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Leaning Into God's Future

Leaning into God’s Future or The Year of Living Dangerously

Reading: Matthew 2:13-23

“When the Magi had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’ After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."

It still seems so difficult for me to believe that just three weeks ago today I was standing in present day Bethlehem, along with Phillip and Mary Margaret Morrison and Jim and Glenda Hutcheson. The day before we were in Nazareth, and the day before that we were standing on the shore of Galilee. There is no way to explain to people – with words or with pictures – what the experience of physically being there is like. I’ve heard Phillip and others who have been there talk about it for years. I watched and listened as Glenda returned home these past few years, each time more passionate about the experience than the last. I can tell you all this morning that you somehow need to find the time and the money to make the pilgrimage. I’ve resisted the pictures – all 286 of them – this morning because they only evoke my memories and perhaps the memory of the 7 people I shared the trip with.

I struggled then and struggle this morning to find words for the feelings and emotions. Our day at the Sea of Galilee was spent in the rain – and I realized I had no mental images at all of Jesus standing around Galilee or any other place in the rain! I imagined wind and waves…..but not rain. On Sunday as we drove over very rugged terrain to go from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, nothing was as I pictured it. Yes, all of the modern sites you visit have someone’s church built over it and you never know for sure if you’re anywhere close to a literal location of a stable or a shepherd’s field (By the way, all of that region is on the sides of mountains! There are no fields as we think of them anywhere around Jerusalem and Bethlehem). I don’t know what verses were floating through the minds of others at the time, but as I looked around Bethlehem, it was these words from Matthew: Rachel still weeping for her children. And in Luke’s story there are all of those announcements of Peace! In Zechariah’s song, there is the promise that God is bringing peace to Israel. The angels that sing over the shepherds announce peace to all on whom God’s favor rests. Simeon greets the baby Jesus in the Temple and says, “Now you can let your servant depart in peace.”

But as we stood on the Mount of Olives on Monday, all I could hear was Jesus looking out at the city and breaking down, weeping, longing for Israel to know the things that make for peace, but they were hidden from them, he says. And I wanted to weep myself, for all of humanity, not just for Israel or the Palestinians. Somehow, 2000 years later, peace still seems hidden from us. The news from the Middle East is a daily roller coaster ride, in Iraq or Pakistan, or Israel, or Iran. But even on a smaller scale, there are too many stories like the one in Washington state, where apparently a person got fed up with being treated (from her perspective at least) as inferior in her family so she decided to take them out. Too many stories of human beings not being thought of as fully human, too many failed relationships, too many untimely deaths, too much suffering.

And I suppose we should anticipate that just from reading stories like this one in Matthew. Matthew ‘s account moves quickly from the announcement of Immanuel, God With Us, and birth of Jesus, to the story of these “Magi from the East.” We don’t know how many of them come; we don’t know where in the East they come from; we don’t know what kind of official position they hold, if any. The only thing we know for sure is that they are involved in Astronomy and Astrology. They pay attention to the stars and they believe what they see in the stars can be divinely interpreted. They have seen a star in East and they interpret that to mean that a king has been born in Israel. It’s all really quite curious when you think about it. Why would anyone anywhere care about a king being born in this quite insignificant country? What is Israel in the midst of the Roman Empire? These guys come from who knows where – Persia is usually our best guess. They want to worship a new king, which suggests that perhaps they have some priestly connections. And they are magi – diviners, magicians, astrologers.

Tradition later turns them into wise men and kings and there are three of them: Melchior, Balthasar, and Caspar. As wise as they may be in being able to read the stars, they know nothing of Israelite scripture. Nor do they seem to be politically savvy. After all, going to the current king and asking where his replacement is hardly seems wise. If they only knew what a jealous tyrant Herod the Great was, they would never ask directions from him. This was a guy who killed his own wives and children to protect his throne. All of the most amazing archaeological sites in Israel today are the result of Herod the Great’s ambitions for power and prestige. Caesarea by the Sea, Masada, the fortress at Meggido, the massive aqueduct system are all his handiwork. The man was obsessed with two things – maintaining his power and showing off his power. The appearance of star-gazers announcing the birth of the new king could only produce one reaction.

Herod, like the wise men is a Gentile, an Idumean who married into the Jewish family and gained the throne through his Roman allegiances, obviously wants to know where the “king of the Jews” is to be born. But he doesn’t know scripture either. Only after the interpreters of scripture are brought in do they all discover that Bethlehem is the place.

