“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage”
We all have our unique ways to celebrate Advent and Christmas. At Kenilworth Union, my cup runneth over with music, scripture and prayers to remind me of the story of Jesus’ birth. But, I’ll be the first to admit, sometimes it takes new music, a poem or event to rattle all the traditions that have become too comfortable and remind you of the radical truth.
For me, this came late one night, before bed, while watching my decadent, TV, Christmas treat – the CMA Christmas Special. For those of you that don’t recognize it, CMA stands for Country Music Association. True confessions, I love country music and everything about this annual concert.
Rascal Flatts, whose songs often embed Christian theology in tender personal stories, stole the show with a song I’d never heard until that night. This is a story, sung about Joseph.
Sure he must have been surprised
At where this road had taken him
‘Cause never in a million lives
Would he had dreamed of Bethlehem
And standing at the manger
He saw with his own eyes
The message from the angel come to life
And Joseph said…
Why me, I’m just a simple man of trade
Why Him, with all the rulers in the world
Why here inside this stable filled with hay
Why her, she’s just an ordinary girl
Now I’m not one to second guess what angels have to say
But this is such a strange way to save the world.
To think of how it could have been
If Jesus had come as He deserved
There would have been no Bethlehem
No lowly shepherds at His birth
But Joseph knew the reason
Love had to reach so far
And as he held the Savior in his arms
He must have thought…
But this is such a strange way to save the world
You will find the song on YouTube.com, not only Rascal Flatts’ offering but also a number of other artists. If you leave the sanctuary now to go listen, I will understand. It is a beautiful sermon for today’s text.
This song shook all the comfy, settled ideas I had of Matthew’s story for the way God chose to confront the established power structures, the isolation and segregation our world had descended into, and the way God revealed the power of love.
Our text for today begins, “in the time of Herod,” with the convention of situating an event within the reign of the one who held power. Outsiders came from the east, who had discerned the stars were announcing some new king had been born in Judea.
By asking the simple question, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” wise men frightened not only Herod but also, all of Jerusalem.
These Wise Ones from the East were scientists and practiced other religions, yet God included their foreign faith and knowledge in bringing to the world the news of the messiah. Outsiders become part of the story, God’s agents, and began to reveal how power in this world was about to shift.
It is no surprise to read that everyone was frightened at the prospect Herod’s regime was threatened. However flimsy or corrupt or terrible it might have been, at least the people could rely upon the way Herod ruled. We have enough human history to also predict power struggles will result in death for many more than just those who seek to grab control.
The wise men’s question, in some ways, seems kind of like kicking a beehive. Why would you ask a ruthless ruler, a puppet of Rome who stopped at nothing to maintain power, where they could find the potential usurper that now existed within Herod’s own back yard? These wise men, compelled on this quest to find the new king took unquestionable risks since a ruler, any ruler, does not need to deal with those outside of the established structures with the same respect or protocol as those within the kingdom. Aliens, immigrants, outsiders…they do not have the same rights as those who legally belong.
Herod could have killed these outsiders for disrupting the order within the Roman Empire, arousing fear throughout Jerusalem. He had the power to do so. But, Herod needed to either find this king, for whom the Magi traveled far and risked much, for they could be the pawns to lead him to this king, or Herod needed to prove their error and silence such potential turmoil.
Before any decision was made, Herod conferred with his insiders, the Hebrews’ priests and scribes. They presented the historical evidence of God’s continual promises of a Messiah, foretold in the scripture they had all studied and cherished. Anyone who knew scripture expected God would send a messiah. That was not new. But that the messiah would come now, during Herod’s reign, frightened him. And it should, for anyone who oppresses the poor, takes advantage of the vulnerable, and stands against mercy should tremble.
How rulers grasp onto, maintain and expand their power has been the fodder for historians and philosophers throughout history. The power struggle between the Roman, self-anointed, god-kings and the baby born to peasants who might be God incarnate, brought to mind Niccolo Machiavelli’s famous work, The Prince.
Written in Italy during the early 16th century, Machiavelli offers wide-ranging advice to those who rule and addresses the balance between exercising mercy and inflicting cruelty. He claims the fundamental question is whether it is better for a ruler to be feared or loved. Machiavelli writes “My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved (The Prince. Cambridge Texts in History of Political Thought. Ed. Skinner and Price. 59).”
Part of the reasoning behind Machiavelli’s famous idea that it is better to be feared than loved is purely pragmatic; as he notes, men worry less about doing injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who is feared. Fear is simply a means to an end, and that end, for the ruler, is security.
