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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43722341.

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 workingpreacher.org 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 workingpreacher.org 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.

Message for Matthew 1:18-15

The Christmas stories in the gospels are lovely. Unless you actually read them. Then things get…complicated.

Joseph and Mary have a problem. Mary is promised to Joseph in marriage. Usually, such a betrothal lasted a year. This length of time was to make sure there was no funny business. Unfortunately, it appears to Joseph that there’s been some funny business. And it’s clear to Joseph that he wasn’t involved in the fun or the business.

So, Joseph and Mary have a problem. For Mary, this problem is a disaster. The punishment for such funny business is an honor killing. That killing is carried out by the village. That’s the law.

For Joseph, this problem is a dilemma. Joseph doesn’t risk death by stoning. His personal honor is at stake. His status in the village will suffer once the word gets out. Joseph will be a laughingstock among his peers. Joseph will endure a mixture of pity and scorn.

But…at least he’ll get up and go to work the next morning.

Perhaps you’re already squirming. Perhaps this sermon should be called “Hennigs Ruins Christmas.” Friends, I don’t write it. I just report it. Our gospel reading has one hundred sixty-one words. This reading devotes a whopping fourteen words to Jesus’ actual birth.

It’s no accident that we always read Luke’s version on Christmas Eve. We like angels and shepherds. We like sheep and mangers. We like heavenly songs and celebrations. And we like Mary much better than we like Joseph.

Let’s be honest. Mary shows up in about a third of our Christmas carols. Joseph is mentioned in about one out of twenty carols –if he’s lucky. Mary is caring and kind, fearless and faithful. Joseph, on the other hand, is…reasonable.

Look at Matthew one, verse nineteen. “Her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Joseph, you see, is a reasonable man. He decides he won’t publicly denounce Mary. That will save every – Joseph included – a lot of embarrassment and drama.

Mistakes were made. These things happen. Let’s just cut our losses and move on. No hard feelings.

That’s a respectable response. And Joseph is a reasonable man. But this isn’t a reasonable story.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote an Advent poem called “After Annunciation.” It goes like this:

This is the irrational season

When love blooms bright and wild.

Had Mary been filled with reason

There’d have been no room for the child.

It’s not officially Advent until I share that poem somewhere. So, I feel better now, thank you. But today, I think I want to add a verse or two for Joseph.

This is the irrational season

When dreaming will not be denied.

Though Joseph was plum full of reason

A Bethlehem baby still cried.

Joseph was a reasonable man. He thinks that’s the solution. Instead, that’s the problem.

I think Mary’s story points to what Christmas gives to us. In Mary’s story, the angels bring good news of great joy for all the people. In David’s city is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Mary’s story gives us that good news.

I think Joseph’s story points to what Christmas asks of us. Will Joseph trust that his dreams are messages from God? Will Joseph believe this baby comes from the Holy Spirit? Will Joseph trust that this child will save his people from their sins? Will Joseph believe that this birth fulfills the promise of “God with us”?

That’s a lot to ask of a reasonable man.

And God’s messenger tells Joseph to be brave. “Joseph, son of David,” the messenger says, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…” Up to this point, God’s messenger was only preaching. How the preaching turns into meddling. Believing must become acting. Those actions could have life and death consequences for both Joseph and Mary.

Joseph’s story points to what Christmas asks of us. God’s messenger says to you and me, “Don’t be afraid!” Matthew’s gospel repeats this pattern. Watch for it in the next twelve months. Here are a few examples.

Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus calls us to seek first the righteousness of God’s kingdom. After that everything will fall into place. Jesus calls us to forgive seventy-seven times. Jesus calls us to see him in the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Jesus calls us to make disciples, baptizing and teaching as we go.

That’s a lot to ask of reasonable people. No wonder we like Mary’s story better.

But Joseph’s story is also about a gift. It’s about The Gift – with a capital “T” and a capital “G.” Joseph’s story is about The Gift that makes all other gifts worth the both. In Matthew twenty-eight, verse twenty, Jesus sends the disciples out with the great missionary commission. With that commission comes a promise. “And remember,” Jesus declares, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Did you hear that? Suddenly we’re back in Matthew, chapter one. They shall call him “Emmanuel,” Matthew says, “which means ‘God with us.’

Wait a minute! That doesn’t make sense. I thought his name was Jesus! Friends, let’s not be quite so reasonable for a moment. Jesus is God –the One who saves us is the One who is with us. If you’re looking for the “true meaning of Christmas,” there it is. The One who saves us is the One who is with us.

I want to add a third verse to Madeleine L’Engle’s poem. It’s a verse for you and me.

This is the irrational season

When shopping and gifts abound

If we remembered the reason for the season

We’d have plenty of love to go round.

The One who saves us is the One who is with us.

Joseph wakes up remarkably unreasonable. But there’s more going on here. Matthew one, verse twenty-five says that Joseph “rose” from sleep. Yes, that’s the same word the gospel uses in Matthew twenty-eight, verse six, to describe Jesus’ resurrection. Joseph’s story calls us to look from Christmas to Easter. Resurrection produces unreasonable disciples.

