Archive for December 2016

Matthew 2:13-23

When we do Christmas, it is very tempting to skip the story of King Herod's murdering the children of the Bethlehem region. In a year when the innocent children of Syria, and their parents, have been made to suffer, this ommission is unconsciencable. I remember one adroit fool suggesting that we could skip Matthew 2:13-23 in our Sunday lections because the event discribed doesn't appear in the secular histories of the time and could have been made up by Matthew. The only secular histories we have from this period are pro-Roman (Josephus wants to paint the Herodians in a better light for his Roman audience) the way Putin/Trump is pro-Assad and love FOX news. Putting current political concerns asside, the real reason for preaching Matthew's slaughter of the Innocents is to counter our dangerous tendency to down play the depravity of the human heart. When we say, "No one could do such evil," we give tacid support to the rise of dictators and future holacausts. 


I want to quickly list bullet points for telling Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt:

  • We need to remind people that grace is free, but it isn’t cheap.
  • Both Matthew and Luke foreshadow the suffering of the cross. Matthew in both the spices that the wiremen carry, as well as, in the suffering of innocent children and their families. Luke has Simeon warn Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:35)
  • The people in our pews will have had a mixed holiday season. In every family there is both grief and joy. Sensitive pastoral messages recognize this.
  • Mary and Joseph knew the villagers who lost children. They were in Bethlehem for some time, perhaps as long as two years. This too, foreshadows Jesus’ compassion from the cross on the thieves and family members who suffer with him.
  • The flight into Egypt is a symbol of transition. We don’t get to go from the Old Testament to the New Testament without crossing a wilderness. In our personal lives, our transitions into new seasons (adulthood, marriage, retirement, death,etc.) always involves risk, loss, and travel to unfamiliar territory.
  • Herod, and the political powers of our current world that sacrifice innocent lives in order to maintain their own agenda, are real evil. Jesus came into the world to confront the depths of human sin. That means challenging people, not just on a spiritual level, but also on the political and social level. Our ongoing hopes for justice, an end to children starving, and world peace, are brought to mind as we talk of this tragedy that happened in Bethlehem long ago.
  • This is the way God tells His story, not with sugar plum fairies and mistletoe, but with pain and expensive love.
Would Assad, Trump, our Putin allow their grandchildren to sit in this rubble?
Isaiah 9:2-7
Matthew 2:1-10

It is the Christmas after an election year and we read Isaiah’s prophesy knowing that Isaiah’s audience heard it as a political statement. The people of the Bible actually were looking for someone to make their nation great again. They heard Isaiah and imagined a ruler with such wisdom that there would be; “endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (9:7)


King Herod wasn’t called the Great for nothing. He was a scrappy outsider who came into his throne by subtly playing the political game more ruthlessly than his rivals. He was a builder, a maker of high fortress towers and the developer of entertainment properties (note he built a Greek style stadium in Jerusalem). His most famous project was the Temple. He demolished the humble structure that had stood on the temple mount — the one that had been constructed by the prayers and sacrifices of the Babylonian refugees under Nehemiah and made pure by the miracle of Hanukah under the Maccabees — Yes, that is the temple that Herod tore down. He built a lavish monument to his own name in its place. The temple that Herod spent forty years building felt so worldly that the Romans couldn’t understand why they couldn’t use it for sacrifices to their emperor. Forty years after Jesus, the Romans grew tired of Herod’s people and destroyed both the temple and the nation. Even though Herod had established a great dynasty and left his descendants in charge of his empire, he didn’t establish a nation built on justice with peace and prosperity for all. Under the Herodians the rich became very rich, but the poor had no friend in high places except Jesus.


Like Herod, Jesus was an outsider. His parentage was uncertain. He grew up in the projects, far from the courts and the Temple. He never built anything. He never published a royal decree, let alone a book. All of his teachings were recorded by others. He told stories that involved shepherds and farmers and dealt with everyday life. He never tweeted or took pot-shots at his rivals. He reasoned with his detractors. He healed and answered the prayers of all who came to him, whether they be high born or poor, Romans or Jews, friends or foes.   


One key difference between Jesus and Herod the Great was that Jesus had a succession plan. Herod the Great seemed oblivious to the fact that he would die. Jesus came into the world in order to die for sinners. Herod considered anyone who challenged him to be disloyal and a threat. Jesus forgave his enemies and invited them into his kingdom. Herod expected his kingdom to pass to his sons, but he kept murdering family members as soon as they showed any interest in reigning. A few years after Herod the Great died the Romans had to step in and rescue the nation from what remained of the Herodians. They divided the kingdom up and put their Syrian governor (little irony here) in charge of things.  The Herodian family continued to wear crowns and rule on thrones in Galilee and Perea, but the Temple and Jerusalem were in foreign hands and run as a commercial enterprise funneling money to Rome.


