“Who’s the Real King,” Matthew 2:1-20

Matthew’s story of the Magi reminds me of Susie who came home from Sunday school and proudly showed her father the picture she had drawn there.  It was a picture of an airplane and through the windows there were four people visible in the plane, 3 in the back and one up front.  Dad asking a very natural question not recommended for parents of young artists inquired, “What is it?”  Susie replied, “It’s the flight into Egypt.  See, there’s Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in the plane.”  Stifling his laughter, Dad got in deeper.  “Oh, I see, and who is that in the front of the plane?”  “Dad,” said Susie, “You should know who that is.  It’s Pontius the Pilot.”

Matthew tells the story of the holy family’s escape into Egypt so briefly and matter of factly that it’s easy to pass over it too lightly as Susie did.  This story of the magi and Herod is a significant addition to Luke’s more peaceful account of angels and shepherd.  In Matthew the innocent babe of Bethlehem is not only homeless but is quickly forced to run for his life from a homicidal King Herod.  What might this dark side of the Christmas story say to us today as we come to the end of another Christmas season with the horrors of Newtown and Rochester still hanging in the air?  Matthew reminds us that Jesus didn’t come into a world of pretty lights, tinseled trees and holiday parties.  He came into the real world, the world that had always stoned and rejected God’s prophets and resisted those who try to challenge the status quo.

Jesus came into a world where Caesar Augustus issued a decree to tax an oppressed people – a first century fiscal cliff if you will.  There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the warmth and love of Christmas.  We need breaks from our normal routine; we need to pause and ponder the meaning of life, to visit with friends and family; but lest we forget, Matthew 2 reminds us that like Jesus, when the party’s over, we must still live in the real world.  Given Herod’s slaughter of innocent children, I’m sure there must have been some in Bethlehem who would have lobbied for an armed guard at the manger, or maybe the wise men should have been brought guns and ammo instead of Gold, frankincense and myrrh.

In the real world there is always the struggle between good and evil – has been since time began.  It is both a cosmic and a personal conflict, which plays out here between Baby Jesus and King Herod, a symbol of all the power and violence and selfishness the world can muster.  It seems a very unfair match doesn’t it, a helpless, defenseless new born baby vs. Herod’s armies?  Gun powder vs. baby powder!  But remember what Pastor Dave said on Christmas Eve – God loves the underdog.  Baby Jesus is far from helpless, because he has God on his side, and we can have that same power on our side too if we worship the right king and not Herod’s kind of power.  In the words of the great hymn, “Lead on O King Eternal,” Jesus wins this battle hands down, “not with swords loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums, with deeds of love and mercy, his heavenly kingdom comes.”

My son and daughter-in-law gave me the HBO series on John Adams for my birthday this fall, and those seven hours of viewing were a great way to spend some of my recovery time after my surgery.  It’s a great series based on the biography of Adams by David McCullough, in part because it is so realistic in portraying how difficult the struggle for American independence was.  Political debate raged for months about if or when independence from Great Britain should be declared.  That first Christmas of the American Revolution in 1776 when Washington’s underfed, ill-equipped, poorly trained army looked doomed to an early defeat, Thomas Paine wrote his famous words, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  Talk about underdogs taking on the most powerful military empire in the world.  Adams and the other members of that Congressional Congress knew they were literally risking their lives, committing treason by standing up to the power and authority of King George.  But as Harry Emerson Fosdick once said, they chose to be “loyal to the royal” in themselves, to the inalienable rights of liberty and justice endowed upon all humans by our creator.

As in every generation we are also living in times that try our souls, and we face the same critical decisions every generation faces, to choose the ways of the world or the ways of the Lord.  Let’s be honest, our priorities aren’t all that different than they were in Herod’s day.  Aren’t we still overly impressed by the lifestyles of the rich and famous?  Don’t we stress out and work too hard and go into debt for things we don’t really need and can’t afford?