Herod sought to secure his power by enforcing his rules, his taxes, his system of slavery, and segregation, and if necessary, would do so through coercion and violence. Later, once Herod learned the Magi had found the messiah but did not return to tell him exactly who this was or how to find him, Herod had every child in Bethlehem under the age of two killed. This is how King Herod sought security and ruled with fear in this corner of the world.
Sadly, power and security can become addictive, driving one to ever expanding a sphere of domination. It also can feed a sense of insecurity, since most rulers always wonder if they possess sufficient power and security, and if found lacking, then begin to wonder who would be the one to subvert them.
In the opposite way, appearing vulnerable or humble are traits that often imply a lack of security, being open, whether by choice or not. Being vulnerable or humble also does not imply possessing any capacity of power over one’s own life and livelihood, let alone another’s life.
No wonder the refrain in the song by Rascal Flatts questioned why God came as a child, to an ordinary man of trade, by an ordinary girl with lowly shepherds. This was a strange way to save anyone. Vulnerable. Without discernible influence.
The Magi did not know anything about the child king, other than a star compelled them to leave home, and despite coming from a different faith tradition, they wanted to find out if this was in fact God incarnate. If they found this new king, they would pay him homage.
Matthew’s story tells us the magi brought gifts, and we could easily assume this was how they planned to pay homage. Eduard Schweizer, Biblical scholar, notes our English translation, unfortunately, does not do justice to the Greek word, proskyneo, by translating it as “to pay homage.” This act is not giving material gifts.
If the child were the messiah, the Magi would pay homage by prostrating themselves before this child, face down, in complete submission, giving everything about themselves to this child’s future reign.
The child the Magi encountered at the cradle was God incarnate, offering such a radically different sense of security; they worshiped him, not as a liturgical act, just complete devotion.
Then, they offered the finest gifts that revealed who they encountered: gold for a king; incense for the divine; and myrrh, an embalming ointment, for the one who would die, redeeming their lives. (Eduard Schweizer The Good News According to Matthew).
The power, which greeted them at the cradle is what we often call God’s love. But, let’s not confuse this love with the Hallmark sentiments of Valentine’s Day hearts and cupids.
This divine love has the courage to willingly embrace the outcast and outsiders. Divine love takes effort to look past differences for common bonds. God’s love heals divisions rather than build fortresses. God’s love is strong enough to tolerate doubt and denial with generous forgiveness. It is the light amidst darkness. God’s love is the only thing that is with us at birth and is powerful enough to break through this temporal event we call death.
The great power shift that occurred at the cradle connected these men to God and with one another in a way never felt before. This was a love that ignited their own hearts to feel the divine image of God, implanted deep in them and which is deep within each of us.
I can imagine some Machiavellian cynic arguing that fear is still the way to rule: fear establishes a reliable security through the exercise of power. Yet, isn’t that why God chose to come into human form and as a helpless, peasant child? The love that drew people to Jesus and guided Jesus’ life has the power to conquer fear when we know that there is no place we can go, no ill we can suffer and no death to encounter that God is not willing to share with us.
The first Epiphany included the outsiders, the Magi. The Gospel of Matthew tells us Jesus’ entire life continues to include those who had been rejected and dominated by culture and society. Jesus had the power to draw all people together into God’s kingdom.
The Good News proclaimed also commands us to care for the lost, the least and the lonely, not to exert power over them, but to love them in acts of caring.
Epiphany invites all of us to visit the cradle and look with fresh eyes to see God in our world. I’ll be the first to confide it is kind of hard to do on this grey and cold day, when we’d rather bundle up than risk venturing far from our comforts.
I will also admit it is frightening to offer yourself over to something, completely. To be wholly devoted to God may threaten our secure and material world. It is safer to keep our money than to give in Outreach. It is easier to turn to our own lives, perhaps work a few more hours to get ahead, than serve a meal or build a house for those with limited means.
I’ll push even harder. We’ve probably all worked hard to establish our positions of power. We want to be confident in organizations with which we’ve aligned, and the investments we’ve made in the future. We don’t want them to tumble down, not in our lives. We can build more gates. We can slip into those practices condoned by those who feed upon fear rather than those who call us to love in ways that break down barriers and oppression.
It is a strange way to save the world, by drawing together those that are different. It is a strange way to save the world by doing so with humility that empowers us to live as uniquely as God created each of us. But, it is the way God came to love us and claim us throughout all our life.