Matthew 2:1-23 –
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “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.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he 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. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead. 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus (Arche-Lay-Us) was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Welcome to the first Sunday of Christmas; remember that there are 12 days in the season of Christmas. Unlike our house, the tree is still up here at Faith. Also this is the last Sunday of the year 2013 – which happens to be the most heretical Sunday of the church year! Why are churches across the nation filled with heresy today? Because this is the Sunday that every pastor takes off, thus leaving others to fill in the pulpit. Which leads to all sorts of heresy! (Hopefully not here.)
- Shape of Worship – Service of the Word
First, a comment about the shape of today’s worship. Today we are not having communion. This is the only Sunday this year that we will not share the meal together. Instead, we are using an order from our Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal called “Service of the Word.” It is found on page 210.
A quote from its introduction: “This Service of the Word derives its pattern from the service of Holy Communion. Although a weekly celebration of the Lord’s supper is the norm, a service of the word of God is also celebrated regularly or occasionally in many places. Gathered by the Holy Spirit, we hear and proclaim the saving word of God for all the world. We give thanks for that saving word and all the gifts of God, who then sends us to share the good news we have received and to care for those in need.”
On any given Sunday our order for worship has 4 folds, or strains: gathering, word, meal, and sending. We trace this pattern for worship back to some of the earliest documents of the church’s history. Today we are keeping the same pattern, except for the third fold. Instead of the meal, we will use an alternative form of thanksgiving.
When we share the bread and wine, we are celebrating what is called the Eucharist, which is the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” Why is communion called “thanksgiving?” Everything about the character of communion is in the posture of giving thanks. The opening dialogue: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” The preface: “we should at all times and in all places give thanks…” We recall the words of institution when Jesus took bread and took a cup, and he gave thanks. So every time we celebrate communion, most importantly we are giving thanks, patterning ourselves after Jesus’ own thanksgiving when he ate with his disciples.
So today we are replacing the “meal” or third fold of our order with an alternative form of “thanksgiving.” Today we will give thanks for God’s word and all the gifts of God.
- Why no communion today?
Why is there no communion today? The simple answer is that there is no ordained pastor here today. Which is kind of sticky because it isn’t entirely true. You might know that I happen to be an ordained pastor. Actually I celebrated the 11th anniversary of my ordination this month. The issue is that I was ordained in a Southern Baptist Church. And since then I’ve seen the light and become a Lutheran. Now, if I had been ordained in the Presbyterian Church, or the Reformed Church in America, or the Moravian Church, or the United Methodist Church, or the Episcopal Church, there would be no problem with us having communion today. That is because all of those churches have “full communion” partnerships with the ELCA, our national church body.
So why is it such a big deal that only Lutheran pastors preside at communion? Why can’t anybody do it?
A quote from “The Use of the Means of Grace,” a document adopted by the ELCA in 1997 to guide the practices of the church: “Principle 40 – A pastor presides at Holy Communion. In witness that this sacrament is a celebration of the Church, serving its unity, an ordained minister presides in the service of Holy Communion and proclaims the Great Thanksgiving. Where it is not possible for an extended period of time to provide ordained pastoral leadership, a synodical bishop may authorize a properly trained lay person to preside for a specified period of time and in a given location only.”
There is a care and reverence needed during Holy Communion. Since Jesus comes to meet us in the bread and the wine, the ELCA believes that special attention needs to be given to how communion is celebrated and shared – and that special attention is best fulfilled by an ordained minister of the ELCA.
However, to be clear, or maybe to just muddy it up for you, it is not the ordained minister alone who presides over communion. It is Jesus who invites everyone to the meal and who presides at it. It is Jesus’ table – not the ELCA’s table or even Faith Lutheran Church’s table. He is the shepherd who leads the people of God, the prophet who announces the Word of God, the priest who celebrates the mystery of God. The meal is not the creation or possession of any ordained minister, or local church, or national church body; the Eucharist is received as a gift from Jesus living in his church. The person that presides at the Eucharist is the ambassador of Jesus, who represents Jesus coming among us and offering us bread and wine.
To be even more explicit and clear – when you and I are handed bread and wine during communion, it is not the pastor or the communion assistant offering it to us. It is the very real, very present Jesus, giving us himself through his body – the church.
Why is communion such a big deal? Why do we do it every week and every service? A quote from N.T. Wright: “When Jesus wanted fully to explain what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory. He gave them a meal.”
- “It Is Not Over” by Ann Weems
It is not over,
There are always newer skies
God can throw stars.
When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time
that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.
Those who wait for God
watch with their hearts and not their eyes,
for angel words.