Let’s not miss the radical point the story of Herod and the Magi makes, of these wise kings traipsing around the countryside looking for a poor little peasant baby born in a barn.  But even these wise men are fooled at first- they go to Herod, looking for the newborn king.  They expected him to be born in a palace, not a stable, and wouldn’t we make the same mistake today?

The Magi are symbols of worldly wisdom and power.  They show true wisdom just in time when they see through Herod’s lies and follow the star to Jesus.  And there they bow down and worship the true king, the one who doesn’t force his way upon us or try to impress us with wealth and power.  Jesus instead shows us the power that is stronger than any bully or injustice—the power of love.

Herod represents a long line of despots:  Pharaoh, Jezebel, Nebuchadnezzar, Nero, Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, and Osama.  All rulers who appeared to be all powerful.  Matthew tells us that Herod was so powerful that when he was upset about the news of Jesus’ birth, all of Jerusalem trembled in fear of his wrath.  But like every bully Herod’s fear-based power is hollow.  Herod is so insecure and threatened by a tiny baby that he orders the slaughter of innocent children, a horror all too real to us in 2012.  How desperate Herod must have been.  His desperation shows us that he feared others far more than they feared him.  Herod’s kind of power cannot last long because it is built on fear and violence.  Herod has the power of death, he can order men to kill babies and they do it.  By contrast, Jesus came in the power of eternal life.  He has nothing to fear because he is in touch with the power of God that conquers even death itself.  Jesus stands for love and compassion, kindness and peace, eternal values that can be oppressed and oppressed, but never conquered – values that aren’t part of the Herodian vocabulary.

Jesus’ peaceful confidence and power are illustrated in a story by Madeleine L’Engle that tells about the holy family’s dangerous journey across the desert into Egypt.  Wild animals and robbers were very real threats in the desert, and Mary and Joseph would have had to join a caravan for safety.  The story is called “Dance in the Desert,” and as L’Engle tells it, the first night in the desert might have been like this:

“The child will be frightened,” one of the camel drivers said and with his great, calloused hands began to play upon a tiny reed pipe.  A scrawny donkey boy ran into one of the tents and came out with an enormous horn, certainly heavier than he was, and managed to blow into it so that a braying squawk came out the end.   The little boy laughed and clapped with joy as he sat on the young man’s knee in the circle around the largest of the fires.

Outside the circle, from the edges of the dark, came a deep, sustained roar.  The camel driver dropped his pipe, his huge hand reaching for his knife.  “It is a lion.”  The tremor of fear that ran through the group touched everybody except the child.  He slid off the young man’s knees and walked on his still unsteady legs to the edge of the circle.  “Wait,” the mother said, as the camel driver reached for the little boy. 

The firelight seemed dimmer, the moonlight on the sands outside brighter.  At the crest of a dune stood a magnificent lion, completely still, so that he seemed like one of the stone carvings that the sands cover and then uncover on the desert floor.  His tail began to twitch, not in anger or irritation, but in dignified rhythm.  Then ponderously, he rose on his hind legs to his full height.  The child stood at the edge of the circle of firelight, holding out his arms in greeting.  The lion dropped back to his four paws and moved slowly to the company, not menacing, not stalking, but in measured, courtly circles.   “He’s dancing!” the donkey boy said.  “The lion is dancing!”

The camel driver’s grip relaxed, though he kept his hand on the knife’s hilt.  At a responsible distance from the caravan the lion knelt on his forepaws, then dropped to his haunches and lay still on the sands, watching.” 

Because Jesus is the real king, He has nothing to fear from any human king or the king of the beasts.  That’s the same message the gospels tell us when Jesus shows his kind of power over and over again – refusing to use force, resisting Satan’s temptations of glory and worldly power, calming the seas, exorcising demons, healing the sick and raising the dead.  And yet, even with all those signs of divine power, Jesus still had few real disciples.   Why?  Because most people then and now are fooled by Herod’s kind of phony power.  We call the Magi wise because they eventually recognize who the real king is.  Herod tries to order them around like he does everybody else.  He lies to them about his desire to worship Jesus.  But the Magi’s wisdom wins out.  Their ultimate obedience is not to Herod, but to the real king, and they refuse to play into Herod’s evil hand.

