Draft sermon posted
2007-12-31 by Dean Snyder
Larry, I love your illustration about the plastic Christ and the shelter. I used it, with attribution, in a draft sermon I've posted over in the Sermon Feedback Cafe.
I am not satisfied yet with the sermon. It doesn't feel like it quite gets to where I want to go. I would like some reactions.
Kings of All Kinds
2007-12-30 by Larry Lange
January 6 is the traditional date for the visit to the baby Jesus by the “magi.” The traditional name for this visit is, of course, “the Epiphany,” although I don’t know how it was decided these visitors arrived twelve days after Jesus’ birth: the writer of the Gospel of Matthew does not specify a date. I’m also not sure why the Greek word for these visitors has been translated “kings” or even “wise men.” I am vaguely familiar with the story of how tradition gave these visitors names and limited their number to three.
I think it’s more helpful, however, to set all these entertaining traditions aside so we can get to the heart of the story. The “magi” are coming to visit “the child who has been born king of the Jews,” because they had seen “his star at its rising.” “Magi,” as I understand it, were both astronomers and astrologers. “Magi” were very familiar with the stars—so familiar they could tell when there was a new star among the millions in the sky. “Magi” also believed they knew how to interpret what new stars meant. Because they believed the new star announced the birth of “the king of the Jews,” they headed for Jerusalem.
Now, the “king” reigning in Jerusalem was a king only because the Roman Empire found it convenient to keep him as the king. The “king” was not an observant Jew. The “king” was, instead, a ruthless and relentless builder of cities, port facilities, fortresses, arenas, and theaters. He built these in honor of the Roman Emperor, but they made him look pretty impressive as well. The “king,” whose name was Herod, also renovated the temple in Jerusalem to impress his Jewish subjects. According to Matthew, when Herod heard that astronomer/astrologers had shown up looking for the street address of a new king, he was afraid. Herod was afraid of anyone he imagined wanted his power and was notoriously vicious about getting rid of his real and imagined enemies. Herod’s paranoia caused him to try to deceive the astronomer/astrologers into finding the new king, so Herod could also pay homage to him. What Herod really wanted to do, of course, was to kill the new king, just as he had killed all his other rivals.
An angel saves the day by warning the astronomer/astrologers about Herod’s real intentions, so they returned to “their own country by another road”; otherwise they would have undoubtedly been detained without due process and “interrogated” until they divulged the whereabouts of the new king. “When Herod saw he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16). Fear among “kings” over real and imagined enemies poisons the souls of “kings”; deceit becomes their modus operandi; they launch witch hunts of all kinds and often accomplish nothing but collateral damage.
For Christians, Jesus is the real king. The good news at the heart of this story is that Jesus eluded Herod. The good news at the heart of the whole Gospel is that Jesus eludes all kinds of “kings” still. In Matthew’s story of Judgment Day (Matthew 25:31-45), Jesus reveals that he has been with us all along. In Matthew’s story of Judgment Day, Jesus reveals that his real subjects had seen him whenever they gave the hungry food, or whenever they gave the thirsty something to drink, or whenever they gave the naked clothing, or whenever they visited the sick or the prisoners. The Real King lives mysteriously somehow in the lives of these the least of our brothers and sisters.
During the month of December, several towns in northeastern Wisconsin including Green Bay, the town in which I serve, have set up nativity scenes on public property to protest the perceived assault on the Christ Child of our godless, atheistic government. But since the Real King lives mysteriously somehow in the lives of the least of our brothers and sisters, real nativity scenes are not plastic statues with light bulbs inside of them. Since the Real King lives mysteriously somehow in the lives of the least of our brothers and sisters, the real nativity scenes are mysteriously somehow homeless shelters, shelters for battered women, hospitals and nursing homes, jails, prisons, and detention centers. Here wise men and women bring their gifts and through them, pay homage to the Real King.
Ironically, the same local governmental officials who put a Plastic Christ up on the roof of the entrance to Green Bay City Hall, have been fighting all fall long to get rid of a homeless shelter just down the street. They have failed thus far. The Real King has eluded them again. For now.
