Sermon for 01/22/2023

Matthew 4:12-25

In today’s gospel, Jesus calls the first four disciples. So, I want to talk about being called.

(Slide 54) Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me. I invite you to think and pray this week about that promise. Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

First, Jesus chooses to work this way. He announces the Good News. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This isn’t about feeling sorry for our sins.

This is about seeing the world in a whole new way. This is about seeing the world as the place where God is in charge. This is about seeing the world as a place of hope and healing, of possibility and promise, of peace and justice.

Jesus could do this all by himself. But God made us to be partners in life and creation. Sin, death, and the devil disrupt that partnership. When we are God’s partners, that’s when we are most fully human. That’s when we are once again the image and likeness of God. Jesus chooses to work through you and me because that’s what God has always wanted.

Jesus chooses to work in the world. He sets up housekeeping in Capernaum – an out of the way village alongside the Galilean lake. He starts in territory that has been a spiritual wasteland for centuries. He calls some pretty ordinary folks to do some pretty extraordinary things. He heals everyone who comes his way. His fame spreads throughout the land.

Jesus chooses to work in the real world. He doesn’t travel to a distant country. He starts at home. That’s where our calling starts too.

Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me. Jesus calls each of us to mission and service. You were called in your baptism to let your light shine before others. When others see your good works in the name of Jesus, they will glorify God.

Jesus starts with what the first disciples know – fishing. And he starts with what you know and where you are. No one else can answer your call, or mine.

Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

Today isn’t really about being called into public Church ministry. Today isn’t really about being called to be a pastor or a deacon. Except, sometimes it is. I stand before you as living proof that Jesus can use the least qualified, the least interested person in the world, to do ministry. If God can use me, trust me, God can use anyone.

So, I do want to talk about the call to public Church ministry. Next Sunday at our annual meeting we will put in place a “Call Committee.” That’s another step in what we often refer to as “The Call Process.” But that process is probably not quite what you think it is.

What is the first thing a call committee does? You might think they will get right down to hiring a new pastor. That’s not the first thing. The first thing the call committee does is to discern the call of this congregation.

Remember, Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

The first thing the call committee does is to discern the call of this congregation. If the call committee gets that right, the rest of the call process goes pretty smoothly. If the call committee skimps on that first step, the rest of the call process does not go well.

I know this because I’ve been the pastor who gets called. I know this because I’ve helped congregations call a pastor or deacon. Most of all, I know this because I understand and appreciate how we ELCA folks understand what a call to ministry really is.

You might think this is an unnecessary delay. You might think this is a waste of time. But I want you to think about how people get hired for jobs.

Sometimes, we have a job opening, and we just fill it with the next person. We can do that because we already know what the job is. We already know what the job is because we know the goals and mission of the business. We know the goals and mission of the business because that’s usually pretty clear. Or at least we think it is.

Sometimes we make a bad hire. We get a mismatch between what the job needs and what the person brings to the job. When that happens, we can blame the new hire. We move that person on and try again. If we do that, we’ll probably just get another bad hire.

Or we can take some time to assess where we’re at in the business. What’s our mission? What are our goals? Is this the same job it was five years ago or ten years ago or forty years ago? Are we the same company and the same people? What do we imagine we’ll be in the next five or ten or fifteen years?

A business that asks these questions makes fewer bad hires. More important, that business is better prepared to get the most out of the new employee. Most important, that business is better prepared for the future.

Calling new pastoral leadership isn’t exactly like hiring a new employee. I could preach a whole other sermon on the differences. However, the analogy is close enough for today. Bishop Halaas and your church council have asked me to assist the Call Committee here in their work. I’m honored by that request. And I’m glad to help.

Calling a leader is not about hiring a pastor or deacon. It’s about discerning the mission and ministry of a congregation. Remember, Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

The first task for the call committee is to complete what’s called a Ministry Site Profile. Usually, we refer to that document as the MSP.

The MSP is a detailed and discerning description of the mission of the congregation now and into the future. That’s the first task because the Call Process discerns the call of this congregation first. Then the Call Process focuses on calling new pastoral leadership.

Think back to Paul’s words to the Corinthian church. People at Corinth are having a church fight. Some of them claim allegiance to Paul. Others claim allegiance to Apollos or to Cephas. Some of them say they claim allegiance to Christ and reject all human leadership.

Paul says this church fight dismembers Jesus – that it tears Jesus apart. That Corinthian congregation puts personalities before purpose. That Corinthian congregation puts fame ahead of fellowship. That Corinthian congregation puts hiring ahead of ministry and mission.

That’s why Paul calls them back to their theology. Paul calls them to discern their unity and purpose as a congregation. The word of the cross is the power of God. When the Corinthians focus on that word, questions about leadership will be easier to resolve.

Paul offers this encouragement in 1 Corinthians 1, verse 9 – “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” The first call we discern is the call of the congregation.

Remember, Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

You should expect members of the call committee to ask you questions in the coming weeks and months. That’s part of their task. But don’t expect them to ask you what kind of pastor you want. That’s not the first question.

The first questions go more like this. What makes us a healthy and vital congregation? And how is God calling us to use that health and vitality for mission and service now and in the future?

Those are the questions I ask you to reflect on and pray about in the coming weeks and months. If we discern those questions properly, calling new pastoral leadership will go much better.

I invite you also to reflect and pray on your own sense of call to mission and service. When congregational members do that, a call process goes much better. This is about the call of the congregation, not just the call of an individual.

How is Jesus choosing to work in the world through you right now? How will Jesus choose to work in the world through you in the coming months and years? Maybe the answer is the same as it’s been for years. Or maybe Jesus has something new in mind for you. Now is a good time to ask the questions.

It’s always possible that someone here is being called to public ministry in the Church. New pastors and deacons come from somewhere – why not from Mamrelund Lutheran Church? If you’ve ever wondered about becoming a public leader in the Church, I’d love to talk to you. Talking is not the same as doing. We can just see where it goes.

Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me. How is Jesus calling you today?

Let’s pray…

Text Study for Matthew 4:12-25 (Part Three)

See Charles W. F. Smith. “The Mixed State of the Church in Matthew’s Gospel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 82, no. 2 (1963): 149–68.

“Come after me,” Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew, “I shall make you fishers of people” (Matthew 4:19, my translation). That’s all well and good – but fishers of what kind of people? “All kinds,” the Matthean author answers. Jesus tours the whole of the Galilee. Jesus heals all the diseases and maladies of the people” (Matthew 4:23). None are excluded or left out.

Charles Smith notes that the community addressed by the Matthean account appears to have been a mixed group. This reality seems to present some challenges to the community, since the issue is addressed in a variety of ways in the gospel account. This is, after all, the gospel with the parable of the weeds among the wheat, the wise and foolish bridesmaids, and the sheep and the goats.

Most important for our purposes, this is the gospel with the parable of the fishnet in Matthew 13:47-50. “Again,” Jesus says, “the Kingdom of the heavens resembles a fishing net thrown into the lake, and out of which every variety was gathered together…” (Matthew 13:47, my translation). The first four disciples had been casting nets into the lake when Jesus called them to fish for people.

