Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 6, 2013

Central United Methodist Church
“A Different Way”
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 2: 1 – 12
January 6, 2013

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel. ”
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.” (Matthew 2: 1 – 12, Common English Version)

Did Christmas and New Year’s turn out like you expected? Yes? No? What might that tell you about the year to come?

I approached the holidays with great anticipation. It was to go like this: get through Christmas weekend, the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 23rd, which included the Children’s Program, followed the next day, Monday, by the two services on Christmas Eve. As you know, those went very well, attended by a total of 350 people.

From there the plan was to collapse, sleep, then spend Christmas Day with the family, all of which went according to plan. That was followed by one day of cleanup and preparation before my son, Chris, his wife Lynne, and my grandson Logan, plus my older daughter Melissa, arrived on Thursday, here through Sunday afternoon. I have to say that after raising 4 kids, it’s a new stage of life for me, having a 11 month-old grandson in the house. What I didn’t realize was what my parents should experienced through all the years, which is, as wonderful as it is to have the whole family in the house, it also means there is barely a moment to spare in the day. Fortunately, I had the good sense to ask Stuart to preach last Sunday, but then had to stay up after everybody went to bed to get the week’s service finished.
The other thing I forgot (as all of you teachers of young children know) was this: little kids carry germs, nasty ones. Just before they visited, my son and his family visited other friends with a sick daughter. So after they got here, Logan got sick, followed by his mother Lynne, which is why they were both unable to attend worship last Sunday. By the time I put them on the plane last Sunday evening, Chris was having chills. By Monday, I had it, as did Anna (Michele and Becca escaped.) So, the first week of the new year of 2013, didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned. Does it ever?

In this regard, there was an interesting article in the New York Times this past week, by John Tierney, entitled “Why You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be.” What the article was about was new research about how we tend to underestimate how much we will change in the future. When we look at our past selves, most of us understand we were different; we know how much our personalities and tastes have changed through the years. I, for example, no longer own any paisley shirts or leisure suits, as I once did, and I don’t listen to much disco. But when we look ahead, somehow we expect to remain the same. It’s a phenomenon called the “end of history illusion,” in which we underestimate how much we will continue to change in the future.

As an illustration, the article quoted Dan P. McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern. He recalled a conversation with his 4-year-old daughter during the craze for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 1980s. When he told her that the day might come when they might not be her favorite thing, she refused to acknowledge the possibility. Later, in her 20s, she confessed to him that some part of her 4-year-old mind had realized he might be right. “She resisted the idea of change, as it dawned on her at age 4, because she could not imagine what else she would ever substitute for the Turtles,” Dr. McAdams said. “She had a sneaking suspicion that she would change, but she couldn’t quite imagine how, so she stood with her assertion of continuity. Maybe something like this goes on with all of us.” (John Tierney, “Why You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be,” The New York Times, January 3, 2013)

Will life be for us the same in the future as it has been in the past? Or even as we imagine it might be? You know it won’t, because life is full of surprises, and we either change or die.

I wonder if this isn’t part of the reason we love this story before us today, on Epiphany, the story of those mysterious Magi, who can’t to visit the Christ Child? As with Joseph and Mary and the birth of Jesus in Luke, almost nothing went as planned.

Across the centuries, we still ask, “Who were these mysterious strangers, and why did they leave what we assume were comfortable homes, on a long and perilous journey?” Were their lives full or lacking? Did they long for a greater future than the one they saw before them, even if meant undertaking a risky adventure full of uncertainty and hardship?

As we hear the story of their journey, some have suggested there is a “Kid’s Version,” the way we remember and tell the story, and an “Adult Version,” the way it really is.

The kid’s version is the one we remember, the one we present in Christmas pageants, of sheep and shepherds and three wise men and angels with halos falling off (sound familiar?), gathered with Joseph and Mary around the newborn Baby Jesus, all warm and fuzzy. If only they’d had cameras then, maybe we’d have paparazzi in our nativity scenes as well, providing extra casting possibilities for children.

Unfortunately, in the adult version, the one Matthew tells, that scene never happened. According to Matthew’s timeline, it may have been up to two years after Jesus’ birth before the “Wise Men” arrive. Doesn’t that make you wonder why – given such a rude reception the night of Jesus’ birth – Joseph and Mary would want to hang out in Bethlehem for another two years? Did they have an excellent early childhood program in Bethlehem, or – like forgetting to make a hotel reservation – did Joseph also forget to buy a return ticket?

