[Photo by Freedom House, Flickr, Public Domain]
This sermon was preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Taylor, Michigan and was focused upon Matthew 2:13-23. The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
The Gospel According to Matthew begins with this statement: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” These are the very first words of Matthew’s Gospel. They usher in a long genealogy of the ancestors of Jesus, but they do much more than that. These words make great claims about Jesus of Nazareth.
These words name Jesus as the Messiah, the long awaited servant leader of the people. These words name Jesus as the the Son of David, the very one who will restore the lost Kingdom of David, though this Kingdom will be unlike any other. These words name Jesus as the Son of Abraham, one of us and one among us, for we are all children of Abraham.
That’s what these opening words say: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham. . . .” We might think of these opening words as a prologue for all that will follow, a grand narrative arc that will reveal who Jesus is and how Jesus lives.
Today, as we consider new beginnings on the first day of a new year, we can consider the beginning of this Gospel as well. We can consider the foundational claims it invites into our lives.
Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
These are indeed great words.
But this morning, I also find myself wondering. . . what if these were the only words we knew about Jesus? What if we only knew these titles, and that’s it? What if someone started this opening phrase for us, then handed us the pen and invited us to finish the story? How would we write it?
I imagine that with our human limitations, if we knew absolutely nothing of what comes next, we might write a very different story than the one Matthew wrote for us thousands of years ago. We might hear words like ‘Messiah’ and ‘Son of David’ and depict a king in the image of so many kings we have known throughout history. Perhaps like them, we would depict Jesus as king who chases after wealth and power. . . a king who wages war. . . a king who rules with an iron fist. . . and a king who exacts rage and revenge if anyone threatens his power and control.
We might make these assumptions about Jesus if we heard he was the Son of David, the ancestor of an ancient king, and knew absolutely nothing else. But if we depicted Jesus in this way, we would greatly mistaken. Instead, we would be describing someone much more like King Herod, a king who had a great impact upon Jesus in his early life.
Today, as we ponder the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew and ponder the beginning of a new year, we are also invited to ponder the beginnings of Jesus’ life among us. Our scripture text speaks to those beginnings and gives us a fuller picture of who Jesus is and how Jesus lives. It reveals what kind of Messiah, Son of David, and Son of Abraham Jesus will be.
Jesus was born among us, never found in luxury or fine clothes. He was born to young, impoverished, unmarried parents. On his first night of life, those parents laid him in a manger to sleep, a dirty feeding troth for animals, because there was no room at the inn where they hoped to stay. Newly born into the world, Jesus was deeply loved, but he was born that night as an outsider without sufficient shelter. Jesus did not have refuge.
Perhaps this birth would have gone completely unnoticed, but other outsiders received it as life-changing news. Shepherds, filthy from the fields, came to see him and rejoiced. And as Jesus grew just a bit more, mysterious magi from a foreign land arrived in Bethlehem to bring him gifts and pay him homage.
His birth might have gone unnoticed, but it was heralded as good news, most readily by the people who were frequently forgotten and relegated to the margins. A great shift was underway, and the young Jesus was the harbinger of its hope.
But it didn’t take long for this news to find its way into the halls of power as well, for Jesus was born in a region governed by a king determined to hold onto power at all costs. Herod was a client king of Rome, and he ruled on behalf of Rome, one of the largest empires the world has ever known. Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, a land occupied by this empire. Jesus did not have refuge.
Having observed a great star, an intriguing sign in the sky, those wise magi from the East traveled first to King Herod with a question that caused him to shake in his bones. They entered the halls of wealth and power, and asked Herod directly, “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and we have come to pay him homage.”
This question ignited great fear and insecurity in Herod. Frantically, he called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people and inquired of them of where the Messiah was to be born. They read scriptures to him and said that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judea.
That is precisely what Herod wanted to hear, though his heart was set on destruction rather than celebration. He called those wise magi to him and asked when they first observed the star. Then he sent them to search diligently for the child and to report back to him, indicating that he also wanted to pay him homage. But instead, with fear in his heart, Herod sought to destroy Jesus and anyone who stood in his way. Jesus did not have refuge.
Those wise magi found the young child, and they did pay him homage. They offered him gifts of great significance – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But they did not return to Herod as he had demanded. Instead, they were warned in a dream not to return. They left for their own country by another road.
But they were not alone in this dream. Asleep, Joseph also had a dream which awoke him to the danger of Herod’s intentions. Joseph heard these words, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.”
Can we imagine how upsetting this warning must have been? Joseph had recently watched the wise magi give gifts to the young Jesus. But now, the life of the child, the greatest gift of all, was in grave danger. Though he was born the Messiah, the Son of David, and the Son of Abraham, there was suddenly no place of refuge for Jesus in the land of his birth. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were now refugees on the run, fleeing for their lives.
They moved in great haste to Egypt, a land associated with Israelite slavery and the Exodus. They sought safety there as God had called them to do, though this sudden move must have disrupted nearly every aspect of their lives.
Then, in one of the most challenging portions of scripture, we learn that Herod continued to exact his rage and revenge upon other families as well. When he learned that he had been tricked by the wise magi, he was infuriated. In a horrifying set of actions, he killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and younger, grieving their families who wailed and would not be comforted.
The birth of Jesus brought great joy to those who could receive it as good news, but Jesus was also born into a world where greed and power lie in waiting. Truly, this Jesus, without refuge for much of his life, was revealed to be one of us and one among us. He is the Son of Abraham who knows the terror and grief of the world. This Jesus, cast out from his homeland as a child, was revealed to be a refugee. Yet he is also the Son of David, a king who serves the people rather than the terror of empire. This Jesus, scorned and marginalized throughout most of his life, is revealed to be God with us. He is the Messiah, the one we’ve been waiting for.
This is who Jesus is, and this is how Jesus lives.
And when we ponder this — who Jesus is and how Jesus lives — a question arises for us: In light of this revelation, Whose will we be, and how will we live?
We are called, not only to recognize who Jesus is, but to follow him and his way. We always have choices before us. We too can chase after greed and a firm grip of power over others, or we can love our neighbors who are suffering. We can choose to walk alongside others and work together to end that suffering, and we can participate in the Kingdom of God where people and places continually shelter one another in refuge. Today I wonder, will the Church be a community of refuge?
As we enter the beginning of a new year, these foundational claims of the life of Jesus can be invited into our lives in new and richer ways. And so we close, not with an ending but with a beginning.
Whose will we be, and how will we follow?