Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Having and not having the truth," 1.6.13

Isaiah 60:1-6
1   Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
2   For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
     but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
3   Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4   Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5   Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
     because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6   A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.
     They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

Matthew 2:1-12
1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “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.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6   ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
          are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
     for from you shall come a ruler
          who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Sometimes it’s easier to see the truth from the outside. That’s what this passage is about and it’s also one of the big lessons of Jesus’ ministry, the ministry of the early church and the continuing story of God’s people in the world.

            We don’t know much about these wise men from the east. We know they were men. We know they were wise, and we know they were from the East. We don’t know anything about their faith, their religious traditions, their political affiliation or anything else. All we know, is that these wise men saw a sign that God was giving Israel a new king, so they came to honor him. They came with the best gifts they could bring with them. Whatever they were might have expected, they were excited about what God was doing in that little town of Bethlehem.

            King Herod reacts to the news about a new king with fear rather than excitement. That’s not surprising. After all, he claims to be King of the Jews, of some of them, anyway, so the idea of another king is threatening. He’s in an awkward position to begin with since he is a puppet king ruling with Rome’s support and oversight. While he needs the support of his citizens, and probably uses biblical passages about kings to prop up that support, he also has to keep his Roman overlords happy. Since the thing many Jews wanted most was independence, there wasn’t any way for Herod to please everyone. There were powerful forces that could trip him up at any time.

            The best part of Herod probably felt like his leadership was the best hope for Jewish autonomy in the real world. Even though many people wanted freedom, the Jewish community didn’t have the strength to rebel against Rome. Herod may have felt like the compromises he made between his community and the Roman Empire were a lot better than raw domination, and maybe he was right about that.

Probably others Jewish leaders felt the same way, even if they didn’t like Herod. Caiaphas, the High Priest when Jesus was executed, worried that Jesus’ ministry will bring Rome’s wrath down on the Jews leading them to lose their temple, religious freedom and partial autonomy. The Jewish situation was fragile, so we should be sympathetic to their fear of shaking things up.

            The power-hungry, sinful part of Herod loved being in power regardless of what was right. Power is dangerous even for King David, who was clearly called by God to lead. How much more dangerous would that power be when it didn’t come from God as clearly, but was instead a crude imitation of the biblical kingdom?

            Herod tries to hold on to a kingdom that belongs to God as if it belongs to him. When he learns about a king from God he reacts with fear. When the wise men slip away, taking with them Herod’s hopes of finding the baby king easily, he moves quickly to plan B, which is mass murder of babies. He is willing to do whatever it takes to keep something that was never his.

            Herod was a generally bad guy. We don’t have much in common with Herod except that he was an insider in God’s story and so are we. As a member of the Jewish tradition, Herod was part of an unbreakable covenant with God. In that tradition, and especially with his office as a king, he had a duty to look for God’s leadership in his rule. Instead, he took his rule as a right and something to exploit rather than a responsibility to serve. When God approached the world in a new way, he saw that entirely as a threat.

            So now let’s talk about the church, our church here and the broader church. Like Herod and the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ time we are part of God’s people. We’re part of an organization that exists to express God’s love. We have a calling that is holy, to be the body of Jesus Christ in the world.

            Being the church means being called by God to this ministry, the ministry of sharing God’s love with the world. The church is a family, a covenant and an institution. In everything we do we belong to God and we’re called to seek God’s rule in our life.

            When the church is at its best, it looks to God for everything and seeks only to share that love with others, unafraid of the consequences for the church’s institutional life. All the organization of the early church had to do with fulfilling its mission in the world. It raised funds to meet needs, supported traveling evangelists to share the message of Jesus, borrowed space from disciples to gather in and taught the faith. The church didn’t have budgets or paid staff or possessions until much later.

            In some ways as the church grew it got better at fulfilling its mission. Greater wealth and power allowed some wonderful ministry to take place, like building schools and hospitals and promoting scholarship. Christian art and architecture gave glory to God and made God’s story come alive in new ways. At the same time, the growing structure and worldly power of the church turned attention to the church as an institution and led to desire to hold on to the church’s power.

            As we’ve gotten comfortable with the structures and traditions, we sometimes focus too much on the church itself. Instead of thinking of the church as an expression of God’s love that exists to share that love, we think about God’s love and message as something the church has and part of what we do. We believe we possess the truth of God instead of being possessed by God. 

If we think of God’s love as sunlight the church is a stained glass window that helps people see the light in a way they can understand. When the church is doing its job right we keep the window clean and properly positioned so the light shines through.

Now imagine taking the stained glass window out of the sunlight, putting it in a case with carefully arranged, artificial backlight to protect the window and show its beauty most clearly. It’s not a bad way to look at the window, and the window might be quite lovely, but it’s not doing its job of showing God’s light to the world. The focus is on the window, not the light that gives meaning to the window. That’s what happens when we focus on the church and its protection instead of its mission and purpose. The point is God; we are just a vessel.

            The other side of that is that we take the church and the God we know through the church for granted. Many of us have grown up in a church, maybe this church or one like it. We love and value this community, but we’re used to it being here for us in the same way it always has been. We think of church as a habit and a source of stability. We think of it as something constant and we think most about the people we already know in this community. We don’t think as much about the people outside the church or sharing the church with our friends.

            I was struck yesterday at café by a woman who is a regular participant at the café and an occasional participant at Supper and Scripture. She was talking with another guest about supper and scripture. She talked about the way the evening goes and encouraged her to come. The invitation didn’t come from a strong commitment to the Presbyterian Church or to Laurelton. Instead it came from a sense that she had found something special and useful here and she wanted to share that opportunity with someone else because it might help them too. When is the last time you were so excited about what’s going on here that you invited someone you care about to church? Is there someone you think might really love it here? What’s stopping you?

Sometimes things are clearer from the outside. Sometimes the fact that church as we know it is so familiar gets in the way of really hearing the message God has for us. Throughout his life Jesus was feared and rejected by people at the center of God’s community, the center of institutional religion and faithful structure.

He was welcomed by those at the edges, by widows, outcasts, lepers and people too humble to be noticed. He was welcomed by Samaritans and centurions, sought by Greeks and tax collectors and sinners. While unknown wise men from far away sought and worshipped, a king feared and plotted murder to keep God’s true king from messing up the established order.

Today when it comes to the church we are sort of the established order, but God is giving us a new opportunity. As the established churches and denominations slip from the cultural center we had in the 50’s and 60’s we have a new chance to see things from the outside. We have a chance to welcome people who have felt ignored and left out for too long. We have a chance to hear their stories, to join their struggles and to learn together the story of a God who crosses limits and borders to seek and save the lost.

We journey with the wise men to seek the Christ child. We bring our wisdom and our simplicity, our experience and our newness, our commitment and our questions. We bring our most precious gifts to worship our infant Lord. 

Thanks be to God.

No comments:

Post a Comment