For example, today we do something quite unreasonable. I hand you a chunk of bread. I invite you to trust that this is the body of Christ, given for you. An assistant gives you a cup of wine. The assistant invites you to trust that this is the blood of Christ, shed for you. Then I invite you to rise up as God’s unreasonable people – people who trust that the God for us is God with us, and in us.

That’s how we can do the unreasonable things disciples do. That’s how we love enemies, forgive one another, and see Jesus in our neighbors in need. Reasonable wonder about these things. So, the world needs unreasonable people like us.

This is the irrational season

Hidden ‘neath ribbons and bows

Let this place be one of love’s beacons,

A place where God’s love truly shows.

Amen.

Message for November 27, 2022

Read Matthew 1:1-17 (see also the previous post with “Matthew’s Begats.”

Note: This message is for a baptismal worship service. Where names have been elided, that is to protect the privacy of the family.

Well, that was a weird reading, right? No matter how much fun Andrew Peterson’s song was, it’s still a strange text for today. Dry and dusty history from three thousand years past. Names that are foreign to our ears and challenging for our tongues.

It’s like looking at someone else’s family pictures. You do your best to appear politely interested. All the time you’re thinking to yourself, “Who are these people?”

And yet, these days, genealogies are big business. All of us baby boomers are afraid we’re going to die, and no one will remember us. We have ancestry.com accounts. We’ve spit in a tube and waited for our genetic profiles. We watch celebrities in shock as they discover some hidden branch of their family tree.

I’ll bet a quarter of the phone calls we get at the church office start out like this. “I’m doing some research on my genealogy. Do you have any records on my relatives?”

Where do I come from? Who are my people? What’s my story? Am I part of a bigger story?

These questions matter to people. The answers help tell us who we are. The answers tell us where we belong. And the answers might give us some clues about where we’re headed.

It’s interesting to read a genealogy on a baptism day. … is the newest addition to your family trees. He carries the history and hopes, not only of his parents, but of generations of ancestors.

As he grows, you’ll probably tell him some of those stories. They will help him know who he is. And they will help him imagine who he might become.

I think of those stories in my family tree. A couple of my ancestors lived in one of the first sod houses in western Plymouth County. A young mother, six months pregnant, snared and slaughtered a hog to feed her children. She did that because her husband had stayed too long in town with his drinking buddies.

A young man left Germany to escape the gathering clouds of war. He became a Lutheran school teacher in my home church. Another young man couldn’t obey the rules. So, he became a farmer instead of a preacher. I often wonder how that story has shaped my own relationship being a preacher.

My family tree has its heroes and saints. My family tree also has its rogues and sinners. So does every family tree. My family tree has a large number of rebels and skeptics, investigators and inquirers, and no small portion of atheists. All of that explains a lot of who I am now.

Now my grandchildren are the leading edge of that larger story. … is the leading edge of the larger story in his family. I suspect that his family will spend some time today telling that story. That’s what happens when families gather.

Genealogy is about beginnings. It’s about origin stories. Matthew launches his gospel with Jesus’ origin story. “The book of the Genesis of Jesus, the Messiah,” Matthew writes in verse one, “son of David, son of Abraham.”

I know that’s not how the NRSV translates it. But that’s what it says.

That word, “genesis,” means “beginnings.” If you connect Matthew’s sentence to the first book of the Bible, give yourself a gold star! That first book is named “Genesis” because it’s about beginnings. It’s about the beginning of Creation, the beginning of humanity, the beginning of Israel.

Matthew wants us to hear Jesus’ story as part of that great big story.

Jesus’ family tree has heroes and saints. But Jesus’ family tree leans heavily toward rogues and sinners. Abraham plays fast and loose with the truth. Jacob is a trickster and thief. David is more like a mob boss than a wise king. Jesus’ family tree has cowards and cheats, frauds and fools, liars and losers.

We find a few heroes in the list. But they are the exceptions.

A close look at any genealogy produces humility. We like to highlight the heroes and saints. We brag up our successful and prominent ancestors. We try to claim a bit of their past glory for ourselves.

But for every hero or saint on the list, I have five stinkers slinking in the background. The genesis of Jesus makes me feel a bit better about my own ancestral line.

Maybe you noticed the women in that list of male ancestors. The women make the list even weirder. Not because the women are weird. But ancient family trees hardly ever mentioned the mothers. So, mentioning the women means something. Matthew has a trick up his theological sleeve here.

You may not recognize these women. Maybe you’ll check them out this week. The women are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. These four are outsiders. They’re not Israelites. They don’t have respectable jobs. The men in their lives use and abuse them, neglect and abandon them.

They’re on the list because these women are smart, courageous, desperate, and persistent.

So, watch Matthew’s story for outsiders. Watch Matthew’s story for those who have to buck and battle the system. Watch Matthew’s story for those threatened by the powerful. Watch Matthew’s story for those who threaten the powerful. Watch Matthew’s story for those who won’t take no for an answer.

