January 5, 2014
It is not surprising that a lot of different accounts of Jesus were written. It is surprising, however, that the early Church included four, each with a different take on his life.
We see this at Christmas: Luke tells the story of Mary and Joseph going from Nazareth to Bethlehem with a visit from some shepherds. Matthew, on the other hand, tells us Mary and Joseph start in Bethlehem with a visit from some Magi, and end up in Nazareth, via Egypt.
Those raised on modernity’s idea that history is the true telling of orderly facts, get bent out of shape with such differences and therefore try to harmonize them into one story. Thus our Christmas pageants and Nativity scenes blend the stories together so you get shepherds and Wise Men in the same picture.
One early heretical bishop of the early church dealt with this by throwing out three of them and keeping only Luke.
Yet, the Church in her wisdom included the four gospels into the canon of Holy Scripture for one primary reason: Jesus is too complex a character to be contained in only one story from one perspective. They looked at the gospels as paintings of the same man by different artists, instead of as a still photograph by a so-called “objective” camera.
As you know the Bible readings on Sunday are in a three year cycle: we are now in Year A which means we will be focusing on the Gospel of Matthew
Matthew’s story gives us an angle we often overlook. He tells us today that Herod believes the baby Jesus is a rival and a threat to his kingship. Why? Was he the child of a kingly rival?
No, Jesus was the illegitimate son of two nobodies.
But the Magi said this child was the Messiah, which meant he was the one to establish God’s reign on earth.
Herod had lots of enemies in his life, but his greatest enemy was God. God has clear title to every throne and the power to take that throne from any mortal king.
Herod recognizes that this Jesus is God’s beachhead on his territory.
Jesus is God returning to reestablish God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. God in Christ is dethroning those who have forsaken God and used their power, not for the well-being of others and the glory of God, but for their own well-being and glory.
But this sounds bizarre unless you know the Bible backstory, which of course Herod knows.
God enters history by calling the Jews to be his own chosen people through whom God will bless and heal the world.
In Genesis 18:18 God says, “Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him”.
Then through Moses God frees God’s people and gives them the Law. Second Isaiah would say 700 years later: Isaiah 42:6-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you….
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
The Bible is the story of God entering history to set us free from the captivity to our own violence. Yet the Hebrew Bible ends with God’s presence having left the Temple yet the people keep hoping that one day God’s presence would return.
In Jesus, God is returning to fill not the Temple in Jerusalem but the temple which is the world and the human heart.
Jesus hasn’t appeared out of the blue onto an empty stage with no script: He has appeared as God’s representative to bring to completion God’s work begun in creation and continued in Israel.
Jesus is the new beachhead of God’s Kingdom on earth. Even though Jesus rejects all violence it still makes perfect sense for tyrants to want to kill him. When the Roman Empire puts him to death the sign over his head simply reads: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
That’s the only way empires deal with those that frighten them. Violence is their lord and savior. That mindset exists today even in nations claiming to follow the Prince of Peace. Even if everything hasn’t been tried let’s go ahead and kill those who represent and remind us of the living God and God’s kingdom.
It’s no accident that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr were killed for trying to expand God’s beachhead of justice for millions.
Matthew makes it clear that the reader has a decision to make: who shall we follow, Jesus of Nazareth or the leaders of this world?
Shall we resist God’s invasion or shall we join it?
But we say, “Me, resist God? I’m just trying to be a nice and caring person”, which is a good start. But underneath that ideal is the grasping ego that is looking for protection, gratification, and enhancement, which are neither nice nor caring.
Underneath our talk of serving God’s Kingdom is the long habit of serving our own kingdom. I don’t know about you but when we played king on the mountain as kids I always wanted to win.
On the level of nations that means we can worship the cross on Sunday but follow the flag the other six days.
I like how C. S. Lewis frames this: he says we are “not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are…rebels who must lay down their arms. Mere Christianity
Jesus has arrived as God’s Man, fulfilling God’s will for Israel and for the world.
Herod is right to be scared. But instead of surrendering his arms he uses them to lash out at babies, just like Pharaoh did during the time of Moses.
Just like Hitler did in his attempt to kill, not just one Jew, but all Jews.
He’s got to kill the Jews because they are living reminders of God’s covenant with Abraham, Moses, David, and the covenant in the Lord Jesus Christ. How can he be “der fuhrer”, the leader, if there are Jews running around?
Hitler also had to deal with the Christians. There were too many to kill so he co-opted them instead. The Nazis transformed the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany into the so-called German Evangelical Church. At the nationwide church synod in 1933 70 percent of the church delegates wore the brown shirt of the Nazis.
Pastors like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller knew the only hope was to create an underground church which worshipped Jesus Christ and him alone as their leader.
You will remember Bonhoeffer was hung by the Nazis two weeks before the end of the war. Niemoller survived the concentration camp and is known for saying:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.”
As we start the New Year we are called to wake up from the story the world tells that we are free to make up our own story in which we become king. Not like King Herod but more like Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, standing on the prow of the Titanic, proclaiming “I’m king of the world!”
The Jesus Story Matthew presents is not a story about ourselves but about God: God in Christ coming to save us from ourselves.