Christmas 1a, December 29, 2013

December 30, 2013

Divinely Inspired Adjustments
Matthew 2:13-23

13 Now 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.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and 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.” 16 When 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. 17 Then 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.” 19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get 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.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus 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. 23 There 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.”

On some level, the nativity stories serve to focus our attention on how lovely the world can be. Even though Jesus was born in a stable there’s something beautiful about it. While I don’t think anyone would chose to give birth in such a place it doesn’t come across as an unpleasant environment. It’s the portrayal of a good thing. We imagine this to be a good stable, where the hay is fresh and soft and the animals are all well behaved. It’s a miraculous place in that it’s both well ventilated and warm. It comes across as a lovely setting, and it reminds us that this world can be a hospitable place.

Christmas has come to represent the abundant goodness of this world, and I hope you’ve all been able to enjoy some of the pleasures that this world has to offer. I hope you’ve had some good food and some good company. And I hope you got some good stuff. This is the time of the year we give ourselves permission to indulge in all kinds of richness, but I know such indulgence is not a universal experience.

Relief from the troubles of this world doesn’t come to everyone at Christmas. In fact I know that the hype of Christmas serves to heap additional pain on some people. Christmas is supposed to be such a lovely experience. And when it’s not it can become a torturous affair.

Over the last few Sundays and then on Christmas Eve we have been contemplating what a glorious thing it was for God to step in to our world in the form of a baby, and it is, but todays scripture serves to remind us of how ugly things can get in this world – even when God is on the scene.

This story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escaping to Egypt under the shadow of Herod’s murderous edict illustrates how badly things can go in this world. While this passage provides us with assurance that God isn’t absent when things take horrible turns, we also see that God’s good presence doesn’t bring out the best in everyone. In fact what this story so clearly reveals is that the way God chose to redeem the world provoked a horrible reaction from this one who had the power to make life even more miserable for many who were already in difficult circumstances.

The birth of Jesus was not good news to Herod. I guess when you are in charge of a corner of the world you have no interest in a savior being born in your territory. I think there’s a timeless truth here – nobody who loves being in a position of power welcomes the arrival of someone who will somehow undermine their power. Few people act as ruthlessly as Herod did, but I think it’s probably accurate to say that people who love and crave power aren’t particularly drawn to Jesus.

People who really love their own power don’t really love Jesus, and people like that can make this world a hard place to be for other people.

Herod is the perfect illustration of this truth. When he realized the wise men were wise to his plan to destroy the newborn King he didn’t mess around. He sent soldiers to kill all of his potential rivals. There was nothing subtle or self-deceptive about King Herod. He had power and he knew how to use it. I guess there are some people in this world who operate in such clearly self-serving ways, but it’s rarely so blatant. Most power loving people are inclined to hide their power grabbing moves behind religious or righteous masks.

The way that power is used and abused in this world is generally so subtle these power dynamics are usually misunderstood and misinterpreted. I don’t even think most of us understand the way that power is at play in our own lives, and I think this is something we need to contemplate if we want to understand the way that God was revealed in Jesus. Yes, Jesus came to save us from our sins, but I dare say that you will find an abuse of power at the root of most sins.

The professor I most revered in seminary, the late Dr. Fred Herzog, was not someone I perfectly understood. He was a very thorough scholar and I was mediocre student, but I loved what I did understand him to say. And much of what he explored was the way in which the position of privilege can corrupt one’s ability to understand the good news of Jesus. He believed that those who are the most disadvantaged are the ones who are the most able to understand who Jesus really was and is.

And I loved the way he interpreted the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He thought the story of them eating of the forbidden fruit was not just a portrayal of disobedience – he believed it revealed the elemental nature of sin and he believed that our root problem is usurpation. I had to look that word up, but what usurpation means is to take hold of something that doesn’t belong to you – to seize the throne so to speak. With this in mind you might say that the elemental nature of sin is the abuse of power.

And it’s interesting to think of how this plays out in our world. I think if you examine any particular act we would identify as sin you will find it to be an inappropriate use of power. This is true on an indivitual level, and it’s true for large scale conflicts, and controversies.