These are the heroes and saints in Matthew’s story. These are the heroes and saints in Jesus’ story.

The real hero, after all, is Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the Son of God. The genealogy begins with Jesus. The genealogy ends with Jesus. The story goes from blessing Abraham to crowning David. It goes from the triumph of Solomon to the tragedy of the Exile. It goes from the depths of despair to the hoped-for Messiah.

But what about those numbers? Does Matthew have a side-hustle as an accountant? If so, he’s not very good. Abraham to David – fourteen generations. David to Deportation – fourteen generations. Deportation to Joseph – thirteen generations. Did Matthew miscount?

No, Jesus is the fourteenth, the fulfillment, the completion, the goal. This is Matthew’s story. God’s people have waited for that final name. That final name is Jesus.

Today, … becomes part of that big story. Today … is baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. Today … is baptized into the love story of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Today … is named Child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit. Today … is marked forever with the cross of the Messiah.

Today is the beginning of that new life for …. Today is his “genesis day.”

As … grows, his family will tell him stories about his bigger story. And we – parents, sponsors, congregation – we promise to tell him the biggest story of all. We promise to tell him God’s story of salvation in Jesus.

You heard and made those promises a few moments ago. We promise to walk with … as he learns God’s story of salvation. We promise to sit with him in worship as we celebrate that story.

We promise to put the Bible in his hands and teach him to make that story his own. We promise to teach him the faith in the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Commandments. We promise to help … love his place in God’s story of salvation.

That’s why this congregation has Sunday School, Bible School, and confirmation instruction. That’s why we do preschool and youth activities and Christmas programs and music. Because we promised.

Because we promised to help each and all of our children to love their places in God’s story of salvation. So, we volunteer as teachers and helpers and sponsors. We support ministries of nurture and education. We offer these gifts to anyone’s children – because they are all God’s children.

God’s big story has a goal. And it produces results. We carry out these promises so … can fulfill his baptismal calling. That calling is to let his light so shine before others that they may see his good works and give glory to his Father in heaven. We all have that calling – to live in such a way that the world will know God’s big story of salvation and our part in that story.

Our part is to trust God in all things. Our part is to tell the big story in what we say and do. Our part is to care for all God’s kids and the world where they live. Our part is to work through the story so that no one is left out or left behind. When we do our part, we help …, and all of our children, grow in faith and life.

Today is a day of beginnings. It’s the beginning  of a new church year. It’s the beginning of a new church season. It’s the beginning of our journey through Matthew’s story. It’s the beginning of …’s part in God’s big story of salvation in Jesus.

So, today is not about endings. Baptism is a launch pad, not a landing spot. Our place in the big story lasts a lifetime.

Parents, thank you for allowing us to be part of …’s beginning. Thank you for bringing him into God’s story and God’s family. Thank you for your promises of love and faith. We promise to continue what we’ve begun together. Let’s pray…

Text Study for Matthew 24:36-44 (Part Two)

Our text has two different Greek words for “to know.” In verse thirty-six we read, “But concerning that day and hour, no one knows – neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son – none except for the Father” (my translation and emphasis). The verb here is “oida.” The verb appears again in verse forty-two. “Be on watch, therefore, because you (plural) do not know on what day the Lord is coming to you” (my translation and emphasis).

In verses thirty-nine and forty-two, the verb is “ginosko.” “And they did not know until the Deluge came and they were completely swept away; thus also shall be the coming of the Son of Man” (my translation and emphasis). Both verbs appear again in verse forty-three. “But know this (ginosko): that if the master of the household had known (oida) at what watch of the night the thief was coming, he would not have permitted his house to be broken into” (my translation and emphases).

This may seem a bit nerdy and in the weeds. But I think this matters for interpretation. Most of the time, I find out what I’m thinking by typing it here. And sometimes I’m as surprised as you may be by what comes out of the process. We could conclude that the Matthean author is just sloppy with vocabulary. Or we could conclude that in the Matthean community the verbs were relatively interchangeable. We could, but I don’t.

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I don’t think either conclusion is warranted in this text or in the Matthean account in general. Instead, this variation in verbs describes different responses to the events described in this section of the gospel story. And this variation in verbs can challenge us to reflect on the kind of “knowing” we bring to our lives as disciples, especially in challenging times.

“Oida” generally means to “know about” someone or something. It’s really the perfect form of the Greek stem, eid–. “Perfect” here refers to a verb tense, not a state of purity or completion. And the stem describes the action of seeing or observing. “Oida” describes knowing the externals of a person, thing, or event. Not knowing, in this context, means something like to be unacquainted with that person, thing, or event.

“Ginosko” generally means to “know” someone or something from the inside. In relational terms, it describes an intimate connection. Therefore, for example, the Matthean author uses this verb to describe the sexual relationship (or lack thereof) between Mary and Joseph prior to the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:25). In my final translations of Matthew 24:39 and 24:43, therefore, I use the English verb “to comprehend” to render “ginosko.”

