A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 3, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 2:1-12
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Christmas cards and nativity scenes and many of our Christmas carols are a mash-up of the two very different birth stories in the gospels.  It’s worth remembering that only two of the four gospels have birth narratives, and they are very different.  Yet, despite their differences, there is one particularly strong theme they have in common:  Jesus is born into a world of authority and subjugation, of power and oppression.

“In Luke’s narrative Caesar Augustus stands political watch.  By his own decree, he claims a station at the outset of the story.  By his version of events, he is the story.

“Caesar’s word goes forth, and history is made.  All the world … should be enrolled.  The whole of humanity is to be set in motion.  Step to and be numbered.  [And in this numbering,] he … is ‘Number One.’

“This is the business of empire.  [We can easily imaging the purposes of such a registration.] … They come down to the very basis of Roman power:  taxation, military induction, and general population control.  As to the latter, Rome wants to know the whereabouts and number of able-bodied folks in subject provinces likely to revolt.…

“Peace on earth will be sung and celebrated, but it is not the oppressive Roman Pax.  Glory will be revealed, but it is not the glory that was Rome.  The Word is alive and present, but not to be confused with the pompous decrees of the emperor.  Among those of lowly estate, Word and glory and peace may be recognized.  But for now they will slip the gaze and the grip of the powers.”[1]

That’s how Luke tells the story.  But now, “Set aside, if you can, [Luke’s narrative] … and step into Matthew’s world.  Forget the manger, the Magnificat, shepherds, and an overstuffed inn ….  [That’s all Luke.

And while you’re at it,] try to get ‘We Three Kings’ and your neighbor’s illuminated front yard out of your head.  Keep going back, past the medieval saints calendar telling how the Magi died as martyrs for the gospel.  [Go back] beyond their names and faces, fixed in the seventh century.”[2]

12348132_1011041608917059_947325156367041029_nLook at Matthew’s story.  The political authority in Matthew’s story is Herod the Great.  Instead of shepherds who come to see the newborn, Magi, wise men from a far-away country, come to see the toddler.  They are guided by a star, a star that does not appear (despite what we sing in “The First Noel”) in Luke’s gospel.

Who they were, or even if they were really doesn’t matter.  What matters is who they represent in Matthew’s gospel.  Foreigners are the ones who are wise enough to read the signs in the sky and journey by starlight.  Gentiles are the ones who are wise enough to be drawn to the truth of Christ.  If Matthew’s gospel was written for Jewish followers of Jesus (and it probably was), this is a cutting narrative turn.  But it is also an anticipation, and prefiguring of “the racially reconciled community that gathers about Christ at table.”[3]

Bill Wylie-Kellermann makes an interesting observation about these characters.  “If these mysterious Magi were of a priestly class who, originating among the sixth-century Medes, survived the transition of power to the Persian empire, or if they were of the sort mentioned so often in the book of Daniel as attending the king’s court in order to function as seers, magicians, interpreters of dreams, and the like, then such as these were accustomed to the courtly scene.  They would be fully at home in the company of kings.  A leisure class having time to study the sky, perhaps at the behest and benefaction of a king.

“Little wonder they make for Herod’s palace.  And when Herod consults his coterie of priests and scribes, they meet up with their opposite numbers.…

“By the deepest longings of their hearts, and without the benefit, until now, of the Hebrew scriptures, the Magi have come.  Their humility is wondrous, nearly naive.  They are foil to Herod, who by the most blatant deception and calculated manipulation expresses the desire to come and worship.  [Herod’s] guile is stunning, nearly blasphemous.”[4]

“When Herod gets wind of the child’s advent, he is immediately troubled and ‘all Jerusalem with him.’

“His reaction is entirely in keeping with what the historians tell us of Herod.  He had consolidated his power by military ruthlessness and [his] political acumen, [by] employing a series of assassinations against opposition figures and potential claimants to the throne.  He had informers and secret police everywhere.  In his suspicions of disloyalty, he killed three of his sons, one of his wives, and any number of close advisers.

“His response to the prospect of the Messiah’s birth is more of the same tired method:  to hatch yet another scheme, conceive another assassination plot.  His dear hope that he too could come and worship rings a notorious false note.…

“A question on which Matthew’s birth narrative turns is this:  Will the Wise Men, even unwittingly, be drawn into Herod’s scheme?

“Will they be his agents on the scene?  Will they return with names and addresses and physical descriptions?  Will they understand the murderous complicity into which they are being drawn?

“The wisdom of the Wise Men is that they worship the true king.  Their exceeding joy and true worship has as its flip side the discernment of the false.  Deep in their psyches from whence dreams come, they discern Herod’s lie.  They dream, perhaps, of a dragon, crouched to devour.