- The Text
If there ever were a text that slammed all the cuteness and cheer of sweet-little-8 pound-6 ounce-newborn-baby-Jesus out of the Christmas story, this would be it. Jesus cannot catch a break – from day one practically, they are breathing down his neck trying to destroy him. And it begins, sadly, in the form of genocide.
Matthew’s telling of the story is making a connection between Jesus and Moses. Think back to the circumstances surrounding Moses’ birth. God’s people were in slavery in Egypt. Out of fear that the people of Israel would become too numerous and powerful, the Pharaoh commanded that all the male children be thrown into the Nile River. Fast-forward to Jesus’ birth and Matthew now presents Jesus as the new Moses, and Herod as the new Pharaoh.
Eric Barreto says, “Both Pharaoh and Herod precipitate devastating losses of life yet ultimately fail to prevent the birth of a powerful leader of Israel. Both Moses and Jesus are born under the threat of death; both are guided by God’s protective hand.”
I don’t want to be a downer here, but this is truly a sickening story. There is perhaps no sadder story than when adults protect their insecurities and thirst for power at the expense of innocent children.
After Herod, the other characters we come into contact with in this story are the “wise men.” There are some common misconceptions about this part of the Christmas story:
They showed up at Jesus’ birth (actually they probably came many months after his birth).
There were 3 of them (text never says how many, only how many gifts).
They were kings, as in “we 3 kings” (they were actually “wise men” or Magi.)
We also don’t know where they came from, other than “the East.”
Even more bizarre is the background of the word “Magi.” Magi was a word used to refer to Zoroastrian priests. Zoroaster lived at least 6,000 years before Jesus and was probably from Persia. Zoroaster founded the religion called Zoroastrianism, which focused on the worship of Ahura Mazda, a transcendent, benevolent deity. Zoroastrianism was at some point in the two millennia before Christ, the largest religion in the world. Magi were Zoroastrian priests who studied the stars and gathered from them the fate of humanity. Zoroaster was the father of magic and astrology and his priests became associated with magic. In other words, the wise men were magicians! What does it mean that magicians sought out the birth of Jesus?
- Verbs of Magi’s worship
Everybody knows the three gifts they offered Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold was a gift fit for a king and royalty; frankincense was a gift for a god, burned for lifting prayers up to heaven; myrrh was an embalming perfume, used to prepare bodies for burial. Gifts for a king, a god, and the dead.
Also consider the verbs, or the actions, which accompanied the Magi’s act of worship.
They entered. They saw. They knelt. They opened. They offered. And they left. They were gathered, they beheld the Word made flesh, they offered their gifts in thanksgiving, and they were sent. Kind of like our very pattern of worship today.
Perhaps their kneeling and bowing in worship was what captured the early church’s attention and is the reason we still kneel and bow in worship today. Remember these were magicians. I like to think that this bowing was not planned; it just happened. It was as innate as it was involuntary, like catching your kids when they jump to you in the air. Their homage seemed to boil up from some ancient knowing, like a statue might worship the Sculptor who freed it from the stone. Foreign magicians face down in front of a toddler.
- Salvation for all People
What is God saying to us through this part of the story? In Jesus, God was revealing God’s self further than had been expected. In Jesus, God’s grace and love are perhaps even bigger and more far-reaching than we are even comfortable with. The foreign magician astrologers show up to worship first. They got it. Not the religious authorities or the keepers of the law or any other so-called “people of God.”
Isaiah 52:10 “and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”
John 12:32 “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Romans 5:18-19 “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
Titus 2:11 “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all,”
1 John 2:2 “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
- Foreigners & Refugees
God still draws the whole world. Not just the ones you expect to get it. Not just the ones that look like us and speak the same language as us. The first disciples of Jesus that came from a Jewish heritage struggled with this idea that God had moved through and beyond them in God’s plan to dwell in peace and blessing with all creation.
The dirty people that live with the animals hear the pronouncement from the angels. Jesus is greeted and worshiped by foreigners. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are forced to flee to Egypt as refugees. The theme that runs throughout the Christmas story is strangers. Outsiders. Immigrants. Foreigners. Which is something we know about as residents of Houston, perhaps more than others. And something that is hotly debated in our nation these days.
Jesus and his family had to cross the border for safety. Did they have to crawl through a fence, or dash across a river, fearful of being shot? What if they had been stopped and searched at the border? What if they did not have travel visas, or the right paperwork? Were they properly documented? What if immigration laws stopped Jesus from entering Egypt? What would have happened then?
Our Christmas story is overflowing with images of people journeying to new lands. Christmas should cause Christians to recommit to embracing immigrants. If we really want to “keep Christ in Christmas” we will open our borders, open our homes, open our hearts, and open our lives to the outcast and outsider. When we show kindness to strangers, and embrace the least of these, and give hospitality to all who are in need – we show the true meaning of Christmas.
Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Amen.