Epiphany Sermon Notes (2019)

SERMON NOTES — January 6, 2019

Herod was a bad man. If we read a few verses further, we find that Herod’s response to being dodged by the wise men was to kill all the male babies in Bethlehem. The wise men didn’t tell him which baby boy was the hoped-for new king, so he killed them all. The historical records corroborate not this particular story but that Herod was a brutal king who did things like that. He was a bad man.

In our churchy parlance, we say he was a “sinner.” But we need to move beyond our individualistic view of “sin” and “sinner” to catch the full import of Matthew’s story of Herod, the wise men, and Jesus. At the same time that the Bible is teaching us how to be responsible individuals who follow God’s heart of love and compassion, the Bible is also showing us what we are up against with a much wider view of sin than that of individual misdeeds. The importance of individual responsibility “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) is that we are up against what the Christian tradition has called “original sin.”

But this concept of “original sin” as I learned it is also sorely in need of updating for the New Reformation. I was taught that all the way back to Adam and Eve, individuals made wrong choices — mostly out of pride, thinking we could be the gods in our own lives. This leads to all kind of bad choices. Sins. Sound familiar? Again, it’s not that this is a wrong picture of original sin. It’s that it’s woefully incomplete. It’s not just the individual dimension of being human that has fallen into sin. It’s also that the collective dimension of being human has fallen into sin.

What we’ve been trying to uncover with our focus on healing tribalism is that, since the origin of our species, we have fallen into ways of ordering our human communities based on Us vs. Them:

Our tribe is over against those other tribes. The gods have blessed Us above the Others. If we are threatened by Them, we are justified to use whatever means to protect ourselves and assert ourselves.

This is the Sin that goes back to our origins that Jesus came to save us from, so that through the cross God is creating one new humanity out of two (Eph. 2). It is a sin at the heart of how we human beings order ourselves in community.

And so here’s a particularly challenging corollary very difficult to see: at the heart of how we order ourselves has always been religion. Therefore: at the heart of Jesus’s Epiphany — his shining a light on our sinfulness — is that sin has also thoroughly infected our religion and experience of the gods. Chief among the things that Jesus came to save was religion itself. He didn’t really come to start a new religion. He came to save the ones we have. He came to show who God truly is, and what it would mean to have God order our human community as One Tribe, supported by individuals who live by love, compassion, and forgiveness.

So what we have from beginning to end in Matthew’s Gospel is not just a clash of individuals — the sinless baby Jesus coming to save us sinners, even sinners like Herod. We also have a clash of Empires, of kingdoms, of tribes. It is a clash between ways of ordering ourselves in community: our way, based on Us vs. Them; and the Creator God’s way of ordering all of humanity into one Tribe, one kingdom, one family. Matthew’s story will climax with the cross, where we see this clash of empires. Jesus didn’t just come to save us by ‘dying for our sins’ as individuals. No, Jesus dies on the cross as a result of this specific sin of how we order ourselves under gods who define us in terms of Us-vs-Them. The Roman Empire and Jewish Sanhedrin came together to proclaim Jesus as a Them, executing him as rightful punishment. The true God raised Jesus on Easter as the revelation of a wholly different way to see human community and to order ourselves. God reveals true divinity through being aligned with one of Them. God is not found chiefly in propping up the human rulers who use divinity as a justification for brutal control. God is found chiefly among those marginalized by the powerful.

And how does God’s empire clash with human empires? By letting itself become victim to its violence, revealing itself as the Forgiving Victim who leads to saving us from our Sin of Us-vs-Them.

So Matthew’s Gospel is structured beautifully to bring out this clash of empires from beginning to end:

  • From Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, Herod exemplifies the human way of sacrificing the marginalized for the sake of order based on violent control.
  • Jesus’ teaching begins (Matt 5, the Beatitudes) and ends (Matt. 25, the judgment of the nations based on caring for the least) with flipping human power upside-down and inside-out.
  • At the middle of his teaching is this amazing verse: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12).

And so what does this mean for us today? That our politics are also at the heart of our responsibility as followers of Jesus. The Gospel is about the completely different way that God has for ordering us in humanity community. This is politics!! So what we face with our predicament of the rise of tribalistic politics today is also a deeply spiritual matter.

You and I are called to be the sacramental presence in this world of God’s saving politics — God’s saving Way of ordering us as one human family by teaching us to compassionately focus on the least in Jesus’ family.

Pastor Paul Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Savior
Kalamazoo, MI

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