“But no one knows about that day and hour,” Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 24:36. That is, no one except for the Father knows about the details of the calendar or the actual events of that coming. This is quite remarkable since the day and hour in question refers to the coming of the Son of Man (see Matthew 24:29-31). The Son himself won’t know the details of that day and hour until things come to pass in the moment.

“For just as were the days of Noah,” Jesus continues, “likewise will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37, my translation). In those days, life appeared to go on as normal. Then Noah entered the ark. Those outside the ark didn’t comprehend the significance of what was happening until it was too late for them. They clearly “knew about” Noah’s boarding of the boat. Otherwise, there would have been nothing to comprehend or understand.

The “knowing” that is at stake here is not “knowing about.” It’s not knowing the Divine timetable or charting the progress of events as the world moves toward some sort of “end.” That is precisely the knowing that is not available – not available even to the angels of heaven or the Son. If the people in Noah’s days are an accurate example, then many are likely to get it wrong if the focus is on knowing about the daily details.

In order to interpret our text accurately, I think we need to read closely the preceding “Lesson of the Fig Tree” (Matthew 24:32-35). “But from the fig tree learn this parable,” Jesus says, “whenever you observe (oida) its branch becomes tender and it puts forth leaves, you understand (ginosko) that summer is near…” (Matthew 24:32, my translation).

The two verbs show up in connection and contrast here. You “know” the condition of the branch and the presence of the foliage by observing. On the basis of that observation, you can get a deeper understanding of what’s happening – especially of what the season is. “Likewise, you also, whenever you see all these things,” Jesus continues, “you understand that he is drawing near, upon the gates” (Matthew 24:33, my translation and emphases).

In verse 33, we get a clear juxtaposition of oida and eidon, the verb for “to see.” Seeing events leads to an observation and awareness of those events. The wise observer will then understand more than meets the eye. The wise observer will conclude that the seasons are changing.

I think Jesus is quite intentional in the use of his imagery here. Some of the vocabulary in these verses shows up in the Matthean account of the Triumphal Entry in Matthew 21. We get images of trees and branches, like the branches laid on Jesus’ path as he draws near to the gates and enters the city. The coming of the Son of Man, Jesus tells his followers, has commenced with that triumphal entry. The tree branches are sprouting leaves, and the season is changing.

The lead-in for the Apocalyptic Discourse in the Matthew account comes in Matthew 23:39. Jesus pronounces woes upon the scribes and Pharisees. He declares in Matthew 23:36 that these messianic woes will come upon that current generation. Jesus then laments over the fate of Jerusalem, when the Temple (the “house” in Matthew 23:38) will be left desolate. And he connects “seeing” him with the declaration the crowds shouted in Matthew 21:9.

This generation has “seen” Jesus as he approaches the gates of Jerusalem. They have not comprehended that the season is changing for them. But that won’t keep things from happening to them. “Truly I am telling you,” Jesus solemnly declares in Matthew 24:34, “that this generation shall not come to an end until all these things have happened” (my translation). I think there’s no question that Jesus is speaking, albeit in veiled terms, to those around him at that moment.

Jesus makes clear the meaning of his actions. The season is changing for the Jerusalem establishment. Nothing can change that fact. “Heaven and earth shall come to an end,” Jesus concludes, “but my words shall certainly not come to an end” (Matthew 24:35, my translation). This is the introduction to our text.

The conclusion is equally as stark. In the parable of the faithful slave and the wicked slave, Jesus describes the incomprehension of the wicked slave: “the Lord of that slave will come on a day when he is not on watch, and in an hour which he does not comprehend (ginosko)” (Matthew 24:50, my translation). The pragmatically wise and reliable slave is blessed. The Lord finds that slave engaged in the ongoing work of the household. The wicked slave is cut up and cast out.

The pragmatically wise and reliable slave is in a position to see what’s happening. That slave comprehends that the Lord’s delay is not a sign of the Lord’s faithlessness. Rather, that delay is a call for greater faithfulness on the part of the slave. That faithfulness consists of continuing to do the work in which the slave has been employed all along. That will put the faithful slave in the best position to comprehend what the Lord is doing.

This may all have been cryptic and to some degree unfulfilled for Jesus’ listeners. The Matthean audience, however, is in a different position. So are we. Stanley Saunders offers helpful words in this regard in his workingpreacher.org commentary.

“We can, however, lift up the defeat of death in the cross and resurrection, which dramatically alters how we approach ‘the end’ of the biblical story: the defining moment is not Jesus’ triumphal advent at the end of history, whenever that might be, but the moment of his revelation of God’s true power on the cross. The point, for those who know this much, is to live in the light of this transformed reality.”

We Jesus followers trust that Jesus is coming. We look for that coming in our daily lives and experience. We look for that coming as the culmination of God’s Creation/New Creation project. We can observe the events of our lives. We can regard them as more of just one damn thing after another. Or we can comprehend these events as opportunities to meet Jesus as wise and faithful servants, part of the fulfillment of God’s project.

