The Gospel isn’t meant to be gulped down on Sunday morning, but gnawed on through the week so it really becomes a part of us. You’ve got to work at it, like a dog with a good bone! Here’s the Gospel for this coming Sunday — the Feast of the Epiphany — with food for thought on true leadership, actual wisdom and how the kin-dom of God calls us to challenge the rulers of this realm. Gnaw away!
After Jesus’ birth – which happened in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of Herod – sages from the East arrived in Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay homage.” At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
“In Bethlehem of Judea,” they informed him. “Here is what the prophet has written:
‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,
since from you will come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Herod called the sages aside and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, after having instructed them, “Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report back to me – so that I may go and offer homage, too.”
After their audience with the ruler, they set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering the house, found the child with Mary, his mother. They prostrated themselves and paid homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went back to their own country by another route.
The Backstory – What’s Going On Here?
There is no birth story in Matthew — only the story of Joseph’s response to his dream (Matthew 1:18-25) and the response of the world to Jesus’ birth in this story. Jesus’ birth does not happen under the radar … immediately it has seismic repercussions that reach to the top of the power structures of the day (the time itself is measured by Herod being in power) and beyond the boundaries of the nation. Jesus is immediately perceived as
a threat. Even before he can speak, there are people jockeying to get close to his power and to destroy him. Even though the sages are wrong in looking for this king in Jerusalem (as Herod’s own sages are able to tell him), Jesus’ eventual entry into Jerusalem is presaged with “the powers of the death doing their worst” in the slaughter of the innocents that follows this story, but the power of Christ being unstoppable. Matthew makes it clear… there is a new power to be reckoned with, not just in Nazareth or Israel, but in all the cosmos — heralded by a star. Nothing will ever be the same again.
A few things to chew on:
*Every Christmas, we see stories of city councils debating whether nativity scenes should be set up in public squares — and the battle lines generally are drawn around traditional Constitutional church/state concerns. In the eyes of Matthew’s Gospel, these arguments must not only seem ridiculous but an indictment of what the church has become. Matthew tells of the incarnation of Christ that struck terror into the heart of Herod. And of
Herod responding by trying to use his power to either seek out and destroy the power of Christ. Now whether or not the Nativity scene is allowed on the green, Christmas hardly strikes fear anymore … in fact just the
opposite. There are recent examples of the Church striking fear in the heart of Herod — Archbishop Romero and Archbishop Tutu being two inspiring examples. Where is Jesus inviting us to follow him that would
make Herod afraid today?
*Jesus did not pose an immediate threat to Herod. He was born in Bethlehem — far from the center of power in Jerusalem. But even when he came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus’ threat to the powers was not direct
engagement, it was bringing an alternative to those powers — the kin-dom of God. The kin-dom of God plays by different rules and does not recognize the powers of the world. The kin-dom of God invites us to participate in it
by inviting the powers of the world to take even our lives from us as a way of showing that the world has no power over us. Our churches are supposed to be alternative communities. We are supposed to do things differently, to
be different. Think of our All Saints community. In what ways when others look at us do they see something different that is the kin-dom of God … and in what ways do they see the Kingdom of Herod arranged a little
The sages were told to return to their own country by another road. How great the temptation must have been not to return at all, but to stay with this one they had come so far to worship. But they had to return and be in
a land that had not seen Christ, that would not understand their experience, that would likely consider them crazy. As we move into the season of Epiphany, think about what it must have been like for the sages to return home. How are you invited to proclaim your experience of Christ in communities that probably won’t
understand it — be that your home, school, work, friends. What small step can you take to proclaim Christ’s birth and life, the revelation of divine love, this week?
A Ruler Who Will Shepherd
In a representative democracy, we elect leaders to represent us in the halls of power. Leaders who are expected to do what we want them to do. And if they don’t do what we want, we will vote them out and find someone who
It is a system designed to prevent us from having leaders like Herod, who consolidate power and use it for their own ends.
But it also cultivates in us an attitude toward leadership — that our leaders are supposed to do what we want. And that creates a problem … good leadership isn’t doing what the people want, it’s doing what the people need. And often, those are two different things.
This attitude toward leadership spills over into our faith. Our attitude toward Christ can be “what have you done for me lately?” We look at the Church as another consumer commodity — good only as much as it benefits me.
But that’s not what the Gospel is saying here. The prophecy that Jesus fulfills says he will be “a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
A shepherd doesn’t respond to Gallup polls of the sheep. A shepherd does what is best for the sheep whether they like it or not (and the shepherd has a big stick because sometimes they’re not gonna like it). And the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Christ did not come to do our bidding. We are to do Christ’s. Why? Because Christ is Emmanuel, God with us, possessing a wisdom and joy infinitely exceeding our own.
The magi knew this. They weren’t lobbyists come to curry Jesus’ favor. They were taking the best they had to offer and laying it at Jesus’ feet saying “do with this what you will.” They were subordinating their power to Jesus’ power. They are our model. That is what wisdom looks like.
Wisdom is recognizing that no human being – no matter how grand or articulate or powerful – should be at the center of our lives. That is God’s place … and no one else’s.
What does that look like for you? What does that look like for us?
Gnaw On This is a weekly publication by All Saints’ rector Mike Kinman.