Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Rootless Redwood's Jealousy: Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12

Can you just imagine the look on the king's face? There in his stone palace, as the ailing monarch in his late sixties, beset by paranoia and a notorious temper, hears the words and struggles to keep his composure? I can hardly think it. It's a look few other than the Magi saw. They'd had a long and hard journey, those Magi did. I reckon they would've set out from Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian Empire, with the blessings of their king Phraates IV. They'd seen intriguing omens in the twelve constellations above, promising beneficence and life in a king freshly born in Judea. So naturally, they'd traveled west – west to Mesopotamia first, no doubt, then I think up and around. If you were part of their caravan, where would you have expected to find an infant king? In the capital city, I figure. In the royal palace, I figure. So, after a long and tiring journey, their caravan had reached Jerusalem. They'd never been there before, gleaming Jerusalem. The palace wasn't hard to find – it was along the Upper City's northwestern wall, just look for the three giant towers looming high in the sky, and it's just south of 'em, sitting on a platform. A fine palace – not so grand as where they came from, but it'd do, they surely thought. Built from massive stones. Lots of magnificent rooms. Two wings, each with covered porches facing inward on a courtyard with tree groves and canals and, above 'em, plenty of tamed pigeons.

They'd arrived at the palace, the Magi had, and announced their desire for an audience with the king. I wonder what his royal reception room looked like. But surely he sat on a throne as he was informed some Magi from the east had come. They were notorious – astrologers, rumored (falsely) as sorcerers, known to predict the rise and fall of kings. This king on this throne – perhaps they could secure him many more years, he surely hoped. He was in his late sixties, Herod was, and very self-conscious about it. He'd taken to dyeing his hair in a bid to look younger – I doubt the Magi thought him successful in it. But he was chronically ill – troubled by fevers, pounding headaches, pervasive pain, even the onset of gangrene. For years it had been maddening him, as his self-consciousness bloomed into grim paranoia. As of the past year or two, he'd already taken to sentencing his own sons to prison or worse, if he thought for a moment they might rise up against him. But I doubt the Magi knew that. They just knew that their king's armies had fought Herod a few decades back, but now that Phraates had reached a sort of understanding with Rome, it was time to let bygones be bygones.

Surely, the Magi assumed, the signs they'd seen in the sky meant that a bloom of new life had sprouted in the family of the Jewish king. But what perhaps scarcely crossed their mind was that Herod, though king over the Jews, was barely a Jewish king. He was a descendant, not of Jacob, but of Esau – an Idumean, whose ancestors had been forced to convert to Judaism a century before. No matter the lies Herod put out, trying to convince everyone he descended from Jewish nobility, he couldn't paper over his lack of papers. The king loomed tall in Jerusalem like a mighty cedar or a redwood, but he couldn't escape the biggest problem with his legitimacy: he was rootless. And everyone knew it. And he hated that. And then the Magi had the gall to come and inquire about a bloom of new life who'd been born the king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2).

An innocent question, on their part. I'm sure Herod tried his best to put on a neutral face, betray no expression, as he dismissed them back to their lodging and said he'd look into the matter. Unbeknownst to them, Herod was so un-Jewish that he had to call in the experts to find out where the Messiah was supposed to be born. He had rather hoped against hope that he was the man, or at least that he could forever convince people he was – he handsomely rewarded folks who preached about him in almost-messianic terms, after all. But it took the chief priests and scribes to explain to him what Micah said: that, to find the Messiah at his birth, you'd look, not in great Jerusalem, but six miles south, in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:3-6). The rootless redwood was jealous of this fresh new evergreen sprouting up in royal David's city.

Then the Magi got their summons, for another meeting with the king – a secret meeting, with little fanfare, no doubt bringing them in the back way, maybe quietly under cover of night. Too many leaks as it was. Rumor had already gotten out that the Magi were in town, asking after a new king who wasn't Herod, saying they'd seen proof in the stars. They'd said that they just wanted to come – they'd brought gifts after all – and worship this newborn king. They hoped he might be the promised one, the one they'd been waiting for their whole lives. And they wanted to worship him. They scarcely batted an eye when Herod directed them where to go, asked them to pinpoint his house and report back, so that he, too, could come and worship the newborn king. That's all he was after, he said, the aging and ailing king. Just like the Magi... to worship the King (Matthew 2:7-8).

