Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Sermon for Ephiphany: A Light Shines in the Darkness?

Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, 'Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.' 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
            6"And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
                        are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
            for from you shall come a ruler
                        who is to shepherd my people Israel." '
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, 'Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.' 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

            Here it is, the week after Christmas. Our sanctuary is still adorned, the last chord of "Silent Night" is still hanging in the air, and we come to celebrate the arrival of the Magi. "Arise, Shine; for your light has come!" But, what accompanies the light is bad news. The good news, spoken to Mary by the angel, shared with Elizabeth, whispered to Joseph, came out of the desperate need for something good to happen. This text from Isaiah that begs to be preached with unspeakable joy is paralleled with a Matthean text that is extracted from unspeakable grief.
            Mary, who delivered her baby in a foreign town, barely having been able to catch her breath from a long journey, has welcomed strangers to the manger where she laid her tiny baby boy. I can imagine that there was little surprise over the visitors that came during their stay in Bethlehem. I'm sure when one is told by an angel that she is bearing a child, conceived by the Holy Spirit, few things can come as a total shock. But, the arrival of the Wise Men from Persia might have caused a raised eyebrow or two. They brought expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They followed a star at its rising, and rejoiced when it came to rest. The lowly shepherds had the same experience as Mary and Joseph, and it seemed to make sense for these humble men to come and see the baby born in such desperate conditions. After all, isn't it always the poor who are most ready to receive the Gospel? But for the Wise Men to come, bearing gifts of such an elaborate nature … this was something big. It wasn't just the destitute who were seeking out this special child anymore. Now, he was starting to attract the attention of the kings – real kings, kings with power and money and whims, kings who held the power of life or death over their subjects.
            And, as we know, Herod did exactly that. In the middle of all that joy and celebration over the birth of Jesus, there was a dark and sinister plot formulating in the quiet rooms of Herod's palace. The scribes and chief priests hunkered down and thought about the visit they'd just received from these men from the East. What business did they have coming to Jerusalem? The business of seeking out a new king? Their question struck fear into Herod's heart, and "all of Jerusalem with him," as he struggled to figure out how he's missed the news of the King of the Jews being born.
            There's something inherently scary about a prophecy being fulfilled. The news that a ruler was born, who would shepherd the people of Israel, didn't bring the calm and peace that could be expected. After all, shepherds are meant to bring order to rambling beasts. Rather, it incited the kings and leaders to actions based on their fear. Sitting on a throne in Jerusalem, hearing about a king born in pitiful Bethlehem from Persian astronomers was enough to incite Herod to violence and judgment. After all, Herod knew that it was Jerusalem that would receive God's promise of prosperity. That's what Isaiah 60 says, right?  "Arise, shine; your light has come! And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you… Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn." And, here they are! The kings! The nations! Bearing gifts and seeking to pay homage… but to the wrong king, in the wrong city.
            Well, maybe we have the wrong text, too. After all, the chief priests and scribes didn't point to the prophecy found in Isaiah. Instead, they told Herod about Micah 5:2:
"But you, O Bethlehem of Eph-ra-thah, who are one of the little clans of  Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel." 
Biblical prophecies are always a mixed bag, aren't they? Ask any Prophet, and you'll see that being the messenger of such news doesn't present the most positive job landscape one might imagine. You'd think working as one chosen by God to speak to the people on God's behalf might come with some perks, but the business of God is never blithe.
            The same is true for the prophecies themselves. Though we desperately want to hear about the light shining in mighty Jerusalem, what we hear is a glimmer of hope illuminating a little clan of Judah. And here we are on Epiphany, celebrating the manifestation of God's promise in Christ, and we've got it all wrong. It's country-bumpkin Micah, not the poet Isaiah. It's lowly Bethlehem, not metropolitan Jerusalem. It's kings following a star, not the brightness of the dawn.
