Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Sermons Matthew 2:1-12

i'm giving the sermon for the Epiphany service at an Episcopal Church in my home town. The Gospel reading is Matthew 2:1-12 and the chanted Psalm is 72:1-2;10-17.

When the Wise men ask Herod where the King of the Jews is located, meaning the baby Jesus, they are doing more than simply asking an innocent question. They’re well aware that Herod is the ruling King of the Jews. They’re not just asking a question, but they’re also making a statement - this baby Jesus is the True King, and you, my friend, are not.

But, the Gospel reading isn’t really about Herod anyway, it’s about Pharaoh. Herod is none other than the Egyptian Pharaoh of Exodus. If there’s any doubt about this, read the first four chapters of Exodus and the first two chapters of Matthew side-by-side. Herod and Pharoah, man they’re two peas in a pod. Both hear God’s will, both know that if they heed it they will lose power and position, and both react by denying God’s will and trying to serve their own will, especially by killing the innocents, who are always the first to feel the bitter sting of a Man-made King who wishes to rule like a God.

The problem with Kings is always the same, from Pharaoh to Saul to Solomon to Herod. Kings think they are God. They want their will to be done, and they want God to keep his mouth shut. This isn’t just true of Herod. It’s also true at times of every ism and ology, every political movement and nation on earth. It’s true of every other master who tells us that they will give us salvation and paradise if only we would follow them instead of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Gospel reading is presenting us with a choice - we can choose to serve earthly man-made kings, or we can choose to serve Jesus Christ, the King of Kings. It’s not accidental that we began the reading of the Gospel by saying "Glory to you, Lord Christ". Bishop NT Wright points out that we may as well say "Glory to you, King Christ." It’s hard to understand the kingly language that we use for Christ unless we first realize that it is, at its root, a claim against other kings. We can only fully serve one King in our lives. That King can be Christ, or it can be any of the Pharaoh’s, Saul’s, Herod’s, nations, philosophies or man-made concepts that we choose.

This is a hard saying for us because we like our many identities. As a college professor of mine put it: "The more identities a person has the more moderate they are." It’s undeniable! Every identity that we have, if none takes priority over the others, is one more set of values and priorities we have to square with before we can take an action.

Sure, we like being Christian most of the time, but we also like being American, and we love our families, and we love our professional identity, and we love our sports teams, and we love our money. Ultimately we love moderation, because moderation is comfortable. The world often tells us that this is the way. "Everything in moderation! All things are good in moderation. Excess and devoutness are the paths to disaster." Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with loving all of these things, but there is something wrong when we begin to see them as equal. It’s impossible to serve a King like Christ and think we can pick up our cross, in moderation. Or that we can treat our bodies as a temple of God, in moderation. Or that we can count others above ourselves, in moderation. No, moderation of our Christian faith is the road to irrelevance. It’s moderation in our faith that causes the rest of the world to say "Christians... seriously... for all your talk you don’t look any different than the rest of us." And they’re right.

You cannot serve God and another master equally. God’s way it too hard for that. Christianity is an extreme calling, it’s a counter-cultural movement no matter what culture we live in. If it’s true that multiple kings and identities lead us to be more moderate, then it’s also true that multiple kings will moderate our service to the true king, Jesus Christ. That’s a problem.

Evaluate your own priorities sometime. Is it not true that most of us think nothing of people willingly giving their lives for their country? Is it any news to anyone in this church who has ever paid taxes that the government gets half of what you earn without question? How many of us invite the poor and needy to our parties and wedding receptions?

Yet we usually consider the idea of being martyred for the faith insane. Missionaries and martyrs are crazy people, entirely unsuited for our comfortable world. For most of us, giving 10% of our money to the Church is preposterous and we’d think the priest was money grubbing if he asked for it. As for the poor and the imprisoned - we help them at a comfortable distance. But taking them out to dinner with us? Considering them as potential wedding guests? Absolutely not. We forget that it isn’t just a sack lunch here and there that they need, it’s our love and inclusion. It’s our time and our concern.

