Sunday, January 1, 2017

Go and search diligently for the child

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 60: 1-6 and Matthew 2: 1-12, NT page 2 Sermon Title: “Go and search diligently for the child” Preached on January 1, 2017 This is a familiar story. You know it well. I know it well, but I wonder what we are supposed to think about this familiar story? We just had Christmas – celebrating his birth, and now we have the Wise Men one week later. In a sense, I think this moment in Jesus’ life is like the baby shower. I can imagine Mary and Joseph sitting there, maybe Joseph is receiving the gifts while Mary holds the baby and he holds one of the gifts up to her and says, “Look honey, myrrh.” The truth is that Mary, Joseph, and even the Baby Jesus are a big part of this event. They are where everyone is headed and are who everyone is searching for, but they aren’t the main focus of this passage – for in this 2nd Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, all the speaking and all the coming and going is done by the Wise Men and King Herod. So, we know that Mary and Joseph are there, we know that the baby Jesus is there and that this event in the life of Jesus is revealing something important to us about who he is and what he means to our world, but not Mary, nor Joseph nor Jesus say or do anything in these verses, so most of this passage concerns the Wise Men and King Herod. And what’s interesting about these characters is that in all the action that these 12 verses from the Gospel of Matthew describe, the Wise Men and King Herod are so alike and yet they are so different. As people, the three Wise Men and King Herod are very similar. King Herod is a king, obviously, but so often we also call the Three Wise Men the Three Kings not knowing exactly which office they held in their homeland. Certainly, they are all alike in that they were members of the elite and powerful class. They could travel freely, they had influence and wealth, but more important than that, they are also all seeking out the same person. Guided by a star that they observed at its rising, the Wise Men are searching to find this child convinced that he is born King of the Jews. And likewise, Herod is passionate in his desire to find the child. We read in our Second Scripture Lesson from the Gospel of Matthew: “Herod secretly called for the wise men and said to them, “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,” so we know then that the Wise Men and King Herod are all desperate to find him, all search diligently for the child – but - in finding him what they hope to do is so completely different - for the Wise Men seek him out because they have something to give (three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh), but King Herod seeks him out because he has everything to lose. It’s not much fun going through life with everything to lose. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge counting his coins, accounting for every single one. In a very “Scrooge-like” way, for some reason, last week I was thinking about the house we sold in Atlanta and what all we left in the attic that is now gone forever. Or think even of the Empire in the movie Star Wars (I have Star Wars on the brain after seeing the new one with my little brother last week) – but really, think of the Empire, they are powerful and they want to hold onto their power with everything that they have, destroying planets, creating weapons, they have nothing to give and everything to lose. King Herod is the same, and living with nothing to give and everything to lose can make for a very dangerous person. The kind of person who will do just about anything, and so, later in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew we read that “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men [for they didn’t tell him where the baby was, but went home by another road to avoid giving Jesus’ location away, so Herod] was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” Pharaoh did the same to the Israelites in the time of Moses. You remember the verses from the first chapter of Exodus: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Here the Gospel of Matthew is making King Herod out to be the New Pharaoh who works to hold the people captive and Jesus out to be the New Moses who will set his people free, but again, and again, throughout history there are those who have power and want to hold onto it – and here in Matthew they stand in opposition to those who have something to give. The Wise Men aren’t thinking like King Herod or Pharaoh – they aren’t trying to hold on to what they have – in fact, they travel, taking what they have, to give it away. There’s such a difference between the Wise Men and King Herod then, for while they both search diligently for the same child, when they find him they want to do such different things. Once the Wise Men made it to him, they celebrated his birth, knowing that here was the King whose kingdom is without end – but King Herod feared him and plotted his death, because he wanted to be the King whose kingdom is without end. What a difference. Just in that is all the difference in the world – even while they search for the same person – even while they search with haste and diligence for the same person: There are those who bend their knee before Him, and they are so different from the one who kneels to no man. There are those who offer gifts, and they are so different from the one who holds on to everything he has for dear life. And there are those who look with hope on the future, and they are so different from the one who holds on to power and control. That’s what I see in this Second Scripture Lesson, but the more I look, the more I see the same thing out in the world: There is on the one hand the mother who lets her children learn and grow, amazed at the gift they are to her and to the world – and on the other hand is the father who already knows who his children will be and what they will do and will stop at nothing to make sure that they grow up according to his expectations. On the one hand is leader who listens, knowing that God is still speaking – and on the other hand is the leader who thinks he already knows. On the one hand is the one believes that each new day brings with it a new opportunity to learn and grow and contribute – but on the other hand is the one who can’t let go of youth and regrets each passing day. On the one hand is the hopeful, the optimist, the faithful who searches the heavens for a sign trusting that God will provide what he promised – but on the other hand is the fearful, the pessimist, the one who has learned to trust only in himself, to look out for none other than himself. On the one hand are those who kneel before him offering gifts – and on the other hand are those who hold onto what they have for dear life – and here’s the crazy thing – those who struggle to hold on to what they have without giving anything away – they end up losing everything anyhow. My friend, Brother Tommy Vann, he used to say that the Dead Sea is dead because fresh water flows into it, but none of it flows out – and so the foolish hold on, but the wise always give. These Wise Men gave three gifts, and so, Jesus, in this Scripture Lesson, receives three gifts, but his life leads him to that place where he will so notably use the third. We’ll sing in just a moment: “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume Breathes a life of gathering gloom; Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” This third gift, used to bury the dead, shows that just as the Wise Men gave him gifts, so also our Lord gave us his very life. Rather than fight to preserve what he had, the Lord shows us by his own example: “that those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Let us live into such a challenge in the coming year – not holding on, but letting go. Not living as those who have everything to lose, but living as those who have everything to give. Amen.

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