For those in liturgical traditions, it’s a change of seasons. It’s also a change of seasons in the natural world, toward winter or toward summer – depending on our hemisphere. Is it a change in the season of my life? Is it a change in the season of our congregation? Is it a change in the season for our tradition or denomination? This first Advent text raises those questions for us. And it challenges us to comprehend the depth of what we see.

Message for November 20, 2022

Christ the King Sunday

Luke 23:32-43

Loving Power

Christ the King, 2022

Luke 23:32-43

Today is Christ the King Sunday. The issue is power. How will that power get used? Will Jesus save himself? Or will he use his power in another way?

Here is the gospel in today’s Gospel. Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

Bruce Almighty is a 2003 comedy film starring Jim Carrey. Bruce Almighty is my favorite theology movie of all time. The film wrestles with the connection between power and love.

Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a television reporter in Buffalo, New York. Bruce is whiny, selfish, and irritated about everything. On a particularly bad day, Bruce rages against God. He makes fun of God and demands an explanation for his troubles.

God shows up. God tells Bruce that if Bruce can do any better, then have at it. God, played by Morgan Freeman, then leaves on a long-overdue vacation.

Bruce discovers that he suddenly has the power of God. He walks the streets of Buffalo accompanied by Snap’s 2003 hit, “I’ve Got the Power.”

Bruce blows the top off a fire hydrant with a wave of his hand. He steals a nice outfit from a store window by thinking about it. He gets revenge on his enemies. He makes his competition, played by Steve Carrell, look foolish on live TV.

We find Bruce standing atop the highest building in Buffalo. The sky is dark with flashes of lightning. Thunder rumbles and the music builds to a climax. “I am Bruce Almighty!” he declares. “My will be done!”

We would all like to be Bruce at that moment.

The issue is power. On that first Good Friday, Pilate had the power. He could execute this inconvenient imposter. Everyone knew it. Power over death means power over life.

Power is the path to privilege, pleasure and protection. Powerful men, for example, presume ownership of the female bodies around them. They grab whatever is handy. They then hide behind political and cultural machinery designed to shield them from consequences.

Bruce Almighty makes a prediction about that use of power. Bruce moves the moon to impress his girlfriend, Grace, played by Jennifer Anniston. He changes Grace’s body to suit his preferences. Bruce thinks he can use his power to manipulate Grace.

But for a while, Bruce loves power more than he loves Grace. That love of power nearly costs Bruce everything that really matters to him. For a while it costs him his relationship with Grace. The love of power will destroy us in the end. The power of love will save us in the end. The movie asks whether Bruce can learn that lesson or not.

For Jesus, the purpose of power is love. Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

“The God we know in Jesus,” writes David Lose, “is revealed…not in power but in vulnerability, not in might but in brokenness, not in judgment but in mercy.” That is the God who comes to us in Jesus. Will we act as if that King is returning? Will we recognize Jesus where he chooses to be? He chooses to be the King who rules by serving, who conquers by dying.

Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

Who has the power? Jesus, the Crucified and Risen Lord. He turns power inside out and upside down. He inaugurates a new order governed not by fear, force, and judgment, but by love, mercy and justice. Jesus is the King, reigning from his unlikely throne. He is the king the grave cannot contain.

Paul writes these words in Colossians one: Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.

Jesus showers that power on his body, the Church. Paul’s words are nothing short of astonishing here: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

For a while, Bruce is lost in his power. Habitual power produces spiritual blindness. This blindness is more than an image. It is a physical reality.

In an article in the Atlantic magazine, Jeremy Useem reported that “Power Causes Brain Damage.” “If power were a prescription drug,” Useem wrote, “it would come with a long list of known side effects.” He shares the results of various studies that demonstrate the corrosive and corrupting effects of power on human behavior and perception.

What grabbed me was a study that showed actual shrinkage in brain tissue among those accustomed to power. The brain tissue necessary for empathy and understanding was atrophied in such folks. Exercising habitual power makes us less human.

The historian, Henry Adams, puts it this way. Power, he writes, is “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.”

Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

Habitual care, on the other hand, makes us more human. Bruce comes to the end of his rope. He has lost his way. He has lost his friends. He has lost his job. And he thinks he has lost Grace. In desperation, Bruce kneels down in the middle of a highway. He pleads with God to make it all right again. As he prays, he sees a brilliant light coming toward him.

Unfortunately, that light comes from a semi-trailer. Bruce finds himself in heaven. “Why,” Bruce asks God, “Why, just when I understood things, would you let that happen to me?” The answer is practical. “Bruce, you can’t kneel down in the middle of a highway and live to tell about it.”

God asks Bruce what he really wants. Suddenly, all that lust for power is gone. All that greed for gain is gone. All that fever for fame is gone. Finally, what Bruce wants is Grace. No, not Grace. What Bruce wants is what’s best for Grace – whether that makes Bruce happy or not. God smiles and says, “Now that’s a prayer.”

