Christ Church Episcopal
Hudson, New York
where all souls are cherished
Sermon: Epiphany Year A—January 5, 2020—The Rev. Eileen Weglarz—Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
What is it that you are seeking? Everybody is seeking something. That is why Google is one of the most profitable companies on earth. People go to Google every day to search for information about an astounding array of subjects: the latest terrorist attacks, the political nightmare unfolding before us, what car to buy, the phone number of a restaurant, the latest herbal remedies. Even terrorists go to Google to find terrible new ways to wreak havoc on civilized societies.
What are you seeking? Maybe it’s not information. Perhaps you are seeking for truth, light, peace, or hope. Maybe you are looking for that great new product that is going to make your life everything you want it would be. Maybe you are looking for a new mate. Christianmingle.com promises to find God’s perfect match for you.
A young woman was sitting in a coffee shop expounding on her idea of the perfect mate to some of her friends. “The man I marry must be a shining light when with friends. He must be musical. Tell jokes. Sing. And stay home at night!” A little old lady at the next table overheard and spoke up, “Girl, what you just described is my computer.”
What is it that you are seeking? The Magi were following a star that would lead them to the Christ Child. When the Magi reached Jerusalem, they sought help with their search. Assuming that the newborn king would be born in a palace, that is where they headed for directions. When King Herod heard about their quest he was disturbed. He, in turn, consulted the chief priest and teachers of the law. They pointed the Magi toward Bethlehem. Then Herod adds these chilling words, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
Of course, the last thing that Herod intended was to worship the child. His motives were far more sinister. But the Magi finally did find the child, and when they found him, they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Their search was over. They had found the newborn king.
What is it that you are seeking? It’s clear what Herod was seeking. He was seeking to preserve his power. We’ve discussed Herod’s character, or lack thereof, in the past. He was a bloody tyrant. History records that Herod murdered many of his own family including his favorite wife (he had ten), her grandfather, her brother, and some of his own children. On one occasion he had the whole Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Jewish government, assassinated. On another occasion he had every notable man in Jerusalem murdered. He was very capable of the horrendous crime reported in the Christmas narrative.
Christ was born during the latter years of Herod’s long reign. Imagine! Herod would not even be around when this child king being sought would inherit the throne, yet he felt threatened by the reports of such a child. Herod was a man possessed by a lust for power. He was suspicious, savage, and warped. When he realized he had been outwitted by the Magi, he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under (Matthew 2:16). He was a mad man driven by his need to dominate. Don’t think that Herod’s character has no relevance to our world. There have been down through the years, and still are today, sadly, people like Herod.
One of the vilest practices that still haunts our present day society is that of domestic violence. I read recently that thirty percent of all American couples will experience some form of domestic violence during their lifetimes. That is a horrendous statistic. Surely it is overstated. Maybe, on the other hand, there are more Herods around than we realize—people who love exercising their power over others, especially those who are weaker, or by whom they feel threatened.
I have read that about twenty percent of all police officers killed in the line of duty are killed while answering calls involving family fights. And approximately twelve to fifteen million wives in our country are battered each year. You might think that Epiphany is not an appropriate time to spotlight these particular tragedies, but if not now, when? Power is still a dangerous motive in people’s hearts. There are Herods in families, company offices, churches, and service institutions.
The chief priests and teachers of the law, on the other hand, were seeking to maintain the status quo. There is no hint in this narrative about the conflict that would eventually evolve between Jesus and the high priest and teachers of the law. Ironically, they were the ones who were finally most responsible for Jesus’ death--not Herod. And probably there would have been no conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities, if Jesus had simply left well-enough alone.
All the chief priests and teachers of the law wanted to do was maintain the status quo. Jesus was God’s change agent, to show how to have personal relationship with Almighty God and live into God’s Kingdom on Earth. Strangely enough, it is both the strength and the weakness of the church in that many love things to stay the same. That would not be the case when Jesus arrived on the scene.
A story is told about a new graduate from seminary who went out to his first parish, a small country church that had a long history. As he was celebrating his first worship service, he noticed that everyone sat on one side of the church. Then, when it came time to sing the gradual hymn, he was amazed to see the entire congregation stand up, walk over to the other side of the church and sit down to sing. The same thing happened week after week.