It’s not that we’re ‘bad people’ per say, but the Gospel doesn’t let us off so easily. Our standard is not "good person" as opposed to "bad person"... or in the modern lingo "a nice person" as opposed to "a mean person". Our standard is Jesus Christ, who, although having all the power of heaven and earth, decided not to use it against us, but to suffer for us, to wash our feet, to teach us, and to guide us into a better way, even when it hurt.

Do we really give allegiance to Christ’s idea of Kingship? What is that idea anyway? Well, the only other time in Matthew that Christ is called a King is when he is on the cross and the people mockingly put a sign above him that says "Here is Jesus, King of the Jews". The only crown he wears in his life is the crown of thorns. This is not a King that guarantees his subjects physical security. In fact, it’s not even a King who guarantees his subjects a long and happy life. If we do things the way our King says to do them, if we serve His Kingdom, as we pray in the Lord’s prayer, "thy Kingdom come", then we can expect nothing less than to share an end similar to his - suffering at the hands of those who we try to help. As Christ says, if the world hates you, they have hated me first.

This is the King who we claim to serve! This is the faith we Baptize our children into! If we’re going to serve our King, we must die to our worldly wants and expectations, take up our cross, empty ourselves of the temptation to take advantage of any position, privilege, or advantage that we have, and sacrifice ourselves on the altar of serving others... Try to sell that message on the shopping network!

Now of course, while that’s all well and good, how do we start to do such a thing? ‘Dying to ourselves’ sounds great, but how do we start? As usually, the maxim that if you’re faithful in a little, then you will be faithful in much holds true. Martyrs and saints are born one decision at a time, just like they always have been. We cannot simply decide as a New Years Resolution to die to ourselves and do God’s will instead of that of an earthly King. What we can do is begin with a simple prayer of discernment. Before making any decision of consequence, we can simply ask God, in prayer, with an open heart - "If I take this path, am I doing your will, or my own? Am I serving first the Kingdom of God?, or am I serving first the Kingdom of Man?"

Young people and especially young adults, so that you don’t feel left out, let me remind you that you are not the future of the Church - you are the present of the Church. You’re just as Baptized as your parents are. If you accept Christ as your King, then take your faith seriously! It isn’t popular at your age. You’ll be called weird. But, emptying ourselves in order to love others is not something that is limited by age or intelligence.

All your young life you will be peppered with self-centered questions - What do you want to be? How much money do you want to make? What job do you want to have? Are you going to make a lot of money, or will you do what you love? Don’t be mislead by all of these misguided questions. There is only one question that a servant of Christ needs to ask and it is the same at any age - Who do you want to serve? Do you want to serve the kind of King who can get you a nice house, a nice car, a nice looking girlfriend or boyfriend?

Or, do you want to serve the kind of King we prayed for in the Pslam for today? The kind who delivers the poor, helps those who cannot help themselves, and delivers the oppressed from violence? The way for you is the same as it is for your elders - pray with an open heart, asking God if your decisions are serving His will or your own. The answers might be more obvious that you think.

If we’re going to serve our only Lord and King Jesus Christ, then we have to prioritize our other identities. Our other loves, our other kings, can only be taken into consideration once we’ve cleared our ways with Christ. Only after we’re sure that we are doing God’s will can we think about how to take care of our other wants and needs.

So, let’s not remember this evening as another service at the Church. Let’s remember this evening as a time when we prayed the Lord’s Prayer with a little more sincerity than we did yesterday. Let’s all recommit ourselves in the New Year to serve our the King Jesus Christ. Let’s remember this evening as a time when we truly mean it, from the bottom of our hearts, when we pray to God our Father, Thy Kingdom, and not Pharaoh’s, Come, Thy Will, and not ours, be done, on Earth, just like it is in heaven.



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