The love of power will destroy us in the end. The power of love will save us in the end. The movie asks whether Bruce can learn that lesson or not. Bruce learns that lesson. And they all live happily ever after. Well, what do we expect? After all, it’s a movie.

For Jesus, the purpose of power is love. Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

The love of power will destroy us in the end. The power of love will save us in the end. The daily question for us is whether we can learn and live that lesson.

We are powerful people. That is the economic, political, social and racial truth. We are Americans. We are mostly white. We have enough money to live. We are educated. We are powerful people. The only question for us today is how we will use that power. Will we love our privilege, pleasure and protection? Or will we use our power to love?

Jesus loves the lost, the strayed, the injured and the weak. Jesus loves the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Jesus loves them enough to be one with them. Do we? After all, we’ve got the power – the power of Jesus’ love.

Let’s pray…

Text Study for Matthew 24:36-44 (Part One)

1 Advent A; November 27, 2022

“Be on watch, therefore, because you don’t know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42, my translation). The verb in Greek is “grehgoreo.” The BAGD lexicon (page 167) gives us two meanings for the verb. The first is the “literal” meaning – to be or keep awake. The lexicon attaches that meaning to Matthew 24:43. The second is the “figurative” meaning – to be on the alert, to be watchful, to keep one’s eyes open. The lexicon attaches those meanings to Matthew 24:42.

I’m hard pressed to discern why the lexicon makes this distinction between two verses in our text. In fact, the TDNT entry reverses these applications. That discussion makes the verb in verse 42 the “figurative” meaning and the usage in verse 43 the “literal” meaning. The TDNT entry suggests that there is some linguistic slippage between the meanings in those two verses.

That makes sense to me. I think it’s more helpful to allow the Matthew author to use both meanings in both verses. The Matthew author takes advantage of this range of meaning to slide back and forth between the idea of “being awake” and the idea of being “on the watch.” Given the imagery in our text of the householder whose home security system failed, I think the imagery of being “on the watch” is the more central word picture in the text.

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Stanley Saunders has a helpful discussion of these images in his workingpreacher.org commentary. This is not advice for crisis moments,” Saunders writes, “but a call to perpetual, normative readiness, regardless of circumstance.” Being awake to and alert for the presence and power of God in Christ is the normal state for Jesus followers. This is not an emergency posture. This is not a personal stance that’s just dialed up in crisis moments. This alertness to the presence and power of God in Christ is standard operating procedure for those of us who claim the name of “disciple.”

“Watchfulness or wakefulness is here not a defensive or preventive posture, but heightened attentiveness,” Saunders writes, “attuned both to the signs of God’s presence and power, as well as the signs that the powers of this world are doubling down.” Like the audience for the Matthean account, we know how the story turns out. We’re not like the disciples in the story. We’ve read to the end already.

We have no business being surprised by the presence and power of God in Christ – unless, for some reason we’ve fallen asleep at our posts. This is where the sense of “being on watch” is important in our understanding of the verb and of the text. We have moved from the eschatological discourse in Luke on Christ the King Sunday to the Matthean version of that discourse.

We can find the particular Matthean emphasis in that discourse in Matthew 24:12-14. “And through the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who is patiently enduring toward the End, that one will be saved. And this good news of the Kingdom shall be proclaimed in the whole inhabited world, for the purpose of testimony to all the nations, and then the End shall come” (my translation).

It’s not that the Matthean community is lazy or lackadaisical. Instead, they’ve endured some real hardship over the past generation. They’ve lived through the Year of the Four Emperors that nearly destroyed the Roman regime. They’ve survived famines and earthquakes (and probably disease as well). They’ve experienced persecution that has divided the community and driven some to betray their own family members. They’ve witnessed the horrors of the Judean war and the destruction of Jerusalem. They’ve had to sort through the false prophets and religious opportunists that such crises always produce.

The Matthean disciples aren’t lazy or lackadaisical. They’re tired. They’ve been through a lot.

What they’d like more than anything is some rest. Just a little bit of normalcy would be most welcome for them, I imagine. They’re not in danger of sloth. They’re on the verge of a kind of spiritual anomie. That’s the Greek root of the word translated as “lawlessness” in Matthew 24:12. The English equivalent of that word these days means something like the social instability that comes from a breakdown of norms, rules, standards, and values.

The Matthean disciples aren’t really in danger of an “eat, drink, and be merry” sort of ignorance. They’re much more in danger of just no longer giving a shit about anything. That’s what long-term suffering and struggle can do to a person or a community. We can put so much emotional, social, and spiritual energy into just getting from one day to the next, that after a while we have nothing left. Perhaps in the Matthean account, the opposite of being awake isn’t sloth. Perhaps the opposite of being awake is being numb.

That description resonates, I think, with life over the last few years. As we’ve lived with and through Covid-tide, we know what it means to be awake and alert. We’ve worn masks. We’ve been tested. We’ve lived through lockdowns. We’ve gotten vaccinated (or not). We’ve stayed away from family and social gatherings (nor not). We’ve wondered who will give us the virus, or who we’ve infected. We’ve worried (at least some of us) about every sniffle, sneeze, and cough. We’ve been hyper-vigilant for so long that it doesn’t seem all that “hyper” anymore.