The NRSV translation misses, I think, some of the nuances in this little parable – beginning with that opening sentence. When the net is thrown into the lake (the Galilean one, we can presume), what comes out is “all kinds.” The word for “kinds” is genos. There is actually no explicit mention of fish here, although it is fair to insert that.

However, the Matthean audience would certainly have caught that word. “Genos” primarily means ethnicity or tribe, or extended family, or nation. Only in a derivative sense does it mean kind or type or class. And all of these various kinds (of fish, for now) were “gathered together.” The participle is a form of “sunago.” Yes, that’s the root, for example of “synagogue.” There is more going on here than just a fish story.

While I think about it, I’m thinking that my message will be entitled “It Takes All Kinds” or something like that. The Matthean author is using the call of the disciples in chapter four to set up this theme and concern which is pursued throughout the gospel account. We preachers can use the text to do the same for our folks as we read through the Matthew gospel for the balance of this liturgical year.

“Clearly this is a marked emphasis of Matthew with no such concentrated reiteration in other sources,” Smith writes. “Has it a connection with some particular controversy and, if so, how can we identify it?” As we pursue these questions, we can think about how our own communities deal with “the mixing of all kinds” (or the lack thereof).

Smith points to a scholarly commonplace that wonders how much of the parable is original with Jesus and how much comes from the Matthean author. Many would suggest that the “inclusive” note of verses 47-48 comes from Jesus. And the “exclusive” turnabout in verses 49-50 comes from the Matthean author. That could be, but later studies have shown that this division may not be as obvious as it first appears.

In any event, these parables and related materials declare that a separation is inevitable. However, that separation will be eschatological in nature. It will take place at the end of  the age. It is not up to the church of this age to make such separations. For now, at least, it takes all kinds.

But how does the Matthean author (and/or the Matthean community) see this issue? It could be that there’s way too much “judging” going on in the community. That would fit with some of the language we find in the Sermon on the Mount, appearing on the textual horizon. It could be that the mixed crowd has become a bit casual and that the Matthean author wants to remind them that Jesus will sort them out in the end.

These are diametrically opposed conclusions, but each can be drawn from the text. I think that the former interpretation – too much judging, too much premature separating – fits better with the overall Matthean narrative arc. Repent, for the Kingdom of the heavens has drawn near. But, friends, there’s still time to respond to God’s invitation to life. It ain’t over till it’s over.

Of course, if you’re like me and have profound doubts about non-universal views of salvation, then a whole other set of questions is raised. But that set of questions is for another day.

Text Study for Matthew 4:12-25 (Part Two)

In one of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcasts, Matt Skinner strongly suggests that we should read through Matthew 4:25 for this Sunday. He notes that these verses are the bridge between the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, Skinner notes, the crowds that Jesus sees in Matthew 5:1 are described in Matthew 4:24-25.

“And many crowds – from Galilee, and the Decapolis, and Jerusalem, and Judea, and across the Jordan – followed him” (Matthew 4:25, my translation). Jesus’ reputation had spread throughout the Roman province of Syria, according to the Matthean author.

As a result, those who heard of him “were bringing to him all who were sick, having various kinds of diseases and torments, together with also the demon-possessed, those suffering from epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed…” (Matthew 4:24, my translation).

Jesus healed them, the text declares. So, this “mixed multitude,” saturated with those healed by Jesus and comprised of a variety of ethnicities, are the ones who hear the Sermon. They are the ones who hear, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If for no other reason than to prepare the listeners for next week, we should read those last two verses of Matthew 4.

I think we can see and hear once again the Matthean author’s efforts to portray Jesus as the new and fulfilled Moses. In Exodus 12:38, we read that a “mixed crowd” followed Moses out of Egypt and into the wilderness. This could mean a variety of things, but I think it reflects the ethnic make-up of the crowd that accompanied Moses.

I don’t think that the book of Exodus is an historical chronicle of the events of what we call “the Exodus.” Instead, it seems likely that this reflects the historical situation of the community that composed the narratives we read. Those who made up the Chosen People in the land of Israel were not of one ethnic background. Instead, they too were a “mixed multitude.”

Archaeological evidence supports this view of the Exodus accounts. To be a “Hebrew” was first of all to be a formerly enslaved person who left Egypt behind. That may have been a literal leaving. Or it may have been a political leaving on the part of some of the “natives” the Israelites encountered as they entered the land.

To be part of Israel, therefore, meant to embrace the God of Israel much more than to be part of a particular ethnic group. This is a major part of the impact of the book of Ruth. Ruth the Moabite becomes part of the lineage of David – not so much by marriage as by embracing the God and the faith of Naomi – more even than does Naomi.

The mixed multitude that meets Jesus (in Capernaum?) strongly resembles the crowd that follows Moses into the wilderness. And just as that crowd received the covenant at Sinai, so Jesus invites the crowd into a new relationship with God and God’s law on that mountain in Galilee.

This probably should not be surprising in a Gospel that concludes with the commission to preach, teach, and baptize “all nations.” That commission is foreshadowed and launched here in Matthew 4 with the strange crowd walking up the hill to hear Jesus teach.

Sermon for January 15, 2023

Matthew 4:1-11

On Thursday, January twelfth, 2010, at 3:53 p.m. Central Standard Time, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti. I didn’t know that was the first day of the worst year of my life.

The next morning, I sat in my office in Lincoln. I had just gotten off the phone with a producer from CNN. She wanted to know if I would go on the air with any comments on the possible death of Ben Larson in that earthquake.

I referred her to Ben’s family. I had no business saying anything about Ben’s death at that point. And I was pretty sure that all I would do on air was weep uncontrollably.

Ben Larson had been my pastoral intern the year before. His wife, Renee, had been the intern with Lutheran Campus Ministry at UNL. I had known Ben’s parents, Pastors April and Judd Ullring Larson, for years.

But I didn’t meet Ben until just before his internship. That is, unless you count the couple of times I talked to his mom when she was eight months pregnant with him.

In some ways, Ben became like a third son to me during that internship. So, his sudden death landed on me hard. But Ben’s death turned out to be only the beginning.

Two years earlier, I had presided over the wedding of one of my favorite young couples. I rejoiced just to be a small part of their new life together. They gave birth to a beautiful little girl. I was honored to baptize her at worship.

But soon, it was clear that something was wrong. The baby suffered from an incurable condition. It was a genetic abnormality, unwittingly passed on to her by her parents. She lived for six months. Then I presided at her funeral.

I started to unravel after that. I left parish ministry and got a job as a nursing home chaplain. That seemed like a way forward for me. A week after I started that new job, I took my wife to the emergency room at Bryan Hospital. Twelve days later, at 1:32 a.m., she died in our downstairs family room.

And I came completely undone.

I’m not telling you this to be dramatic or to garner your sympathy. I’ve had years to deal with all of this. Some of you have been through as much and worse.

You know what it’s like to enter a wilderness. You know what it’s like to get lost in the wastelands of despair and death. You know what it’s like to ask, “What’s the plan?” you know what it’s like to ask, “What’s the point?”

So does Jesus.

Last week we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism. As Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit came down to meet him. God announced for all the world to hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved, the one with whom I’m delighted!”

