Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sermon: "Wise Resistance" (Matthew 2)

“In the time of King Herod…”

So begins the second chapter of Matthew.

In the time of King Herod...In the time of this ruler variously described as cruel and stern, brutish, and a stranger to humanity… a man with a tremendous ego, who built the temple in Jerusalem not to honor God, but to demonstrate his own importance. A man who, despite his power, was so insecure, that he felt threatened by the birth of a tiny baby.

Just like in Luke’s gospel, we see here in Matthew a story that begins by referencing the political situation. For Matthew and Luke - and Mark, and even John - the gospel story is a political story.

That’s why Matthew and Luke make it clear who was in charge. In Galilee and Judea, Herod was in charge.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea… after Jesus was born in a region under Herod’s rule… magi came from the east, from a land that was beyond the borders of Herod’s rule.

They had heard that there was a new infant king, so naturally they went looking for him in Jerusalem, the city of the temple, an important city. They had seen the newly born king’s star rising, but apparently that star had not yet settled over a specific location, so the magi weren’t sure exactly where they should go.

Perhaps the magi had been misled by Isaiah 60, which speaks of a new king coming to Jerusalem, bringing wealth and prosperity, and establishing Jerusalem as the center of a new global economy.

So they walked around Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

Word reached Herod, that insecure man with the big ego, and he was terribly frightened. He called together all his chief priests and scribes, and asked them: “Where do the scriptures say this Messiah is to be born?”

“Isaiah 60 does mention Jerusalem,” they said, “but that’s the wrong text. The correct text is Micah, chapter 5, which mentions Bethlehem, a town that is least among all towns, yet will no longer be considered least, because that’s where this new king will be born.”

“Yes, of course, I knew that,” said Herod. “I was just testing you. You may go.”

The news that the new king would be born in
Bethlehem, as told by the prophet Micah, was even more troubling for Herod, because... Micah does not anticipate a future of prosperity and economic revival centered on Jerusalem...  Micah is about the weak overcoming the strong...Micah is about peasants organizing themselves into a resistance movement against oppressive powers!...

As soon as those priests and scribes left, Herod said: “Yikes! This can’t happen! I need a plan!”

Then he got an idea. An awful idea. King Herod had a wonderful, awful idea...

Herod summoned the magi. He said to them: “I know where he is… The one you are looking for is in Bethlehem. Go and search diligently for him. And once you have found him, once you know his exact location, report back to me so that I, too, may go and (uh) honor him.”

So the magi left Herod, they left Jerusalem, and they went to Bethlehem. The star that had been rather vague in its directions now seemed to have gotten quite specific, as it appeared to have settled right over the place where the child king was.

Why the star couldn’t have been that specific in the first place, I don’t know. Although if the star had led the magi right to Bethlehem, it would have denied Matthew the opportunity to describe just how awful and cruel Herod was. But by leading the magi first to Jerusalem, it allowed Matthew give Herod a bigger part of this story.

Because after all, this is a political story.

Bethlehem is only nine miles from Jerusalem; when the magi followed the star and saw where it had led them, they were filled with joy. And they went in to where the child was, with his mother, and they fell to their knees, and honored the baby Jesus.

Now, about the magi:

We don’t know how many of them there were. Scripture doesn’t say. Magi is plural… I’ve always pronounced it “magi” but the dictionary says it should be pronounced “māgi”- the singular word would be magus, so “māgi” makes sense - and since it is a plural word, there had to have been at least two of them. Or, maybe there was a whole crowd of them, all coming from different cultures somewhere in the exotic east, perhaps even arriving at different times… coming to honor the newly born king.

However many there were, they did present to Jesus three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

And then they left.

But the story is not yet over. Remember, Herod had asked the magi to come tell Herod where Jesus had been born. That was Herod’s wonderful, awful idea. But the magi were warned in a dream about Herod, so they defied his orders. They did not return to him as instructed.

They resisted the king.

And just like that, the resistance movement that Micah spoke about was already beginning....

Micah isn’t the only place in the Hebrew Scriptures where we encounter resistance movements. Anytime a ruler or king threatens the lives of the innocent, God's people have resisted.

One of the first acts of resistance came when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. Just like King Herod, Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, was insecure. He was afraid that the slaves might become too numerous and too powerful.

So he gave an order to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah. Pharaoh said to them: “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it's a boy, kill him.”

But Shiphrah and Puah did not obey the king’s order. They resisted. They let the baby boys live.