And apart from the fact that the name Matthew calls them is not “Wise Men” but “Magi” (an untranslated Greek word whose meaning is not clear), you have to wonder from this story how wise they really were. After all, apart from being two years too late for the Baby Shower (which I can definitely understand), they weren’t that good at the whole pilgrimage thing, given that their navigation almost got the child killed. When they should have been looking in Bethlehem, they wound up in the royal palace in Jerusalem, nine miles off course. This tipped off King Herod, to whom the news of a new baby with his eyes on the throne sounded like a threat. If Herod had his way, he would have snuffed out the child’s life with the Magi’s unknowing aiding and abetting. Not, I’m sure, what they’d intended, even accidentally. It’s true that sometimes our best intentions can have disastrous consequences. Let’s keep that in mind, moms and dads, sons and daughters.

When they get to the right place, they found out they had brought the wrong gifts. Nobody in Bethlehem had any need for frankincense or myrrh; gold, maybe. Unless, of course, as Garrison Keillor speculated, in his book, Life among the Lutherans, the Magi were actually Lutherans, for whom myrrh, as everyone knows, “is a sort of casserole made from hamburger and macaroni.” Before they departed on their long journey, says Keillor, the wife of one of the Magi probably said: “Here, take this myrrh. They’ll be hungry. And make sure you bring back the dish.” Whether or not that’s true, at least they found the Child, and worshiped, giving such gifts as they had, whether tuna casserole or exotic incense.

The Kid’s Story usually ends there; in the Adult Story it continues and gets worse. Immediately after today’s text, an angel warns Joseph in his sleep of Herod’s murderous intent, and to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, which Joseph did. When Herod realized the Magi had tricked him, he flew into a murderous rage and commanded the murder of every little boy two years and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. While some scholars say that according to the demographics of that time and place, they may not have very many, if there is any truth to it at all, one would be too many. Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah, an ancient text that sounds too contemporary, in the wake of the Sandy Hook School shootings:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”
(Matthew 2: 18, NRSV)

Thus Matthew’s Gospel moves from the Adoration of the Magi to the darker, more threatening world of intrigue, deception, and murderous violence. There’s a reason we read Luke’s story on Christmas Eve, and Matthew’s darker version two weeks later, in the bright light of a Sunday morning.

But let us acknowledge, that if Matthew’s account is more sober, it is also more realistic. Even as we sit here in church on this Sunday morning, we still live in a world too often shaped by fear, a world of devastating super-storms and elementary school massacres, a world where innocents still die everyday, where we often feeling powerless to do anything about it.

But here is what lies at the heart of Matthew’s darker story: it is precisely this world God was born into, the world we recognize. It is fearful people – people like us – that God loves, people who out of fear sometimes do terrible things to ourselves and each other. The Jesus born in Bethlehem is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, vulnerable child God sent to come live and die for us, even as we are. Even though Herod’s plot did not succeed, later in the story there would be another unholy alliance between the political and religious leaders of the day who would not only conspire against Jesus, but capture and crucify him. Thanks be to God, even that would not succeed, but in a way no one could have imagined.
Whether it went the way they expected or not, I’ve always loved the last verse of our text today: “Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.” Even their journey home went differently than they expected. What I think Matthew is saying here, is, “They went home DIFFERENT than they came.” Isn’t that always the case?

None of us knows what the future will hold, but we according to everything we’ve heard today, it will be different that we expect. Also, according to everything we’ve heard here today, somehow, the God who draws straight with crooked lines, will bring good, even if it is in a way we cannot imagine or expect.

A year and five days ago, I stood here and preached on this story, acknowledging that none of us of us knew what the year would bring. Later that week, I traveled down to Kentucky and had my last good visit with my Dad, before his health issues would spiral out of control, leading to dementia, and his subsequent death in March. Later in January, on January 28th, my grandson would be born, whom I would meet for the first time in February. From those experiences alone, I have been changed, more than I imagined or expected. Many – if not most of you, had similar experiences.

So, like those wise men of old, off we go, stumbling into a new year. We may not know what it shall bring, but two things we know: God will be with us, and we shall be changed. May it be into the image of Christ, whom like the wise men of old, we worship and adore. Amen.


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