And now we’re tired. We’re tired of being awake and alert. We’re tired of being on guard. We may not all have Covid, but we’ve all got some degree of Covid fatigue. We’re done with the virus, as Michael Osterholm notes, even if the virus isn’t done with us. I don’t wear a mask much at all, even though I know the threat continues and is real. I don’t wash my hands or disinfect as much as I did. We don’t stay home from restaurants or church or other gatherings. We’ve had enough. We’re moving on with life.

I wonder how much of this describes the Matthean community in the last twenty years of that first century. Apparently, their love had grown “cold.” Were they just getting on with life? This is the same sort of description we get in the Book of Revelation. In chapter three, the writer describes the Laodicean community as “neither hot nor cold.” They, too, had been subject to pressure and persecution. They, too, must have been tired. They, too, perhaps had just simply had enough and wanted to get on with some semblance of life.

The Matthean author responds to this anomic crisis by reporting a series of “keep awake” parables. “Blessed is that slave,” Jesus says in Matthew 24:46, “who, when his Lord comes, will find that one working” (my translation). In contrast is the wicked slave who gives up on his Lord and just gets numb. (I now hear “Tequila Sunrise” playing in my head). Then we get the parables of the bridesmaids, the talents, and the judgement of the nations.

Now is no time to be low on supplies, to be risk averse for the kingdom, or to ignore the needy for the sake of self-preservation. Those are all signs of being asleep.

No one can be alert all the time. It’s just too exhausting. If we try to be alert to threats all the time, we will become physically and mentally ill. We have to take breaks from watching. But taking a break is different from quitting the job. One of the functions of the liturgical year is to remind us of the need to be alert and prepared. We may have gone to sleep at our posts, but it’s Advent. We can wake up and return to duty.

“The vocation of modern disciples is still to watch for the signs of God’s presence in power,” Stanley Saunders concludes, “especially as revealed through the cross and the resurrection, in healing the sick, standing with the broken and suffering, bringing sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf.” It’s no accident that this section of the Matthean account concludes with a parable that declares precisely that vocation.

Spiritual numbness leads me to draw into myself, to pull down the curtains, to ignore the world around me. Those behaviors are not effective treatments for such numbness. Instead, they are further symptoms of the condition and make things far worse. The antidote for my numbness is to make my world bigger and brighter, not smaller and darker. The same antidote is prescribed in both the context of and the companion texts for our reading.

The Matthean account always has “the nations” in view. That begins with the Magi coming to the manger, the nations seeing the Lord in Matthew 25, and the gospel being proclaimed to all nations in Matthew 28. We get that antidote in Matthew 24:15 as well. We can see it clearly in Isaiah 2, as the nations stream toward Mount Zion to learn the Torah of God. We can see that in Romans 13 as well.

The opposite of numbness is expansiveness in love. That’s a message that matters in Advent 2022.

Sermon for Luke 21:5-19

23 Pentecost C/November 13, 2022

Lawrence Peter Berra was better known by his nickname, “Yogi.” He was an eighteen-time All-Star catcher for the New York Yankees. He played on ten World Series champion teams. He later coached and managed the Yankees. Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

Yogi is famous for many weird and wonderful phrases. They’re called “Yogi-isms.” It ain’t over till it’s over. You can observe a lot just by watching. When come you to a fork in the road, take it. It’s like déjà vu all over again.

Today’s text reminds me of another Yogi-ism. “It’s tough to make predictions,” Yogi once said, “especially about the future.” Ain’t that the truth! We’ve spent a week hearing about failed predictions. Many so-called experts were sure the voters would go a particular direction. But…they didn’t.

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. But predicting is what we humans do. What’s the weather supposed to be like today? I’m trying to decide what to wear. Where will interest rates be a year from now? I’m trying to buy a house or manage my business. What training or education do I need to get a job when I graduate? When is the right time to retire – if I can retire at all? Doctor, how long do I have?

Predicting is what we do. Neurologists tell us we use more of our brain circuits for predicting than for any other activity. Even our memories exist for the purpose of prediction. If you’ve ever hit a deer with your car, for example, you will always tighten up a bit when you pass that spot. It happened there once. It could certainly happen again.

In today’s Gospel reading, some of the disciples ask Jesus for a prediction. Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem. They’re watching people come and go in the Temple. Some of the disciples go full-on tourist. They start oohing and ahhing about the Temple foundation stones. I don’t them blame. Some of those stones were the size of railroad cars. They were cut and moved by hand. I’d be pretty impressed too.

Jesus deflates their delight. “As for these things that you see,” Jesus tells them, “the days will come when not one stone will be left on another; all will be thrown down.” That sounds like a prediction to me. And it sounded like a prediction to the disciples.

They ask the obvious question. When? Teacher, when then will these things be? And what will be the signs that these things are about to happen? Jesus answers the questions. But it’s not the answer we want. Jesus doesn’t give a timeline for escape. He gives a checklist for faithfulness.

