A Choice of Two Narratives: A 2014 Epiphany Sermon
This sermon draws from two articles: Two Ships by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker article found here http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2014/01/06/140106taco_talk_gopnik, also from “Off by Nine Miles” by Walter Brueggemann in The Christian Century found here http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2001-12/nine-miles
I was reading the New Yorker this week and there was this brief reflection comparing the transition of 1913 to 1914 with our current transition into 2014. 1913 was a pretty positive year and it was really this year of creativity and energy and then during the summer of 1914 due to a string of unfortunate events and some stubbornness World War I broke out. But the writer pointed out that about a year earlier a great ship set out across the Atlantic. It left from Southampton, it plowed through the ice fields off the coast of Newfoundland in the Northern Atlantic, and it landed successfully in New York. It was called The Olympic. Have you ever heard of it? I hadn’t either. They thought it was unsinkable. It carried soldiers during the war and then sailed as a passenger cruise liner ship for 20 more years earning it the nick-name "Old Reliable."
You have I’m sure heard of The Titanic. But did you know that The Olympic and The Titanic were nearly identical? They were even made at the same time by the same people. There’s just no movie about The Olympic. For some reason watching Leo Dicaprio freeze to death while the ship goes down is a more box-office-worthy attraction to us than a story about a ship that has no problems. But the thing about this New Yorker piece that caught my attention was how theological it was without even realizing it, because the writer seamed to suggest the notion that our memory of this horrible accident set us up to imagine that we were always bound on this collision course that was the 20th century. And he implicitly poses the question, “What if the only memory we had was of The Olympic?”
So here is why I say this is theological; and I discussed this before but to me it just makes sense to kick off the New Year thinking about things this way. There are some Christians who have this view of Christianity that says the world is fallen and unredeemable and so the Christian life is about just hanging on until we get out of here and in the meanwhile the earth is on a collision course. For them, the biblical narrative begins with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. But then there are some Christians who believe that this world is inherently good and that it’s just waiting for redemption. The Christian life then is about participating with God in that redemption. According to this narrative, the Bible begins, well, in the beginning with Genesis 1 when God looked over everything and said that it all was very good. Redemption then is about God restoring the world to its former ‘good.’ The world is not on a collision course because in fact, everything is being made new right now. Are you with me?
Now we have a choice to make: are we are going to live in light of Genesis 2 which tells us that everything is fallen and we are just waiting to get out of here? Or, are we going to live by Genesis 1 which tells us that from the beginning everything was good and the world is waiting for redemption?
There’s a choice to made in there. Did The Olympic bust through some ice or is all we have to hang onto the memory that The Titanic is at the bottom of the ocean?
This is the backdrop of Epiphany: that the Christian life is a life of getting to choose which narrative will guide us and in the choosing we discover God, the Christ.
Matthew’s narrative was a narrative of the Christ-Child come to be King of the Jews. It’s a familiar story and I invite you to look it over. And by familiar I mean familiar to its original audience; it was a pedagogy of association. A king gets word that a new leader will rise up but now he is merely a child. Nevertheless the king is still threatened and so he calls for the genocide of all male boys two and under. Mary and Joseph hear of this threat and so they flee to Egypt and their return out of Egypt marks safety and it marks the inauguration of the child-king’s emergence into the world where he will become Messiah. The boy grows up to become a man who is a Rabbi who stands on a mountain and delivers the Sermon on the Mount; what will be known by many as the new law. Does it sound like a familiar story to you? It should because it is also the story of Moses.
The King/Pharaoh feels threatened by the growing number of Jews and so he calls for the genocide of all Hebrew boys two years old and under. Moses is sent away and he grows to become a man – the first Rabbi who leads his people out of Egypt and then he climbs a mountain and comes back down with the new law.
Matthew wrote a familiar story and any Jew who heard that story would have made an immediate connection between Jesus and Moses thinking, “Okay, Jesus just might be the new Messiah because his story is Moses’s story! Okay, now I am leaning in to listen more closely Matthew. Tell me more about this child-king!”
And the backdrop of the story was the anticipation of a King who would bring deliverance to God’s chosen Hebrews. And with the presentation of this Gospel and the introduction of the Child King they had a choice to make, and a new narrative to live by. Would they continue to live by the narrative of destruction that put its hope into a warrior King? Or would they live by the narrative of God with us, Jesus Christ who came as a child who taught the world how live in love and vulnerability? With Matthew’s gospel came a fork in the road that was their life’s narrative.
Insert the wise-men here. We don’t know a whole lot about these three other than they watched the stars. They were astronomers and they saw it written in the stars that something special was happening in the west. They were also scholars and they had a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures in-hand; probably they had Isaiah 60 in hand. “Arise shine for you light has come…the wealth of nations shall come to you…they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” It was a poem written to the Hebrews around 580 BC shortly after returning to Jerusalem only to be reminded that it was bombed out, and there was no economy. The prophet spoke the poem to give them hope; one day Jerusalem that is now destroyed will be a light for the world. It would be the center of power and commerce. People from around the world will flock to it and they will bring gold and frankincense.
And so naturally when the stars aligned they went to Jerusalem and found Herod because he would know where the child-king was going to be born. But it was news to him and so he gathered his council.
“What are these travelers talking about?”
“Well they are correct to a degree- but they’ve got the wrong text. The child-king is not going to be born in Jerusalem, he’ll be born in Bethlehem.”
“Bethlehem, what do you mean in Bethlehem?”
And so they showed him Micah 5. But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.
You see, Herod had the wrong text. I can understand their mistake. They knew that something great was going to happen in Israel – that a King was going to be born and so the natural assumption was that the King would be born in Jerusalem. But their assumption was wrong – the King would be born in Bethlehem, in a manger, in a small town that didn’t amount to a whole lot. They had followed the stars and studied the texts for years to be sure. They were well studied and they were faced with two options:
Option one: go with their assumptions, the conclusions that they had drawn. Go with what seemed normal. The King would be born in the place of power, and would bring about a powerful new reign.
Option two: go with this new news. Go against their conclusions. Go to the place that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. The King would be born in a place of vulnerability; in a place of poverty.
Can you imagine had the Wise Men stuck with their initial conclusions? They would have looked in Jerusalem forever and yet they would have never found the Christ-Child. They were off by about 9 miles. 9 miles. It’s a pretty fantastic New Year’s text. Maybe our New Year’s resolutions should be to doubt our initial conclusions; stop looking for Jesus in all the same and tried places and move to the margins. Maybe it’s to try on vulnerability and some untried methods. Maybe it’s to stop drawing conclusions at all and take the risk of traveling to some unknown places and maybe, just maybe; no, probably, God will meet us there.