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