It is one thing to recognize the real king and bring him gifts and worship him.  That’s the easy part.  The acid test is which king we obey when push comes to shove.  In our heads we know that God will win in the long run, but we live in the short run, and that’s where we must show our loyalty to the true king if we want our world to become more like God’s kingdom.  We have the choice, every day, and history sadly shows a lack of wisdom in our ability to recognize and follow the real king. Too many Herods have risen to power in our world.  Too many innocent children have died.  Following the Newtown massacre, everyone is asking what we can do to make our world a safer place.  That’s a complicated question and a debate we need to take very seriously.  But there’s one thing we all can do right now today to help change the world and that is to commit ourselves more fully to follow the prince of peace.

In a few days the Christmas trees and decorations will be gone, the manger scene will be packed away in its box, but the choice of which king we serve and how we will live in 2013 will remain.  That choice affects how we relate to our families, friends, colleagues, how we respond to economic challenges, to the needs of the less fortunate.  It affects everything we do, and we need to be constantly aware of that.  Because the forces of evil are subtle and tricky.  Herod will try anything to undermine our faith by fear and intimidation, tempting us with all kinds of lies about earthly comforts and rewards instead of eternal ones.

Nobody ever said allegiance to the real king is easy (and if they did, they were lying).  Accepting Christ as our king is not a one and done decision.  You can’t even do that with your driver’s license, you have to renew it regularly.   Each Christmas we need to hear the story again, fresh and new, to be challenged by its simple yet profound truth.  And every day we need to make a conscious choice to follow the one true King.

Several decrees go out in the Christmas story – one from Caesar Augustus ordering a census, one from Herod ordering a massacre.  But the one we need to hear is the decree of the angels proclaiming the birth of the one true king, the savior of the world who conquers our fear forever.  Let’s remember Jesus’ teaching on allegiance to authority.  He taught us to render to Caesar only that which belongs to Caesar, but always and foremost to give our ultimate allegiance to the true king and Lord of all creation.  Let us remember that this is not a new challenge – that way back in Deuteronomy the Hebrew people were faced with the same choice.  And Joshua made it very clear when he said, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  And like Joshua, we pray for the wisdom of the Magi to respond today and every day, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Advertisements

A Christmas Eve Story

As I pondered what message to share at Jerome UMC on Christmas Eve in a December that felt much darker than most, I remembered a couple of wonderful stories that spoke to me, and I hope will to you also.  As I thought about the struggle between good and evil in human  nature, the first story that came to me is a Native American legend about a young child asking a grandparent why some people are kind and loving and others seem so cruel and violent.  The grandparent responded that there is a constant struggle in every person between two wolves, one that is compassionate and nurturing, and another that is selfish and mean.  “But which wolf wins that struggle?” asked the child.  “The one we feed and nurture,” came the reply.

The image of the wolf reminded me of the second story, one that I had not told or thought about in years.  It is in a collection of short stories by Martin Bell, and the book is called, The Way of the Wolf, where the wolf is a metaphor for God.  When I looked for the story on line I was blessed to find an excellent introduction and conclusion to this story which I adapted slightly, but want to give credit to stjohns-online.org for setting the context.  Here’s the message I shared at the 11 pm Christmas Eve service at my church, Jerome UMC near Dublin, Ohio:

Christmas is a time for telling stories. Some are ancient stories:  about shepherds and angels and a baby born in a barn. Some of them are stories from our childhood – stories of elves and flying red-nosed reindeer, of snowmen who come to life under the spell of Christmas magic, and of Santa Claus.  Each season brings new stories, stories that capture in a new way some of the miracle of the first story, the story of God’s love for us – a love so deep and marvelous that it came alive one night – it became “Emmanuel,” “God with us.”

