Saturday, 25 December 2010

Season’s Greetings: Fit For a King

A sermon based on Matthew 2:1-12


According to legend, Theseus was the son of the King of Athens, who volunteered himself as a human sacrifice. Every nine years, the city of Athens was forced to send a tribute of seven men and seven women to be given as food to the Minotaur of Crete, a horrible monster, half-man, half-bull. Each decade, the flower of the youth of Athens was lost, and Theseus was determined to make an end to the Minotaur.

Through courage, inventiveness, and his spunky good looks, Theseus won the heart of Cretan princess Ariadne, and won victory over the creature. When his ship returned home, there was understandably great rejoicing in Athens, for they were free of their terrible burden.

They commemorated Theseus’ victory by preserving the ship he sailed in – for centuries, according to the ancient historian Plutarch. Over the years, however, the ship began to rot away – so as each plank grew unsound, the Athenians would replace it with a fresh one.

But this was Athens, the city of the philosophers, and it wasn’t long before someone wondered: if every plank of the ship had been replaced, was it still the Ship of Theseus? Or was it a new ship altogether?

The Ship of Theseus is one of the world’s oldest paradoxes. There are books written about different opinions on the matter. In the end, though, it’s fairly academic. It was only a boat.

But tonight we remember another paradox, of similar antiquity, but much greater significance. It’s the paradox of one king holding court from a feeding trough, while another king is caught with his nose in it. It’s the paradox of the first Season’s Greetings being offered by dumb animals. It is, as we saw, the paradox of Christmas.

There is much about the first Christmas that appears to make no sense – either to us, or to those who were there to witness it. And tonight, as well as tomorrow morning, we’re going to explore the paradox by seeing how different people reacted to the news – what kind of greeting they offered the season of the Christ’s birth.

We’ll start with the wise men. We sometimes sing about them as three kings, although the Bible never calls them that. It’s ironic, because what we are told is that they have come to worship a king. They’re foreigners, from somewhere in the East, which makes their visit an unusual occurrence. Dropping in on your enemies – well, that’s what neighbouring countries always were by default in those days – dropping in on your enemies to wish their new king well…it’s pretty remarkable.

You’d have to think it’s safe to assume that these guys didn’t travel the world offering gift packs to every royal heir who was born. They’ve come to see this one, this one especially. That’s what they call him – ‘the one’, the one who has been born king of the Jews.

These guys have worked out that this one matters. And because he matters, they want to treat him that way. They’ve come to worship him, to recognise his worth, his importance. It’s just what you’d expect the appropriate greeting to be if the king of the world had been born. Their actions are fit for a king.

What’s more, there’s a joke that Matthew’s included at Herod’s expense. When the wise men turn up looking for directions, Herod’s research unit finally provides the answer by quoting the prophet Micah, specifically the second verse of chapter 5. If they’d mentioned the third or fourth verse, they’d have read out Micah’s prediction that the arrival of Israel’s promised king would be marked by … you guessed it … the arrival of people from outside Israel to acknowledge him.

And if they’d read the first verse, there’s one more indicator: that the current king of Israel would be the recipient of a slap on the cheek.

Well, there’s an excuse to see how Herod takes the news. ‘Disturbed’ is the word that Matthew used to describe his reaction. He’s a bit churned up over it. He needs to know more, so he calls his crack team of researchers together. And this, in itself, is an indictment of King Herod. The core responsibility of a Jewish king was supposed to be that he would know his Bible well, so that he could his people in obedient lives that honoured God. Herod should have had no difficulty in finding the words from Micah himself. Indeed, given how violent his reaction is, you’d have to suspect that if he’d ever read Micah before, he’d have noticed this passage and taken preventative measures.

But instead, he’s taken completely unawares – and we all know what it’s like when that happens. We call it being caught off guard, because it’s the time when you don’t guard your response. Just the opposite, you end up reacting purely on instinct, responding how you feel. Like, for example, if someone gave me a terribly ugly necktie just before the service tonight, when I wasn’t expecting a present, and then asked me straight out whether I like it. What do you do? I’ve got no prepared answer; I don’t have the luxury of sending a thankyou note where after three hours of racking my brains, I’ve been able to thank them for the tie because it matches my Hawaiian shirts. So you end up saying the first thing that comes into your head: oh my goodness, that’s awful!

Herod’s caught just like this, and his response shows his true character. He doesn’t manage the fitting response; instead, he has a little hissy fit of his own.

But here’s the thing that I noticed; yes, it’s appalling that he orders the massacre of Bethlehem’s sons to protect his throne; yes, he’s a lowlife with little imagination for trying to trick the wise men into leading him straight to Jesus; but the thing that really gets me is that he calls them secretly to find out when Jesus was born. Secretly. He doesn’t want anyone to know that his murderous orders have a reason behind them. He’d rather that they just think him bonkers.

