January 8, 2016 (Epiphany)
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana
Text: Matthew 2
While we were out of town, we attended the Boar’s Head Festival at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati. These over-the-top Christmas pageants have been performed in England since medieval times and at Christ Church, Cincinnati for over 70 years. As the pageant unfolds, everyone – from the Lord of the Castle to the palace guards to the beggars at the gate – come to celebrate the Christ child. About two-thirds of the way through the pageant the wise men enter. Tall and regal, surrounded by servants and pages, dressed in fine robes with jewel encrusted crowns on their head, bearing chests filled with treasure, the wise men bring the bling to an already colorful assembly. The program notes increase their mystique: “The crowns might actually contain real gems! The robes are genuine royal robes from the Middle East!” The all familiar We Three Kings, with its one verse per magi, stretches out their entrance.
Across the generations, in Christmas pageant’s great and humble, the wise men bring wealth, glamour, exoticism and worldly acceptance to the humble manger. In Matthew’s telling, they also bring political scheming, spy craft and ultimately violence. Unlike our Christmas pageants, Matthew sets his story predominantly in Jerusalem, in Herod’s palace, far away from humble mangers in Bethlehem.
A noted military and political strategist, Herod had clawed his way to the top of the political pile by strategically betraying, befriending, killing or bribing the right people at the right time. His title, King of the Jews, was courtesy of Julius Caesar. He maintained it by paying off Jerusalem’s religious elite and systematically eliminating any perceived threat. Thus it is with great interest that he receives these traveling sages, professional court advisors, seeking a child born King of the Jews. A child who logically would be in his palace. A child who obviously is not. A child he immediately marks as an existential threat to his rule.
Herod sends the wise men from his court to search for the child. He asks them to spy for him – “let me know when you find him,” but they betray him. Angered and afraid, he sends his enforcers to Bethlehem. As Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt, Herod’s goons systematically eliminate any child that might possibly be this potential rival. Only when Herod dies, do Mary and Joseph dare return – going not to Bethlehem but to the small town of Nazareth, far from the reach of Herod’s son who now holds the title Jesus also claims – King of the Jews.
I always find it awkward when politics intervene in what I see as the personal matter of religion. As a rule, pastors who value their jobs don’t preach politics. During election time we’re careful about what we post on Facebook. Yet, here, in our beloved nativity story, we find deep political implications. And it’s not just Matthew. Luke’s story too begins with the mention of the Roman emperor, has Mary and Joseph involved in a government enforced relocation for the purpose of collecting taxes and stars shepherds – who were among the least regarded members of Palestinian society. The wise men call Jesus king – even though there is already a king. Jesus’ disciples call him Lord – even though every coin in their pocketbooks has an image of the Roman emperor and the motto: “Caesar is Lord.” To experience the benefits of salvation, Paul writes the Romans, you must confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord. For Roman citizens, experiencing the benefits of salvation required committing treason.
One of my pet peeves – and this is a pet peeve, not a scriptural mandate – is the common practice of flying the Christian Flag under the US Flag outside churches and other Christian institutions. To be fair, this display is straight out of the Boy Scout Handbook, which clearly states that the United States Flag should always be flown at the top of the pole, with all other flags subordinate to it. Yet it suggests that the church answers not to God but to the government, that as Christians we are loyal first to our political rulers and agendas and second to the gospel we follow and the Savior we confess as Lord. To reverse this hierarchy betrays the many saints on whose shoulders we stand – the wise men who dared to worship a king who did not reside in a palace; the early Christians who dared to confess a Lord who was not Caesar, the Scottish Presbyterians who sought complete independence for the church from the state, the German Christians who went to the concentration camps instead of proclaiming Hitler as head of the German church.
To be a Christian is to proclaim Jesus as Lord first and label ourselves Republican or Democrat a distant second. To be a Christian is to respect, honor and participate in government; to respect, honor and be faithful to country while recognizing that ultimately we don’t answer to Washington, to Columbus, to Lisbon, even to 28 West Friend Street; ultimately we answer to our Lord Jesus Christ and serve the Kingdom of God. We should be ready to die for our faith; we should – if absolutely necessary – be ready to break laws and risk arrest when our government acts counter to the gospel. We should be bold in encouraging our leaders to govern in a spirit of justice, humility, servanthood and peace.
So what does this look like on the ground? A quick survey of my Facebook feed suggests proclaiming Jesus as Lord does not lead directly to some magic public policy agenda. Friends who genuinely confess Jesus as Lord are passionately on almost every side of almost every issue facing every level of government from national to local. Yet they also share a basic set of Biblical values: they care deeply for the poor, the marginalized and the hurting; they support an overarching ethic of life that goes far beyond culture war/abortion rhetoric; they expect justice for the vulnerable and grace for the wayward; they seek peace; they demand integrity; they hold their leaders accountable; they are not afraid.
In addition, my friends who genuinely proclaim Jesus as Lord, recognize that the gospel comes before partisan agendas and that the community of Christ is broader than political party. They pray with, study scripture with, worship with, take communion with, dialogue with, discern with their fellow servants of the gospel. They ignore the partisan rhetoric, sound bites, poll numbers and point scoring in favor of deep discernment to find the way of Christ. They seek to live that way with every once of their being. And like the wisemen, they continue to follow faithfully, even when they are led far from the courts of power, even when they are told to disobey authority; even when they must go home a different way.