We rejoiced to remember whose we are in in our baptisms. In Jesus, we are God’s beloved children, with whom God is delighted.

In the next sentence – the very next sentence – the Holy Spirit carries Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. Would it have been too much to ask for just a few days to enjoy the moment?

But this is so often how it goes, doesn’t it? Just when things are going so well, it all goes to…well, you know.

It’s tempting to think that Jesus had it all figured out in advance. You know, because of the whole Son of God thing and all. But that’s not what the Bible really tells us.

In Hebrews four, verse fifteen, for example, you can read these words. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathized with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (my emphasis).

When Jesus is tested in the wilderness, he’s not play-acting. He’s not staging a “pretending to be human” performance for our benefit. Jesus, the devil says, if you really are who God says you are, why are you suffering? Why has everything apparently gone to…well, you know? What’s the plan? What’s the point?

Most of all, Jesus – how do we get through this?

I have kept a series of rough journals since 2007. I wrote this for January 29, 2010. During Lent of 2009, Ben Larson had preached a sermon on Psalm 77. That’s a lament psalm. It’s the complaint of someone who’s life has apparently gone to…well, you know.

So, it’s not on most people’s top ten psalms list. The Psalmist cries out to a God who seems to be deaf and mute. The Psalmist complains to a God who seems to have stopped caring. “Has the LORD’s steadfast love ceased forever?” the Psalmist asks. “Are the LORD’s promises at an end for all time?” the Psalmist wonders.

Ben wrote these words as he reflected on the Psalmist’s questions. “Whenever we go to dark, chaotic places, we are not called to alter the truth. We are not called to pretend that everything is all right. We are not called,” Ben continued, “to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We are invited by God to recall God’s deeds of the past.”

Ben was reading the words of the Psalmist again. “I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD,” the Psalmist declares. “I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on your work,” the Psalmist continues, “and muse on your mighty deeds” (verses 11 and 12).

Jesus lives out the words of the Psalmist in his wilderness testing. God is the one who produced the manna in the wilderness. Why would Jesus do a magic trick just to keep his tummy from rumbling?

God is the one who rescued Israel from bondage and death. Why would Jesus dive off the Temple like some Hollywood stunt performer? God is the one who rules over all human authority. Why would Jesus need to reclaim an authority that was already his?

Remember who God is and whose you are. That’s how Jesus deals with the wilderness testing. Jesus remembers that he is God’s beloved Son. Jesus remembers that God is tickled pink with him. The Devil can’t make that any more or less true, no matter how many tests are involved.

Remember who God is and whose you are. In his Lenten sermon, Ben Larson continued with these words. “We remember our baptisms where we become part of the death and resurrection of Christ. We remember our baptisms,” he continued, “where God looked at the most powerful force of chaos – death – and it tumbled and was defeated.”

Remember who God is and whose you are. Less than a year later, Ben confronted that chaos. Ben and Renee, and Ben’s cousin Jon, were in a building that collapsed during the earthquake. Renee and Jon were in a space that let them live. Ben was crushed by large stones in the center of the building.

Ben was growing into one of the finest young preachers of his generation. He was also a gifted musician. No one was surprised to hear that he died singing praise to God. Renee crawled through the rubble to find him when the shaking stopped. She heard him sing his last breath: “Give us peace, O God, we pray.”

Remember who God is and whose you are. I would like to say that Ben’s words and witness carried me triumphantly through that worst year of my life. I’d like to say that. And sometimes that would be true. But more often, it wasn’t true. Jesus didn’t go directly from baptism to beating down the devil. There was a lot of wilderness wandering in between.

But when I forgot Jesus, Jesus remembered me. Even when I cursed God, God blessed me. Even when my spirit drained to nothing. The Holy Spirit kept filling me. It wasn’t all one thing or another. But angels waited on me whether I realized it or not.

I got through it in part because of the Church. The church reminded me of my baptism. The church spoke God’s word to me when God seemed silent everywhere else. The church fed me with bread and wine so I could remember God’s grace and mercy.

Remember who God is and whose you are. That’s what we do here every week.

Ben gave me one more gift I treasure. I wasn’t a fan of the new red hymnal until Ben came along. He taught us a song that is worth the price of the book all by itself. It’s number 808 in the ELW. It’s called “Lord Jesus, You Shall be My Song.” I’ll share a few verses as my prayer for us today. It helps me remember.

Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey;

I’ll tell ev’rybody about you wherever I go:

you alone are our life and our peace and our love.

Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey.

I fear in the dark and the doubt of my journey;

but courage will come with the sound of your steps by my side.

And with all of the family you saved by your love,

we’ll sing to your dawn at the end of our journey.


Text Study for Matthew 4:12-25 (Part One)

I’m beginning to think about the message for a week from Sunday. I’ll post this Sunday’s message in a day or two. I’ll be reading Matthew 4:12-25. That text offers a great variety of events, perspectives, pronouncements and questions. I’m beginning with Matthew 4:18-22.

I would commend to you Warren Carter’s 1997 article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Carter reads the text from an “audience-oriented” perspective. That is, he seeks to discern the issues and assumptions of the Matthean audience based on what is hit or missed in the text.

Carter argues that the Matthean community is a “marginal minority” in the larger community of (most likely) Syrian Antioch in the late first century. While the community lives in this marginal status, the Matthean author does not advocate either withdrawal from or acquiescence to the larger culture. Instead, the Matthean community lives on the boundary between those two options.

“The narrative does not present perfect discipleship,” Carter argues, “but it does legitimate the experience of following Jesus as a difficult way of life in which one participates in prevailing societal values and power structures, but challenges them in the pursuit of an alternative existence which manifests the presence of ‘the reign of the heavens'” (page 74).

The Matthew text proposes, according to Carter, a life that involves both participation in local social and economic structures and “a life of wholehearted commitment to doing and obeying God’s will which prevents disciples from being whole-hearted participants in societal structures” (page 71). This is, therefore, a liminal position in and ambivalent attitude toward the larger culture and power structure.

The community I serve, however, is definitively not a “marginal minority” in the local community. Instead, this congregation is a locus of social power and networking. That’s a function of history, size, and context. The call from the Matthean text requires some additional reflection and discernment in our social setting.

One reminder in this regard is that we must always “read” our own social position as the current audience as well as the social position of the “original” audience. If we simply assume that we are in the same position as the original audience (or vice versa), we are certain to get our reading wrong. The Matthean community may have been marginalized and somewhat under the gun. The community I serve is not. That difference makes a big difference.

It’s not surprising that the Sermon on the Mount comes next in the Matthean narrative. The Sermon functions as a “manual” for the marginalized Matthean minority. In particular, I think the metaphors of “salt” and “light” help me to understand this. It would seem that being “the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth” describe two different functions. Part of our mission discernment, I think, requires us to decide which element is the more needed one in our missional context.

In the one where I currently serve, I think we are called to emphasize the “light of the world” aspect of our serving role. I serve a community that is relatively resource-rich and has the opportunity to continue to do a great deal of good with those resources. We can take some real risks in our community without fear of a lot of pushback because in large part we are that community.

