Sunday’s sermon: Faith on the Run

Text used – Matthew 2:1-23

  • More than 100 million. Think for a minute. 100 million is a pretty big number for us to try to comprehend.
    • 100 million seconds = 3 years, 2 months, 2 days, 9 hours, 46 minutes and 40 seconds
    • 100 million miles = roughly the distance between Earth and Mars[1]
    • 100 million heartbeats = about 2 yrs. and 4 mos. worth of heartbeats (average heart beats 115,200 times/day)[2]
    • Roughly ⅓ the population of the whole United States[3] and greater than the entire population of most countries including Germany, England, France, and Italy (individually, not collectively)[4]
    • Yeah, it’s hard to wrap our heads around 100 million. But according to the United Nations, as of May 2022, more than 100 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human right violations – what the UN calls “the highest levels of displacement on record.”[5]And according to SOS Children’s Villages, an international organization founded after World War II to provide care and support for children orphaned by war and conflict, children account for more than half of those displaced persons.[6]
      • Devastating not just for the most obvious reason – that these are young, vulnerable, frightened children who have been torn away from everything they know and thrust into a world of uncertainty and the bureaucratic whims of whatever countries they land in à also devastating because (again, according to SOS Children’s Villages) child refugees face incredible risks and dangers including disease, malnutrition, violence, labor exploitation and trafficking
    • And while I know the topic of displaced persons and immigration are a hot topic in America right now – especially with some of the political dealings that have dominated the headlines over the last few days – the vast majority of those 100 million displaced persons around the globe are being hosted by less developed nations – struggling countries in Africa, South America, and Asia[7] taking on the needs and care of their neighbors who have had to flee their homes for fear of their lives and their families lives … lives that have been unalterably turned upside-down, family histories and family paths that have taken a sudden and unexpected turn in a direction they never could have imagined and maybe never would have chosen for themselves had they been given the freedom to do so.
      • Hairpin life-turns that are necessary but no less daunting, dangerous, or desperate because of that necessity
      • A lot like the situations of nearly all of the players in our Scripture reading this morning → Scripture reading that can be separated into 2 parts
        • Story of the Magi visiting the Christ child
        • Story of Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt with the baby Jesus to escape King Herod’s horrific edict
  • Let’s start with the 1st half of the story: Magi visiting the newborn Messiah → Technically within the church calendar, Epiphany – the day we celebrate the coming of the Magi to see this newborn king who was foretold to them in the movements of the stars … technically, Epiphany was Friday (Jan. 6). BUT we’re including it this morning for two reasons.
    • FIRST, most of our nativity scenes having included the Magi in them since we set them out at the beginning of December (or whenever it was that you did your Christmas decorating), so Scripturally speaking, we might as well bring them into the story!
    • SECOND, and certainly more importantly, the Magi play a powerful part in the early part of Jesus’ story.
      • Text itself doesn’t tell us much about the identity of these Magi except that there were more than one of them and that they came “from the East” → traditional interpretation tells us …
        • Magi were learned scholars who studied a mystical, spiritual combination of astronomy and astrology → hence their notice of the star and their deep interest in getting to the bottom of its significance
          • Means they were scholars, not kings (despite the hymn we’re going to sing in a bit)
        • Probably came from the region of Persia and beyond
        • Scholar: The word [magi] … designates a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in the occult, such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams.[8]
    • What the text does tell us = major highlights of their journey
      • First stop on their journey: King Herod’s court → And it’s here that the Magi make their fatal mistake – text: They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”[9] → So to understand why this phrasing creates such a tidal wave of horror and violence, we need to understand more about Herod.
        • Scholar: The historical Herod the Great was an Idumean (one from the land of Edom, historically the region south of Judea[10]) who, backed by Rome, had established himself as king by military conquest of his “own” people. The populace, who wanted a king with Jewish blood who was not beholden to the Romans, resented his rule.[11] → So Herod was a king who himself cowtowed to the Roman occupiers – a man of the region but not actually one of the people of Israel. He was a non-Jew ruling over a nation of Jews in a position that was tenuous at best. And here come these magi asking about “the king of the Jews” – a phrase that would surely have set Herod’s political heart racing with fear and frustration.
      • Herod extracts information from the magi about what they’ve seen, how they’ve interpreted it, and where they’re going next, then requests that they report back to him “so [he] too may go and honor [the child]”[12] → Of course, Herod’s true horrific and evil intentions are revealed in the second part of our reading.
      • Magi continue on their journey → find the child with Mary and Joseph → fall to their knees to pay homage to this newborn king → give him their gifts
        • Scholar: The order of actions, homage first and gifts second, is significant. Gift giving can be a way of controlling others. If the first thing the magi do is present their gifts, then it might seem that they are in command of the situation. … That is not the case with the magi. They express their relationship to Christ by kneeling and [paying] homage to him. First, homage. First, worship. First, giving themselves utterly and completely to Christ. Then, offering their regal gifts. It turns out the magi’s fourth gift, paying homage to Christ, is in fact their first gift.[13]
      • Following this action (wrapping up the magi’s part in the story) – text: Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.[14] → Despite their instructions … despite their own previous expectations … despite the possibility that the road that led them back to Herod’s court might have been easier and would have certainly involved a lavish place to rest and refresh themselves before they continued on their return journey home, the Magi followed a different path – God’s path. After their encounter with this “newborn king of the Jews,” their path was forever altered. The change was sudden and unexpected, and it surely took them through lands and lives they weren’t anticipating. But still, they followed.
  • 2nd half of the story = Herod’s reaction → section that many Bibles subtitle “The Escape to Egypt” and “The Massacre of the Infants” or “The Slaughter of the Innocents” or “The Murder of the Bethlehem Children” … not exactly a reaffirming passage → This is where we hear the rest of Herod’s story – horrific, evil intentions and all.
    • God appears to Joseph in a dream (again) and warns him to flee with his family to Egypt “for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.”[15] → Joseph and Mary get up in the middle of the night and leave for Egypt with Jesus where they stayed “until Herod died”[16]
    • Meanwhile, Herod learns that the magi have circumvented him and he is furious → sends soldiers to kill all the children under the age of 2 living in Bethlehem and the surrounding territory
      • Scripture: This fulfilled the words spoken through Jeremiah the prophet: A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and much grieving. Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were no more.[17] → referencing Jer 31:15, though the fact that this horror had been foretold is of little comfort in the face of such blatant and mighty evil
        • Scholar speaks to the harshness and abruptness of this passage, especially now: Immediately following Christmas, this text comes as a severe jolt. The peace and joy of Christmas give way almost immediately to fear, impending danger, and horrific violence. … Juxtaposing this text with the nativity jerks us out of the coziness and merriment of the season, and brings us face to face with the reality of evil and with the danger and violence of this world in which we live and which the Son of God has entered.[18] → This is the danger and violent reality encountered by so many families and so many children around the world today as they are forcibly displaced from their homes. We can feel our hearts tug and our eyes well up as we hear this passage read – as we take in the abject injustice of Herod’s atrocity – but until we open our eyes and recognize that the same atrocities (and even worse!) are happening all around the world today – to individuals and families and children who are just trying to live their lives in the same way that Joseph and Mary and Jesus were … until our hearts break over that injustice as it happens in our midst today, we cannot in good faith be so outraged by Herod’s actions in our text today.
          • Horrible actions? Yes.
          • Actions that unalterably changed the lives and paths of thousands? Yes.
          • Did the Messiah overcome these horrific actions to bring about the love and kingdom of God anyway? Yes. → And friends, that is the good news. But it is good news that comes with a call – an immediate, insistent call that compels us not to hunker down in our faith, not to wrap it around us like a blanket fort to shield us from the outside world, not to close our eyes and our ears and our hearts to the suffering of others, but to boldly and purposefully follow the unexpected road that God lays out in front of us – the road that leads to change. Because our faith is a faith that moves, friends, not a faith that stands still. And we must move with it.
            • Close with the reverse Prayer of St. Francis[19] (author unknown):