We tell stories because they touch our hearts and not just our minds.  They help us enter into the mystery of Truth that is larger than our reason and logic can explain.  Stories reveal different levels of truth that reach us wherever we are ready to receive them on any given day.  Christmas is a time for telling stories.

So often the story of Jesus is portrayed as a kind of romantic, sentimental tale – not unlike the decorations and secular stories and carols we hear this time of the year. Christmas is seen as a time of fellowship and fine food, a time to put aside just for a while, the things that divide us, at least until the After-Christmas sales. It is forgotten how marvelous and how expensive a gift Christmas really is, that the manger and the cross are both made of the same wood; that this small child, this enfleshment of God’s love, was sent not just to be a gift, another trinket for us to wear around our necks for a season, but came to show us what God’s love is all about – a love that is willing to die for us, a love that came as the angels told the shepherds that is to save us from all fear and give us eternal peace.

That is where Christmas really begins. That is why we tell the Christmas story again tonight – because of who Jesus became, what he taught, how he lived, and how he died but lives eternally.  Tonight we celebrate the greatness of the Christmas gift. And we remember the cost.   To do that, I’d like to share the story of God’s love for us, even as Jesus often did, through the telling of another story – a kind of parable by Martin Bell, “The Tale of Barrington Bunny.”

Barrington Bunny: A Christmas Story

by MartinBell

ONCE upon a time in a large forest there lived a very furry bunny. He had one lop ear, a tiny black nose, and unusually shiny eyes. His name was Barrington.

Barrington was not really a very handsome bunny. He was brown and speckled and his ears didn’t stand up right. But he could hop, and he was, as I have said, very furry.

In a way, winter is fun for bunnies. After all, it gives them a opportunity to hop in the snow and then turn around to see where they have hoped. So, in a way, winter was fun for Barrington.

But in another way winter made Barrington sad. For, you see, winter marked the time when all of the animal families got together in their cozy homes to celebrate Christmas. He could hop, and he was very furry. But as far as Barrington knew, he was the only bunny in the forest.

When Christmas Eve finally came, Barrington did not feel like going home all by himself. So he decided that he would hop for a while in the clearing in the center of the forest. Hop. Hop. Hippity-hop. Then he cocked his head and looked back at the wonderful designs he had made.

“Bunnies,” he thought to himself, “can hop.” And they are very warm, too, because of how furry they are.” (But Barrington didn’t really know whether or not his was true of all bunnies, since he had never met another bunny.) When it got to dark to see the tracks he was making, Barrington made up his mind to go home. On his way, however, he passed a large oak tree. High in the branches there was a great deal of excited chattering going on. Barrington looked up. It was a squirrel family! What a marvelous time they seemed to be having.

“Hello, up there,” called Barrington.

“Hello, down there,” came the reply.

“Having a Christmas party?” asked Barrington.

“Oh, yes!” answered the squirrels. “It is Christmas Eve. Everybody is having a Christmas party!”

“May I come to your party?” said Barrington softly.

“Are you a squirrel?”

“No.”

“What are you, then?”

“A bunny.”

“A bunny?”

“Yes.”

“Well, how can you come to the party if you’re a bunny? Bunnies can’t climb trees.”

“That’s true,” said Barrington thoughtfully. “But I can hop and I’m very furry and warm.” “We’re sorry,” called the squirrels. “We don’t know anything about hopping and being furry, but we do know that in order to come to our house you have to be able to climb trees.” “Oh, well,” said Barrington. “Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas,” chattered the squirrels. And the unfortunate bunny hopped off toward his tiny house.

It was beginning to snow when Barrington reached the river. Near the river bank was wonderfully constructed house of sticks and mud. Inside there was singing.

“It’s the beavers,” thought Barrington. “Maybe they will let me come to their Party.” And so he knocked on the door.