The danger is that we can confuse our mission with a comfortable and self-serving status quo. Instead of being the salt of the earth in our space, we likely need to have some salt rubbed into our tender places so we don’t get too comfortable with our privileged position. If the proper place of the disciple community is that of “voluntary marginalization” (see page 58), that is a challenge for a community like ours that has been at the center of the local system for as long as there has been a local system.

How do we discern the God-desired balance between salt and light in our contexts? How do we balance detachment from the demands of that context while maintaining healthy participation in it? This is the ongoing challenge presented by the Matthean texts.

Message for January 8 2023

Baptism of Our Lord, 2023

Matthew 3:1-17

“Identity Matters”

 (slide 43) Identity Matters

Baptism of Our Lord 2023

Matthew 3:1-17

(slide 44) Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis on April 5th, 1945. He was executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp in southwest Germany. He died fourteen days before Allied forces liberated the camp.  Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, seminary professor, author, and a member of the German resistance to Hitler. He was thirty-nine when he was murdered for that resistance.

Many of you know about Bonhoeffer. He is probably as close to an “official” Lutheran saint as we can get. Bonhoeffer is an icon, an example, and an inspiration to many of us. Yet, he didn’t see himself that way.

Bonhoeffer wrote poetry as well as sermons, books, and bible studies. One of his best-known poems is called “Who Am I.” He wrote this poem while he was imprisoned. It goes like this:

(slide 45) Who am I? They often tell me

I would step from my cell’s confinement

calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

like a squire from his country-house.

(slide 46) Who am I? They often tell me

I would talk to my warders

freely and friendly and clearly,

as though it were mine to command.

(slide 47) Who am I? They also tell me

I would bear the days of misfortune

equably, smilingly, proudly,

like one accustomed to win.

(Slide 48) Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I know of myself,

restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

(Slide 49) yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,

trembling with anger at despotism and petty humiliation,

tossing in expectation of great events,

(Slide 50) powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

(Slide 51) Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

(Slide 52) Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

fleeing in disorder from a victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

“Whoever I am,” Bonhoeffer confesses, “thou knowest, O God, I am thine.” Bonhoeffer knew the truth of today’s gospel.

(Slide 53) The most important thing is not “who” I am. The most important thing is “whose” I am.

People these days make immense investments in identity. People choose an identity and then carefully curate that personal exhibit. People carefully select which elements of themselves they want to display to the public. They arrange those chosen items for best effect. They put the unwanted and unattractive bits in their emotional basements for long-term storage.

(Slide 54) In fact, people today don’t have “identities.” We have “profiles.” We trim and manicure and polish those profiles for public consumption. We have different profiles for different audiences and different goals. And after a while, like Bonhoeffer, we get very anxious about who we are.

Bonhoeffer knew that he put on a brave front. He did that for his family and friends, and for his fellow inmates. Bonhoeffer spoke with confidence to his captors rather than surrendering to their bullying and abuse. He talked about when he would be released and what he would do when he got out. This comforted those who loved him. And perhaps sometimes he half-believed it himself.

But underneath it all was the truth. “Restless and longing and sick,” he wrote, “like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath…” When have you felt that way underneath it all? When have I felt that way underneath it all? Well, what time is it?

Who am I? Am I one or the other? Am I both at once? How many selves are struggling to control me and failing at every moment? You don’t have to be on a Nazi death row to wrestle with these questions.

(Slide 55) Jesus gets baptized. He does that to identify with us as we strive to fulfill all righteousness. As he comes up out of the water, something else happens. The heavens open. The Spirit of God lands on him like a gentle dove. The very voice of God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I take delight.” The most important thing is not “who” Jesus is. The most important thing is “whose” Jesus is.

As we begin the season of Epiphany in the Church, we remember Jesus’ baptism. As we remember Jesus’ baptism, we remember our own baptisms. We are baptized in Christ Jesus. In that baptism, the most important thing is not “who” I am. The most important thing is “whose” I am. “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”

(Slide 56) That’s what I hope you will take with you today. In Jesus, you are God’s child. You are God’s beloved child. You are God’s beloved child, and God is just tickled pink about you. That’s who you are. But more important, that’s whose you are.

(Slide 57) During the season of Epiphany, we’re going to do two things in worship to remind ourselves of all that. Each week we will begin our worship with a “Thanksgiving for Baptism.” You probably noticed that at the beginning of our worship today. And when we confess our faith in the Creed, we will make renew our commitments to our baptismal covenants.

(Slide 58) What does that second part mean? When you belong to someone, that affects your identity. For example, how do you show people which sports teams you support? [Ask for suggestions]. You might wear a jersey for that team. Maybe you have a bumper sticker or a pennant or a poster. You probably watch your team on TV. You might attend some of the games. You may trash talk family and friends about their terrible taste in teams.

When you belong to someone, that affects your identity. That’s especially true when we belong to Jesus. But our belonging shows up in our behavior, not just in our wardrobe.

Belonging to Jesus shows up in five actions. Those actions are listed in our commitments. First, I will ask you a question. Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism? God has made that covenant with you in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Is that something you want to stick with?

(Slide 59) Before you answer too quickly, I list the details of that sticking with. You’re entitled to know what you’re getting into. Continuing in that baptismal covenant means:

  • to live among God’s faithful people,
  • to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
  • to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
  • to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
  • and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?

If I belong to Jesus, I’m a person who does these things. I don’t do them to impress God. I don’t do them to get a reward. You and I can disagree about the details of the doing. But we don’t do them to win some sort of Christian competition. I do them because I belong to Jesus. Belonging to Jesus tells me who I am – and whose I am.

Remember, in Jesus, you are God’s child. You are God’s beloved child. You are God’s beloved child, and God is just tickled pink about you. That’s who you are. But more important, that’s whose you are.

(Slide 60) And that’s who we are together. So, here’s your homework assignment. This week, tell at least three Jesus followers that they are God’s child; that they are God’s beloved child; that they are God’s beloved child, and God is just tickled pink about you. If you get the chance, let me know how that goes. Let’s pray…

Working Things out in Philippians

I’ve been off for about a month — the holidays, RSV, interim ministry, and other things. Part of the time I’ve been preparing to lead a Zoom bible study on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. I’ll offer that study on January 11, 18, and 25, and February 1, from 7 to 8:15 CST. Let me know if you’d like to attend. Here’s a draft of an introduction to that study for anyone who’s interested.

With fear and trembling,” Paul writes in Philippians 2:12, “keep on working out your own salvation…”[1] This small phrase is enough to make some orthodox Protestant Christians flip right to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The words in this text seem to be infected with the dreaded “works righteousness” virus to which such orthodox Protestant Christians have been taught to be allergic.

But don’t worry. That’s not Paul’s agenda in these words. It’s safe to keep on reading.

Instead, Paul urges the Philippian Christians to keep on praying, thinking, talking, arguing, studying, and behaving their way into their life together in Christ. In fact, reading Paul’s Letter to the Philippians closely and carefully is a way for us to “keep on working out our own salvation.”

The Letter to the Philippians is much loved as a devotional resource and a preaching gold mine. Chapter 4 of the letter supplies its own cottage industry of plaques, samplers, posters, and other tchotchkes in so-called “religious” stores. The letter is a well-known source of inspiration and encouragement.

