Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Burn Out Bright

"Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?" Herod gathered all of the religious experts and scholars to find out where this king might be. Their answer comes from Micah 5:2
"And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel."  
So Herod sends the wise men on their way to Bethlehem. Upon finding Jesus, they fall down and worship him. Jesus is the King of the Jews for whom the wise men were looking. He is the mighty ruler spoken of by the prophet Micah who would deliver his people.

But there is more to Matthew's story. Without mentioning it specifically, Matthew tells the story of the wise men in a way reminiscent of next Sunday's Old Testament reading, Isaiah 60. Similar to the passage from Micah, this chapter from Isaiah speaks of Israel's deliverance. The prophet says to Israel:
"Arise, shine, for you light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising."
It's that last verse which is especially interesting for the story of the Magi in Matthew. Isaiah 60 envisions a day when Israel's deliverance will be so complete that not only will it stand prosperous and secure but it will also be like a beacon of light to which all the others kings and nations will be drawn. V. 5-6 read:
"the wealth of the nations shall come to you...They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord."
Matthew tells a story in which gentile, pagan kings are drawn to a shining light over Israel. They bring with them gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The wealth of the nations has been symbolically brought into Israel. Thus Matthew shows us that Jesus is not only the King of the Jews who will deliver Israel. He is also the king who will complete Isaiah's vision of a day when all the nations of the earth will come to the God of Israel.

This is good news. The best of news. There's just one problem. There is already a king in Israel. His name is Herod and he is not interested in giving up his power to a toddler. Quite to the contrary, he is so set on maintaining his power that he will use it to murder every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem.

This Sunday is the day known as Epiphany and begins the season by the same name. Epiphany is a season for contemplating the kingdom of Christ. It is appropriate then that it begins with the story of the wise men visiting Jesus for there may be no other story more fitting for contrasting the nature of Christ's kingdom with the kingdom of this world. Matthew proclaims to us without hesitation that Jesus is a king.... The King. But he also shows us in his presentation of Jesus that this king and his kingdom are unlike any other. Whereas the Herod's of the world build their kingdom on the use of force and power, Jesus' kingdom is one of humility and vulnerability. Herod's kingdom holds all the swords. Jesus' kingdom holds only a flight to Egypt and the promise of a cross.

I feel this is a message I repeat a lot. It seems to come up so much in my preaching that I often wonder if my congregation grows tired of hearing it. When I come to a passage of Scripture like this one, where the weakness and vulnerability of Jesus and his kingdom as compared to the kingdoms of this world is on display, I often go out of my way to look for another theme, something else, something new to say. And yet I can't seem to escape it. Perhaps if it is a message that Scripture finds worthy of repetition then it is one that bears repeating in my preaching.

I imagine most of us don't see ourselves as being in much danger of being like Herod. There is, undoubtedly, an enormous difference between the murderous ways of Herod and the ways we practice church. But that doesn't mean we haven't bought into the basic premise of his rule, the premise of gaining and maintaining power, the idea that the goal of our existence as a church is to constantly expand our influence. We often assume, along with every other power structure in the world, that bigger is better.

I believe Christ calls us to something different from that way of thinking and that his kingdom is founded on different principles. Rather than being a kingdom which is concerned with perpetuating its own existence and rule, I believe Christ's kingdom is one that comes into being only by constantly giving itself away. It is a kingdom that arises out of the little, otherwise insignificant town of Bethlehem in the midst of a peasant family and humble conditions. It is one that is often painfully vulnerable to the murderous forces in our world. But it is also one that, in all of its vulnerability, is a light which will draw all the nations of the world into the worship of its King.

That light burns brightest, not when we insist on its own preservation, but when we imitate a savior "who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross."

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