            And, it doesn't seem to get much better after Christ has finally made his big arrival in the world. The events that unfold after the visit by the Magi are terrible and heart wrenching. After the wise men head home by a different road, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee the country. He takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, thus fulfilling another awful prophecy.  It doesn't take Herod long to realize that the Wise Men aren't coming back with a detailed map for him to follow, and in his rage, he orders a decree that all children under the age of two must be killed.
            I awoke yesterday to some terrible news. A dear friend, a clergy colleague, who is married to one of the most talented pastors I’ve ever known, ended his own life on Friday. His battle with depression ended when the darkness overtook him. No light could shine in. In his death, he leaves a broken-hearted and frightened spouse and two beautiful, confused daughters. I held the news of his death in my head and heart as we barreled home from our trip, and shared my sorrow with my friend, Sam, who offered me this: Herod is a wicked man, still slaughtering our innocents. And, it’s true, isn’t it. That Herod’s power manifests in many ways, even still. And we lose innocent people to the deepest, darkest horrors.
            The Kings bearing gifts have gone home, the Messiah has fled the country, the infants have been massacred, and it seems that these prophecies are leaving Judea with a lot of empty promises and overwhelming grief. When Joseph and his family are finally called out of Egypt to return to Israel, he was, understandably, afraid. If he returned with his family to Bethlehem, Jesus would be the only boy his age still alive. So, he followed the warning given in a dream, and headed to Galilee where he made a home in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled another prophecy, which declared that, "He will be called a Nazorean." Danger! At this point, it doesn't seem like Israel can handle any more fulfilled prophecies. If the light is coming, then it's got an awful lot of darkness to overwhelm.
            From his birth, Jesus seemed to be simultaneously revealing and confounding the scriptures. Who would have thought that the birth of the Messiah would have brought such bloodshed to the children of Bethlehem? This Christ that we honor never seems to fit our expectations. We try, as we re-create the Nativity story each Christmas, to capture the God's in-breaking into the world in the quiet beauty of the manger. A lovely Mary, with a doting Joseph at her side, rocks the porcelain Jesus while sheep, donkeys, shepherds and wise men come and bow down. But the story we tell is larger than the details we try to remember at Christmas each year. There are other voices in scripture, other prophecies that have a darker edge.
            Wasn't the point of the Incarnation that God was coming to save the people of Israel? Lest we forget, there were more prophecies to fulfill as Jeremiah's words came true: "A voice was heard in Ra'mah, wailing and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." It seems that the presence of the light necessitates shadow.
            Once God is here, though, it seems that death is perpetually at his heels. Christ is born, honored, and sent away to Egypt as the rest of his peers are put to death. Once back in Galilee, Jesus is baptized by a crazy man who is eventually beheaded. Jesus is tempted by Satan himself, and then gathers together a bevy of misfit apprentices, who never seem to fully understand what job it is they're being trained to do. Jesus heals strangers, outsiders, lepers, and widows, but he fails to show up when his best friend is dying. He fulfills prophecies, but not always the right ones. He references scripture, but doesn't elaborate. He claims to be the Son of God, but won't allow his Father to come to his rescue as the Roman soldiers are nailing him to the cross. And just when it can't get any worse, he goes off and dies a pathetic death. The nerve of our Messiah!
            The blood that has followed him throughout his life finally overcomes him on the cross. That porcelain babe has been shattered and broken. But, Jesus wasn't done fulfilling prophecies, was he? This unexpected, unpredictable Messiah, who didn't do anything we envisioned, found a way to beat death. And then it all becomes clear: those who tried to overwhelm this man with their power suddenly were rendered powerless. Herod and the chief priests, the Scribes and Pharisees, Judas and Pilate… they all had a shot at it, but it was Christ who came in final victory to save his people at last. "Let our hearts thrill and rejoice," for Christ has turned everything on its head, even death itself!
            There will always be a shadow side – we live in a world that is still filled with poverty, disease, sin and greed. But these things do not have the final say. The light cannot be overcome by the darkness, no matter how profound. Once the light came into the world, the darkness lost its power. Death lost its power.

            Sisters and Brothers, Arise, Shine, for your light has come. Praise be to God! Amen.