“Who’s out there?” called a voice.

“Barrington Bunny,” he replied.

There was a long pause and then a shiny beaver head broke the water.

“Hello, Barrington,” said the beaver.

“May I come to your Christmas party?” asked Barrington.

The beaver thought for awhile and then he said, “I suppose so. Do you know how to swim?”

“No,” said Barrington, “but I can hop and I am very furry and warm.”

“Sorry,” said the beaver. “I don’t know anything about hopping and being furry, but I do know that in order to come to our house you have to be able to swim.”

“Oh, well,” Barrington muttered, his eyes filling with tears. “I suppose that’s true–Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” called the beaver. And he disappeared beneath the surface of the water. Even being as furry as he was, Barrington was beginning to get cold. And the snow was falling so hard that his tiny, bunny eyes could scarcely see what was ahead of him.

He was almost home, however, when he heard the excited squeaking of field mice beneath the ground.

“It’s a party,” thought Barrington. And suddenly he blurted out through his tears, “Hello, field mice. This is Barrington Bunny. May I come to your party?” But the wind was howling so loudly and Barrington was sobbing so much that no on heard him.

And when there was no response at all, Barrington just sat down in the snow and began to cry with all his might.

“Bunnies,” he thought, “aren’t any good to anyone. What good is it to be furry and to be able to hop if you don’t have any family on Christmas Eve?”

Barrington cried and cried. When he stopped crying he began to bite on his bunny’s foot, but he did not move from where he was sitting in the snow.

Suddenly, Barrington was aware that he was not alone. He looked up and strained his shiny eyes to see who was there.

To his surprise he saw a great silver wolf. The wolf was large and strong and his eyes flashed fire. He was the most beautiful animal Barrington had ever seen. For a long time the silver wolf didn’t say anything at all. He just stood there and looked at Barrington with those terrible eyes.
Then slowly and deliberately the wolf spoke. “Barrington,” he asked in a gentle voice, “Why are you sitting in the snow?”

Barrington replied, “Because it is Christmas Eve and I don’t have any family and bunnies aren’t any good.”

“Bunnies are good,” said the wolf. “Bunnies can hop and they are very warm.”

“What good is that ?” Barrington sniffed.

“It is very good indeed,” the wolf went on, “because it is a gift that bunnies are given, a free gift with no strings attached. And every gift that is given to anyone is given for a reason. Someday you will see why it is good to hop and to be warm and furry.”

“But it’s Christmas,” moaned Barrington, “and I’m all alone. I don’t have any family at all.”

“Of course you do,” replied the great silver wolf. “All of the animals in the forest are your family.” And then the wolf disappeared. He simply wasn’t there.

Barrington had only blinked his eyes, and when he looked– the wolf was gone.

“All of the animals in the forest are my family,” thought Barrington. “It’s good to be a bunny. Bunnies can hop. That’s a gift. A free gift.”

On into the night Barrington worked. First he found the best sticks that he could. (and that was difficult because of the snow.) Then hop. Hop. Hippity-hop. To beaver’s house. He left the sticks just outside the door. With a note on them that read: A free gift. No strings attached. Signed, a member of your family.”

“It is a good thing that I can hop,” he thought, “because the snow is very deep.”

Then Barrington dug and dug. Soon he had gathered together enough dead leaves and grass to make the squirrels nest warmer. Hop. Hop. Hippity-hop. He laid the grass and the leaves just under the large oak tree and attached this message: “A gift. A free gift. From a member of your family.”

It was late when Barrington finally started home. And what made things worse was that he knew a blizzard was beginning.

Hop. Hop. Hippity-hop. Soon poor Barrington was lost. The wind howled furiously, and it was very, very cold. “It certainly is cold,” he said out loud. “It’s a good thing I’m so furry. But if I don’t find my way home pretty soon even I might freeze!”