Then comes another strange part of the story. Herod wants to know when these guys first saw the star, but then he sends them off to Bethlehem without an escort, or even a spy following them. He just asks them to give him an address on their way back through town. So they leave, and suddenly they can read the stars again – they follow this star on the road through the mountains south a few miles to Bethlehem and then the star parks right over the house where Jesus and his parents are now residing. Remember, this is not the Christmas story. They will find no shepherds nor a baby lying in a manger when they arrive. So they enter the house where the child is and they bring precious gifts of gold, myrrh and incense. And then, as with the rest of Matthew’s story, God communicates with them through a dream and they head home without going back through Jerusalem to give Herod an address.

It’s really an odd story. But then it gets much worse. Babies die, mothers cry out in the pain of their sons being murdered by an insanely jealous king. Matthew tells the story as if the reason for fleeing to Egypt was so that the prophecy could be fulfilled, “out of Egypt I have called my son.” If those Magi were so wise, couldn’t they have figured out that talking to Herod was the wrong move? How could you get to Jerusalem and then get lost? Did the star take a break? Maybe there was cloud cover for a few nights. Maybe it was raining!

Whatever the circumstances, God’s announcement of peace, of God with us, is not a welcome sight to those already committed to finding their identity and their peace through intimidation and power. A lunatic king becomes a prophetic forecast of the life and ministry and death of Immanuel. The announcement of God’s great love for the world is met with a surge of evil and darkness trying to protect its position of power and identity on earth.

This past week, I lived out my baby-boomer identity by going to Walmart and purchasing the new Eagles CDs. Yes, I admit to loving their harmonies still after 35 years. But it is the title song – really just the title – that has captured my imagination. “Long Road Out of Eden.” Yes, that song is very political in content. Whether you agree or disagree with their political statement is not as important as the description of all journeys of human conquest, all searches for human identity that produce greed and jealousy and war and conspicuous consumption. All that Herod the Great was when Immanuel was born. All that humans had come to believe then, and too often still believe now are the things that make for peace. It’s all the long road out of Eden.

Then God comes to earth, is born in a barn, and announces the road to peace and paradise. and the announcement of peace is drowned out by Rachel’s weeping for her children. Jesus survives and makes it to adulthood and ministry and spends his short career announcing peace – living by loving every human being that crosses his path. Good news for the poor, sight for the blind, liberty for the captives and oppressed. But announcing God’s love for all, and living in harmony and relationship with God and with God’s creation comes with great risks. Everyone invested in the long road out of Eden wants to block all returns to paradise.

Here’s the really difficult part of our text this morning: in the short run, it looks like Herod the Great wins! Innocent mothers and fathers and children in Bethlehem suffer unjustly. Joseph and Mary and their baby are forced to become Nomads. Herod gets to keep ruling and killing anyone that threatens his greed and lust for power. God with Us is a fugitive, and even when Herod dies, the family ends up living in anonymity in Galilee, in Nazareth.

Two thousand years later, the road out of Eden can still appear to have the upper hand. The lust for power, greed and jealousy over possessions, the search for identity in performance rather than relationships still claims too many lives. And Immanuel, God with Us, still too often seems to be fleeing to Egypt. But here is what intrigues me this morning. Two thousand years later, Christmas comes every year! And not even the worst commercialism or the most strident voice of atheism can drown out the chorus of Joy to the World! And in your life and mine, there are those moments, unexplainable moments when the peace of Christ is more real than the peace of America. When relationships mean more than jobs or cars or houses or stuff. When all that matters is family.

And most stunning of all is that you and I are not only invited to announce “Immanuel, God With Us,” this morning, we are invited to announce “Immanuel, God IN Us, Christ in our midst, Christ in us, Jesus to our world in our time! The power of salvation, the kingdom of God, reconciliation of all things. Fruit of the Spirit – Peace, Joy, Love, Patience, Kindness. Those are the promises of faith this morning.

But the promises come with a warning label. To live into the language of God this morning is to believe God really is with us, in us! It is to believe that reconciliation is the way of God in this world and we are the announcers of reconciliation with other people and with the planet itself – not just with our lips but with our lives. We are the embodied Christ. To live into that identity, to lean into God’s future as we leave 2007 behind, is to live every single moment with awareness of God presence. But here’s the warning label – it is also a decision to live dangerously! Too many Herod the Greats still live in this world, building palaces and fortresses of security and power and self-serving politics. Too many religious leaders have bought into the systems of earthly empire and there is plenty of loyal support for maintaining the status quo and not rocking the boats of conformity and habit.

That’s my dream for 2008 – or whatever time God’s mercies gives us: to lean into his future by not missing a single moment in the present and choosing to live dangerously for a change. Choosing relationships over performances and politics and power, longing to live out the promise of Immanuel – come what may!

Delivered at Woodmont Hills, December 30, 2007.

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