Christmas 1a, January 1, 2016

January 2, 2017

Heavenly Navigation

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.


It’s a beautiful thing the way God chose to be born among us, but today’s 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, one of the things this story so clearly reveals is the way in which God’s good presence often provokes some people to behave in the worst possible ways. The way God chose to redeem the world provoked a horrible reaction from this man 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 have some self-deception about their misuse of power. Many times people confuse their own desires with holy causes. This would certainly be the case with the religious leaders who rejected Jesus, but I don’t think it’s unusual for any of us to get those things confused.


I think our own John Wesley had some confusion about that 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 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 any kind of outreach ministry to the natives. He primarily functioned as a parish priest, and he established a bit of a romantic relationship with a young woman named Sophie Hopkey, but he was very conflicted about marriage.


Upon the advice of a friend Wesley cut off relations with her, but he didn’t engage in any actual communication about this to her. Nor did he let go of his romantic interest. In the meantime she got tired of waiting for him and she 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.


It’s sort of a sad story, but Wesley responded to the unfortunate situation in a productive way. He engaged in some serious self-examination, and that 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.



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 one of the main things he believed was that it’s easy for our understanding of Jesus to be colored by where we stand. People who are powerless have a different perspective on Jesus than people who are in positions of power and authority. He was very sensitive to the way in which our interests are shifted by access to power, and he believed that people who are in the most vulnerable situations often have the clearest understanding of the saving grace of Jesus Christ.


I loved the way Dr. Herzog 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 most elemental nature of sin. Dr. Herzog believed that the root problem of sin 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. If you are coveting, stealing, killing, or forming any other plans to acquire anything else that isn’t yours to have you are engaged in some usurpation – you are abusing power to get something that isn’t yours to have.


I had to go to seminary to learn that word, but nobody had to teach me how to do it. Usurpation is something we all understand whether we know it or not. We all know what it feels like to seize something that doesn’t belong to us. Most of us are probably pretty petty usurpers, but, it’s the root cause of the worst forms of God-less behavior. And I think it’s a pretty good way of describing how sin 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 individual level, it’s true for large scale conflicts and controversies, and it was certainly the case when Herod sought to eliminate the child that God had provided for the world.


We’ve got these inclinations to take hold of things that aren’t ours to have, but we aren’t alone in our efforts to resist those God-offending behaviors. What we see in this morning’s text is the way in which Joseph was warned in a dream to take measures to avoid the evil designs of Herod. God may continue to send messages in dreams, but that’s not the primary way God provides us with instruction. I believe there are a couple of ways God moves us to live in harmony with true life.


One thing I believe is that it’s really helpful to stay in close contact with other people who are seeking to live in relationship with God. I believe God speaks to us through the wisdom of other people. It’s important to be in touch with people who love God and who want to abide with God. People like that can help us find our own way. They can see things about us that we can’t see for ourselves. I believe this is why the church is so important. Yes, it’s good to come to worship and hear what the preacher has to say, but the best thing that happens when you get involved in a church is that you become connected with a number of other people who can help you navigate the trials of life. You are much less likely to do spiritually ignorant things when you are friends with spiritually sensitive people.


I also believe that God provides us with some direct knowledge of the truth if we will make ourselves available to hear God’s subtle instructions. Like I say, it’s not my experience that God comes to me in a dream and tells me to pick up and move or anything else. If God is speaking to me in my dreams God needs to be a little less random with the imagery. I believe God wants us to know the truth, and we are best able to hear God’s truth when we learn to clear out all of the noise we get from far less noble agendas.


I don’t know where those noisy self-serving messages come from, but it seems to me that they are much easier to hear than that voice of truth that comes to us when we learn to silence the noise. We aren’t on our own in the process of learning to live in union with God, but it’s not the easiest thing to do.


Living in relationship with God isn’t an easy undertaking, but it’s the only way to find true peace in life. There are many things that seem like they might provide us with what we need, but there’s only one thing that provides true peace, and that is to allow God to be the navigator of our life. It’s not easy to allow that to happen, but it helps to be around other people who are trying to live in relationship with God, and it helps to carve out some quiet time with God. God wants to be in touch with us. It can happen, and it will happen if we will be diligent in our desire to live in union with God.


Thanks be to God.





2 Responses to “Christmas 1a, January 1, 2016”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Wonderful Christmas Day message, it makes my Christmas !!

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