Reading Magi Story As More Theological Than Historical
2007-12-29 by David von Schlichten
I imagine not addressing the historicity of the magi narrative in any major way, at least not in a sermon.
I might say something like, "There has been endless debate over the years about how much of this story is factual. I don't know. Regardless of how much of it really happened, the story has come to us in this form. The question, then, is, 'What does this story teach us about God?'" Then I'd go from there.
I probably have parishioners who doubt the historicity of the tale (I sure do), but I also have parishioners who believe every word of it. Either way, we Christians can ponder the theological significance of this delightful and beautiful story.
I have what I call the Ethel Test. Over and over I ask, "Would Ethel benefit from my message?" Ethel is my average parishioner: blue collar, senior citizen, not well-educated, has a hard life, average intelligence. When Ethel hears this story of the magi, she more believes it than does not, and she reverently and earnestly wants to know what it has to do with her. Historical demythologizing confuses and upsets Ethel. She either doesn't understand it or does not want to.
Perhaps your congregation is different, Dean. Context informs proclamation, as you know.
I tend to save more complex historicity issues for Bible study, where we can get into a careful discussion (Ethel is more receptive to historicity questions in Bible study). Even there, however, I tend to conclude with, "Regardless of what really happened, this is the story that God has given us, so let's go with this."
Am I being reductionistic?
Thanks for your effulgent and sage input, Dean. I look forward to more from you. It's great to have you blogging with us.
Trying to see the light as a wise man, I am
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Stars and Such
2007-12-28 by Tom Steagald
Dean... I like Annie Dillard's question in For the Time Being. As I recall it goes something like this: "Does anyone believe that God created the universe for the sole purpose of spangling the night skies above Bethlehem?"
I love that imagery, remembering that when my own children were born I would have given them the world, or remade it for them, if I could have. How that intersects with your concerns I cannot say--and maybe it does not at all, if you take her question as sentimental (as I do not). But it is an interesting querie all the same.
For my part, I try to interpret poetry (and indeed, whatever else it is, the Magi story is a poetic) but shy away from too much dissection and explanation (mindful of the old joke about the lab frog). Moderns may prefer the latter, but I suspect many post-moderns resonate with the "surplus" of meaning such a text can provide, as indeed you have demonstrated in your post.
Paul's reflections on the baptism are crucial--baptism as a sign of obedience, a prefiguring of the cross, and a sign, as the other Paul will put it, of our own deaths. I have long thought that Jesus taking his sinless place with the repentant--both in conjunction with John's ministry but mysteriously in distinction from it--is the first and lasting basis of what Jesus calls "all righteousness." Each of them in their own place, as it were.
January 6: The Magi
2007-12-28 by Dean Snyder
Matthew 2: 1-12— I announced weeks ago that I am talking about the magi on January 6, so there is no way now to escape this story. So I have been reading the commentaries.
W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann are amusing in the way they spin their discussion of the story’s historicity in The Anchor Bible commentary. "This account of the visit of the magi to Bethlehem has on the face of it all the elements of historical probability," they write, "and yet at the same time elements which appear to belong more plausibly to parable."  Elements?Donald Hagner in the Word Biblical Commentary (which is my favorite commentary series) acknowledges "the widespread hesitancy concerning the historicity of this periscope," but hedges by saying "there is no insuperable reason why we must deny that the tradition used by Matthew is historical at its core."  Is he really suggesting that this story is based on a factual event or is his point more subtle?
In contrast, the Swiss scholar Ulrich Luz is refreshing: "Our story is a legend told briefly and soberly which does not conform to the laws of historical probability." He adds, "The interpreter confronts the problem how he or she is to deal with a narrative whose historicity is improbable." 
The preacher has the same problem. Our people are intelligent. Whatever else I say about this lesson, I feel the need, as I do with all the nativity narratives, to acknowledge that these are post-resurrection stories meant to convey the truth of a people’s experience of Christ rather than historical biography. How can I do this in a way that is neither heavy-handed nor reductionistic? It is a constant problem.
