Toorak Uniting Church

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From far and wide

Psalm 72     Isaiah 60: 1 – 5     Matthew 2: 1 – 12
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
7 January 2007

The story we have read this morning about the wise men (Just for the record please note that it doesn’t say anywhere there were three, history has just assumed that they each brought a present, for the same token they can have been one, or even a whole caravan of wise men) is full of references to the First Testament texts of prophets and Psalms, two of which we’ve read this morning. Prophecies about the coming Messiah, about the King God would give at the end of time to rule his people with peace and justice, visions and dreams about a new order, in a new world, under a new reign where all people were going to come to the mountain of the Lord to live together in peace and harmony, practice justice and where there would be abundance for all God’s people.

While the text of Matthew refers to those prophecies and dreams at every turn, the actual story pictures a world that is very different and far removed from that ideal. Jesus is born into a world of violence and threat to the vulnerable, where justice doesn’t seem to worry the powerful too much, the world of Herod the Great, otherwise known as "the child killer".

Before we get to that though Matthew takes us back to the beginning, to Jesus’ roots. Where Luke starts his gospel by connecting Jesus, through John the Baptist, with the prophets of old and contrasts him with Augustus and his governors, with Shepherds visiting him and angels singing for him in the night, where John goes back all the way to the beginning of creation to picture Jesus as the start of a new creation, Matthew positions Jesus in the history of the Jewish people.

He starts with a genealogy, introducing Jesus’ family and making clear with whom he considers Jesus to belong in the history of his people. Great people like Abraham, Ruth, David and many others. A genealogy by the way that is highly stylised and not to be taken as a factual, historical record: there is all sorts of interesting mathematics going on and there is no way the number of generations would match up with the number of years they are supposed to bridge. It has been made to fit, because it has a story to tell: This is with whom Jesus belongs, this is his family, and this is where his roots lie.

This genealogy leads up to Joseph, who is engaged with Mary (notice that Joseph is the connection to David here, and not Mary, whereas in Luke they both relate back to David; Matthew doesn’t seem to realise the Jewish genealogy goes through the mother, nor does he seem to realise that if Joseph is not the father, his connection to David hardly matters….).
From the start this Joseph moves in the realm of prophets and dreamers, and seems at home (like he should be with such forefathers and mothers) in God’s other reality where different rules apply than in the normal, day to day world of most people. A world where illogical decisions are made which are not necessarily sensible in the eyes of the world: Joseph stays with Mary, and lets love and loyalty dictate his actions, where the logical and sensible thing would probably have been to quietly leave her.

The wise men belong to that same realm. Suddenly there is a star appearing not where one would have expected revelation but far away in the East, among astrologers who worshipped other gods. Again decisions are made, illogical decisions, with these men undertaking a journey on wisdom that wasn’t recognised by scripture as valid and from God (astrologers generally get a bad press in the Bible), leaving the comfort and safety of home behind, putting their future in the hands of a God and a King they don’t know and really isn’t theirs.

And they are sensible people. When they arrive they look for the newborn King in the most logical spot first: namely the palace of King Herod.

There scribes and Pharisees appear on the scene for the first time. They should have known what those wise men have known for quite some time: That a new and important king has been born. But they don’t. They should have been wise and spiritual. But they aren’t.
While those of whom no one could reasonably expect they would be, are. Institutionalised religion proves to be owned by the powers that be. They prove to be fossilised: even when they know the Messiah has come and have indicated to the wise men where they might find him, they don’t move into action. On the contrary: They become accomplices to Herod’s wicked plans to get rid of him.

In the gospel of Matthew we find the scribes and Pharisees, the representatives of institutionalised religion in opposition to Jesus from the start. They don’t like him and they don’t want him upsetting their order and structure, and they are in league with the worldly powers that don’t want any changes to the status quo either.

Here, and at the end of the gospel, they are the instigators of Jesus’ suffering. They still have a role to play though. It is through them the wise men find their way to Bethlehem, it is through them Jesus’ death sentence is justified.

The king the wise men find, as the shepherds in the gospel of Luke is in stark contrast to the ruler of the day. Where in Luke the Great Emperor Augustus pales into insignificance when compared to the baby Jesus, Matthew puts him next to the bloodthirsty Herod whose reign is everything Jesus’ reign won’t be. At the end of the gospel they will be put next to each other again (although it is possible that by that time there is another Herod on the throne). Herod the mighty king who decides over life and death, and Jesus, the suffering servant heading for the cross.

God is there in it, at the beginning and at the end of the gospel story, revealing himself in dreams, visions and contradictory images: a helpless child, and a king worshipped with gifts and reverence by wise men from afar, a suffering servant, dying on a cross, and the conqueror of death and king of a new creation with people from East and West are called to the mountain of the Lord to be baptised in his Name.

Everything Jesus will be is foreshadowed at the start of the gospel story in the gifts the wise men bring: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold for a King, frankincense for a priest and myrrh for the anointing of the dead point to what Jesus is and will be: King, High Priest and victim.

At the end of the gospel we will find him on the mountain. The King who conquered death, the High Priest who brought the ultimate sacrifice, calling for the nations to come, for his disciples to go out into the world and baptise to build a larger and much more extended family of God than Matthew, and Jesus, has started with. A family that extends to people from far and wide, as far as the East and as wide as worshippers and followers of other gods. A family, which over history and space, extends to the likes of us who are also called to follow the light like the wise men did and journey to where the light comes to birth in the world, leaving comfort and common sense behind to operate in a different reality where other rules apply. A reality where dreams and visions are obeyed and regarded as important and reliable sources to inform our actions and choices. And institutions and powers that harm and kill no longer have the last word.

The wise men find Jesus outside Jerusalem. Not only do they come from afar, they find him wide off the expected mark as well. There is no room for complacency or the self evident anywhere in Jesus’ story: the existing order gets broken up again and again and the established order is consistently turned on its head from the start of the gospel to where it finishes. The cosiness of family gets broken up to extend to those who are outsiders in every respect, the reverence of men of importance is ignored and violently repressed, with those who should be wise showing an ignorance and lack of ability to understand their own learning's that leads to death and destruction of innocent babes and a blameless man. The light appearing in the night, suddenly and without notice, pushing the rule of death aside, breaking open the future, opening the way to the mountain where prophecy and visions of old have imagined peace and justice to come down to God’s people and the rule of a king after God’s heart to begin.

The picture of the child Jesus under the dark gloom of Herod’s reign worshipped by wise men from afar as king and priest a foreshadowing of the man Jesus, suffering on a cross, but destined nevertheless to become King of the Universe and High Priest of heaven.

The mighty, in the end, don’t rule, it is God, all the way through, who is irrepressibly establishing his reign on earth through this child, this man, Jesus, born from the Holy Spirit into the human family as a descendant of the great King David, raised by Joseph the dreamer and Mary his wife to become an example to follow, a light for the nations, a King to revere, a Priest to worship, inviting us to convert our lives to an alternative reality where dreams and visions rule and the sensible isn’t always the preferred mode of operation, where justice is done and peace practiced with passion. Where people dare to travel unknown distances to unknown destinations letting go of the comfortable and self-evident to where God comes to birth in the world and starts a new creation. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2007

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