As he found out, many years earlier the church was heated by a woodstove on one side of the building. The building was cold during the winter. When people first got to church, everyone sat on the side closest to the woodstove. After some time into the service, the woodstove would get too warm for comfort, and so the congregation developed the practice of moving over to the other side of the church partway through the service. Even though the church building had been remodeled several times and the woodstove had long since been replaced, the congregation kept its practice of changing sides during the service. Most of the members didn’t even know why; it was just something they did. (1)
Ah, tradition, how we love it in the church. Maybe that is why the church is so resistant to change. Sometimes we have to bring the church kicking and screaming into the modern world. That’s how it was in the first century AD. And that is why it was the chief priest and the teachers of the Law who had the Roman government hang Jesus on a cross. He upset the status quo.
In his wonderful book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey tells about the impact that a film had on him as a young man. The movie was Italian director Pasolini’s controversial movie The Gospel According to St. Matthew. It’s interesting how Pasolini came to produce this movie.
Pasolini was trapped in an enormous traffic jam during a visit by the pope to Florence, Italy. So, he checked into a hotel room where, bored, he picked up a copy of the New Testament from the bedside table and read through the Gospel of Matthew. What he discovered in those pages so startled him that he determined to make a film using no text but the actual words from Matthew’s gospel. And, what emerged was a film that presented Jesus--using only Matthew’s text--to the young people of the 1960s as someone very much like themselves—anti-materialistic, anti-hypocritical, pro-peace, and pro-love. Yancey had never experienced anything like this.
“For me,” he writes, “the film helped to force a disturbing revaluation of my image of Jesus. In physical appearance, Jesus favored those who would have been kicked out of seminary and rejected by most churches. Those in authority, whether religious or political, regarded him as a troublemaker, a disturber of the peace.”(2)
What do we do with those we perceive as changing our traditions or challenging us to grow in a way we never encountered? Silence them with a cross or a gun or prison or social isolation? Or simply, degrade them and the work they are doing for the good and for God? How some “worship” the status quo, or the way we have always done it. So did the chief priest and the teachers of the law. Herod sought to maintain his power; the religious leaders sought to maintain their traditions, which became a golden calf.
Finally, there were the magi. They were foreigners, probably gentiles, but they were seeking the new born King of the Jews. It’s a shame that the Magi couldn’t have used Google or Siri. A GPS on their camels would have been nice. Instead, they were dependent on a bright light in the heavens to lead them. It led them first to Jerusalem. If they had modern technology, they wouldn’t have had to ask Herod to help them refine their search and maybe Herod would never have been alerted.
The Magi were from the East, probably Persia, what we now call Iran. They were considered to be the skilled scientists of their day, in philosophy, science, medicine, and astrology. Some say they were of the priestly order of Persia, advisors to the Persian rulers. How did they know that the child whom they sought would be the King of the Jews? It might be they had contact with the Jewish community in Persia, left there from days when Jews were captive in that land. We don’t know. But they were led by the star, first of all to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem to the house where the young child lived. Their purpose, of course, was to worship the child King. To seek and find the new thing that God was doing in the world. And that is exactly what they did.
Matthew tells us: “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
Herod was seeking power; the chief priest and teachers of the law were seeking to maintain “the way we have always done it;” but the Magi were seeking the newborn King, the new thing that God was going to do in the world, so that they might worship him.
My guess is that you have come this morning genuinely seeking God. You realize the dangers in life of seeking anything else. Power, wealth, pride, even an attachment to the status quo can be the enemy of what God wants to do in the world, in our churches, and in our faith in general. However, we must lay every motive in life before the child of Bethlehem. And we might experience our faith and worship in a wonderful way we never thought possible…
Let us pray: “Take my every thought, O Lord, everything I am and hope to be, and help me focus on what is best for your kingdom and your righteousness, your church in the world, and your will for my life in all of this. Help us to look to Jesus, who makes it all possible. Help each one of us not to seek only to preserve the past or our personal “golden calves,” but rather to seek to build your church for the future you have in mind for us. In the name of the Holy Child born in Bethlehem we pray. Amen.”
2. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 15.