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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Epiphany Sunday/A • January 1, 2017
Falling in Love
“When you meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, you want the rest of your life to start right now.” That’s how the movie When Harry Met Sally ends. It’s less a love story than a friendship story: two college graduates move to New York city, have an off and on relationship, marry, divorce, live and finally discover they’ve fallen in love. I suppose many of us here have a story of falling in love. For years I’ve been trying to understand the beginning of Matthew’s gospel and what I’ve come to believe is this: it’s his story of falling in love, of how he came to give his life to Jesus, to make his life about the life of Jesus, to let Jesus live in him. Now in everyone’s story, the hardest part of all is to explain why this person, out of all the people in the world, all the people in your life, is the one.
Matthew’s gospel starts with two stories about Jesus meant to explain this. We’re going to be living with Matthew’s gospel throughout this year, so first we need to understand that it wasn’t written for us. We’re reading someone else’s mail. This is a gospel account meant for Jewish Christians and Gentiles who are trying to understand how Jesus fits in the history of God’s love. So Matthew uses pictures both audiences will understand.
First, he gives us a long genealogy of Jesus. There are still places where the important question is not who you are but who your people are. This is who Jesus’ people are. There’s Abraham, first person of God’s work in history, Isaac and Judah: this is a family story and these are great great something parents. This is a family that is fully and completely Jewish. But there are Gentiles in the story too: Ruth, the Moabite woman who became the ancestor of David. David is there too: one of Jesus’ family. Fourteen generations to the great time of exile; fourteen more since, right down to Joseph. If you are Jewish, this tells you exactly who Jesus is, from Abraham to David to Joseph, and then of course Matthew tells us the story of Joseph and Mary and Jesus’ birth.
Now he turns from the Jewish audience to Gentiles, to us. We may not know the whole family history; we’re new in the neighborhood. So he tells us a funny, ironic, story about how Gentiles came to recognize and celebrate Jesus, just as we have done. He tells us about the most amazing baby shower ever.
This is a comic story, if we understand it. Let’s start with someone who isn’t in the Nativity scene: King Herod. Herod was a leader of one faction of Jews during the Roman civil war. He got his position partly because Judah—Palestine—was so insignificant. He backed the wrong guy but was left in office anyway. It was a kind of gift; part of the defeated forces of Mark Antony, he went to the victorious Octavian, prostrated himself, begged for mercy and got it. He was good at pursuing Roman interests and procuring Roman taxes but his one goal is simply to stay in power. Herod represents one way of approaching the world. He sees it as a pyramid and he’s always scrambling to be on top. Along the way, of course, he’s made compromises and he’s been ruthless. He’s also done some showy things; he rebuilds the temple and gives part of it a covering of gold, he builds a fortress nearby. He is King of the Jews but he knows that his position is never secure. He isn’t part of David’s line; his power is based on threats and violence.
The Wise Ones
So imagine the impact of having some experts from another country show up and explain that they have evidence a new King of the Jews has been born. They want directions to his birth place and they assume everyone will know about this in the capital. Herd isn’t just surprised; he’s afraid. It’s one thing to stand up to all the humans claiming his throne but how to take on a divine appointment? He meets with his own advisors and finally they send these experts on their way to Bethlehem. He has them followed; he tells them to come back. Meanwhile, he plots murder. To him, the birth of this new King of the Jews is a threat.
Let’s imagine these “Wise Men”. Since the text doesn’t actually call them men, I’m going to go with a more modern translation and call them sages. These are the first century equivalent of the people you see on CNN, the talking heads, the experts. They’re from “the East”. Now what we may not know is that in this context “the east” means the older civilizations in what is now Iran and Iraq, the Persians, Babylonians and others. These all had a rich tradition in which divinity often came in human form. They believed god was often revealed in a person. And they watched for signs of such people. So the story starts with this: some eastern experts have seen a sign in the part of the sky called “the house of the Hebrews”, which leads them to Judah. They are Gentiles; they don’t know much about this place and they don’t have a gps, so they do the logical thing, they go to the King of the Jews, Herod, sometimes called Herod the Great.
Gentiles Coming to Jesus
This is shocking, in a way. Jews always assumed the messiah would be Jewish; and so he is. But who knows about him? Who looks for him? Who seeks him? Not the priests in the temple, not the King of the Jews, Herod, but these gentiles. From far away, from the distant East, they see the world changing; they recognize the signs that God is doing something new and wonderful. They pack up, buy tickets on a caravan and go. Isn’t this remarkable?
We all know about excuses for not going to church. It’s snowing, it’s too hot, it’s been a busy week, someone said something last Sunday that annoyed me. These sages represent the other side: outsiders who instead of looking for excuses, look for reasons to go. And the reason is the light of a star, a symbol of God’s love. It’s not an easy journey; it would have taken them weeks to get there. When they do get to Jerusalem, they must have sensed the underlying hostility at the court of Herod.
It’s interesting that in the whole story, we don’t hear of them doing what is almost always done when you meet a king: giving gifts. They have gifts with them; they see no reason to give them to Herod.
Gifts for a king
They find Jesus eventually, they give him gifts that have been the cue to imagine all sorts of things over the years. What’s clear about the gifts is that they are useless to babies and new parents. Honestly, who gives a new mother frankincense? Who brings myrrh to a shower? These people live in a rather stinky time period; frankincense at least puts a nice perfume over it. Myrrh is used to prepare bodies for burial; it’s rare and costly. God, that would have been the most useful of all, I suppose. These gifts don’t have individual points, despite all the imagining over the years.
But taken together, they are the sort of thing you give a king. They are a recognition that Jesus is indeed the real King of the Jews, that he is the chosen one of God, just as David was, just as Abraham was. These aren’t gifts you give a baby: they are gifts you give royalty. These aren’t gifts to use; they are gifts that say, “Your majesty”.
That’s why Herod wanted them to come back; he’s afraid that’s exactly what the child will evoke. He’s afraid of the competition because in the world of Herod, then and now, there is only one top person. Everything is a pyramid and the ones at the top are always trying to climb higher; that’s how they got there in the first place. Herod is afraid. That’s the true comedy of this story. Look at Herod in his palace, with his army, his priests, the whole religious establishment—look at Jesus in his manger, nothing but a baby with poor parents. But there in the stable, there is love: God’s love, flowing out, lighting the world. The star is a symbol. Stars are only seen at night, in darkness. John will say later, “[His] life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” It’s so obvious, so clear, that the wise ones know who to give their gifts to. Think of it: they brought the gifts all the way from the East. They met with Herod. But they didn’t give the gifts to Herod. Now, in the presence of Jesus, they do. They give their gifts.
God offers life
Herod’s power is real. But God’s power is deeper. The wise ones are warned in a dream, just as Joseph was; they go home a different way, perhaps with tales of what they’ve seen. By the time Herod’s troops get to Bethlehem, Jesus, the real king of the Jews is gone. Babies are murdered anyway; that’s what kings like Herod do, their ultimate threat is death. But God’s ultimate offer is life and in Jesus, he’s offering it to all of us, giving it away, gifting us, just as the wise ones gifted Jesus.
This is a story about falling in love.
This is a story about the day you recognize Jesus for who he really is. This is a story for everyone who has or will ever come to Jesus, see who he is and respond by giving their own gifts. We are at the beginning of a new year. So it’s a good time to ask: what gift are we bringing? What gift can we give? Can we, like the wise ones there, reach over the boundaries of Jew and Gentile, male and female, and all the others and see that the only thing that matters is this: in Him is the light of all people; in him is the gift of God’s love. Receiving it, what can we do but give the gift of our own lives?