Saturday, January 07, 2006

Episcopal Church sermon - Epiphany

A friend of mine at an Episcopal Church here asked me to do their sermon at the Epiphany service yesterday. Here is the sermon I actually gave and the readings I had to work with.

Sermon for the Epiphany service, Jan. 6, 2006; Matthew 2:1-12 & Psalm 72:1-2, 10-17.

A Tale of Two Kings

Our service today began with the Prayer for Light, which asks that all the nations of the earth serve the King Jesus Christ . The Kings of Tarshis and Arabia should kneel before him and do him service.

If I could give a title to the Gospel reading today I think I would call it ‘A Tale of Two Kings’. It’s a showdown between a man-made King, Herod, and a God King, Jesus Christ, both of whom are demanding full obedience. The three wise men, gentiles and strangers to Israel, make the issue abundantly clear when they ask Herod, the ruling King of the Jews, where the King of the Jews has been born. In effect they’re not really asking Herod a question so much as they’re telling him something - this one who is born is the real King of the Jews, and you my friend, are not.

When we speak in Scripture about the nation of Israel, we should keep in mind that the Church has always thought of itself as the New Israel. So, Israel’s story is our story, and Israel’s problems are still our problems. So when I tell you about Israel’s history, these are our people... in point of fact, they’re us.

Of all Israel’s problems, perhaps the most obvious is that in their public worship they’ve always prayed in the Psalms for a certain kind of King. Today we’ve prayed this same Psalm. We pray for a King who is as Just as God. A King who is so wonderful that all the nations will kneel to him and pay him homage... a King who defends the needy, rescues the poor, and so that we’re being fair to the full Psalm, a King who will crush the oppressors. We are praying for a King that does for us what God did for the Hebrews in Egypt. Now praying for such a King is no problem. But, the King Israel prays for has never been the King we’ve actually had.
This is an issue which goes back to the seldom read book of I Samuel, when the Jews ask God for a King like the other nations. God, speaking through Samuel, gives the people a choice: He says to them - you can have this King like the other nations, but the whole point of being my people is that you’re supposed to serve Me, unlike the nations. So, you can have your King, but he will be a King exactly like the other nations... like Egypt’s Pharaoh who I liberated you from. Pharaoh who ignored the commands of your God, made you build his palace, ignored your poverty, drafted you for his wars, and finally killed your children to protect his own self-interest - this is going to be the model for your new King. And if you choose this King, then you’re rejecting me as your King. The people reply - "give us a King".

They got their wish, and God kept his promise. Israel’s Kings in Scripture govern them pretty much exactly like Pharaoh would have. Herod is just the latest model in a long line of defective products.

On some level we all want the King that the Psalmist describes more than we want a Pharaoh. But although we want the right kind of King, we’re usually more comfortable serving a Pharaoh - a false King of our own making. Why in the world is that true? Is it that we’re illogical? I don’t think so.

No, the allure of Pharaoh is that, for all his many faults, he’s very secure. Pharaoh gave the Hebrews bread when they were starving. Pharaoh’s armies were strong enough that outsiders didn’t come poking around. Pharaoh did not stand for chaos - he decreed laws and enforced them. No doubt theft and murder were not big problems in Pharaoh’s Egypt. You could have a very nice life if you did what Pharaoh commanded. At the time Moses was called by God he was a prince in Egypt. The rub is that Pharaoh does all of these things for his own good. You see... Pharaoh’s bread keeps you alive, but it’s the bread of slavery. No matter how good life is, Pharaoh is merely taking care of himself. He will turn on you in a heartbeat. When he feels threatened, he kills the innocent Hebrew children and loses no sleep over it. Herod also kills the Hebrew children to protect his position. God’s chosen or not, no baby is taking Herod’s spot! Man’s Kings haven’t learned very much.

But according to the wise men there’s a new King in town - one who will live up to the Psalm we pray. In fact, at the end of the reading they are the first among the many nations to kneel before him and pay him homage as the Psalm anticipates. Jesus Christ is called by the wise men "King of the Jews". He is never again called by this title until the end of the Gospel, when he is on the cross and the people in their rage put a sign above his head that reads "Here is Jesus, King of the Jews." He is on the cross, mockingly proclaimed a King, on his head is the only crown he ever wears - a crown of thorns. This is not a King who guarantees his subjects physical security. In fact, it’s not even a King who guarantees a long or happy life. If we do things the way our King says to do them, if we serve his Kingdom as we pray to do in the Lord’s prayer, then we can expect the same sort of reception that he received - in Christ’s words "if the world hated you, it hated me first."

The cross is the price we pay for our freedom. Like Pharaoh gave the people bread so that they could work for his kingdom, God also gives us our heavenly bread so that we might serve His Kingdom. But unlike Pharaoh’s bread of slavery, God’s bread is the bread of freedom and righteousness. This is the bread of heaven that we take at the Eucharist. But notice that when we eat the bread of heaven, we also drink the blood of the covenant. It’s a constant reminder that this is the price of our freedom from the powers of this world. "If you would be my disciple, take up your cross, and follow me." Blood and suffering are the prices we must be willing to pay if we’re going to serve the true King. Try to sell that message on the shopping network.

Brothers and sisters in Christ this is a hard teaching, but we can’t shy away from it. This is the very faith we Baptize our children into. This is what it means to die in the waters of Baptism and rise to a new life - serving a new King.

Now of course dying to ourselves sounds like a bold calling, but how do we start? It’s not exactly a standard New Year’s resolution. You know, Betty says she’s going to diet, Tom’s decided to exercise three times a week, Bill’s going to die to the passions of this world and not serve its false gods. No, it’s at least a lifelong process. But we can start.

Scripture tells us that if we’re faithful in a little, we’ll be faithful in much. So let me propose a couple of little things that you and I can do when we leave this service.

First, let’s make a pact, as a body, to be honest about which King we serve. Don’t over-
spiritualize this. Don’t try to be a spiritual lawyer. As a wise man once told me - " it’s very simple, wherever your money and time are, there is your King and your God."

Look at the small and often innocent assumptions that give us away: We think nothing of the government of our nation taking half of our income, but we think the priest is a money-grubbing bad guy if he suggests ten percent. It’s disturbing how little Christians protest about the ease with which our nation can order its people to kill and be killed, but I dare say that we all consider being martyred for the faith entirely outside the realm of acceptable behavior. Our government can even draft us against our will, and seize our property, you know, when something "really needs to get done". Imagine what we would say if the Church tried to pull that one.

Even in terms of education - spending four to twelve years in higher education is something we encourage all our kids to do, but how often do we suggest to them that they should take some real time out of their life to learn their faith. I don’t mean any of this to condemn our nation, or a particular administration, or least of all the best intentions of good parents, but I do want us to be up front about what our priorities are and what they say about the King we serve at any given time.

Secondly, before making any meaningful decisions, why don’t we all try and develop the habit of taking one or two minutes to open our hearts, lift our voice in prayer to God, and ask our Father in Heaven - "In this situation, how can I do your will and not my own?" Simple isn’t it? This prayer works for people of all ages and it works no matter what the situation is. It’s nothing but a variation on the Lord’s Prayer - Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. It’s simple prayers like this that form new saints and new servants for the Kingdom of God. It’s in the opening of our hearts to God’s prayerful answer that we can ensure that we’re following the King Jesus Christ, who we prayed for in the Psalm, and not some other King of our own making who offers us security and profit... at the cost of our souls.



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