Herod’s beyond the pale, really – he’s so far from any of us (I hope!) that we don’t pay much attention to him. He’s the nut job that you read about to feel better about yourself.

But there’s one more group in the story that we haven’t looked at. Matthew tells us that when the Magi arrived with their questions, Herod was disturbed… and, he adds, all Jerusalem with him.

The whole city heard the news. We often think of Jesus’ arrival as coming in pretty much under the radar. Small town, hidden in somebody’s backyard, only a few shepherds to spread the story. But here’s evidence that the story broke widely. The whole city of Jerusalem got wind of Jesus’ birth, and so then they…


Matthew doesn’t say. But I’m guessing that the answer is they did nothing.

They kept their heads down and got on with their lives. It’s a pretty common response, I think. You know, you steer between the two extremes…those wise men, well, they’re like stalkers, aren’t they? Tracking down an infant to present him with wildly inappropriate gifts, hanging around for photos with the family…it’s all just a bit too intense…sure, it shows they’re committed, but maybe they should be committed. And on the other hand, there’s the off-the-scale opposition of King Herod. He’s not just disturbed by the news of the Christ child, he’s disturbed, period. Off his rocker.

It’s not hard to see why many are attracted to a safer middle course. Yes, we pay our respects to Jesus, but from a distance. You don’t want to get too close. What kind of welcome do we give him? No cheers and whistles, no booing either, just a polite round of applause, not too loud or too long.

But think back to the story of Theseus again. He was the son of the King, accustomed to a life of privilege and comfort. But he gave that up to stand with his people. He was prepared to sacrifice his own life, if necessary, to free his people from their bondage, to save them from repeating the same deadly sacrifice time after time. Stripped of his royal power, he took on their monstrous enemy and defeated him with his bare hands.

It’s not too far from describing what Jesus did, in taking on human flesh, being born amongst us, taking up the battle against the forces of sin and death, and beating them, that we might no longer fear death.

When Theseus returned to Athens, he became king in his father’s place. The people honoured him then, and continued to do so throughout their history. He was their saviour king, and his people loved him.

How then should we greet the birth of our saviour? We may not have seen any star in the sky, but we know him to be the star of the story. We might never get named as wise men, but we know what is wise to do. Like them, we have come tonight to worship him. Perhaps, like them, we should make a careful search for the child. For our true king has come to us, and calls us to come to him.


Jonathan H said...

"According to legend" is a great way to start a sermon.

Don't worry I don't take the safer middle course. It may be un-politically correct, but sometimes the truth lies at the far end of the spectrum.

Anthony Douglas said...

Un-PC... or even, paradoxical!

Are you the Jon H I'm thinking of? According to legend, I once went to school with one of them...!

Jonathan H said...

Yeah. We even wrote a legendary 1 page column for the Envoy together.

Now I have to settle for snide comments on your blog; which really is a lot of fun.

Anthony Douglas said...

1 page? You sell us short - I'm sure it was a full 4 A5 pages, of which many were Envious. It remains, to date, my most prolific publishing exploit - unless you count self-publishing on this site!

Well done on finding it, by the way. I have this perverse aim of producing the lowest-profile and highest-quality combination in all of blogdom. Kind of a Shakespearean e-soliloquy.

Jonathan H said...

OK. Back to the blog.

I love the "wildly inappropriate gift" comment. It is one of those things that is normally glossed over. But maybe these gifts were all the magi had to give. And in late 1940s Germany a gift of cigarettes and stockings would have been a fantastic gift for a baby.

It must be hard to find underlying meaning in the Bible without extrapolating too far.

Anthony Douglas said...

On the gifts, what I didn't spell out (maybe I'll save it for Easter) is that they're a better fit for a funeral gift - the incense and myrrh, at least. So, not just expensive inappropriate, but a bit off colour inappropriate. But definitely not the only thing left in the present cupboard: these were expensive items, and if they'd wanted, easily saleable - they could have just dropped off a gift voucher, or a puppy, if they'd wanted. The parallel with Germany doesn't work: losing WW2 doesn't quite stack up with the luxuries of the pax Romana.

Hard to find underlying meaning? Hmm.
- most of the time, what we need is to just read the non-underlying meaning, as in, read what it says. Far too often we fall over at the first hurdle by presuming what's there.
- the main thing is to apply all those skills taught in English classes way back then. It's a piece of writing. Written, even if you believe nothing else, by a human being. No secret handshakes required.
- but I also believe it's not just written by people; having God behind the whole collection means that there's scope to see connections between the work of different writers within the Bible. The writers, if of different eras, could have done this themselves too, of course.

But yes, it's important to have controls on interpretation. Like not doing violence to the intent of the guy who wrote something. But that's the subject of lots of fat books.

Hard? Not so much. Important? Absolutely. Fun? Betcha.

The audio's at, btw.