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Sermon for 8 January 2017

 

Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12 - The Epiphany

Matthew, who wrote the gospel that we have just heard, was a smart, smart man. He really knew what he was doing and when he sat down with his pen and parchment to write chapter 2 - which we have just heard - he, with the Holy Spirit guiding his words, was at the very top of his game.

We know the story so well, don’t we - the 3 Kings, their epic journey following the star, the gifts they leave behind. It is familiar to us all. But the real point of this chapter is very little to do with the stuff we see in Nativity plays. Instead Matthew wants us to hear two things, two things that are wonderfully relevant at the start of a New Year: First, that Jesus is the answer.  The answer. To everything. And secondly, he wants to challenge our understanding of power.

To explore those two things, I’m going to look, in a bit of detail, at the story.  

There are 1,084,170 words in the 7 books of the Harry Potter series, but JK Rowling famously said that everything you need to know is contained in the first chapter of the first book.

Well, maybe she nicked that idea from Matthew. Because the first thing to notice about Chapter 2, verses 1 to 12, is that it isn’t really about the Wise Men at all, it’s really about the child who has just been born in Bethlehem, and in 12 short verses, it tells you almost everything you need to know about who he is.

In verse 1, we learn his name is ‘Jesus’ - and that name means ‘God saves’. This child, entirely human and just like every child ever born, is the one who will save us.

Verse 2, this Jesus, it turns out already has a hefty title. He is, King of the Jews. It was a coveted title then, King of the Jews - taking the reader back to thegreat kings of Israel;  David, Solomon and Josiah. The current holder of the title, Herod, was a schmuck, and the whole of Israel knew it - more on that in a minute.  The expectation that a True King - The True King would come, was high - and here he is.

Verse 4. Herod continues by asking the Chief Priests and Scribes where the ‘Messiah’ is to be born. And the word translated as Messiah is ‘Christos’ - ‘Christ’, which means, ‘The Anointed or Chosen One’. The one Israel, and in a more subtle way, the whole world, had been waiting for.

Verse 6, at the end of the passage quoted from Micah, which prophesies where this Messiah is to be born, we learn that he is also to be the great ‘Shepherd’ of Israel. The one who will protect and lead, as a Shepherd does his sheep. He will look after them, care for them, pick them up when they have fallen and guard them against those who threaten their safety.

And then finally, in verse 8, we discover that this child is worthy of homage- Herod tells the wise men to ‘search diligently for the child, so that Ialso may go and pay him homage’. The word translated homage can equally well be translated as ‘worship’. This child is worthy of worship. These are words spoken by Herod - supposed King of the Jews, in the presence of the Scribes and Chief Priests, all people who would have known the first two commandments inside out and back to front. ‘You shall have no other Gods but me. You shall not make for yourself any idol, nor bow down to it or worship it.’.Worship was for the Lord God alone, and for no other.

And there, in 12 short verses, in the middle of a punchy story, full of emotion, intrigue and interest, Matthew has told us that this child, this baby that has snuck into the world in the quietest and humblest of ways is: The Saviour, the King, The Messiah, the Shepherd and, the only one worthy of worship. God himself.

And that is the first thing for us to take away, from this passage, at the turning of the New Year. If you want to grow in faith this year. If you want to get closer to God, to understand his will for your life. If you want to let him guide you; if you want to learn to pray more deeply, to work for justice and compassion more wholeheartedly - Matthew says - here is your answer. Jesus. He is your Saviour, he is your King, your Messiah, your Shepherd and the one worthy of your worship.

Get to know him better. It is the simplest of messages, and the most profound. Jesus is the one who holds the answer to every question that we have and every challenge we face. He, and he alone, satisfies. That may sound like a grand claim - but that’s what these verses say - Jesus is the one who holds the answer to every question that we have and every challenge we face.

So the best New Year’s resolution you can make, is to get to know him better.

 

And Mathew is operating at a more subtle level as well - and to do it he uses lots and lots of irony. British humour is famous for its use of irony, but it goes back a long way before us. Something is ironic, when the words we use, or something we see, or the story we’re hearing says one thing, but the true meaning is the opposite.

And the beauty of irony is that it profoundly undermines a supposed truth in a way that is subversive and powerful, but without direct confrontation. And Matthew knows how to do irony - he’s not perhaps as funny as some, but he knows how to use it to undermine our expectations.

And he does it with the word ‘King’.

In the background of this story are the great Kings of Israel, and the hope that one day, a new David would come - and we’ve seen where that story is heading already.

In the foreground is King Herod.  As a young man Herod was made Governor of Galilee before falling out of favour with the ruling family of the time. He travelled to Rome to seek their support and managed to get himself elected King of the Jews by the Roman Senate. Rome then invaded and conquered Jerusalem, with Herods help, and he took up the throne.

By the time Matthew is writing, King Herod is near the end of his life. He has been a brutal ruler, famed for his colossal building projects and extravagance, and he has become a living mockery of the ideal of Jewish Kingship.

And behind him, stands another King, the one with the real power. Caesar Augustus, the Emperor and ruler of the greatest Empire ever known. The most powerful man ever to have lived.

And into this scene walk the Magi asking,  ‘Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?’. Irony alert! Herod carries the title, King of the Jews. Augustus Caesar is the one who is really in charge. But this baby, powerless and weak, this baby is the one who is the real thing. Bizarrely, wonderfully, he is the actual King of the Jews.

And Matthew will continue that irony through to the very end, when Jesus is crucified with the same title nailed to the cross above his head - this time meant as a mockery - but in fact the truest words ever written. ‘King of the Jews.

And so the second thing we need to take away from this story - and this is also deeply relevant to us at the start of 2017 - is its profound challenge to all human power - especially to those who sit in high places. To them its says, beware of the titles you carry - King, Queen, President, President-elect, Prime Minister - remember who is really in charge of the world you rule.

Remember that, whatever your title, all power and authority rests with God. And that means that the rulers of our own country and other countries will one day stand before the throne of the one true King and be judged on how they used their power. Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump may operate as if the electorate are their judges, but in the end it is Jesus to whom they will be accountable.

And its not just those who carry significant authority - we are all accountable, whatever the power that we exercise, whether its in business, the local community, our work, the church or our families. It is Jesus who shows us what the right use of power looks like - and it is from him we are to take our lead. Where we abuse our power, or use it to promote aims or purposes that are not worthy of Jesus, we fall short of his glory. And one day we will all stand before the throne and hear his response.

So what does Jesus-shaped power and kingship look like? Well, you need to read the rest of the gospel for the full answer. But skip ahead to chapter 20, verses 25-28 to hear Jesus’ summary:

‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

 

Twelve short verses, which we have turned into a story about 3 kings with tea towels on their heads and camels by their sides, but which Matthew - brilliant, clever, Holy Spirit inspired Matthew, wrote as a launch pad for all that is to follow.

 

Get to know Jesus, he says - he is your Saviour, King, Messiah, Shepherd and God himself. Get to know him and you will discover the answers to every question that you have and every challenge that you face.

And get to know Jesus, because he wants to teach us about power. About real power. He will reveal the weakness of human power, and he will show us how to use power his way - not to Lord it over others, but to be their servant.

 

Happy New Year. 

Posted: 09-01-2017 at 11:43
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