2nd Sunday of Christmas
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
This morning we read all of chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel because it’s one story, and a part of the Christmas narrative that we usually don’t hear.
We tend to focus on the manger, the shepherds, and the portion about the wise men where they give the baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These parts are full of light and joy, simplicity, and peace. The chapter we just heard, however, brings darkness, complexity, and danger. It makes the Christmas story much more interesting, and much more real, in some ways.
One way to see this chapter of Matthew is a contrast between two points of view: the way of the world, and the way of the Spirit. The difference between them is quite defined, almost stereotyped. It is a kind of melodrama. The way of the world is represented by the evil king Herod. The way of the Spirit is represented by the wise men and Joseph.
King Herod was a Jew who had been appointed by Rome to be their puppet king in Judea. He profited enormously from being in bed with the oppressors. He owned several palaces, forts, and mines. During Jesus’ lifetime, he was in the process of rebuilding the great temple in Jerusalem, so that he would be remembered like King Solomon, who had built the first temple a thousand years before.
The wise men, probably astrologers from Persia, told him that a sign in the heavens signified the birth of a new king of the Jews. To Herod, this was very bad news. He was, he thought, about to be replaced. He would lose all the privilege he enjoyed. So he tried to trick the wise men into revealing the child’s whereabouts.
When this didn’t work, he thought, “Well then, I’ll just kill all the children under 2 years old.” You can almost hear the gasp of the soldiers who were ordered to carry it out. You can certainly imagine the wailing of the parents in the streets.
In this story, Herod shows us the worst of humanity: fear, greed, deceit, rage, and violence. Herod reminds us of every war that has been fought by governments to protect wealth and privilege, every corporate exploitation of the powerless, every time we believe that self-serving ends justify horrible means. It is the dark side of humanity, and it is not particular to any nation, or any period of history.
But if Herod’s actions were not quite so extreme, so melodramatic, we might see his general approach to life all the time in ourselves and others. Herod has a problem: someone came along who might threaten things that are important to him. He is afraid, angry. He goes about trying to solve this unexpected problem by using his will power, his strength. He forces his way through life, defending his vital interests.
We often do the same when faced with an unexpected problem. It’s natural, of course, and only human, we could say, to be motivated by our emotions, and then to use our strength, our will power, to defend and protect our vital self-interest.
That’s the way the world works. If someone lies about us, we loudly set the record straight. If someone cheats us, we sue. If someone gets between us and what we feel we really need, we try to get them out of our way. If someone attacks us, we strike back hard, so they won’t do it again. That’s the way the world works.
But this isn’t how the wise men or Joseph responded. They, too, had a problem. But instead of fighting force with force, instead of acting out of fear, the wise men and Joseph slide sideways, into a separate reality. They slip into the night, into the desert of God. Instead of meeting their problem with strength of will, they listen to their dreams. They watch the skies for signs. They pray. They listen to the whisper of an angel in the desert. They found their way home via another road. They follow the ways of the Spirit.
As I said on Christmas Eve, God’s light came into the darkness of this world not to overcome the darkness, but to exist alongside it, in another dimension. God does not battle the darkness head to head, and then come out victorious. The light just shines in the darkness, as an alternative to it.
In facing conflict, Jesus didn’t go head to head. He was like a spiritual ju-jitsu master. He usually didn’t answer his accusers directly, but flipped them upside down with another question. Once he even disappeared out of the middle of a crowd that was about to stone him. And after they killed him, all that was left in his tomb was a white cloth. He never allowed himself to be subject to the rules of worldly reason and power.
This is how the spiritual life seems to work. Many years ago, I was trying to go head-to-head against some very dramatic issue in my life which now, of course, I don’t remember. I was trying to use my brain and will power to force things God-ward. A priest told me “you need to learn to see with your peripheral vision. God will appear in the margins of your awareness and show you a way forward.”
We will never win our spiritual struggles if we rely only upon our will, our reason, and our human power. Some things in life are just too much for these means. At times, we need to slip into another dimension, another way of being. If this is something we want, we must cultivate it.
How do we cultivate this? Through a life of prayer and worship. By regularly opening our minds to a reality that is greater than our own experience. By surrendering our strength and riding the current of the Spirit. By waiting for the voices of angels.
By listening to our dreams, to the magic of music and poetry and art. And sometimes by temporarily forgetting our problems entirely, and giving our devotion to the One who is vastly bigger than the dramas of life.
When we cultivate our more subtle spiritual faculties, as the wise men and Joseph must have long before Herod came along, we have access to another dimension that lives alongside our God-given ability to exercise our will and our strength. It is like having an additional set of eyes, an additional pair of ears. And when we call upon these spiritual faculties, we are at a significant advantage, because not all of life can be figured out and improved through our reason and our will.
As we begin a new year this early January, we cannot possibly know what the future will bring. The Herods around and within us will probably raise their fearful little heads and try to bully their way forward. But f we continue to cultivate our peripheral vision, if we listen for the subtle voice of angels and dreams, we will not be bound to respond in kind.
Like the wise men and the holy family, we will be able to slip into the night of God’s life, and then find that we have returned home by another road.