Creekside Church
Sermon of January 5, 2020

"Israel: A New Hope"
Luke 13:1-9

Rosanna McFadden


Good morning! Happy Epiphany and Happy Three Kings’ Day! I’m actually a day early -- those are two names for the same holiday which is celebrated on January 6. Epiphany means “revelation” -- it was the day when the star revealed to the three kings the location of the baby who was born king of the Jews. It’s a story which is probably familiar; a story of God’s guidance by the light of a star, and of the dark side of human power and ambition which we find in King Herod.

Of course the Bible has stories within stories, all within God’s great story which includes our lives and our personal stories. These texts from Matthew have been percolating along with family gatherings and narratives over the holidays, as well as with another story. It’s a story I’m sure some of you are familiar with. I am a Star Wars fan -- not a fanatic, but a fan. It has something to do with the circumstances of seeing the first movie (Episode 4) which came out 42 years ago when I was in high school. I went to see the last installment of the series a couple weeks ago, when it opened. We recently got a trial subscription to Disney Plus so we could watch the Star Wars made-for-television series, The Mandalorian. Have any of you seen it? A Mandalorian, contrary to what you might think, is not a stringed instrument, it is a person who has been trained as a warrior, according to the code developed on the planet Mandalor. Mandalorians have committed their lives to the Way of the warrior -- and they were almost entirely wiped out in a rebellion against the evil Empire.

Here’s a spoiler alert for the first three episodes. This series follows one Mandalorian who is working as a bounty hunter, making his living by arresting and bringing back all kinds of folks to whomever is willing to pay for their capture -- dead or alive. He gets a very lucrative commission to bring back an unnamed quarry to a representative of the Empire. It turns out that the quarry is a child -- not a human child, but a tiny, innocent and apparently helpless creature. The Madalorian captures the child, delivers it to its enemies, collects his payment, and then has second thoughts. He returns and shoots his way into and out of the Empire headquarters, takes the child and flees. And now every bounty hunter in the galaxy is after them both.

It’s a great TV series -- but if you think some writer just made it up out of no where, you weren’t listening closely when Shelly read this morning from Matthew: it’s the overlap between the stories which I find fascinating. Let me be clear here: the gospel of Matthew came first. The events of the Madalorian never actually happened, except on the set and on the computers of a television show. And yet we find these stories compelling -- at least I do -- because they are situations and characters which resonate with what we know and cast the light of revelation on our own stories. Take Herod -- please, take Herod. Herod wasn’t his name, it was his title -- he was The Herod, the regional ruler of Judea. He called himself Herod the Great (naturally) because he accomplished some significant building projects, including rebuilding the Temple of Jerusalem. He was a Jew, and you’d think the people would love him for rebuilding the Temple, but the Temple was literally built on the backs of the people: that means high taxes and conscripted labor. Even then, the people might have tolerated him. What made them hate him is that he worked for the enemy: the Roman conquerors. The Empire. So when some mystical folks with secret knowledge show up in Herod’s court -- astrologers, wise men, magicians -- talking about a star which has guided them to the birth of a new king in the area, Herod is all ears. He asks the astrologers for some more information and encourages them to come back and tell him when they have found the child, so that he, too, can worship the new king.

The astrologers do indeed find the child -- and this is one of the wonderful parts of the story, because starlight is not usually very specific, and this kid was not living in a palace. But they find him and kneel down in worship, and give him gifts which may not seem very practical to the rest of us -- except for the gold -- but which are fitting for a king: gold for royalty, frankincense -- a special kind of incense used by priests , and myrrh -- an expensive ointment for embalming and funeral rites. There has been lots of comic speculation about gifts which would have been more practical for a family with a new baby -- gifts which wise women would have brought -- but the purpose of these gifts is to confirm that despite the modest surroundings, there is something extraordinary about this child. He is not just tiny and helpless and innocent, he is a king who carries the promise of power, authority, and salvation for his people. If I were to title this episode of the story, it would be Israel: A New Hope. The holy writings prophesied the coming of a Messiah, Savior, God-with-Us; and the wise men affirm that God has kept that promise, and that Jesus is not only king of the Jews, but king of all who seek him, people of any land who have the wisdom to recognize him as king and bow before him in worship. I’d like to believe that this encounter with the Christ child changed the wise men’s lives, but we’re not told the rest of their story. All we know for sure from Matthew is that it changed their travel plans: an angel warns them in a dream not to return to Herod, so the wise men take a route around Jerusalem and let Herod figure out what to do about the infant king of the Jews.

And if I were to title the next section of Matthew, it would be The Empire Strikes Back. We studied this passage last week -- the one were Herod orders the death of all the babies boys in Bethlehem age two and under. Herod hits back hard. Evil, paranoid rulers have a way of doing that when they are threatened -- especially when that threat is affirmed in the holy writings of their people. Herod started hunting the child as soon as he could, and he hunted without mercy for the other baby boys in Bethlehem. Herod had no idea that an angel had already warned Joseph to take his family and flee to Egypt -- the target was gone, but not before Herod left a terrible swath of death and wailing where they had been.

Maybe this doesn’t sound much like your life: wealthy magicians and evil rulers and babies with special power. But there is truth in this narrative from Matthew -- truth which resonates through time and through our own lives. I hope it’s a truth which you’ve experienced, even if you haven’t identified it in a dramatic and heroic way. I believe the key to experiencing this truth is to find where we fit into this story. I’m going to give you a clue to where you fit into the story -- ready? You are not Jesus. I’m not Jesus. Sometimes I’m Joseph -- who listens to angels and takes action. I aspire to be Mary, a servant of the Lord, willing to serve a special purpose, someone who takes time to ponder what it all means. I try to be a wise person -- to study the holy writings and to be open to signs of God’s activity and guidance, someone who is willing to leave the comfort of home for the uncertainty of what lies ahead. All of these are noble characters to be, or to try to become. But frankly, if I’m honest, I can be like Herod the Great. Herod the Inadequate. So defensive and insecure that I’ll kill something new in order to maintain what is familiar -- even when it’s not working that well, or even when it’s rotten. As you might imagine, I work pretty hard to curb these impulses. I try not to destroy innocents, but if I’m honest, I have to admit that not all of my impulses are noble ones.

Which is why I’m unsuited to be the Savior. Encounter with this child, changes every other character in the story: Herod goes from bad to worse just to avoid the possibility of encountering the true King of the Jews. Any encounter with the truth of who Jesus is should make us humble about the truth of who we are -- we are not and will never be Savior and Lord; not for ourselves and certainly not for anyone else. As soon as we disregard or discount the signs of where god is leading and put ourselves in charge of our own story--the epic of Rosanna the Great--guess who we become? Herod. Pretty soon we’re twisting the truth to be sure we come out on top; or we’re manipulating other people so we can get what we want; or we’re mowing down anything which gets in our way.

The wise men got a lot of things right -- maybe that’s why we call them wise men. Perhaps the most important thing they did, the fundamental thing which changes each one of us, is to recognize the truth of Jesus Christ when we encountered him. Herod wanted no part of that truth; he killed innocent children rather than face that truth. We may have our own resistance to overcome, because acknowledging the truth of who Jesus is forces us to confess who we are not. But when we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, we will do what the wise men did -- we will kneel and worship him. And that is the wisest thing of all.

Join me, as you wish.

(sing) O Come let us adore him
For he alone is worthy
We’ll give him all the glory


Top of page