good faith. The Magi, tradition says, were not Israelites themselves but members of a nationality somewhere to the east, but it would not have been uncommon for an ancient king to have foreign advisors in his retinue, and Herod may well have felt that such faces might have presented a friendlier face to Mary and Joseph than an Israelite guilty of collaborating with Rome.

The threat, though, was still very much real—though not due on any part to the Magi themselves. Learning that they had been used, they elected to not report to Herod what—and more importantly, who—they discovered, and basically quit Herod’s court by deciding to return home instead.

Their decision at least grants a reprieve to the Holy Family, which likely does not know just how much danger it’s in at this point in the story unless the Magi informed them. But that decision also does nothing for the other male babies who will soon be massacred.

So…could the Magi have done more? Should they have? I think that is an honest question worth wrestling with when we consider the Epiphany story in its entirety instead of just the nativity scene that we all know and love.

More to the point, could God have done more? It’s a question that gets posed in the face of all manner of tragedies, from the Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem to the Holocaust in which six million Jews are murdered, yet one of their Torah scrolls survived and is returned.

God endures all our strife, all our struggle. God outlasts us, yet also grieves for us. God eclipses us, yet also demands that we grow, and learn, and do better.

What could the Magi have learned from this encounter?

What have we learned from the Holocaust?

Or, what have we learned from the dreamers and the families, the people who are the very same souls Emma Lazarus speaks of in her poem The New Colossus that is emblazoned upon the Statue of Liberty, “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Have we anything to learn from their plights and their experiences, or have we, too, closed off our hearts to the pains they endured to get here, even as we claim to honor the pains it took Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Christ to make it into Egypt?

For this is the fundamental truth that girds this sermon series, and I hope it makes you at least a little bit uncomfortable: if ancient Egypt approached outsiders the way we do today in the contemporary United States, there is a very good chance that our religion would have literally died in the cradle.

Yet God made provisions for something else to occur, just as God did in the Exodus story, which fundamentally informs this one and which we will be talking about next week. Then, as here, a king (Pharaoh, in Exodus) hears of a newborn threat to his power and orders the male children murdered. And then, as here, God finds a way using nobodies to create a way forward.

That parallel, that common thread, from Pharaoh to Herod is no accident. Both are a part of a continuous narrative that places God’s ways as beyond what we can affect with all our violence and bloodlust. Quite simply, God is bigger than the sins we do to one another.

We should live, then, as though we really are children of so big and great a God, in the reassurance that the cults of personality we build around sinful leaders are temporary, but God remains permanent.

That truth exists as a common thread throughout the Scriptures, from the Exodus to the Epiphany and to Easter, where God’s permanency and love endures even what we inflict upon Jesus on the cross during Good Friday.

And that permanency extends beyond the Scriptures into our own experience, as explained by the ordained pastor and homiletics professor Thomas G. Long in his commentary on Matthew:

If we have seen Herod’s hatred before in Pharaoh, we know that we will see it again and again. Pharaoh, Herod, Hitler, Stalin—the chronicles of human history are full of dictators who believe they can secure their power through murder and genocide. This text stands as a confident word that the despots of this world come and go, but that God’s will outlasts and overrules them all. This theological conviction can be seen in terse form in Matthew 2:19: “When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared…” Herod is dead, but the Word of the Lord continues. Herod is dead, but the messenger of the Lord is still appearing, speaking, guiding, protecting. Herod is dead, but the mercy of God is everlasting.

Herod is dead, but God still remains. God always remains.

May that truth be ever on lips, and always in your actions, as we enter into a new year of kingdom-building, doing church, and living the mission of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to which we owe our salvation.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 7. 2018

No comments:

Post a Comment