A few weeks ago we read the origin story of Jesus from Joseph's perspective and realized that Immanuel means "love with us." On Christmas Eve we mixed all our gospel stories together in one bowl, which is what we usually do. But really they are very different. From now until Easter, we are going to focus our discussions on the gospel according to Matthew. The genre of gospel is something unique in literature. It's not a novel, but it's also not a strict biography. The gospels are not concerned with the hard facts about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. They are concerned with the meaning of Jesus the Messiah as an event in the world. And it's important that we know the difference so that we approach these stories the right way. Matthew's gospel was written 30 to 60 years after Jesus died. Everything that is remembered about Jesus is colored by the truth of his resurrection and what his followers are doing in the world. This is not a modern-day biography, written by a journalist seeking to uncover the facts about his life. This is an account of the good news of the saving act of God accomplished in Jesus Christ, written by a deeply devoted follower of Jesus. It was written by believers for believers, to preserve and pass on their experience of who Jesus was. This morning's reading picks up probably two years after the birth of Jesus.
"Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading from Matthew 2
Narrator: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time
of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked,
Voice One: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?
We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Narrator: When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. They replied:
Voice Two: “He will be born in Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Narrator: Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
Voice One: “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
Narrator: After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying:
Voice Two: Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.
Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
Narrator: So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. So was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
Voice One: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Narrator: After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,
Voice Two: “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
Narrator: So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
One of the craziest things about God's plan to rescue and heal the world is that God showed up as a baby to a poor family in an occupied country. This is so unexpected that many people then and now miss the significance of it. This morning, on this day of Epiphany, I invite you to let this story be about how we react to unexpected revelations.
Matthew views the arrival of Jesus as a contrast between darkness and light. The gospel of John has the same view and it says, "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it." The word overcome can also mean "understand." The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot understand it or overcome it. John gives it to us in deep theological metaphor, which some of us really like. But Matthew gives it to us in a story that everyone can understand. Jesus comes, depicted by the rising of a new star, a new light, and Herod cannot understand it.
Herod was King of the Jews according to the Roman Empire. When the Magi come bearing witness to a new Light, Herod can only see it one way. To Herod, the title King of the Jews can only mean one thing, and he is already it. His mind is closed to any other possibilities. He has already decided what King of the Jews means, and if anyone else uses those same words, they are a threat to his power. That's the only way he can see it. The religious leaders have the same problem. They have all the prophecies. They know where the Messiah is supposed to be, but nobody expects it to be a little poor baby, so they too miss out on seeing the Light. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot understand it so the darkness tries to overcome it.
Darkness wants to overcome the light. For privileged people, the struggle between light and darkness is sometimes reduced to an interesting philosophical debate. But for people on the margins of society, the struggle between light and darkness is actual life and death. Darkness wants to overcome the light no matter what kind of collateral damage happens along the way. The word used in verse 13 when the angel says that Herod is seeking to "destroy" the child means to utterly, violently, absolutely, permanently, miserably end something or someone. And while Herod doesn't succeed in doing that to Jesus, he does it to other poor and oppressed children whose families have no defense. How does Herod react to an unexpected revelation? With close-minded assumptions that lead to fear, fury, and destruction.
On the other hand, we have the Magi. Not necessarily three of them, not necessarily men, and not what we might call wise. They were astrologers, horoscope-readers, and omen-followers. They were not people who had wisdom that the Jewish people would have been interested in. And yet we celebrate them as the ones who model what it means to react well to unexpected revelation. They were open and curious. They displayed a willingness to inconvenience themselves, a sincere search for truth, and a desire to worship. It took years of seeking, of journeying, of waiting and studying. The star led them onward, keeping just a little ahead of them, stopping to wait for them to catch up, leading them on again. But when it finally stopped and they found the Light, they realize that everything they have been through is worth it. The Magi's openness to unexpected revelation leads to rejoicing with exceedingly great joy.
How do we react to the light? Like Herod, with misunderstanding and fear? Or like the Magi, with openness and joy? Here's the point: it is possible to miss out on what God is doing because it doesn't match our assumptions. The Light might be shining in our darkness in all kinds of ways, and we can't understand it because it's not the Light we expect. If I assume that "God showing up" means one particular thing, and that thing doesn't happen, then I assume that God did not show up. But what if God was there in a way I wasn't planning on?
The gospel of Matthew loves a good paradox. Those who think they know what they are looking for miss the Messiah, while the outsiders with no assumptions find more than they dreamed of. The poor in spirit receive the Kingdom of Heaven. It's all totally unexpected.
This means that paradoxical challenge for us this year is to expect the unexpected. Get ready for surprise. Prepare for something you didn't imagine. The gift of every new year is the reminder of new possibilities. On this Sunday when we celebrate the Epiphany, the light breaking forth, the outsiders who show us what faithfulness looks like, we are invited to open our minds to the Light of unexpected revelation.
And that's the truth that we celebrate at this table. As an adult, Jesus shows us what it means not only receive the unexpected, but to do the unexpected. More paradoxes from the book of Matthew: those who lose their life for the sake of the Kingdom will find it. Real love loves the haters so much it would rather be destroyed by them than destroy them. The only way to live is by being willing to die. Because here's what the darkness will never understand: There is nothing it can really do to the light. The Light has victory just by continuing to be itself. No matter the darkness, the light keeps shining, and the darkness simply cannot overcome it.
And when we really get that, we respond like the Magi, by rejoicing with exceedingly great joy. In fact our ancestors in the faith have shouted from the rooftops for hundreds of years that THIS right here is the joyful and victorious feast of the people of God. People of all genders, all ages, and all races — every type of BODY — from the east and the west, from the north and the south: all are welcome to gather here, around Christ’s table.