But it is, I think, underutilized as a resource for theological reflection and growth. Theologians tend to focus on the rough and tumble arguments of Galatians, the majestic sweep of Romans, and poetry of First Corinthians, or the high church language of Ephesians.[2] The Letter to the Philippians tends to be ignored – with the exception of the astonishing hymn to Christ in chapter two. But even that breath-taking poetry tends to be limited in the liturgical calendar to the status of a theological footnote on Palm/Passion Sunday.

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is a work of theological density, complexity, and subtlety in its own right. Paul’s insights in this letter are compact and cryptic, taut and tantalizing, both allusive and a bit elusive. There’s a lot in this little letter to “keep on working out.”

For example, as soon as Paul appears to have fall off the “grace alone” wagon, he gets right back on in Philippians 2:13. “For God is the one working in you all,[3]Paul and his colleagues continue, “both to will and to work according to [God’s] good intentions.” As we study together, it is God working through us to accomplish what God intends. God does not want to work through us without us, so we are invited to be part of the work.

You will benefit greatly from meditating on the words of this letter in your prayers, thoughts, and devotions. I know that I do. No deep digging is required to receive that benefit. You will grow in faith, hope, and love as you hear sermons based on this letter. No further study is needed for such growth to happen. But there are spiritual and theological treasures buried in this letter which will reward the disciplined digger. I hope you will unearth some of those treasures along the way.

Disciplined digging always leads to both challenges and surprises. The Letter to the Philippians contains social and political dynamite mixed in with the spiritual and theological gold. If we encounter a few explosions along the way, I am confident we will survive them together. And once the dust clears, we will likely see things uncovered in the text and in our thinking that could be found no other way.

We are going to read the letter primarily as an event of speaking and listening. Paul’s letters are oral and aural documents that have come down to us in written transcripts. That will be a new insight and method of interpretation for some. It may be hard to trust or grasp at first. But the insights that come from this interpretive perspective will be worth it, I assure you.

Paul is intent on continuing to teach the Philippian Christians, and us, not only what to think but, more importantly, how to think. As we reason and reflect together, I’m going to point out some of the Greek words in the text of the letter. In just a moment, we’ll get better acquainted with the verb I translate as “keep on working out.” But first, I should say a word about Greek words.

I come from a tradition that trains pastors in the basics of the “original” Biblical languages – Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. I am one of a minority of my colleagues who is grateful for that training and has continued to use it over the last forty years of sermonizing and Bible study. It’s often tempting to use the Biblical languages as a way to impress people with “how much I know.” If that’s how it seems to you, I apologize. That’s not my intention. Sometimes we preachers appear to use the Biblical languages to pull theological rabbits out of our hats, especially when confronted with difficult texts and challenging issues. I hope I’m not guilty of that homiletical sin too often (but it has happened).

The Biblical languages can reveal information about a text not found in an English translation. It is often the case that a text can be translated in several ways – none of which can be conclusively demonstrated to be “The Correct Translation.” It is always the case that translation requires interpretation. There is only rarely a one-to-one correspondence between a Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic word and some English equivalent. So, translators are always making (informed, we hope) interpretive choices when rendering a text.

Yet, as the Italian proverb puts it, “Traduttore, traditore” –”The translator is a traitor.” Every interpretive choice leaves out other choices which may be just as accurate and bring a different sense to the text. That’s why it’s important to look at a number of translations and interpretations. And that’s why I find it helpful to work – still as a rank amateur – with the ”original” languages of the text.

But I digress. The verb is “katergazesthe.” It can mean to commit an act, either admirable or shameful. It can mean to produce or create or bring about a thing or a state of being. It can mean to work out something. It can also mean to overpower or subdue or conquer. This “working out” is supposed to be work. If reading and reflecting on the Letter to the Philippians sometimes makes your temples throb or your palms sweat, then you’re probably on the right track.

As I said earlier, Paul is teaching us not only what to think but how to think. That’s why one of the important word groups in this letter comes from the Greek terms with the root, “phrone—.” We’ll talk about this in some detail soon enough. But the word group has to do with having a particular “mindset” or “worldview.” Paul tries to form the Philippian Christians and members of his other congregations to see, experience, and interact with the world in a particular way – with the “mindset of Christ.” As we work things out, we may come to a deeper appreciation of what that phrase means for us.

In particular, Paul is trying to help the two leaders of the congregation, Euodia and Syntyche, to work out what having this mindset together means. It may be that these leaders are having a dispute. Or it may be that the congregation is not following their lead very well. In either case, Paul urges them to have the same mindset as they exercise their leadership in the community.

This reminds us that Paul’s letters are not dry theological tomes reserved for academic theologians. The Letter to the Philippians is just that – a letter to real people who lived in the Greco-Roman city of Philippi some time after the middle of the first century CE.[4] We’ll go into more detail about these Philippians as we work things out together. But we will always be looking around to find hints about their lives and loves, their fears and frustrations, their work and play, their hopes and joys.

Yes, especially their joys. If there is one overarching emotion that energizes Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, it is indeed “joy.” That might seem odd for a while. After all, Paul is writing from a Roman prison and doesn’t know if he will be released or even if he will survive. The Philippians are experiencing threats from the local authorities and divisions within their own congregation. Their leaders may be fighting. Their fair-haired boy just about died when he visited Paul in prison. Paul uses words for suffering, struggle, persecution, trial, and tribulation. The heart of his great hymn in chapter intones “even death on a cross.”

In the face of all that, Paul urges the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always and in all ways. This is not joy after the suffering and struggle have passed. This is not the joy of a near miss when trial and tribulation have headed off in another direction. This is joy in the midst of suffering. Coming to appreciate that joy in the Letter takes more than a bit of working out as well.

As we read and reflect on this letter, we know history matters. But, as Laura Nasrallah writes, “the past is not contiguous with history.”[5] My first academic training was as an undergraduate historian. I wanted to recapture the past and to know how things came to be the way they are now. But historical “re-construction” isn’t possible. Too much of the relevant data and details simply is not available. The best we can hope for is an informed, careful, and humble attempt at historical “construction” – telling a story that is faithful to and makes sense of the data and detail we have.

I will make a clumsy attempt at a bit of that reconstruction in the words that follow. Please don’t think that I believe this is “how it happened.” I have some reasons to think that there might have been some similar events, but any resemblance to reality would be purely dumb luck and cannot be verified in this life in any event. So, I’m trying to have a bit of creative fun, to be modestly interesting, and to spark some creative working on your part as we go along. So, let’s see what we can work out together – both with fear and trembling, and with humility and joy.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all translations in the text will be mine. You will note differences from whatever translation you might be using. If you work with the Greek text, I invite you to look at the text and see if you agree with the translation. If not, I’d encourage you to look at several translations of the text. Compare them to my translation and to one another and see what you think.

[2] Scholars debate the authorship of some letters historically attributed to Paul and his colleagues. The undisputed letters of Paul in the Christian testament include Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. Other documents historically attributed to Paul, such as Ephesians, may have been written by associates or students of Paul following his death in the early 60’s CE. But all of that is for another time.