And speaking of controversy, I can’t help but strap on my proverbial waders and step in to the troubled waters of the Duck Dynasty uproar. Speaking as a person who grew up near swampland, who has great affection for duck hunting, and who also aspires to be Christian – I feel uniquely qualified to comment on this situation.

I’ve never been a regular viewer of the Duck Dynasty television show, but I have watched it, and I have found it to be amusing. It is the portrayal of a sub-community within our country that has some unique sensibilities. It’s a community that appreciates the sound and the smell of a freshly fired 12 gauge, and I get that. The Robertson’s figured out how to build a good duck call for a reasonable price and they made a lot of money off of people like me who value that kind of thing. I respect their understanding of the duck hunting enterprise, and I understand their mass appeal. It’s relatively entertaining to watch quirky people do what they do.

I also respect their desire to be God fearing people and I don’t question their sincerity in living godly lives. The Robertson’s live very pious lives if you define piety as not smoking, drinking, cussing or violating your marriage vows. But I consider Phil Robertson to be clueless in regard to the actual message that came from God in the life of Jesus Christ.

In my opinion, I don’t think Phil Robertson has any idea how his position as an affluent powerful white heterosexual man has clouded his understanding of who Jesus Christ is and how God’s power is revealed in Jesus. Jesus would never have used his power to condemn a group of people who are struggling to be understood and accepted. The people Jesus identified as being unfit for the kingdom of God had a lot in common with the Phil Robertsons of our day. Jesus had no affection for people who used their power and authority and narrow understanding of religious tradition to make life more difficult for those who are already unfairly judged.

The Robinson clan has reclaimed their television and enterprising kingdom, and that suits me because the last thing I want to see is Phil Robertson portrayed as a martyr for Christ. You won’t find me tuning in any more. And while this whole controversy may well have advanced their enterprise on earth, but I don’t sense they’ve gained any ground in the kingdom of God.

It’s easy for us Christian people to want to promote our understanding of Jesus in some terribly un-Christian ways. It’s hard for us not to confuse our own agendas with the cause of Christ and to misuse whatever power we have to advance our misguided thinking. Our own John Wesley wasn’t immune from such behavior early in his ministry.

As a young man he made a trip to what was then the American colonies. He was intent on being an evangelist to the native Americans, but when he got to Savannah, GA he spent the bulk of his time trying to navigate the chaotic dynamics of pioneer life. Things weren’t as structured in Savannah as they were in Oxford, and he wasn’t really able to establish what you might call an effective ministry. He did establish a romantic relationship with a young woman named Sophie Hopkey, but he was very conflicted about marriage.

Upon the advice of a friend he cut off relations with her, but he didn’t engage in any actual communication about this, and he didn’t let go of his expectations. In the meantime she got tired of waiting for him and proceeded to marry someone else. This made Wesley mad and he responded by refusing to serve her the sacrament of Holy Communion when she and her new husband showed up for worship.

The situation deteriorated when they sued Wesley for defamation of character, and they had the upper hand because her uncle was the local magistrate and not someone who was particularly fond of Rev. Wesley. There was a trial and a mistrial and another pending trial when Wesley decided to take the next ship back to the Old World. Wesley left America with the sense of being a terrible failure – which was probably a good thing.

That whole experience caused Wesley to reexamine himself, and it put him in touch with some people who were able to minister to him in an effective way. All of this ultimately led to his rebirth as a man who felt forgiven by God and motivated to share this grace filled experience with others.

My initial thought with this sermon was to connect with Joseph and to identify the ways we make adjustments to the difficulties that this world places before us. But I’ve come to believe one of our largest challenges is to understand the ways in which we collaborate with the ungodly use of our own power. The birth of Christ presents a clear challenge for us all to be more sensitive to the way in which God has chosen to be in this world. He came not as one who seizes power and dictates reality, but as one who stands with those who are the victims of heartless policies. Our challenge is to make adjustments in life that make the love of Christ more evident to others and not more of an impediment.

Thanks be to God for being on hand in this world to illuminate the path of love, and to help us see how the brutal tactics of Herod are often masked with Christian words and righteous language.

May God’s angels continue to speak to us and enable us to flee from the variety of dangerous places we can find ourselves going.



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