I am convinced that it is liberating for most of our folk to know that we know this is a fable – a meaningful fable but nonetheless a made-up story. We are not really asking them to believe in astrology, navigational stars, dreams that literally communicate messages from God, or an understanding of prophecy as foretelling. We live in credulous times and some of our people may believe in some or all of these things. We may half believe in some of these things ourselves. But I, at least, feel the need to make sure that people understand that believing in these things is not a requirement of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
I don’t particularly want to preach about whether the story is factual or not, but I do not inadvertently want to communicate an expectation that my hearers take the story literally, which it seems to me is all too easy to do.
While I am talking about reservations, let me also confess my nervousness about Matthew’s anti-Judaism. Whether he himself was Jewish or Gentile, his anti-Judaism permeates the Gospel and appears already in this story. By all accounts, the Jews of Herod’s time hated Herod and the idea that they would share in his fears about the birth of a new king (Matt. 2:3) is nonsensical. They would have been ecstatic.
The contrast between the star-gazing Gentile magi seeking a newborn king simply to worship him and bring him gifts and Herod’s petty agenda of preserving his power and privilege is delightful. It is a shame that Matthew’s need to take potshots against the Jews whenever he gets the chance pollutes this story. I guess the best strategy is to ignore this and keep the contrast where it belongs – between the crass and manipulative power of Herod and the alluring power of the child toward whom the heavens and the scriptures draw all humanity.
Here is my thinking at this point: I have an impulse to acknowledge explicitly the mythological nature of the story in my sermon, to talk about it being a post-resurrection parable, to talk about the messages that the story is trying to communicate – that Jesus Christ transcends ethnicity, culture and religion (as the early church was learning so dramatically and surprisingly at the time the Gospel was being written), that Jesus’ appearing has global and even cosmic meaning for them, that all nature and history point toward him, that his truth makes fools of all despots and earthly power-mongers, including the despots and power-mongers oppressing the early Christians (and the despots and power-mongers inside our own souls and psyches).
I am leaning toward saying that, while the story of the magi is a theological fable that Matthew or other first-century Christians composed, it was true in a way that transcended mere factually. It was prescient, for indeed people would come from the east ... from the east and the west and the north and the south ... to worship him and to bring him gifts.
People’s understandings of the heavens and the meanings of the stars and the meaning of dreams and the significance of Scripture would change as science and philosophies evolved, but all these things would still point people toward Jesus and his truth. Herods would still try to usurp and co-opt those who were seeking him to turn it to their political advantage, but Jesus would still elude those seeking to either manipulate or destroy him.
My favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quote is this: "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."
I don’t know about astrology. I tend not to take it too seriously, but I do believe the stars and all of creation have within them a bent toward justice, inclusion and love that is woven into the fabric of the universe.
I don’t know whether God speaks through dreams, but I do believe that our spirits, even deep within our subconscious selves, have within them a bent toward justice, inclusion and love.
I don’t know whether scriptures foretell literal future historical events, but I do believe all the world’s scriptures reflect a bent toward justice, inclusion and love.
I do believe that neither the crassest despots nor the most manipulative power brokers will be able to destroy or overcome this bent within the human soul and within the soul of the universe.
Dr. King’s quote comes from a speech entitled "Our God Is Marching On!" He delivered it at the end of a bloody march that began at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The speech was known in the civil rights movement as Dr. King’s "Jonah in the belly of the whale" address because it came at such a difficult time.
At the end of the speech this is what he said:
"I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again.
This is what Matthew’s story of the magi is saying, too. No matter whether you are a hardcore empirical scientist or a new age believer, there is within Christ a truth that will draw all peoples to itself. It is a truth woven into the fabric of creation and written in the stars. It is a truth stronger than all the world’s powers of destruction and hate.
What do you think, dear colleagues?
 W. F. Albright and C.S. Mann, The Anchor Bible: Matthew, vol. 26 (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1971), 13.
 Donald Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 1-13, vol. 33a (Dallas: Word Books, 1993), 25.
 Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7; A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985), 132-3.
 James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 230.
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