Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“We Are All Holy” Sermon, Year C, Epiphany, January 6, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Matthew 2

I am going to go off-script a little bit, and actually read all of chapter 2 out of the Gospel of Matthew because I think the context of the whole story of the magi is important. And the second half of this chapter, in our three-year lectionary cycle of scripture readings, only shows up once in that cycle. And that is the first Sunday of Advent of what we call Year A of the cycle, which is this coming December when we begin Advent again. So you will hear the second half again then. But it is unfortunate it gets read only once every three years. So I want to read the whole thing.

We have here the arrival of these three wise men, the magi, astrologers, religious men, whatever we want to call them. And their arrival at the manger is very kind of nice and tidy story. They arrive and leave their gifts. But their arrival is clouded with pain and death. It is not a nice story, what happens around these wise men. And clouded in pain and death in a way that may resonate with us still just a month away from the shooting of the children in Newtown.

And so let us listen to this text and strive to listen with some new ears to this story of magi and wise men or whatever we want to call them, and who only appear in Matthew’s Gospel. And, in fact, everything in this chapter only appears in this Gospel. So let us hear now these words from Matthew’s Gospel, and listen for how God is speaking to us through them.

[Read Chapter 2]

The Gospels of Mark and John do not give us a birth narrative. Jesus shows up in those Gospels as already an adult. There is no mention of his previous life. Though in the Gospel of John, he goes back all the way to creation to say that Jesus was present with God in the act of creation; Jesus as The Word was there with God. But there is no infancy narrative in either of those two gospels. And the Gospel of Luke gives us the story of the shepherds coming to see Jesus, and continues with this nice story of other people in Jesus’ life and at the temple and other places recognizing who Jesus is and saying to Mary what a wonderful person Jesus is going to grow up to be, and that the is the messiah and a good man. But Matthew; whoever wrote this Gospel, Matthew gives us these magi, these wise man, and infanticide. Quite a dichotomy. These foreign wise men who are the only ones outside of Jesus’ family who realize that something important and good has happened. No one else around Jesus, other than his family in Matthew, know what has happened, except these foreign wise men. And, this paranoid vassal of Rome: Herod. Herod who slaughters children because he fears what this child might become.

Herod doesn’t recognize Jesus specifically. Not by name. He doesn’t come to the manger to see Jesus. But Herod does recognize that something has happened. He knows that something has happened that is going to change his life and change it in a threatening way if he allows it to happen. Herod is the State. He is the State. And his way is the way of violence, death, power over others. He represents a legal system built on punishment and cruelty. And so Herod cannot allow this Prince of Peace to appear. He cannot allow the words “peace” to be uttered, or the words “mercy”, “compassion”, or “kindness”. They are all threatening to Herod. So he does what he does.

And looking just at the Gospel of Matthew, we see that outside of Jesus’ family the only other Jewish person that recognizes what has happened is Herod. Herod was not ethnically Jewish, possibly, but religiously he was Jewish. And Herod is the only other Jewish person who recognizes the birth of a messiah. And to him, this is not a good thing. Not anything to be celebrated. It is an event that threatens his power, and so he orders the murder of all the children in and around Bethlehem.

Apparently for Herod the children’s death was an acceptable price to pay for him to hold on to his power. That’s a price he was willing to pay. And we might think that it is certainly quite horrible and an evil act. And it is. It is. But how many children continue to die unnecessarily around the world at the hands of us and at the hands of others. Children that die in sweatshops because we want cheap clothes or cheap toys. Or who die from hunger because we don’t want to change the way we live and share what we have. How many die from violence here in the U.S. because we think that is maybe an okay price to pay for the culture we have created: a culture of privilege, or of the celebration of the individual over community, or the self at the expense of others. Or cover up sexual abuse to protect the primacy of athletes, whether at state universities or Stubbenville (that is in the news now). Or we who live in this time when girls and women are raped and abused, including in our military, and their rapists often go unpunished or go unreported out of fear. Or girls and women sprayed with acid or shot simply because they want an education, and the men around them feel threatened by that and cloak that in religious dogma.

Herod was not the last to cause the suffering of innocents to protect his life of comfort.

And as I said in my sermon a few weeks ago, after the shootings at the elementary school in Connecticut, I don’t have the answers. This is a huge, difficult problem. But if we are going to be appalled at the murder of the children at the elementary school – and we should be – absolutely should be – if we are going to be appalled at their murder at the hands of one person, we also have to be appalled at the thousands of others who were killed last year. The children who die violent deaths last year in the U.S. and around the world. And also be appalled at those who are allowed to die of hunger, or allowed to die because they lack health care, or allowed to die because they are in abusive households. All those other children whose names will never grace a memorial plaque. Whose names will never be uttered in a presidential speech. Children for whom church bells will never be rung. And for whom the nation will never come to a moment of silence to remember.

Rachel weeps for all her children, and refuses to be consoled because they are no more.