Lord, make me a channel of disturbance.

Where there is apathy, let me provoke;

Where there is compliance, let me bring questioning;

Where there is silence, may I be a voice.

Where there is too much comfort and too little action, grant disruption;

Where there are doors closed and hearts locked,

Grant the willingness to listen.

When laws dictate and pain is overlooked…

When tradition speaks louder than need…

Grant that I may seek rather to do justice than to talk about it;

Disturb us, O Lord.

To be with, as well as for, the alienated;

To love the unlovable as well as the lovely;

Lord, make me a channel of disturbance. Amen.

[1] https://www.extremetech.com/extreme/176239-curiosity-captures-rare-photo-of-earth-from-the-surface-of-mars-100-million-miles-away.

[2] https://www.wonderopolis.org/wonder/how-many-times-does-your-heart-beat-in-a-lifetime/.

[3] https://www.commerce.gov/news/blog/2022/01/us-population-estimated-332403650-jan-1-2022.

[4] https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries.

[5] https://www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/statistics/.

[6] https://www.sos-usa.org/https/www-sos-usa-org/our-impact/emergency-response/refugee-migrant-crisis.

[7] https://www.sos-usa.org/https/www-sos-usa-org/our-impact/emergency-response/refugee-migrant-crisis.

[8] M. Eugene Boring. ”The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 8. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 140, 142.

[9] Mt 2:2 (emphasis added).

[10] https://www.yourdictionary.com/idumean.

[11] Boring, 142 (with inserted reference, see FN 10).

[12] Mt 2:8.

[13] Thomas H. Troeger. “Epiphany of the Lord – Matthew 2:1-12 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 217.

[14] Mt 2:12.

[15] Mt 2:13.

[16] Mt 2:15.

[17] Mt 2:17-18.

[18] Ruthanna B. Hooke. “First Sunday after Christmas – Matthew 2:13-23” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 36-37.

[19] https://drparsoncarson.wordpress.com/category/reverse-st-francis-prayer/?fbclid=IwAR3FxriIJ920kCCAAXSNG0OkA6SH6amsXd60fg-dE7QoFs384qeVSMORCvU.