Fear Joy…fury homage… “By the dawn’s early light”

TEXTS:  Isaiah 60:1-6  Arise, shine! For your light has come….
Ephesians 3:1-12  The mystery made known by revelation
Matthew 2: 1-12  Wise men, Herod, and the child Jesus

God’s choice our choice

God had a choice and made a choice.

God created humans in God’s own image. One dimension of our being created in God’s image is choice. We have the same choice God had.

In the course of the history of God’s people across the ages, God’s people frequently fail to recognize that they have a choice and frequently make the wrong choice.

The trajectory of the biblical story and the church’s story reveals the choice we face and often fail to make the right choice. Few writings pose our choice more thoroughly than Wes’ new book Come Out My People. It is a choice for God or empire, for the imperial way or for Jesus’ Way.  As the subtitle of Wes’ book puts it, it is the choice of “God’s call out of empire in the Bible and beyond.”

Granted that is a paradigmatic or grandiose way of putting the choice. In other words it is the “big picture” of the choice that we continually face. We choose empire’s way or we choose Jesus’ way.

Years ago some friends attended a huge outdoor Christian worship rally at in a football stadium. While the gathered multitude chose to sing praise patriotic rather than praise God, the small cluster of my friends were there for counter-praise – “to God be the glory, great things God has done.” Seated in a row near the top of the stadium, in the middle of the patriotic rally under the guise of Christian worship, they unfurled a banner that posed our choice: “Cross or flag…..Christ or country.” Their choice for cross and Christ was decidedly unwelcome in this gathering of Christians. My friend told me he has never felt as threatened as he felt at that moment as angry Christians around them tried to get at them and tear the banner away. Police came rushing up the stadium steps and demanded, “Who’s in charge here?” One of them calmly replied, “The Holy Spirit.”

This encounter reveals both the big picture choice and its more visceral in-your-face personal choice. We might say that every decision we ever make is part-and-parcel of our choice between country and Christ, particularly between empire or Jesus.

We see both the big-picture choice and the personal choice in our gospel today. Indeed we see it in the gospels throughout the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season of worship.

This is the sixth worship in our series of Advent-Christmas-Epiphany worship series. Remember last Sunday we saw Joseph facing the choice of taking baby Jesus and his mother Mary to Egypt because King Herod was trying to kill Jesus by killing all children under two in and around Bethlehem. Remember Joseph facing the choice of whether to take the young mysteriously Mary as his wife and become Jesus’ earthly father. Remember John the Baptist proclaiming repentance and baptizing everyone who chose to be baptized in the wilderness. That was the second Sunday of Advent on December 5, when we chose whether John’s strong proclamation of the gospel was warning or welcome then and now.

Matthew 2: 1-12

Today’s gospel poses the same choice. Listen again to the gospel of Matthew.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking,
‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Judeans?
For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’

At the outset the context of our choice is made clear. What was the context? It is a Herod context and a Jesus context. “In the time of King Herod” reminds us that the Roman Empire rules. “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem” reminds us that God has broken into history in a new way to give us a clear choice.

“Wise men came from the East….” These unexpected pagans faced a star-led choice and followed it to Jerusalem seeking to honor Jesus. We are not told their emotion but we can imagine they were excited and determined to find this baby who would be king.

When King Herod heard this….what happened? How did Herod respond? Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

Already we see wise men and Herod making opposite choices. The wise men are excited and eager to find the messiah to pay homage. Herod is frightened. Herod’s fear drives him to secrecy trying to nip this threat in the bud. After conferring with religious leaders Herod secretly calls the wise men and tells them to go search for the baby king and come back and tell him so he can join them in paying homage – giving his respect to Jesus.

When they had heard the king, they set out;
and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,
until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother;
and they knelt down and paid him homage.
Then, opening their treasure-chests,
they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

What is the response of the wise men to finding baby Jesus? They are overwhelmed with joy!

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another road.

How could our choice be clearer? Herod chose fear and acted accordingly. The wise men chose joy and acted accordingly.  Our Choice: Fear or Joy

Our choice in the year of our Lord 2011: fear or joy!

Another way to pose our choice is to connect this story with last Sunday’s gospel which follows immediately after this story. What was last Sunday’s Gospel story? Herod seeks to kill baby Jesus by killing all babies under two in and around Bethlehem.

Today’s gospel ends with the wise men returning home by another route rather than going back through Jerusalem to tell Herod. Why? They are warned in a dream. There are a lot of dreams in Matthew’s gospel.  They heed the dream and don’t tell Herod.

What was Herod’s response? He was “infuriated!” Isn’t it ironic that the powerful King Herod chooses fear and fury as his response to Jesus? Fear and fury are predictable choices by and for empire. The unlikely wise men from the East make a very different choice. Their choice is “overwhelming joy” and reverent homage – a tribute of loving respect and an offering of gifts to Jesus.

How much clearer could our choice be then in Matthew’s gospel story at the very beginning of Jesus’ life on earth? Fear and fury or joy and homage in the presence of the holy one is the choice in this gospel. Indeed in it is the choice Jesus spends his life and ministry unveiling. Today we face precisely the same choice. Will we choose fear and fury in obeisance to empire or joy and reverence in obedience to Jesus, God’s presence and peace on earth good will to all?  We have and make that choice.