[3] I use “you all” in my translations, not to be folksy, but rather because modern English has no way to distinguish between “you singular” and “you plural.” The majority of the “you’s” in Paul’s letters are plural, but not all. It will be worth noting which is which in the translations.

[4] I use the accepted designations of “CE” (the Common Era) and “BCE” (before the Common Era) to label dates that you may be accustomed to seeing as “BC” (before Christ) and “AD” (anno domini, the year of our Lord). These designations are more inclusive of the large part of the world that is not tied to a “Christian” demarcation of time.

[5] Nasrallah, Archaeology and the Letters of Paul, page 17.

Text Study for Matthew 2:1-12 (Part Three)

“And since they [the Magi] had been warned according to a dream not to return to Herod,” the Matthean author reports, “they returned to their own territory by a different way” (Matthew 2:12, my translation). I think this verse deserves some concentrated attention as we seek to interpret our text and the larger Matthean prologue known as the Infancy Narrative.

Let’s start with the verbs translated in the NRSV as “to return.” In fact, these are two different Greek verbs. I think that matters, and I am struggling to include that distinction in my translation (with little success at this point). The first verb is “anakampto.” The root of this verb, “kampto,” according to Schlier (TDNT III:594) “is the gesture of full inner submission in worship to the one before we bow the knee.”

The verb is in the same family of ideas as “proskuneo,” the verb used both by the Magi and by Herod to describe submitting to the new King of the Jews by bowing the knee. The “return” that the Magi rejected in verse 12 was connected to submitting to Herod in obedience. Herod was no longer referred to as “king” by that time in the text. The Magi were not going to submit once again to Herod’s orders, manipulation, and schemes. They resolved to find “another way.”

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The second verb translated as “to return” in verse twelve is “anachoreo.” This verb is directly related to the word for “area” or “region” that we find in verse twelve as well. So, the Magi went back to their own territory. They didn’t do so by retracing their steps through Jerusalem. But they got home nonetheless. So, the Magi did not return in obedience to Herod. Rather, they were guided by a new King and traveled “another way.”

I belabor this point because it would be so easy for us as contemporary (and English-speaking) Jesus followers to miss what the Matthean author is saying. When we kneel at the feet of the Messiah, we renounce allegiance to any other sovereign in our lives. When we get up from that encounter, we will travel by another way. Early Jesus followers referred to their faith commitment as “the Way.” And we have the Greek word for “way” in our text here.

Following Jesus means traveling home by “another way.” I think that’s a potential theme for one who might preach on this text in the next few weeks.

Matthew 2:12 is the climax of and punchline for a story filled with juxtapositions and oppositions. In my previous post, I examined the juxtaposition and opposition created by putting Herod the King in contact with Jesus the King. That’s one of the major themes of the Matthean author, as we have seen by looking briefly at the Matthean passion account. But we have other comparisons and contrasts as well.

Our text gives us two cities associated with King David. We get his birthplace in humble Bethlehem. And we get his royal city of Jerusalem. Which city gives us the real son of David, who is the Messiah, the Lord? On the basis of words from Micah five, the high priests and scribes of the people identify Bethlehem as the defining location for the Messiah. Jerusalem is the place where the ruler and all the people are threatened by such a revelation.

The Matthean author is the master of the “little text/big context” method of employing Hebrew scripture in Christian texts. The quote from Micah 5 is a primary example of this method. I think it’s helpful to begin reading the Micah prophecy back in chapter 4. The prophet describes the days to come when the Lord’s house will be on the highest mountain in the world. The Gentile nations shall stream to that house to learn the ways of the God of Jacob.

Instruction (Torah!) will come out from Zion. The word of the Lord will proceed from Jerusalem. This teaching will produce peace between the nations. Everyone shall sit under their own vines and fig trees. Mutual fear will be a thing of the past. The nations may still walk in the names of their own gods, but Israel will continue to point to the Lord forever. The lame, the outcast, the rejected – all will be gathered to that holy mountain.

The oracle takes a dark turn after that. Clearly, Micah says, this is not what is happening now. The Babylonian Exile cannot be avoided, but it will not be the end of the story. Jerusalem may be under siege now, but there’s more coming.

Jerusalem may well fall, we hear in Micah 5. But there’s still Bethlehem of Ephrathah. The ruler to come will arise from the same little town that produced the first David. And like that first David, this new ruler shall be a shepherd king – not anything like Herod, the great pretender, now on the Jerusalem throne.

Therefore, the Matthean author reminds us, the King of the Jews is not that corrupt fraud in Jerusalem. Nor is the King of the Jews anything like the ruler that Jerusalem may produce. Instead, we should expect a shepherd King, like David in his beginnings – one who shall feed his flock and protect them from danger and harm. And this one, as we have seen, is the kind of King who deserves our humble submission, adoration, and allegiance.

Not only do we see this description of “which David” will define the King of the Jews, but we also see some remarkable comparisons and contrasts in class, status, and privilege. When the Magi return by another way, they don’t go back to the supposed seat of power and privilege represented by the throne of Herod. They have been to the real throne – a humble little hovel in Bethlehem. The Messiah is not to be found among the great and powerful, but rather among the “little” of the clans of Judah. The foreshadowing of the Parable of the Great Judgment in Matthew 25 is pronounced when we use this interpretive lens.

Herod is surrounded by ambitious retainers and fawning sycophants. He rules by fear and intimidation. He is paranoid, calculating, violent, and merciless. He imposes his will on all of Jerusalem. He is friend and ally of the Empire and the Emperor. He is a wealthy builder of monuments to his own ego – including his generational commitment to rebuilding the Jerusalem temple. He uses his accomplishments to prove a “worthiness” to rule that he cannot have.

This is a picture of power and privilege, of wealth and status. The picture is complete with all of the prerogatives of that power and all the insecurities that come from protecting it. And the picture finishes a few verses later when Herod “the Great” still dies miserable and alone.

Then there is the real King of the Jews. He is born in humble circumstances. He lives his life in opposition to the powers that be. He lives his life under constant threat from those powers. That threat commences almost as soon as he is born. After all, Herod begins seeking the life of the child as soon as he hears about the new birth. Yet, the Magi do not open their gifts for Herod. The royal gifts are for the child in Bethlehem, the one who – regardless of external circumstances – is the true King of the Jews.

Where do we look for signs of power and prestige? We continue to look to the throne of Herod rather than the “house of bread” (the literal meaning of “Bethlehem”). We, especially white, privileged, wealthy, American Christians, put our hopes in money and  buildings and politics. We continue to maintain our churches as bastions of white, upper middle-class propriety. We live segregated lives, where race and class are not permitted to intrude.

The Matthean account is, I suspect, challenging Jesus followers in social positions much like those we white American Christians occupy. For those in the Matthean community who have some measure of privilege and comfort, a time has come for a certain reckoning. Accommodation with the Herods and Pilates of the world won’t do. The Matthean account presents some stark either/ors, beginning with this contrast between kings. And the pressure for disciples to choose will mount throughout the gospel account.

Text Study for Matthew 2:1-12 (Part Two)

I would recommend Bauer’s article on the kingship of Jesus in the Matthean infancy narrative as a good preparation for preaching in general in the year of Matthew. I will try to share some of his insights here and reflect on that material. He notes that as of the composition of his article in the mid-nineties, the kingship of Jesus in this narrative had not been examined much as a Christological theme. I think that’s changed somewhat since he wrote his article, but his work is still valuable and stimulating.

