"Bursting In," Pastor KInsey
So, sometimes the church calendar twists the order of our scripture readings in weird and awkward ways! Like today! Today we’re reading the story for, The Epiphany of Our Lord about the magi, which is the story just before the gospel reading we already read last week! And the gospel story we read last week is the story after today’s reading! Backwards! Go figure! A reversal of Matthew’s order!
Yes, it makes sense in the way that each speaks to the theme of the churchseason. Last week was the First Sunday of Christmas. Today we celebrate the first Sunday of Epiphany. Last week was The Slaughter of the Innocents, when Herod tried to kill the baby Jesus – Christmas theme! Today is the visit of the magi, or wise men, coming to worship the new born king, who was revealed – Epiphany theme! – revealed as the Messiah and Savior of the whole world.
But, the contrast and reversal by the church calendar, is actually not that weird for the gospel of Matthew. Matthew maintains a theme of two kingdoms – the kingdom of this world, and the kingdom of God – throughout, all the way from Jesus’ birth to his death.
For example, Time and Place in this gospel reading are also a study in contrasts. Our gospel reading begins, “In the time of King Herod…” That first, small, clause speaks volumes. King Herod is the client king of Rome, the appointed ruler of Israel-Palestine, and a perfect choice to insure the unbending, and brutal if necessary, rule of the kingdom of this world.
On the other hand, there is Israel, God’s chosen people, though, for centuries, struggling to follow where God wants them to go, trying their best to remain faithful, hopeful and on edge, in anticipation of a new Messiah to come and give them a sign, and lead them.
So, King Herod, in Jerusalem, is a representative of the center of power of the world’s kingdom. But the very next clause of our opening verse is, “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…” Jesus, we find, is born on the margins, in the town that is in the shadows of the capital and its Temple, a po’dunk shepherd’s town, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.’
And this is the scene that the magi, the wise men from the east, enter into. And they come, it seems to me, with a super naiveté about who they encounter in King Herod. Or else they are magicians who cast a spell on him, posing as guileless wanderers. I’m not really sure which! Magi were indeed employed as magicians, at least some of the time. But this is a different kind of a spell, and one that is courting danger, in dealing with a king like Herod. One thing is for sure, and that’s that the magi are also, from the margins, 1,000 miles from the center of power, astrologers that follow the stars, and are crazy enough to come all this way to offer homage to a baby they claim is a new-born king of the Jews, the Messiah!
And they certainly have aroused Herod’s curiosity, actually scared him, with their news. But tyrants like him turn their fear outward, on others! They will lash out and find a target, a scapegoat, and make them pay, create chaos, so as to tighten their grip on control, and thereby keep all the privileges and resources for themselves. This is how, unchecked, the ‘kingdom of the world’ works.
Surely, this is an example of sin in the world. When we, as Christians, talk about the sinful nature of people, it is true that we all have faults, we all sin, as individuals. But there is also collective sin. The sin of tribalism, if you will – very much a modern concept – whereby we herd ourselves into opposition groups and factions. The ‘Us against Them’ mentality, which is, at least, one way to talk about collective sin. Sin that is learned from others, and accepted, en masse, based on values of the kingdom of this world, like success, wealth, prestige, and power in the form of survival-of-the-fittest. What Jesus called, ‘lording it over others,’ and hypocrisy.
The antidote to this collective sin, is to base our values on the kingdom of God which Jesus taught us, and modeled in his own life: loving your neighbor as yourself, serving God-not-Mammon, sharing the world’s resources that cannot be bought, but are God-given to us. These too are collective values, not individual accomplishments, but what some have called, the ‘kin-dom’ values – that is, K-I-N – kin-dom, shared values with all God’s people, and thus, an antidote to collective sins.
The threat of war, or at least the escalation of conflicts between Iran and the U.S., is a good example of collective sin. It’s actually been brewing ever since President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” or so-called, Iran deal, brokered under President Obama with 5 other allies. And the contrast between the two approaches could not be more stark, like the difference between the kingdom of this world, and the kin-dom of God. The two approaches lead in opposite directions. And the road we are on today, unfortunately, is based on the herd-mentality of ‘Us vs. Them,’ and neglects the teachings of Jesus to ‘love our neighbor as ourselves.’ The path we are on now, I think it’s fair to say, is the path of Herod.
In our gospel reading, Herod claimed he wanted the magi to go and search diligently for the new born child, so that when they found him, they could bring him word, and then Herod too might also ‘go and pay him homage,’ or worship Jesus.
The magi might be naïve, but I’d say, it’s easy for the rest of us to see that this tyrant only wants to find out Jesus’ whereabouts in order to eliminate him as a rival king. And that’s confirmed when we hear that God warns the magi in a dream to go home by a different route, and NOT to report back to King Herod.
The magi’s trip from the far-away margins of the East, through the center of the Empire, and out again to the margins of Bethlehem, finally brought them to “the child and his mother,” Matthew tells us, where they “knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered [the 2 year old] gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh,” extravagant presents fit for a king, the ruler from the kin-dom of God!
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘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.’”
Into the center of the kingdom of this world, bursts the Christ-child, born of the kin-dom of heaven! The rule of God, has invaded our realm! And we sing, “Joy to the world!”
And so, the slaughter of the Innocents, immediately following this good news, is sobering, but is not surprising or defeating. The weeping of Bethlehem is real – that they are inconsolable, is truly tragic, but unfortunately, not unique. It is just another example of the kind of collective sin which continues to perpetuate itself, until the time I in which the suffering of the Messiah permeates all our hearts and minds, and arms us with the collective value of neighbor-love as our weapon, to lead to the victory of the kin-dom of God.
But it is that suffering for the sake of the gospel, the sake of the truth, the sake of the kin-dom of God, that has broken into our world, and that has given us hope. This kind of Suffering knows no time, and cannot be defeated. The old ‘kingdom of Herod’ has one foot in the grave, but the kin-dom of God, never ends. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “The [collective] movement that Jesus begins is constituted by people who believe that they have all the time in the world, made possible by God’s patience, to challenge the world’s impatient violence, by cross and resurrection.”
And so, Matthew’s gospel launches us into the chaotic clash of the kingdoms, and resolves it through the patience of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, who is revealed already in chapter 2, at the margins, by the magi, worshipping Jesus when he was, as yet, an infant in a manger.
Let us join with the collective movement of followers of this king, offering our very best gifts, until the time that God’s love will take residence at the center, once and for all.