“Therein lies a choice for them.  To return another way is a route of no small consequence.  They are foreigners and guests.  They travel with permission, their visas stamped with Herod’s mark.  To go against a king who is not above murder is to risk his fury.  Nonetheless, they non-cooperate.  By their act of disobedience the child is protected.”[5]  At least for the time being.

f7ffc1b62660fbb696081be98bdfa698_w600The cover art on your announcement folder is “Nativity,” by Fritz Eichenberg.[6]  It’s a work he created in 1950, a few months into the Korean War.  In the center foreground lies the babe in hay and more on than in his swaddling clothes.  Nestled round are an adoring donkey and a cow.  Here we have Luke’s birth narrative depicted.  Through the crossbeams above, we see a star points down from the heavens.  This is Matthew’s birth narrative.  At first glance, the scene is very Hallmark.

“But wait.  A closer look through the archway reveals a village nearly off the edge of the frame.  However, this is not the cozy skyline set on a Judean hillside as one might expect, but a bombed-out city in flames.  One has the feeling that it’s all coming this way, closing in on the child asleep, holy and innocent.  Look again.  Tucked beneath the hay is a soldier’s helmet.  He is born in a year of war, and violence is near.”[7]

Given the political realities into which Jesus was born, this art is a more accurate depiction of the mish-mash of the birth narratives than anything Hallmark actually sells.  On one hand, we have the wondrous story of the birth of the infant Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.  Of course wise people will seek him.  And on the other hand, we have Herod who wants to kill the baby.

What is it about the presence of The Divine in our world that brings out both reactions in us humans?  What is it that frightens us so much we want to kill it or moves us with so much joy that we will travel far to bring gifts and pay homage?[8]

My friend, Lizann Bassham, who posed these questions a year ago, offers this possible answer:  “The possibility of The Divine incarnation brings change, change in hearts, in culture, in the very fabric of Universal energy.  Maybe our reaction to change and our investment in things as they are, is what determines whether we greet it with joy or fear.”[9]

“Thomas Long says that ‘the world is full of “stars in the East” – events in nature, personal experience, and history that point toward the mystery of God …’ but the Bible helps us to ‘recognize these holy moments for what they are … to see God’s face clearly in them.’  Without scripture, we would be like the wise men, trying to figure out the deeper meaning of what they had experienced, and then what to do about it.  [However,] just being a biblical scholar isn’t enough, either:  the chief priests and the scribes missed the meaning of the text, and Herod turns to scripture to use it for his own panicked purposes.  Long observes, ‘One can, like Herod, be in favor of studying the scripture and still be on the wrong side of God’s will.’”[10]

This is the dichotomy Matthew sets up in his birth narrative.  Will we see the stars in the east and let them lead us on a journey to joy, or will we let them move us to fear?

Non Sequitur - nq151220comb_sv.tif

Non Sequitur

Last week’s Non Sequitur[11] cartoon played with this.  The first frame is of the magi, traveling across the desert.  The second frame, they are surrounded by light.  In the third frame, we see that the light is coming from a searchlight atop a wall.  The poster on the wall says “Foreigners” in a red circle with a slash mark through it.  The fourth frame shows the magi traveling away from the star.

Will we let the starlight lead us on a journey of joy or a journey of fear?

Last week, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty announced that a Grand Jury decided not to indict Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014.  While I have no desire to retry the case today, I am painfully aware that this case all too clearly shows our propensity to journey toward fear.  Officer Loehmann said that he arrived on scene and was immediately afraid for his life and the life of this partner.  What leads a trained police officer to move to fear so quickly?  What leads Americans in general, Americans of all races, to be more fearful of teenaged boys the darker their skin is?  What leads so many people of color to move immediately to fear when they see a police officer?

I suppose there are really three options for us:  We can ignore the stars in the east, we can follow them with joy, or we can react to them with fear.  Epiphany invites us to be on watch for the stars the announce God’s activity and to journey by the starlight in joy, even if that joy calls us to disobedience of the powers that be.


[1] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “O Holy Nightmare,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/o-holy-nightmare (accessed 29 December 2015).

[2] Kari Jo Verhulst, “A Birth Announcement,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/birth-announcement (accessed 29 December 2015).

[3] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “Epiphany,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/epiphany (accessed 29 December 2015).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wylie-Kellermann, “O Holy Nightmare,” op. cit.

[6] See http://sacredartpilgrim.com/collection/view/19 and scroll through the pictures to find the one described.

[7] Wylie-Kellermann, “O Holy Nightmare,” op. cit.

[8] Lizann Bassham posed these questions in a status update on Facebook on 7 January 2014.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kathryn Matthews (Huey), “Sermon Seeds: Epiphany,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_3_2016 (accessed 31 December 2015); quoting Long from Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion.

[11] See http://www.gocomics.com/nonsequitur/2015/12/20