Jesus had a better plan. From before the creation of the world he planned for his succession. He enlisted the Holy Spirit to rule in the hearts of those would accept his kingdom. We then, are responsible for fulfilling the promises of Isaiah. Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we bring peace and mercy to those around us. We continue Jesus’ rule of compassion and justice. We are a distributed network of righteousness. We are the Davidic rule that will go on forever.

Who gets to sit on the Iron Throne?
Christmas Day
Matthew 1:18-25

I’d like to criticize Joseph today. I don’t think that his plan to dismiss Mary quietly is all that virtuous. I know, the alternative was to drag her to the public square and have her be publicly shamed and stoned. But, what would Jesus have Joseph do? I mean Jesus would later teach an ethics that demanded love, even when there is no religious value at stake. If there had been no angelic visitation, with its mysterious explanation for Mary’s pregnancy, there still would be a child coming into this world.  It seems to me, that the concerns of that child, whoever he or she is, should be primary. That child deserves a father. The cultural stigma that segregates children born out of wedlock is evil. If it hadn’t been for the angel, the personal queasy-ness, that Joseph may have mistaken for his conscience, would have caused him to disown this child just because he wasn’t biologically related to it. This is a gut level, animalistic, response to painful relational issues. Humanity today, needs a better ethic.


    In the church this Sunday, there will be grandparents and fathers who routinely value the adopted and step-children of their families less than their ‘real’ children. Culture and conscience are often wrong — see the book: “Don’t let conscience be your guide” by C. Ellis Nelson.  Jesus brought to the world a new way of evaluating ethical quandaries. He says that in every situation we must do the thing that is most loving. We must consider the needs of individuals, most particularly, dependents. The unsupported widow and the child become the lynchpins of the new system of social responsibility. In Matthew 18:9, when talking about our responsibility to children and other dependents, Jesus says, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” Could our evil ‘eye’ be Jesus’ image for a cultural conscience gone bad? The apostle Paul fleshes out Jesus’ context-driven teaching, by contrasting the old systematic ethics based upon mosaic law with the simple understanding that Love is the highest law.  Both Jesus and Paul depend upon the merger of love and justice that the Old Testament prophets sought to bring to the fore.


    We, like Joseph, tend to consider the opinions of our neighbors higher than our faith when we are faced with a moral choice. We criticize unwed teens, but do little to make our highschools better enviroments for relational growth. The abortion debate, today, hijacks us into the legal quagmire of when life begins (something that God has shrouded in in mystery). Meanwhile, we still allow the majority of our children to grow up without a loving father figure. Further, the church does little to transform those neighborhoods where a normal and safe childhood is an impossibility. We debate the meaning of the constitution, when it gives us the right to bear arms, rather than asking how we can prevent children from being murdered on their front porches in Chicago or in their living rooms in the Hazelwood section of Pittsburgh. It is time for  the church to become less legalistic. It is time for us to stop reinforcing the cultural norm when it falls short of Jesus’ demand that we always do the loving thing.


What if Maury Povich is the real father?
Advent 4
Luke 1:46-55

When reading Mary’s Magnificat song, I am reminded of Lou Gerhig’s speech about being the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Just how is Mary lucky? I am of the opinion that the Holy Spirit did a full disclosure — or at least she knew on a deep, intuitive level, the sorrow this pregnancy would bring her. We do well to name the three parts of Mary’s misfortune: 1) the active shaming by family and neighbors of her having a child out of wedlock, that continues for decades and is even amplified when that child is grown 2) her own misunderstanding and the suspicions of those around her, as to whether Jesus was in his right mind 3) the agonizing day when she watched her son die on the cross.  How is she the most blessed among women?

The Magnificat is a song of the oppressed — it is important not to gloss over the people Mary is identifying with — the hungry, the impoverished, and particularly, the nation-people groups who have been colonized by a foreign military power. Mary’s song could get her on the Roman government's watch list of suspected terrorists.

Yet, Mary considers herself blessed because she has been given a role in bringing about God’s answer to injustice. It is not good enough for Mary that she has a healthy child, she wishes for her people, that Jesus would do what Moses did for God’s people over 1200 years before. How would the Jesus, that Mary has these expectations of, make a difference in our world today?

Instead of painting Mary like Rueben did, with sweet passivity, we should picture her as Delacroix’s 1830 painting, Liberty Leading the People, or for those Le Miserables fans, as Eponine.  At any rate, we should not let the sweet sentimentality of today’s Christmas, nor its accompanying materialism, rob us of the heroic attitude of Mary. She stands in a biblical linage that includes Ruth, Debra, Judith, Queen Esther, and Rahab the Prostitute.

Delacroix 1830 "Liberty Leading the People"
Advent 3