On Fear and Power

Passage: Matthew 2:1-12
Date: January 7, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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This is a funny story, the story of the Magi’s visit to Jesus. It’s funny because, thanks to one particular hymn, and Amahl and the Night Visitors, and our sentimentality around the Christmas story, we have completely misremembered it. Here in the second chapter of Matthew is the only place in the whole of the Bible where we read a story about foreign visitors coming to see Jesus.

So perhaps you noticed that Matthew does not say there are three visitors, only wise men, Magi, from the east. And Matthew does not say that the visitors are kings, and nowhere are the names Balthazar, Melchior, or Caspar even so much as whispered. Perhaps you also noticed that indeed these foreign visitors paid attention to the skies, so we might call them ancient astrologers or scientists. You may have noticed, too, that indeed they did bring Jesus those holy gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

If we were to strip this story of all the embellishments that have accumulated over the years, and if we look at it in the context of Matthew’s gospel and his telling of the birth of Jesus, we might notice some things we hadn’t quite seen before.

Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus, going all the way back to Abraham, and including some shady characters and some women. There’s an entire sermon in that genealogy, but not for today. Suffice it to say Matthew is setting the life of Jesus within the grand context of the history of Israel and God’s abiding presence with Israel in both the good and the bad times.

Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus is quite spare, and Joseph emerges as the hero of the story, the one who does not do what the law says he can do, divorce Mary and leave her as an unwed mother. Joseph does the higher honor and protects Mary and her infant. There’s just one angel, no shepherds, no inns, stables, or mangers.

Then Matthew tells this story of the visitors from the east who have followed a star and introduces the character of King Herod. For now, Herod is in the shadows, but he will take center stage in the verses that follow this story when he orders the death of all the male infants born around the same time as Jesus.

As one commentator put it, this is the Christmas story for grown-ups. There is less to delight in and more to be bothered by in this version of the story. This year, as I reread these familiar words and as I set aside all the embellishments that have accumulated, I was struck by the underlying presence of fear and power that I see woven around Matthew’s words.

Fear and power are a bad combination, and we need only look at the despots of history to confirm that. Kim Jong Un, Adolph Hitler, Pol Pot – men in power afraid of losing their power and resorting to threats of destruction and committing genocide to keep their power. King Herod is really no different. The birth of Jesus the Messiah threatens his own kingship and his power.

As we read this story in our staff meeting this week, one of my colleagues commented that you would have thought Herod, as the Jewish King of Judea, would have remembered his scripture better, that he would not have needed to ask where the infant king/messiah was. Had he remembered the prophecies of the Jewish tradition, he would have known that the infant king/messiah could be found in the tiny town of Bethlehem. Maybe Herod does not want to face the consequences of this birth.

So let’s take a look at the undercurrent of power and fear in this story. Jesus was a threat to Herod because Herod recognized the power in Jesus that was so different from his own. It is the power not of wealth, or military might, or political persuasion. An infant in a backwater town in a remote corner of the Roman empire has no such power. Those luxurious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh will burn up in some religious rite, and his kingdom will never materialize in the way so many had hoped it would.

The power born into the world in the birth of Jesus is different. It is the power found in humility, in ordinary things and people. It is the unseen and mysterious power of God, who uses unremarkable people to do good. It is a power based in love and awe, not in fear.

As we’re looking at the undercurrents of fear and power in this story, it may be good to ask if Mary and Joseph were afraid. The story never tells us they were. Perhaps when they were visited by these foreign astrologers they were awestruck or wondering, or grateful for the gifts. I think rather than afraid they were vulnerable. They were away from home, and not long after this story they learn that Herod wants to kill their son, so they do the only thing they can think of: they run away, taking the path of refugees seeking a safer life. They go to Egypt until it is safe to come home.

And as we’re looking at the undercurrents of fear and power in this story, it may be good for us to reflect on our experience of fear and power in our world right now and in our lives. I don’t like it when the threat of using nuclear weapons becomes a game of chicken, and I will tell you I worry more than I ever thought I would about nuclear war, wherever those bombs would hit. It seems to me there are a million better ways to resolve conflict than that, because history, including Biblical history, is replete with examples of the destruction that happens when fear and power join forces.

In these last few months, we have all been made aware of different kinds of power. We’ve seen the power of truth-telling, of what happens when people no longer fear reprisal or gossip and step forward with their experience of being abused by those in power.

And while Gregg is usually the one to mention a Pope story, I was so taken by something he said recently about another kind of power. Columnist David Brooks summed up the Pope’s words well.“…it was good to get a reminder, from Pope Francis in his New Year’s Eve homily, that the people who have the most influence on society are actually the normal folks, through their normal, everyday gestures being kind in public places, attentive to the elderly. The pope called such people, in a beautiful phrase, ‘the artisans of the common good.’”

Just think how the world would be different if we put more faith in the way of life God calls us to, if we had more faith in the power of the truth and in the power of all those artisans of the common good. I wonder sometimes if we even realize our own God-given power, our own ability to effect change, our own ability to show courage in the face of fear and do the right thing.

A question you’ll see on social media from time to time is this: what’s your superpower? As we think about the themes of fear and power in the story of the visit of the Magi, and as we think about what there is to fear in the world today, it may do us good to think about the power of God at work in the world, at our own power and maybe even our own superpower.

What’s your superpower? What do you bring to the world, to a situation, to your family and friends that is needed? I sat in a meeting the other day and was amazed at one person’s power to ask the exactly right, direct question that helped to focus the conversation. In the many sympathy cards I have received in the past few weeks, I am so impressed by the power of words that some of you have, the ability to say the exact right thing in a genuine way.

Some have the power of kindness, some of generosity, some of truth telling. When I look out at the congregation, I see someone with the superpower of making beautiful handcrafted cards with the perfect sentiment. I see someone who can drum up enthusiasm for even the most mundane task. I see someone who is seriously gifted at baking bread. I see someone who knows how to be perfectly hilarious. I see someone with the superpower of being down to earth. I see artists and philanthropists and scholars. I see helpers and ministers and healers. We’ve got so many superpowers represented here, we could have our own movie franchise. 

But instead of a big screen, we get ordinary life and whatever it throws at us, and we have to figure out how to use our power for good. The Magi did that – they had the power of discernment, knowing where to find the newborn king and then knowing how to protect him from Herod. Mary and Joseph did that – they had the superpower that most parents have, the ability to give up everything in order to ensure a safe life for their child. I suspect that in 2018 God may call upon us to respond to fear and power in a way that reflects faith and our awareness of our abilities and gifts, our superpowers.\]

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After you receive communion today, on your way back to the pew, you will have the opportunity to pick up a star that has a word written on it. That word may describe a superpower you already have, or one you might develop in the coming months. It may be a word that inspires or confounds or encourages you. Is it just a word? Is it just a star?

May you find courage in the midst of fear, and may God lead you discover your own power to change the world.