Can you think of other Old Testament acts of resistance?

King Nebuchadnezzar was another powerful yet insecure leader. (There does seem to be a pattern here, doesn’t there?) He faced resistance in the form of three men named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Nebuchadnezzar was so insecure that he made a 90 foot-tall gold statue, and then commanded all his chief administrators, ministers, governors, counselors, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and officials to bow down and worship the statue.

But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego saw through their king’s wonderful, awful idea, and they refused to bow down. So King Nebuchadnezzar, in a fit of rage, had them bound and thrown into a blazing furnace; but God protected them in that fiery furnace, and not even their hair was singed.

As a child, the Sunday School lesson I learned from this story is that if you stand for what is right, God will protect you. The funny thing is, my Sunday School teachers didn’t tell us about some of the other prophets… prophets like Jeremiah, who was thrown into a deep mud pit and left to die all for resisting and speaking out against the king…

And the disciples who followed Jesus… what about Stephen, who was stoned to death because he followed the way of Jesus? What about Jesus himself, who escaped death as a child, but was eventually executed as an adult? He was killed for proclaiming a new way of living - a new kingdom - in which the social order was overturned.

Since we are called to follow Jesus, we should be quite aware that resistance can be dangerous.

In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., made reference to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; he said they refused to obey the law of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was at stake. He also made reference to the early Christians, who “were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.”

King was defending his own involvement in resisting injustice in America. His resistance, like all the other acts of resistance I’ve mentioned, was nonviolent. Shiphrah and Puah resisted nonviolently. The magi resisted nonviolently. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego resisted nonviolently. The prophets resisted nonviolently. (Dramatically, but without violence.) The earliest Christians resisted nonviolently.

But, nevertheless, they resisted.

They resisted nonviolently because they were on the side of life. The rulers against whom they were resisting were on the side of death. The policies and the actions of these rulers were resulting in death, and therefore these people of God felt compelled to resist, to act on behalf of life, on behalf of preserving life.

If we are to take scripture seriously; if we believe scripture presents to us a guide on how we are to live… then it appears that we, too, are called to act for life, resist for life. We are called to risk our own wellbeing on behalf of those who have their lives and their freedom threatened by evil and oppressive rulers and policies.

God calls us to give voice to those whose voices are silenced. God calls us to stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed, so that the enemies attempts to divide and conquer are not allowed to succeed.

God calls us to take the time to explore and understand the movements in our time that are springing up among those suffering from injustice.  I’m talking about movements like BlackLivesMatter, TakeAKnee, MeToo…and the movement to protect refugees and to stand in solidarity with the transgender community...

These are movements of resistance in our time, combating injustice and oppression.

Do they make you feel uncomfortable? Yes! Of course they do! They are designed to make you face your privilege, whatever that may be, and recognize injustice and oppression.

How would a contemporary news report have written about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, do you think? Instead of doing what everyone else did, what was expected of them, they stood in protest. Once they were sent off to the fiery furnace, did others who remained behind start standing in solidarity? Were they criticized? Were their supervisors and overseers ordered to keep them in line, and force them to bow like everyone else?

How would a contemporary news report have written about the magi? They come to Herod’s country, uninvited, meet with King Herod, but then turn their backs on him and refuse to meet with him again as he ordered them to on their way out...If they ever tried to return after that, I doubt they were warmly welcomed. Herod would probably, if he could, build a wall to keep them out...

On July 23, 1846, Henry David Thoreau left his cabin at Walden Pond for a brief walk to town and ended up thrown in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax; he refused to pay the poll tax as a way of protesting his government’s support of slavery.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson went to visit Thoreau in jail, he didn’t understand why Thoreau would do such a thing. He asked him, "What are you doing in there?" Thoreau's response was "Waldo, the question is, ‘What are you doing out there?’" 

As we who call ourselves followers of Christ look at the movements for life, for freedom, in our own time; the resistance movements fighting nonviolently for justice and equality, we may ask: What in the world are those people doing getting involved?

But Christ may very well be asking us in return: “How is it that you are not involved? How is it that you are not involved defending the weak? How is it that you are not involved in protecting the poor? How is it that you are not involved in supporting the rights of refugees, rights of life and liberty which even our constitution says belong to all people?

“How is it that you are not involved in movements for racial justice, or gender equality? How is it that you haven’t even spoken out about the children who have had health care taken from them?

“Why have you still not yet taken up your cross, denied yourself, and followed me?”