And let us remember them as well in our social dialogue.

This act of Herod was not a one time event, but continues. And in the name of the Prince of Peace that we follow, that shouldn’t be happening. It should not be happening.

And we have also in this story these wise men that set some of this in motion. They are the ones who let Herod what’s happened. They come to him first. They assume as the ruler that he would give them proper directions and be good about this. But there are these wise men that come from a foreign land. They are not Jewish, not Roman. We don’t know who they are, which makes them kind of interesting, because Matthew never tells us who they are. He just says they are wise men from the east. I don’t know if you ever looked at a map of Asia, but there is an awful lot of continent east of Israel. They could be from almost anywhere. And the Roman Empire ended not too much farther to the east of Israel. So there is an awful lot of continent that is not part of the Roman Empire that these guys might be from.

And we don’t know how many there are. The number is unknown. But tradition holds it to be three. We have three wise men in our nativity. A number chosen, I think, because there are three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But I think that is hopeful thinking on the part of those who came up with the tradition to assume that in a group of men there would be a 100% success rate of remembering to buy a gift, and to bring it. I imagine there were probably ten. Ten magi. And I imagine that about halfway to Bethlehem they realized that eight of them brought nothing and looked around at each other saying, “I didn’t bring anything... I don’t know, let’s take an offering. Let’s put some gold and pass the hat.” And they show up in Bethlehem and bring their gifts to Mary, and say, “Look – we got you a gift certificate! There you go.” And Mary facepalms. I’m just teasing the men, but I do that because that has been me on occasions.

But the wise men arrive, these foreigners, and they give gold. Always a good gift for a newborn. I’m sure my mother would have appreciated some gold. Any of you who are parents I’m sure would have appreciated some gold at the birth of your children. But it is also a sign of Jesus’ importance. Gold, as it is now, was back then incredibly valuable. Most people would never have seen a gold coin, or at least held one or owned one. This is a rich gift signifying Jesus’ importance. And frankincense to signify Jesus’ divinity. That was an incense that was burned in temples to God. in the temple in Jerusalem to God, but in other religions frankincense to their gods. And myrrh, a funeral balm to anoint a dead body. They bring a gift to say that he is important, so here is something to help raise him. A gift that says he is divine, so here is frankincense. to show that he is divine. And another gift to Mary, a sad one, to say, “Here is a balm for his body and I am sorry to say, but you will still be around, and need to use this.”

The wise men know what’s going on.

These foreigners, these outsiders, these non-Jewish men, some of whom may very well have been Buddhist or Hindu as those religions were already around to the east. Which is interesting, I think, to think about. To think that maybe a Hindu and Buddhist and maybe some other religions were there at the manger.

These are the guys who knows who Jesus is.

Jesus’ Jewish neighbors were perhaps too much inside the system to see what was happening, to recognize what was going on. Plus, they weren’t looking for God to act. Or if they were looking for God to act, or if they were looking for God to act they were expecting God to act in a certain way. They had a certain expectation of a certain kind of messiah. And so anything that was happening that didn’t fit that bill, that didn’t fit their notions of what a proper messiah ought to be like, got ignored. No one else noticed. And so thank God for those who are on the outside! Thank God for those who are on the outside who can point us in the right direction. And often do. Those who can hold up a mirror to us and say, “This is what you really look like. Whatever you think you look like... maybe not.” Think of those outside the Church who have been helpful in so many ways critiquing the Church, helping us grow and change and become more of what we are supposed to be.

We began this journey in Advent. We had the four weeks of waiting for the messiah. And then Christmas: 12 days of celebrating his birth. And then Epiphany which begins today and goes for a number of weeks, this time of recognizing the Divine among us. That takes us to the Transfiguration and then into Lent.

Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany all are on one trajectory pointing toward Christ. Pointing toward Jesus. We expect Emmanuel, God with us, in Advent. We celebrate Emmanuel through Christmas. We look for Emmanuel through Epiphany. Where is God among us? And then there is Lent and Easter to learn what Emmanuel has done for us. And then spend that long time between Easter and the next Advent asking the question, How do we respond to what Emmanuel has done for us?

God is indeed with us. God is present with us. We light the Christ candle to represent that God is with us. But God is also with us always. Wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is there. And even where one person is gathered, God is there. God is with us. God was in all of those babies in Bethlehem. And was God was in all of those babies’ parents, family, friends, and neighbors. God is with us in all who suffer, and in all who seek to relieve suffering. All who are going about God’s business. And God was also in the manger.

The wise men saw that, and realized that.

And imagine a world in which we saw and recognized in all who are born as the Christ. As Emmanuel, as God with us, and treated each other with gold, frankincense, and myrrh to recognize the divine in each of us, to support one another in life, and to bring comfort and dignity in death. To care for other people through the entire journey of their lives. I think that’s the world that the wise men saw in Jesus, and it is certainly the world that Emmanuel points us to.


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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