And then he saw it– a baby field mouse lost in the snow. and the little mouse was crying.

“Hello, little mouse,” Barrington called.

“Don’t cry. I’ll be right there.” Hippity-hop, and Barrington was beside the tiny mouse.

“I’m lost,: sobbed the little fellow. “I’ll never find my way home, and I know I’m going to freeze.”

“You won’t freeze,” said Barrington. “I’m a bunny and bunnies are very furry and warm. You stay right where you are and I’ll cover you up.”

Barrington had only two thoughts that long, cold night. First he thought, “It’s good to be a bunny. Bunnies are very furry and warm.” And then, when he felt the heart of the tiny mouse beneath him beating regularly, he thought, “All of the animals in the forest are my family.”

Next morning, the field mice found their little baby, asleep in the snow, warm and snug beneath the furry carcass of a dead bunny. Their relief and excitement was so great that they didn’t even think to question where the bunny had come from.

And as for the beavers and the squirrels, they still wonder which member of their family left the little gifts for them that Christmas Eve.

After the field mice had left, Barrington’s frozen body simply lay in the snow. There was no sound except that of the howling wind. and no one any where in the forest noticed the great silver wolf who came to stand beside that brown, lop-eared carcass.

But the wolf did come.
And he stood there.
Without moving or saying a word.
All Christmas Day.
Until it was night.

And then he disappeared into the forest.

(at the conclusion)

This cold winter night, we are again given a gift, you and I. A free gift, with no strings attached. A small baby, a person like you and me, who came to be a gift, and to tell us that we are also gifts, and members of the same family – the family of Our God. He showed us that life is truly a gift. To be human is a gift, because it means that God’s own heart can beat within us. We can love as Jesus loves, and we can rejoice in being members – all of us – of the same family. That is truly a great gift. But Jesus showed us that it is also a costly gift – it will cost us our very lives, all that we are, to be the kind of gift Jesus is.   Because Jesus showed us the truth of that paradox, by loving us totally, enough to die for us. And that is what Christmas is really all about.

Let us, then, praise God for that gift. Let us receive it, and through its magic, allow ourselves to be transformed into gifts – gifts to one another. As we receive the bread and the wine, the body and the blood of our Lord, let us become aware of His real presence which transforms us, and makes of us living gifts to one another. Free gifts. With no strings attached. Amen.

Light in the Darkness

O God of mercy, we come to you in greater need of your comfort and love than usual this day.  As a nation we have walked thru the valley of the shadow of death this week with the people of Portland, Oregon, Newtown, CN, and the Sandy Hook school. It’s lonely in that valley and we need your strength so that we are not overcome by the fear of such incomprehensible evil and violence.  We’re shocked and angry that such pain and suffering has been visited upon innocent children and their families.  We’re confused and frightened that these scenes are becoming all too familiar.

Our hearts are broken and our minds struggle to ask why and make sense of the senseless. What we do know is that we want to reach out in compassion to everyone touched directly and indirectly by this tragedy – families, teachers, students, first responders, community leaders, churches ministering to the grief stricken, political leaders looking for ways to stop the cycle of violence.  Guide us with your spirit, O God, that we may be instruments of your peace to those near, and far and bearers of light to those surrounded by this darkness.

Give us faith and courage to continue to praise you and celebrate your presence in this holy season, even in the midst of our pain.  Remind us that Christmas comes in the darkest days of the year when we most need the light of the world.  Remind us that Jesus was born into a world where a desperate insecure king ordered the slaughter of innocent children to preserve his power.  And we know who had the real power.

The light of the Christ child still shines in the darkness, and we thank you for that reassuring presence.  Comfort us in our grief, banish our fears so that we may share the good news of Christmas that the eternal God is one with us, shares our pain, is so close to us that you taste the salt of our tears – and in that faith may we be empowered to share the good news that nothing in all creation, no valley, no darkness, no evil, can ever separate us from your great love, O God, our strength and redeemer.