Psalm 148 (13)
While the appointed Gospel is Matthew 2:13-23, we will read Matthew 2:1-23
Initially our Gospel text for this morning reminds us of Christmas pageants.
I think of our own children dressed up us shepherds and wise men in bathrobes, with paper crowns – to honour the tradition that says the wise men were also kings, bearing gifts for the new born king.
My memories are not to specific, for that you may have to ask the children’s mother, but one memory that has become part of the family lore was when our eldest was three and delivered his line into the microphone at Church of the Cross and then realized that he could hear himself over the loudspeakers. It was pretty cool, I think. So, with no one else in a hurry to deliver the next line, he stepped up again, this time not to speak his line (again), but to clear his throat – into the microphone, knowing that the effect of being able to hear himself would be the same.
Those are good memories, but this is not what today’s reading is about. Today’s reading reminds us abruptly that the world into which Jesus was born was a violent world, a world full of conflict, and that God coming into the world did not mean that God was avoiding conflict, rather God was entering into the midst of it and was bringing things to a head.
And so we notice in our reading that king is used for two different people, for Herod, and for Jesus. Herod is called King and it appears to be a title, and yet Jesus is called the ‘king of the Jews’ which – at least for the church – became a title, but here simply seems to express legitimacy, at least for the church that has preserved this story.
And so the conflict is set up. Which one of them is the true king?
To be sure, Herod was a paranoid ruler whose paranoia was likely rooted in the questions about his legitimacy, having been appointed by the Romans and being of mixed ethnic background (which was an issue then).
And what do paranoid people do? They lash out with more force, and more violence, and less scruples. They have thin skin and no humour, and the problem is always elsewhere.
We may know that from our own experience, from times when our own lives seemed to have been overtaken by fear.
To me, the story always had something grotesque about it: Here is a ruler in a palace, in command of armed personnel.
There is a baby born to teenage parents in a stable.
But we do well not to dismiss Herod as simply grotesque and paranoid, though he was those things. We do well to take Herod seriously, for the story makes it clear that this is about kingship and rule, and about legitimacy. Herod had somehow figured this out, we should too.
And in this sense the story goes to the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Is it about personal faith, comfort, assurance, about the Lord as my shepherd, – and we would say that it is, but it is also about who is the boss of me, who determines my values, and my actions, that may put me in conflict with those in power, or with prevailing ideologies? And Matthew tells us that it is both, for there are two kings in the story and we must choose the one who is our king.
In this sense the story connects with Palm Sunday where our king enters the city and Good Friday where we see our king lifted up. It connects us with Christ the King Sunday, the festival that reminds us that amidst all other loyalties, our loyalty to Jesus must come first, even when it puts us in conflict with the prevailing order.
There is a reason we don’t have a Canadian flag in church. The reason is not that we don’t love our country, we do, but we know that our first loyalty belongs to God’s Kingdom, and because our first loyalty belongs to God’s kingdom, we know that our nation is not perfect, just as we are not perfect, and that in fact we can do better and must do better.
At the end of the slaughter of the Innocents, Matthew writes, “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’”
I wonder if we hear wailing and loud lamentation over the disproportionate incarceration rate of First Nations people, if we hear the cries of those whom our economy has left behind? I was downtown Thursday night and I walked past a number of panhandlers, one of them holding a sign that read HIV positive and homeless. Did I hear his cry?
According to Matthew, hearing wailing and loud lamentation is part of our observation of Christmas, it is knowing that not all is right but that Jesus came to make all things right; knowing that while he was saved from the slaughter of the innocents, he was saved only to be numbered among them some thirty years later. And the violence Herod exercised was not met with divine violence but was met with love. Such is the paradox of our Lord’s reign.
As I was pondering all this I revisited an interview with the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann from a few years ago. He said that the prophets always spoke judgement and promise. They were people of God who simply spoke up. They spoke up against injustice as an expression of infidelity to God’s covenant. They did so through poetry and those in power learned that they could not silence the poet.
Brueggemann said that the fact that they used poetic language meant that they did not speak issues but used language that cut below the issues, language that had transformative power.
Had they only talked issues, said Brueggemann, it would have been proposition against proposition. But since they employed poetic language, transformation was possible.
It seems to me that the church must recover this prophetic tradition, must not be afraid to speak what it believes the Lord requires of us, even if this will not always mean that we come out in the same place, taking the same positions. It will, however, allow us to take God seriously, to proclaim with our lives that Jesus is our King, and allow this King to change us, and to use us to make visible his reign.
The church lives in exciting times. It is not easy to be church these days. Some in Abbotsford have asked me whether Our Saviour was bigger and better – because that’s how careers are built – but the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence. We all occupy the same space in time.
The gift of the challenging times in which we live is that we can re-think what it means to be the Church, and we can do so trusting that in these our times, God our king is about to do a new thing.