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What you heard is only part of the story. Matthew continues with verses 13-18, often called the “slaughter of the innocents,” in which King Herod’s fear of this newborn child, foretold to him as the messiah by the magi, turns into dangerous aggression. Mary and Joseph, hearing of the danger to their baby, flee to Egypt while Herod launches a campaign to protect his power by killing all the children under the age of two in his kingdom. Matthew closes out this awfulness by quoting from Jeremiah, and the lamentation of Rachel after the murder of her own children. I know, I know – killing children…Happy New Year to you too, pastor.
Epiphany is supposed to be, after all, the arrival of the light, the celebration of the dawn of God-with-us. And yet Matthew follows it with this tremendously dark account. But we don’t typically read it. We don’t read it on Christmas Eve, and it’s not saved for next week in our liturgical calendar. It’s just edited out. Why in the midst of the presents and food and lights and champagne and fireworks do we want such a story? Let’s talk instead of the gifts the wise men bring and the fulfilling of the prophetic words of Isaiah – Arise! Your Light is Come! – and the light and the dawn. That’s much nicer, of course, but Matthew doesn’t leave it there. What is Matthew trying to tell us this morning? What word in the very earliest part of this new year, does Matthew send to us – people he never intended to write for – 2000 years later?
Matthew knows something that we all know, too. Darkness and light are not opposites, they are dance partners. And hope is something that we develop, it’s something that we sometimes have to manufacture, drawing on light from the past and the expectation of light to come…a light that is often revealed because ofthe darkness…a light we couldn’t see without the darkness…a light which is actually let intoour souls, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, by our imperfections and wounds.
Matthew’s story of Epiphany does reveal God in Jesus, but it does so with what I would describe as almost a warning. The magi arrive on the scene and alert King Herod to this child that the stars have revealed to them. Unbeknownst to them, it is their arrival foreign people of a different religion, the very intersectionality of the religions and the nations coming together in the birth of this child that threatens the status quo which grants Herod his power. In reaction, Herod does what power does and creates a great threat to the holy family, a threat so profound that they will have to flee because the message of God. The presence of God-with-us in Matthew’s Epiphany story is so profoundly, publicly, and politically threatening to the way things are that it cannot be allowed to stand. This baby, or more importantly what this baby stands for, is too invasive. It changes all our rules, our norms and our comfortable labels that we have which we think help us define our world. We have darkness over there and light over here, good and evil neatly divided, male and female, black and white, it’s all categorized by us, whose organization gets interrupted by the God who walks among us stepping across our well crafted walls.
Is there a way this Epiphany to consider how God’s message might be threatening to us? We know that following the Christ child can put us at odds with the world around us, but are we also aware of the ways that the Way of Jesus also interrupts our own stories, asking us to reconsider, to re-evaluate, to renovate and restore? It what ways is the Spirit calling to us right now and we are looking to silence Her call, to protect our own status quo, to cling to the ways that we have always done things?
As we enter a new year as Fellowship, it’s probably more than just chance that we start with Epiphany. One of the things that church ought to do for us is to encourage us to think theologically, to take what we believe about God and God’s creation and apply that to our lives. If God is a God of love, then seeking ways to be more loving ought to be important to us. If God is a God of hope, then working on our capacity for hope, both personally and corporately, ought to matter to us. If God is a God of inclusion and hospitality, a God truly of allpeople – all faiths, all tribes, all genders, all labels, a God who seeks to draw us all together across our borders, then making sure that our church models that ought to be important to us as well.
2019 is our year, Fellowship, to think theologically about who we are and how that shapes our space, the way we organize ourselves and what we do. We are, as you no doubt know, a place that thinks theologically with a pretty different lens than most of Tulsa. That’s good, but so what? If we can’t articulate that or, better yet, demonstratethat, then what does it matter? We are one of a handful of “open & affirming” churches in our city, which is important, especially in a time in which many LGBTQ persons still find only rejection and shame from church. IF, though, our “openness and affirmation” stops with a slogan or a rainbow flag on our sanctuary, then we may need to think more deeply about that. Thinking theologically means you continue to press on those places where the Gospel is urging us on, that our values are always aspirations, not finish lines. So we must remember to stay open to the voice of the Holy Spirit, calling us to new things, to be willing to engage in discomfort, to questions our assumptions and certainties so that we might see God’s light still breaking forth, taking us to newness and wholeness that we hadn’t even considered. For God, in our theological thinking, always lies just on the horizon, never quite in our grasp, and never precisely what we expect. We don’t get a clear map, my friends, we have to follow the stars and our dreams.
As we come to share this holy meal for the first time in 2019, may we welcome the presence of the God who still walks among us, still speaking to us, still teaching us of God’s ways, which are not our ways, and seeking our partnership in creating a new world. May we know in this feast a sense of newness, a willingness to leave the past behind, to learn from the darkness and the light, which dance within us all. May we be fed with this morsel, quenched by this sip, by a meal of quality, not quantity, filling our hearts with love, saturating our bones with strength, nourishing our muscle and brain with willingness and intention. Let us pray:
God of newness and change,
You have loved us so much that you have walked among us, knowing deeply of human experience. Feed us in this meal with Your Spirit, that we might risk, that we might hope, that we might work to reveal more of You and Your will for our lives.