In the Matthean infancy narrative, Bauer argues, the kingship of Jesus is set in double contrast to that of Herod and to the status of the Magi. The contrast between Jesus as the “born” king and Herod as the pretender is fairly obvious. Bauer notes that another contrast is between those who worship Jesus as king and those who seek to kill him. “Matthew presents this double contrast,” Bauer suggests, “in order to delineate the character and significance of Jesus’ kingship as well as the responses to it” (page 308).

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If the Matthean account is a manual for disciples (and I think it is), then it’s worth wondering what the infancy narrative adds to that manual. Why are the first two (or three or four) chapters of Matthew set as they are and where they are in such a manual? If Bauer’s argument is correct, then we can see the role of these verses. They are the story of Jesus, the Messiah, the King of the Jews. This is the one who we follow as disciples.

Parenthetically, I would suggest, as a result, that this prologue to the Matthean discipleship manual runs through the end of the account of Jesus’ baptism and on through the temptation account. The whole of the prologue is then intended to arrive at that goal. Jesus is the son of Abraham, the son of David, and the son of God. He is both the king and personification of Israel, in the Matthean view. If that is the case, then of course we should follow him.

Bauer notes that the Matthean account refers to Herod several times as “king.” I would note that this is the case only until the utterance of the prophecy in Matthew 2:6. After that identification, Herod is no longer referred to as “king.” Once the real king of the Jews has been anchored in scripture (and in Bethlehem), it would seem that the pretender is stripped of his title. This isn’t part of Bauer’s analysis, but I do think that it complements the work in his study.

Herod’s rule is marked by fear, paranoia, and violence. Yet, as Bauer notes, those tools are useless in deterring God’s plans and purposes. Instead, Herod’s malicious responses are subverted for God’s purposes: “God transforms them into the means whereby the divine agenda are advanced, and the will of God for the Messiah is fulfilled” (page 308). Herod is duped by the Magi and is subject to ridicule as a result.

Jesus is portrayed as a Davidic king, based on both prophecy and geography. As a Davidic king he is to be “shepherd” for God’s people and to save them, not only from danger, but from their own sins. Jesus assumes this royal mantle in humility. Yet, he is the born, legitimate, divinely appointed king of the Jews. The grammar of Matthew 2:2 makes this abundantly clear. The unusual word order puts the emphasis on the one who is born king as opposed to the one who is appointed by the Romans.

Jesus, Bauer notes, is the royal Son of God. As I noted earlier, I think this is where the first four chapters are headed. And this is why they are best understood when read together. The passage that follows our current one will make this even clearer with the quote from Hosea. That prophecy will equate Jesus with Israel as God’s chosen Son who is called “out of Egypt.” That call will then be ratified in the baptismal account in chapter 3 and tested in the Temptation in chapter four.

As a result, “the kingship of Jesus challenges the rule of Herod” (page 314). We know that this will serve as the paradigm in the Matthean account for the ongoing collision between Jesus’ rule and that of the rulers of this world. On the one hand, Jesus does not intend to set up a regime to “compete” with that of Herod (or Caesar). However, Herod demonstrates an awareness that in Jesus, someone else is claiming God’s people. That claim, even if it is Divine, cannot be tolerated by a secular ruler.

“Herod’s hostility toward the kingship of Jesus, therefore, represents a dialectic between misunderstanding and understanding,” Bauer writes. “Herod misunderstands in that he construes the kingdom of Jesus in political terms. But he understands all to well,” Bauer continues, “that the kingship of Jesus represents the rule of God which challenges the kind of rule Herod enjoys” (page 315). Herod’s rule is deadly in intent but cannot prevail since in Jesus the power of death itself will be defeated.

“This presentation of Herod’s opposition to Jesus evidently prepares for, and illumines, the theme of secular political antagonism to Jesus and the church which the reader encounters throughout the remainder of the Gospel,” Bauer argues (page 315). This is an interesting text for reflection in a time when justifiably intense conversations about Christian nationalism are happening in political arenas around the world. The relationship between secular power and the Jesus agenda is more alive at this moment than it has been at any other point in my life.

The text, Bauer reminds us, also connects the responses of Herod as a secular political leader and that of the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Again, the pursuit of power often brings together institutional interests that might otherwise be at odds with one another. Later, as Bauer notes, the Pharisees and the “Herodians” will ally with one another to seek to entrap Jesus in his words (see Matthew 22:16). We get a preview of that unholy alliance in Matthew 2.

Herod responds to the royal announcement with fear. The Magi respond with faith. “It is remarkable,” Bauer writes, “that these Gentile magoi are the first persons in the Gospel to utter a Christological confession, even as the Gentile centurion (and those with him) are the last (27:54) and that these Gentiles actually proclaim the birth of the king of the Jews to Israel” (page 319). Even though the Matthean account is clearly oriented toward Jewish Christians throughout, it is more often the Gentiles in the story who recognize Jesus for who he is. (Here, also, is further evidence of the chiastic structure of the overall gospel account).

The Magi are obedient to God. They offer worship to the infant King of the Jews as they bend the knee to the Child. They bring gifts fit for royalty and present them. They rejoice in the encounter. And they reject Herod’s competing claims on them as they return home “by another way.” They will not be traveling the way of Herod the pretender to the throne. “Indeed, both the narrator and Herod,” Bauer argues, “construe the refusal of the magoi to return to Herod as an act of ridicule…” (page 322).

Bauer suggests that this contrast in responses prepares us to read the remainder of the Matthean account. It prepares us to identify and assess those who will oppose the kingship of Jesus, respond violently to him, and persecute his followers. And it prepares us to identify and embrace those who will respond to Jesus with obedient worship. On the one hand, those who reject Jesus will participate in his death. On the other hand, those who worship him will obey and follow. They will go “another way.” We will see this play out again and again in the Matthean account.

I quote Bauer’s final sentences here. “The entire presentation of 1:18-2:23 prepares especially for the passion and resurrection narratives, for all other references to Jesus’ earthly kingship are found there, and it is there that the responses to Jesus’ kingship on the part of the secular authorities, the religious leaders, the people, Gentiles who experience God’s revelation, and the disciples reach their climax. The kingship of Jesus is introduced in the infancy narrative,” Bauer concludes, “but it is most perfectly expressed in the cross” (page 323).

In fact, I think this is another piece of the argument for understanding the Matthean account in total as a chiasm. One of the functions of the Matthew infancy narrative is to serve as an intertext for the Matthean passion account. I think it’s both necessary and instructive to read the birth and death stories alongside one another. The cross casts its shadow over the manger. The manger declares the birth of new life beyond the powers of the grave. For Jesus followers, both things are true at the same time.

Lest we miss the shadow of the cross in Herod’s machinations, we will get the clear picture in the next section of the Gospel account. Herod responds to his humiliation with a genocidal rage. And the toddlers in Bethlehem pay the price.

References and Resources

BAUER, DAVID R. “The Kingship of Jesus in the Matthean Infancy Narrative: A Literary Analysis.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 57, no. 2 (1995): 306–23.

