Preacher: Jeff Davidson, Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
I sat in front of my computer screen for over an hour thinking about what I wanted to write for this morning. Judging from the Facebook posts from some of my pastoral colleagues and friends, I’m not alone. Ideally, sermons are contextual. They exist in a particular time and place. They take the truths of our faith and our scriptures and apply them to our lives here and now. While scripture is unchanging, it’s application can vary depending on the context of the people who hear it.
At this particular moment in the United States, and particularly for those of us who live and worship in the Washington DC area, our context is just a few days after a fatal riot that happened a couple of blocks from our church building. Protesters killed a police officer and trampled one of their own number to death, another protester was shot to death by a police officer, and two other protesters died from some sort of medical emergency. It’s profoundly sad.
Karl Barth said, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” Let’s see if we can do that this morning.
Our scripture reading is from Matthew, and talks about the visit of the Wise Men, the Magi, to the baby Jesus. This verse is one of the foundational verses for the Christian celebration of the Epiphany, the first physical revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. It’s kind of serendipitous that Epiphany is celebrated on January 6, the same day as the riots. The story of the Wise Men is also the first time in the Gospels that there’s face-to-face interaction between people who recognize Jesus as King and the government.
The Wise Men go to King Herod to ask about the newborn king of the Jews, the Messiah that the Jewish people had been waiting for. Herod, being the political king of the Jews, is worried that the Messiah will take over and so wants to kill him. Herod asks the Wise Men to find the little baby and come back to tell him where the baby is. The Wise Men, being wise, learn in a dream that they should not return to Herod and so they took a different route home after worshipping Jesus.
For me, one of the lessons here is that there is a role for resistance to the orders of the government. There was nothing unlawful about King Herod’s command, nothing that in and of itself would have involved violating some sort of Biblical or even secular ethical teaching. King Herod was the legal authority. He had the right to give orders and expect that everyone he gave them to would obey them. Nevertheless, sometimes the Spirit will lead us to peacefully resist the law, just as the Magi peacefully disobeyed Herod. Where and when that kind of disobedience is justified is something that people will disagree on, but it’s clear that peaceful disobedience, emphasis on peaceful, is sometimes God’s command.
There’s a bigger implication to that, though. The government isn’t God. We can’t rely on the government to carry out God’s commands. We can’t count on the government to create a just, peaceful, compassionate world. We can’t expect the government to act in a selfless, caring way. We can and should encourage the government in those directions. We can and should lobby the government and write our legislators and use our votes to those ends. But the kingdom of God isn’t something the government is going to bring in or become. Christians, God’s people, need to do that as they are led and given power by the Holy Spirit.
Do any of you watch true crime shows on TV, or read true crime books? Julia and I do, and if you watch these kinds of shows you know that almost every time there’s a murder in some small midwest town or someplace in rural Montana or Idaho people say something like, “You know, you expect these things to happen in the big city but we never thought anything like this could happen in a small town like ours.”
I thought of that this week. Rioters marching on the seat of government violently protesting a peaceful transition of power is something that I expect in banana republics. It’s something I expect in very young democracies. It’s something I expect without civilian control of the military or where corruption is more open and taken more for granted. It’s something that I never expected here.
People in Bethlehem probably didn’t expect the Messiah to be born there, or the Magi to visit there. Those are things that happen in Jerusalem, not here in our little town. Good things can happen anywhere. God will show up in very unexpected places.
People in Bethlehem probably didn’t expect all the boys two years old and under to be killed by Herod either, as happens a little later in the story. Those are things that happen in those pagan countries, where they worship pagan gods. That’s something that happens with those gods that demand human sacrifices or something. No. Bad things can happen everywhere, whether people are expecting them or not, whether they make sense or not.
After being warned in their dream not to return to Herod, the Wise Men left Bethlehem and returned to their own country by another road. I don’t know yet if we’re on another road as a country or not. I know we’ve elected a different President and Vice-President, and that we have a different party in charge of the Senate. I know that some things will change, and I’ll probably think some of the changes are great, that some of the changes don’t go far enough, and that some of the changes shouldn’t have been made at all. Everyone will think all of those things, although people will disagree about which changes they would put in which category.
But are we going to be on a truly new road, or will we just have different guides on the old, familiar road? Are we willing as a country to do the things that peace and justice require? Probably not. Countries are rarely willing to do those things, certainly not to the level that Jesus demands them.
God’s new covenant, the covenant made real in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, is not with a nation. God’s new covenant is with individual people. God’s new covenant is with you and with me.
So if there is to be a new way, if we are to truly take a new road, you and I and Christ-followers around the world will have to lead the way. We have had our epiphany. We know that Christ has come. We know the truth of the Christ-child. We know the power of the resurrection and the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are the ones who seek justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.
Whether or not the events of the last week are an epiphany, an awakening for the United States of America or not, I don’t know. If I were a betting man, I would bet against it. I am too cynical about and too mistrustful of the governments and the powers and the principalities of this world.
However, I am not a betting man. I am a man who believes in redemption. I am a man who believes in hope. I am a man who believes in Jesus. And if I and everyone around the world who believes in Jesus with me will live out of our faith, this can indeed be a moment of awakening, a moment of epiphany, a moment of realization of the reality of Christ, for our nation and for every nation of the world. That is my hope and my prayer.