Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Matthew 2:1-12 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Strange, isn’t it? For ever-so-long now the Church has often been seen by those outside of the Church—and not infrequently by even a good many folks inside the Church—as being a kind of exclusive club. Too often it all comes down to who’s in, who’s out. In history popes and other religious leaders have used their power to keep out or throw out those they didn’t care for politically or personally. Excommunications, shunnings, pogroms, crusades, and scarlet letters have all been headline-making ways in which the church made it clear who was who in the spiritual pecking order.
Again and again the Church has tried to distinguish itself from the world and if in some ways that’s a good and natural thing to do, it is in other ways a dreadful and terrible thing to do. Because so very often what that has meant in history is that the Church becomes—to those on the inside at least—a fairly homogeneous group of folks whose number one task becomes the maintenance of that homogeneity. Sometimes it’s not even intentional. But when for as long as you or your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents could remember the people at church all looked like you, thought like you, voted like you, and made roughly the same amount of money as you, after a while the mere thought of someone radically different being a part of the congregation scarcely ever even occurs to anybody.
But once that unspoken expectation calcifies for a generation or three or a hundred, eventually it morphs into a kind of unspoken goal of keeping out those who would upset the tidy world inside the church. The strange, the different, the odd, the exotic types of folks become not so much unwelcome in the church as they become just not within the scope of consideration. Soon it becomes a simple statement of fact that they just wouldn’t fit in. Why, such different folks—the swarthy, the poorly clad, the tatooed, the foreign born—probably would not even want to be in our congregation because, after all, what would be the point? With whom could they ever have a meaningful conversation at a church potluck? And anyway surely our pipe organ music, our hymnals, our liturgy would not be their cup of tea. Surely it would be better if they formed congregations of their own, with their own kind and such.
And although I write from the pipe organ/hymnal side of the church tradition, it may be just as true that those who worship in very different ways might feel the same way in reverse: why would high-end Anglican and Reformed types want to hang out with singing-and-swaying Baptists or be a part of worship services that contain elements of this or that tradition that is so very different from all things European?
Whatever happens and however it happens, we become myopic in our view of what the Church is or what it should be, could be, might someday be.
Matthew will have none of it. He knew that over time Israel, the Hebrew people, the Jews had become this way. Even as Jonah had no desire to see greasy Ninevites become part of God’s covenant people in any way, shape, or form, so God’s people centuries later were still focused on keeping things neat and tidy and uniform within the people of God. Spiritual pedigree, family lines, and maintaining a certain narrow point-of-view on all things legalistic and ritualistic had become far more important than seeking to expand the horizons of God’s people to see a much more diverse and colorful picture of just who would count as children of the heavenly Father.
And so Matthew opens his Gospel with what to modern eyes looks like a dry-as-dust family tree of Jesus, only to reveal to those with eyes to see a series of things in that family history that were anything but dry and anything but expected or pleasant. Four foreign-born women (three with dubious sexual pasts) are named or hinted at in the genealogy as Matthew’s none-too-subtle way of reminding his mostly Jewish readers that the family that produced the Messiah had itself been far more diverse than most people wanted to admit, had had plenty of skeletons in the family closet, and had, therefore, hinted all along that God was up to something much bigger than just saving a whole bunch of people who looked and acted and thought exactly alike.
In case someone missed that in that family tree, Matthew concludes what we now call his opening chapter by introducing us to “Immanuel,” to “God with us” only to then immediately open his second chapter with a primer on just who the “us” was with whom this God-in-flesh would be. If “Immanuel” means “God with us,” then just who constitues the “us” part? Matthew gives the opening salvo of an answer by introducing us to a group (no one knows how many) of astrologers from Baghdad whose pseudo-science and quasi-religion was as overtly condemned by Scripture as the foreign nature of these Magi was detested by any person with a holy bone in his body.
The Magi were not only spiritually lost and religiously detestable, they were stupid. They bumbled into the court of the most paranoid man who had ever occupied a throne of power only to inquire after a newborn king in the neighborhood. Many Jewish babies would die before the larger story of all this was finished, and it was singularly the clueless nature of these pagans that was to blame for it all.
Yet there they are at the head of the Gospel according to Matthew. There they are as an apparently welcome presence at the bedside of the Son of God, of Immanuel. There they are getting as included in the “us” of “God with us” as were Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba in Jesus’ family tree. We’re not told what ever happened to the Magi. This is no conversion story so far as we can tell. For all we know they went back to Persia and did their funky astrology for the rest of their mortal days.
But there’s no missing Matthew’s message and it won’t be the last time he works this theme. He’ll keep working it right up until the very end when the resurrected Immanuel will again assure his followers that he will be “with them” forever even though that would mean that he’d stay “with them” while they spread out into the whole world to baptize and make disciples of ALL nations—Persian folks, Egyptian folks, Roman folks, Greek folks, African folks, and all kind of folks the disciples didn’t even know existed in other parts of a world they still didn’t even know was round: they were all included in the scope of Immanuel’s final “Great Commission” to them.
Expect the unexpected, Jesus was saying and Matthew was teaching. Look for wild diversity, not buttoned-down uniformity, in the Church that would soon be built. Expect surprises. See the unpredictable as they only inevitability worth talking about. Expect barriers and dividing walls to be breached and eradicated, expect former foes to become sisters and brothers, those you once shunned to become cherished friends.
We assign this text to Epiphany and it falls on an actual Sunday only once every half-dozen or so years. And if an “epiphany” is a kind of revelation, then it’s the kind of surprise revelation that should come far more than once a year on January 6 and far, far, far more often in the church than every six years.
The more routine and uniform the membership of our churches becomes, the more we need this text to shake us up.
The gifts presented to Jesus were not exactly your typical baby shower presents. Some have claimed that the incense and myrrh were actually items that pointed forward to Jesus’ death and burial. It would be the equivalent of bringing embalming fluids and a casket to a child’s post-baptism celebration!
Others, however, see the gifts as royal offerings indicating that in their own way, the Magi recognized in this infant no less than a king.
So which is it: do the gifts indicate that Jesus will die some day and need embalming or that he is the king? Maybe we need not choose. Because as the rest of the gospel will tell us, Jesus becomes the cosmic King of kings and Lord of lords precisely BECAUSE he sacrificed himself. Because he was born to die he is now the One to whom all creation owes allegiance and honor. The world resists that, which is why no sooner do the Magi present Jesus with these gifts and we find Jesus and his family on the run from Herod, who will murder other children in an attempt to kill Jesus. The commingling of death and Jesus’ royal status really is on display in Matthew 2, especially if we read on into the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents.
From Debra Blue’s book Sensual Orthodoxy, p. 17 (Cathedral Hill Press, 2004): “I’ve been thinking maybe someone should start a small group of guerilla activists whose task it would be to plant shocking figures in manger scenes. They could work both inside private homes as well as in the most visible places. Suburban housewives will shriek to find Batman figures on the roof of the manger on their mantle. Churches will be horrified to find Barbies and plastic dinosaurs on their altars. But people will pay attention. They will look twice. They may even stop their car. They have even get out when they see a garden troll or a pink flamingo or a big plastic Homer Simpson leaning over the baby Jesus on the Cathedral lawn. I actually wonder if I’m not the first to come up with that idea. It might have been some guerilla group that first placed the wise men in the manger scenes.”
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