And as for the rest of the story, don't we know it? Two claims to worship. On the one hand, the Magi had come to worship. And you'd never expect that. They were pagans. Astrologers from the east. But when they said they had come to worship Christ, they were sincere. They came with no agenda but to honor Christ with costly offerings. They had no ulterior motives. Sought to get nothing other than just to see him, meet him, encounter him, and hope he was the one. And then there was Herod. He said he would come to worship. He was not sincere. He made a pretense of worship, used the language of worship, but it was a cloak for ulterior motives – namely, power and paranoia, deceit and death. Two claims to worship. Only one of them true.

But then, what about us? We, too, make a claim to worship, when we come here on a Sunday morning to gather as the very church of God. But when we come here, are we more like the Magi... or are we, sometimes, more like Herod? When we say we're here to worship, whom do we say it like? Because there are a lot of reasons Herod might come to church, you see. Maybe we say we've come to worship, but we've really come to be seen – to have our religiosity boost our standing in the eyes of others, to court them to think well of us, to associate ourselves in public view with what the church stands for, or at least be understood as civic minded. Or maybe we've really come to eat and drink – to be nourished and satisfied, to get a material return in our bellies, like some of the crowds who followed Jesus, hoping for the next free lunch. Or maybe we've really come just to socialize – we label it 'fellowship,' but all we're after here is to see our church friends, mingle with them, catch up and chat and shoot the breeze, and that's why we're really here. Or maybe we've really come to appease our family – they'd harp on us if we didn't get here, and so we give in and come to reduce the friction, even though we'd rather be somewhere else. Or maybe we've really come to do a religious duty – we're here because we know we're supposed to be here, someone's told us to be here, the pastor expects us to be here, God expects us to be here, so here we are, keister in pew, and... a duty's a duty, we suppose. Or maybe we've really come to see what we can get out of it – we call it 'being fed,' or even 'being entertained,' but we want 'church' as a packaged product to consume for our own enjoyment or benefit, as if we could put it in a shopping cart and keep the receipt. Or maybe we've really come to sit in judgment – to say when the experience met our standards and when it hasn't, when the preaching or the singing or the praying gets our seal of approval and, on the other hand, when that seal of approval has to be withheld, and that's what we're here for. Or maybe we've really come to barter our attendance for heavenly IOUs – we're here, so God will do things for us, or so we hope.

In surely just about every church in America, there are people present who say they're there to worship. But in truth, one or more of those reasons is a better explanation of what they've really come for. I fear there are entire churches where that's the case, from the pulpit to the back pew, or from the stage and smoke machine to the last balcony. Maybe, in that list, you had a twinge of recognition – a sense that your motives for being here today fall somewhat in line with those. And friends, those are Herod's reasons for, as we call it, 'coming to church.' If that's us, we say we're here to worship, but that's more a mask for another and deeper intention altogether. And if that's true, God help you – literally.

But then there are the Magi. You see, the Magi didn't come in pretense. They said they came to worship, and they meant it. Why would the Magi 'come to church' this morning? Why would they have walked through the doors and sat in these pews? There's just one reason, they'd tell you. To worship. To encounter Jesus Christ and do him honor. Not for what they can get out of it, but what they can give to him when they behold him. It's not Herod but the Magi we should hope to be more like in that.

We open this year, as we do every year, at the table. The table, where the Lord gives us his body and his blood for our food and drink. Where he calls us to meet him, see him, taste him, encounter him. He invites us to the table, that we might come and worship, really worship. And for all of us, that's what we say we're doing. But what gets to the truth of the matter? Is it Herod in the mirror, or the Magi? Is there something else you're here for? Or is it just to see Jesus? Ponder in your hearts nothing else but this question today: Why are you here?

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