How do disciples respond when the world is unraveling? I summarize Jesus’ words with three P’s: perspective, perseverance, and prayer. I hope you can take those three words with you this week. This checklist helps whether the unraveling is personal or communal or global. How do disciples respond when the world is unraveling? We seek perspective, perseverance, and prayer.

We’ve lived through some scary times in the last few years. There will always be those try to use our fears against. Us. There will always be those who try to profit from our fear. There will always be those who use our fear to gain power. That’s true even of people who claim to be Christian.

“Beware that you are not led astray,” Jesus warns us. Many will come in Jesus’ name. Some will claim to represent him. Some may even claim to be him – the one chosen by God, anointed by God, speaking for God. Some will declare that it’s time for the End of the World. Don’t pay attention to them, Jesus says. Don’t go after them.

Stop and get some perspective. Perspective is a “seeing” word. It comes from a Latin verb that means “to look at closely.” We can ask ourselves, “Do I see what’s there? Or do I see something that’s not there?”

We humans always search for patterns. Patterns can help us make accurate predictions. But sometimes we see patterns that aren’t there. For example, there was a total eclipse of the moon early Tuesday morning. I wasn’t up, but I’m pretty sure it happened.

The reddish color of this eclipse gives it the name “Blood Moon Eclipse.” This was the first time in history that a Blood Moon Eclipse coincided with an American election. Some people thought that meant something. They thought it indicated a particular election outcome. It didn’t.

We look for patterns to find our way through crises. Crises come, and crises go. Crises matter. Crises are scary. But they don’t mean that God is unfaithful. Instead, the greatest crisis in the history of the universe broke every pattern. The greatest crisis in the history of the universe is also the greatest sign that God is faithful.

That crisis is the cross on Good Friday. That sign is the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. The Resurrection of Jesus means that no crisis is forever. The Resurrection of Jesus means that nothing good will be lost. That’s how we Christians see the world – from the perspective of the Resurrection.

That Resurrection perspective fuels our perseverance as Jesus followers. Because God is faithful, we stand firm. Jesus expects that following him might get us in trouble. You don’t get hauled in front of the authorities for being polite. We may need to speak truth to power for Jesus’ sake. If that happens, Jesus will not leave us on our own. So, we can persevere.

On Luke 21:15, Jesus assures us of his help. “For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, “Jesus tells the disciples. Jesus remembers the story of Moses in the book of Exodus. God calls Moses to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Moses says, “I won’t know what to say!” God says, “Don’t worry. I made mouths – including yours. When the time comes, your mouth will work fine.”

As a preacher, I experience this every week. I don’t just show up on Sunday mornings and say whatever pops in my head. I spend ten hours a week preparing a sermon. I spend most of that time listening for Jesus amidst all the noise in my head. If I wait, if I persevere. Jesus gives me the words to share with you.

Perspective, perseverance – and prayer. Jesus ends his speech with these words. “Pay attention in every critical moment,” he says in verse 36, “asking to be strengthened to get away from all these things that are about to happen…” This is another version of the Lord’s Prayer – “save us from the time of trial.”

If we’re following Jesus, we don’t have to look for trouble. Trouble will find us. But we can pray for Jesus to keep us out of the trouble we cause ourselves. And we can pray for Jesus to get us into the trouble that will do some good for God’s kingdom.

Yogi Berra also said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” I think that’s what Jesus is telling his disciples. We think we know how things are supposed to go. But Jesus is doing something new. When Jesus dies and is raised, everything will be different.

The most common question I get as an interim pastor is, “What’s next?” I’m here to help you think through that question. I’m here to help you walk Jesus’ path to the future. That path is perspective, perseverance, and prayer. We’re currently in the “perspective” phase. I’m here to help you look at how you’re taking a look.

Maybe you think this is simple. Pastors are like machine parts. You take one out. You put the replacement in. Easy-peasy, and on we go. But that’s now really how it works.

We’ve all been through some stuff in the past few years. Churches are not the same. Churches are not going to be the same. There’s no going back to the way things were. Churches that try to do that probably won’t survive. They certainly won’t thrive.

Thriving churches see things in new ways. We’ll see church as more than an hour on Sunday mornings. We’ll see that Sunday attendance is smaller, but church impact is bigger. We’ll see that both face-to-face and online church are necessary and good. We’ll see that personal connection is critical in an impersonal world. We’ll see that ministry is about partners, not competitors.

That last sentence describes our conversation this afternoon in Red Oak. I hope you’ll be part of that conversation.

Mamrelund can thrive in the future. That’s true even if the future ain’t what it used to be. This congregation has numerous strengths. Worship and music. Facility. Children and Youth. Community involvement and engagement. History and heritage. Love and compassion. Mamrelund is poised to thrive. So, let’s see together where the Spirit wants to lead you.

What’s next? It’s a journey of perspective, perseverance, and prayer. You can help with that third one right now. Let’s pray…