For a full blog of Pastor Doug Gerdts's sermons, visit Without Walls.
From time to time...
We will highlight a sermon here that speaks clearly to and about our congregation.
We therefore offer Doug's sermon below from December 29, 2019, based on Matthew, Chapter 2.
This is one of my favorite Sundays of the year: It’s the “we survived Christmas and still like coming to church” Sunday! In many respects, it’s “Refugee Sunday” – many of us are refugees from the holiday (and/or our families!) and seeking perhaps the relative calm and solace of the sanctuary on this “low Sunday” between Christmas and New Year’s.
“Refugee Sunday” is also a good name for today when you think about the story from Matthew Jean just read. Jesus is just starting out life and almost immediately we find him a “stranger in a strange land,” a refugee. He, and his family, have wisely fled to Egypt under the threat of extinction by Herod, and are seeking asylum in a neighboring land. The Jewish
members of Matthew’s audience would immediately recall another time they were refugees in Egypt and who led them out: Moses.
Moses and his constituents, the Hebrews, had generations prior, fled famine in Canaan. They landed in Egypt thanks to the benevolence of Joseph, a brother sold out of jealousy. Over time, like many immigrants, they wore out their welcome, and again, not unlike the history of this country, were enslaved because they were different. After generations of deplorable conditions, a leader rose up among them and at great risk, challenged the oppressive monarchy of Egypt. With the help of God and a few million locusts, gnats, and boils, Moses lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, the land of slavery.
If Christians mark Christmas and Easter as the two defining stories of our faith, then for the Jewish people, the Exodus out of Egypt and the Babylonian Exile are their two defining stories. The pairs of events hold similarities. Both Christmas and the Exodus recount God’s intentional intervention in history through the life of an adopted person whose earthly success was often marred by detractors and opponents; and Easter and the Exile stories recount freedom and redemption coupled with the dispersion of a formerly tight-knit faith community.
Matthew, more than any other Gospel writer, was intent on maintaining strong and undeniable continuity from the Hebrew to the Christian witness. Through his use of geography, historical events, and quotation of Hebrew scripture, Matthew, in our scripture selection this morning, tells the story of Jesus’ family seeking refuge from a vicious and tyrannical ruler. The story in its contemporary form takes place in three distinct scenes:
In the first scene, which took place sometime during Jesus’ first two years, paranoid King Herod decreed that all children two and under must be killed. Joseph is warned in a dream to flee Bethlehem and head to Egypt. Joseph obeyed the dream and took his young family and sought refuge in a land out of Herod’s reach.
The second scene is that of Herod’s massacre. To the early Jewish hearers of this story, it must have rekindled memories of Pharaoh’s slaughter of Hebrew boys back in the first chapter of the book of Exodus.
The third scene opens with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus only having to wait no more than two years before they returned to Israel. Herod had died and his kingdom was split among three of his sons. One of whom, Herod Archelaus, was the least liked by his subjects, 3,000 of whom he had slaughtered upon his coming into power just to set the tone of his reign! Joseph wisely decided to avoid Archelaus’ Judea and rather headed north to the region of Galilee, settling in the small village of Nazareth.
Matthew’s depiction is a great story—intrigue and mystery with an echo of historical events serving to elicit response. Folks who take a serious approach to the Bible, however, have to ask this and every other story: “so what?” Put another way, “Why did this piece of writing make it into the Bible, particularly when it’s inconsistent with Luke’s depiction; and what significance does it have for us?"
Since Matthew was writing through the lens of Easter, meaning that he knew how the story ended when he began his work, one of his primary tasks was not just to explain where Jesus came from, but more importantly to give this person Jesus a firm foundation in the history, heritage, and identity of the Jewish people. Jesus had to be one of them and he had to be able to claim authority by being a part of their ancient story. Matthew wanted it clear from the beginning that Jesus wasn’t an outsider. His roots were every bit as pedigreed as theirs.
The second thing Matthew does with this story is to show continuity with the actions of God in Jesus and the events of God with the Israel people since their formation. Yes, God is doing a new thing in Jesus, but there is consistency with how the people have known God. Jesus is a new expression of a timeless truth. In essence, Matthew looks ahead by first looking back.
The third thing Matthew does is to wrestle with the problem of humans killing humans, and God’s complicity in all of that. The ancient story of Pharaoh killing the boy children of the Hebrews on Passover; the decree of Herod to kill every child, boy or girl, under the age of two in and around Bethlehem; and Archelaus’ slaughter of 3,000 people all serve to conjure up a significant body count. Are we to understand that bloodshed as part of some divine plan? Was this God’s will that these people, these children, should die?
We know then, that Matthew is trying to tell us at least three things about who this person Jesus is and what we should expect from him:
He is one of us. His lineage intersects with ours; his story is our story.
He is from God. The life, teachings, and actions of Jesus will be consistent with how God’s people have come to know God. In Jesus, we will see God’s self-revelation.
He is the agent of good in a world where evil is systemic. From the beginning, we know that Jesus will be in conflict with those who claim power through brutality, who respond only to self-preservation.
Intersection, consistency, and hope – the life and message of Christ told in a childhood tale. Matthew has really said everything that the Gospel will say in future chapters with his depiction of Jesus’ pre-adult existence — and in fact, Jesus has done or said nothing as yet — he is the catalyst of much, but has yet to take center stage as protagonist. Clearly the story foretells of a turbulent life!
We face a difficult year in this country of ours. Half the country is in opposition to the policies of the administration, yet our impeached leadership is convinced that they carry a mandate into the next year. We have soldiers in an active and unpredictable war. Unrest, oppression, and civil war rages in countries most of us couldn’t find on a map; and on the streets of our cities, racial and class tension escalates with little hint of abatement. In times like these, the church is needed more than ever. In our uniquely dual calling, that of both prophetic and pastoral – to speak truth to power regardless of risk or expectation, and to comfort those caught in the crossfire of war, politics, or culture, we are called upon with renewed urgency. The church has a mandate and that is to intersect with systemic oppression and exclusion, to act in a manner consistent with Christ, and to offer a beacon of hope when very little of it can be found in any other human institution.
If the church is the best hope society has then First & Central may be among the best hope that the church has. We have a story to tell, and it’s an ongoing saga of ordinary people facing up to some very ordinary challenges. There is work to do in almost every facet of our community, yet we recognize human limitation and shun the self-destructive impulse to be all things to all people. We know our strengths and those we exploit readily. But at the same time, and with no small hint of excitement, we recognize the dynamic and spiritual nature of our fellowship and embrace the fact that God is doing a new thing in this very time and place.
We live in the tension of holding what is known, while reaching for the unknown. What keeps us “in check” is our faith, fellowship, and our tradition.
We live by our commitment to:
…care for one another and the community
…and respect for a strain of theology and ecclesiology that errs on the side of God’s sovereignty and the covenantal nature of community.
May we never be consoled when injustice thrives;
May we look always for Christ to intersect our lives;
May we know the consistency of God’s love;
May the Spirit of hope continually guide this good church;
And may you, my fellow refugees, know God’s welcome, comfort, and peace today and always!