Text Study for Matthew 2:1-12 (Part One)

Read Matthew 2:1-12.

We had an Advent visitation at our house last week. It wasn’t the shepherds or the magi. It was a solid week of RSV. That curtailed most of our activities for several days. That’s largely in the rearview at this point, so I hope to get back to work.

I have chosen during this Advent season to read and preach straight through the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel. This Sunday, we come to the Visit of the Magi. If you are pursuing the Revised Common Lectionary or other scheduled readings, you might use the reflections as you prepare for the Epiphany of Our Lord in January.

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This text is completely entangled with Jewish history and Roman politics. The story of Herod the Great and the astrologers from “the East” – (likely Parthia, about the same as modern day Iran) – shudders with echoes of intrigue and overthrow. It’s worth remembering a bit of that history to appreciate the text more fully. I’m sure my little summary will be filled with inaccuracies and holes. But I think it will be close enough for us to get the gist of what’s going on in our text.

Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the greater Syrian region (which included Palestine) came under the control of the Greek general Seleucus and his political heirs. That regime was relatively uneventful until the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV. Antiochus forced the crisis described, for example, in the Book of Daniel (metaphorically) in in 1 and 2 Maccabees (more literally). The Maccabean Jews were victorious and established what came to be known as the Hasmonean regime.

The Hasmoneans ruled Palestine from about 140 to 37 BCE, with a few hiccups during that century. There was a relative power vacuum in greater Syria during this period. The Seleucids were under attack by the growing Roman republic from the south (and the sea) and from the Parthian empire in the north and east. While the big powers sorted things out, the Hasmoneans exercised authority and power in Palestine. Sometimes the Hasmoneans were allied with Rome. At other times they sought the support of the Parthians.

This is a very rough and ready review of a century of factional intrigue. It’s important to note that a growing player in this power game was the Idumean regime, people we would know in the Hebrew Scriptures (at least loosely) as Edomites. This matters, in part, because Herod the Great had an Idumean princess for a mother and was not regarded, as a result, as authentically and legitimately Jewish. The Idumean desire to rule Palestine certainly precedes the reign of Herod the Great.

The Romans bring the situation into focus beginning 63 BCE. General Pompey defeats the Seleucids. Judea becomes a Roman protectorate. The Romans install a provincial governor. But they also allow the Judeans to have a king – “the King of the Jews.” Not quite ten years later, the Romans split Palestine into five districts, each with its own administration. Judea is now ruled by an Idumean king.

Once the Romans were in charge, Roman politics began to determine local politics. The next big crisis came with the war between Pompey and Julius Caesar. Forces of the Jewish king came to the aid of Julius Caesar and found themselves on the winning team. That connection came to a bloody end in 44 BCE when Julius Caesar was assassinated. The “king of the Jews” had to figure out once again how to align with the winning side. This time, that was not so easy.

At this point, the Parthians (Persians) get more directly involved. The Parthians invaded Palestine as allies of the anti-Antony forces. They removed the Idumean king and installed a semblance of the former Hasmonean regime. By this time, Herod is on the scene, connected to that former Idumean regime. He is on the outside looking in and flees into exile. He looks for support from Antony, and he gets it. In 40 BCE, the Roman senate designates Herod “the King of the Jews.” Antony and Augustus were still allied at this time. They defeated the Parthians and installed Herod on the throne. There were a few more wrinkles before the dust settled, but Herod the Great was the Roman-backed “King of the Jews” from 37 BCE to 4 CE, when he died.

Given all that history, let’s try to experience the political earthquakes in the Matthean account. I intend the reference to “earthquakes” because of the verb the Matthean author uses in verse three. The NRSV suggests that Herod was “frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…” However, the Greek verb here is tarasso. The literal meaning is to shake together or stir up something – especially water, that is agitated and troubled.

“But when King Herod heard [the question of the Magi], he was shook up,” the Matthean author tells us, “and all of Jerusalem [was shook up] with him” (my translation). Herod’s rule was an autocracy with a very efficient state police and intelligence apparatus. It was quite true that if Herod sneezed, all of Jerusalem “got pneumonia” (at least in political terms). Why was Herod “all shook up”?

These Magi come “from the East.” They likely come from Parthia/Persia. In her commentary, Diane Chen reminds us that the word “magi” can refer to members of a priestly caste in Persia. These were likely Zoroastrian astrologers. I don’t say that disparagingly. The distinction between astrology and astronomy is a modern one, and we shouldn’t anachronistically disparage their education and scholarship. These visitors were scientists in the ancient world.

They were also probably in some conversation with the Jewish Diaspora community that remained in what was once ancient Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia. The various deportations had seeded the “East” with vibrant Jewish communities that continued to maintain and develop their faith traditions, memories, theologies, documents, and practices.

The Magi probably come from the place that helped to give Herod and his cohort the boot a generation earlier. Could it be that the great Parthian Empire was once again on the move, preparing to end the Herodian regime and regain control of greater Syria? Had the Magi been sent as a shrewd military and political tactic to begin to destabilize Herod’s reign from within and below? These would have been questions roiling in the Herodian halls as soon as the Magi raised their inquiry.

This material is unique to the Matthean account. I don’t think it’s necessary to assert that all of this is factual reporting of events on the ground. The points I’m making stand within the logic of the story whether one regards the story as “history” or not. The Matthean author wants us as readers to see the contrast between the fake king of the Jews and the real King of the Jews.

That being said, I’m not willing to completely dismiss this account from the pages of history. Why would the Matthean author pick these particular folks for this purpose? If I were making something up, I think I would have made other choices. I might have brought three Greek philosophers to town. Or perhaps a group of Roman historians or legal scholars. Or, even better, a cadre of Egyptian and Ethiopian spiritual savants. Any of these groups would have served the Matthean purposes at least as well.

I’m inclined to think that the Matthean author knew about something that happened to shake up the Herodian court. The description that follows fits very well with the political realities on the ground and the historical context leading to the events. The story of Herod’s tactics and response is an accurate representation of how the bloodthirsty old tyrant dealt with even a whiff of potential competition. The Matthean author has a clear sense of how things were working at the time.

Given this history, Herod is not being paranoid. Rather, he’s being prudent. If Herod was anything, he was a political survivor. He had switched sides at least three times on his path to power. He had left a trail of bodies along that path, several of them members of his own family. Perhaps it was time to test the political wind again. Decisive action was probably required.

The language of the Magi was shocking and surgical in its impact. “Where is the one who is born the King of the Jews?” they ask. Remember, Herod was not “born” the King of the Jews. He was not born a Jew. He was installed by the Romans and kept in place by their power and at their pleasure. Herod was not born either a son of David or a son of Abraham. The Matthean author has used chapter one to set up this stark contrast between the old guy on the throne in Jerusalem and the baby boy in a house in Bethlehem.

In her commentary, Diane Chen notes that this story contrasts the imposter, King Herod, and the real King of the Jews, Jesus. This will be a consistent theme in the Matthean account. We will discover how hard it is to see the real King among us without the eyes of faith. Over and over, it is those outside of normal channels who have those eyes and who see that King.