A Political Child (Epiphany)
Text: Matthew 1-2
As a preacher in our hyper politicized, hyper polarized age I try to avoid becoming yet another talking head or bogging the church down in the culture wars. Sometimes it’s a challenge. I see what many of you post on Facebook. I hear the whispered conversations when you think you’re “safe” – there’s no Republicans around, or Democrats around. How quickly we can move from partisan judgement to moral judgement to judgement of each other’s faith. You can’t be a Christian and support the president. If you’re a Christian, you must support the president. The President is the new Cyrus, the secular hero called by God to restore true Christianity to its rightful place in America. The President is the anti-Christ who is making a mockery of American values and is the nail in the coffin of a compromised American Christianity. I’m speaking in both broad generalities and extremes, but a variation on every sentence I’ve uttered has been clicked and shared on Facebook by at least one person sitting here this morning.
I have called us to a year of study of Matthew in an attempt to collectively pull us out of the mud. To focus us on Jesus, not our president or our political systems. Jesus, not politicians, not pastors or church leaders, is the true pioneer and protector of our faith. Individually we will have our opinions on policies, on candidates, on impeachment, on the President. Collectively as the Church of Jesus Christ, we must help each other remain centered on Christ, grounded in his teaching and personifying his love.
So we turn to Matthew and immediately find ourselves embroiled in the politics of Jesus’ day. A group of astrologers – the Greek is magi as in magician – arrive in the court of King Herod looking for a child who is to be the King of the Jews. They assume Herod, who is King of the Jews, has had a son. They’ve come for the baby shower. But there is no child. Just an insecure king who is seen as illegitimate by many of his subjects.
Herod’s problems start with his ancestry and continues with his allegiance. On his father’s side, Herod is Greek, a descendent of a long line of politicians and generals who consistently and effectively put survival ahead of loyalty. He’s the non-Jew willing to do the Roman Emperor’s dirty work in this far flung corner of the Empire. It works for him. It works for Rome. It doesn’t work for those who seek a true king, a descendent of King David, a leader who, born in Bethlehem, will shepherd, instead of kill, God’s chosen people, who will rescue God’s people from foreign occupiers and corrupt leaders alike. A true king like Jesus.
The wise men enter the palace of the King of the Jews but don’t find the chosen king of the Jews. They leave, continue following the star, and find the true king in a house in Bethlehem where they bring him gifts and honor. Herod, probably by sending spies to follow the wise men, also locates Jesus and make plans to kill his infant rival. Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt, Herod commits infanticide in Bethlehem and dies shortly after. After his death, Mary and Joseph return from Egypt, settling in Nazareth because they are afraid to return to Bethlehem.
When I was a kid, after my sister left for college, Pearl, a student at my mom’s high school, came to live with us. In Pearl’s home country of South Africa, Nelson Mandela was still in prison and Apartheid remained the law of the land. Pearl’s politically influential family was active in the struggle to overthrow South Africa’s white government. They’d sent their children abroad for safety and to get an education. The older generation would lead the revolution. The younger generation would run the government.
The politics of Pearl’s country and her parents influenced every aspect of Pearl’s life. Like Princess Leah in Star Wars she was a rebel princess being groomed to combat the empire. Unlike Princes Leah she hated her role and was rather unprincesslike – but I digress. Politics also influences every aspect of Jesus’ young life. Jesus’ ancestry, where he’s born, the ignorance of the Jewish religious leaders, the worship by foreigners all have political significance. The political situation directly influences his parents’ decisions concerning where to live.
Yet Jesus, Israel’s legitimate king, lives largely removed from the political arena. He’s neither raised in a palace nor a rebel camp; he neither attends the best schools nor is tutored at the feet of anti-establishment philosophers. Even in his adult life Jesus never affiliates or endorses specific political parties or groups. His own followers never strive for power in the political arena. He walked as his Father called him to walk. He lived as his Father called him to live. He spoke as his Father called him to speak. He loved as his Father called him to love. He died because his non-political life terrified those who held political power, much as the simple act of his birth frightened King Herod and all Jerusalem with him.
Pearl’s parents sent her to America, lodged her with a Christian family and enrolled her in a Christian school because they realized the gospel had profound political implications for the revolution they hoped to launch. As we move through Matthew, we’ll find a gospel with intense political ramifications. We’ll also find a gospel resistant to being co-opted as part of any particular political agenda. As Christians we stand apart. We do vote. We do, when called, serve on councils or committees or in elected offices. We do engage in political dialogue or acts of political support or protest. But ultimately we stand apart for our loyalty lies with Christ and Christ alone.
It may have been pragmatic for the wise men to have stopped their search at Herod’s palace, leaving their gifts at his throne and seeking favor with the one who had the title, the trappings of leadership and the instruments of power. After all the priests and the scribes had chosen such a path. But the wise men left Herod’s palace and sought the true leader in the streets of Bethlehem, in an ordinary house. They chose to stand apart. To steadfastly follow Jesus. To become part of Jesus’ quiet revolution, a revolution whose power and influence transcends and outlasts the political powers, winds and currents of the moment.