Know Your Home: If Necessary, Go Another Way to Get There.
This past Saturday, I was very honored to be the speaker at this year’s Excellence in Preaching event sponsored by St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota.
About the event, Pastor Mike Carlson says, “…Christ meets people in a very unique way through worship, and when great preaching effectively articulates the Gospel of Jesus Christ, lives are changed and the world becomes more like the world Jesus wants.”
For better or worse, he seemed to think that I might have some thoughts about preaching, thoughts about Jesus, and thoughts about the world these days.
For better or worse, he was absolutely right!
The text for that evening’s contemporary worship service was from Matthew, about the Magi, their homage to the baby Jesus, and how they opted against returning to Herod, and instead opted for going home by another way.
Below, then, for this Epiphany blog, is the sermon I offered forth on Saturday.
Two relevant links:
First, St. Andrew’s recorded the entirety of the service, including the sermon, which you can hear here.
(And if you incline your ear carefully at the very beginning, you can hear me confess in thanks to the woman who rolled the pulpit toward me that I appreciated it very much, because I am not at all coordinated, which unfortunately is really, really true.)
Following, St. Andrew’s amazing band played an astonishing rendition of James Taylor’s “Go Home By Another Way,” which alas is not on the audio, but you can hear Sweet Baby James sing it on the hyperlinked song title.
Second, in the presentations (not publicly accessible), I read this blog I wrote in 2016 about the Danish preacher and martyr, Kaj Munk.
Munk courageously proclaimed in the pulpit against the horrific Nazi regime taking over Europe, not least of all over his beloved Denmark.
On January 4th, 1944, he was dragged from the parsonage for it and summarily executed in the woods.
On January 5th, 1944, his body was found.
And January 6th, today, is Epiphany.
His story is poignant on many levels, not least of all, as I explain, because Kaj Munk was a dear friend and hunting buddy of my father’s uncle.
But Munk’s story is poignant and all the more relevant because of the times in which we, now, sit, and because of the claims being made on preachers to “just stick to the gospel.”
I do believe that people who request such a thing, who even demand such a thing, do not realize that if preachers do as asked (and, in fact, as they are called to do), they can’t help but to speak and preach about politics.
Of course, when preachers do, they, in turn, realize that there is more than one way to die for Jesus.
So I post it again, and do hope that you take a few moments to read it, because Munk’s story and his courage is terribly moving, his death is powerfully sad, and his preaching is relevant by way of these very dates and relevant by way of these very days.
This Epiphany, I wish you, and also the world, deep peace, and hope, for even as the world seems dimmed these days, there is a light to be found, and hope to be found, and home, even if by another way, to be found too.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
It is an absolute delight to be here. I have been powerfully grateful for the invitation to speak at the Excellence in Preaching event this congregation hosts.
And then, grace upon grace, to be asked to preach?
Honored beyond measure.
That said, I confess that part of me heard that lavish invite a bit like this:
“Can you come speak about excellent preaching? And then could you preach, presumably excellently? No pressure, no pressure. Love to have you.”
So, gulp, tapping very much into the truth that this is not about me but is about the gospel, let the sermon commence, and may it be excellent, if according to no one else but God!
And again, no pressure. Just God watching. And listening.
But in fact, the sermon started straight out of the chute with that very gospel via just these words anyway, right? “Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
In fact, at one level, everything you need to know, everything you need to hear, and not just in this sermon but in every single sermon is right there, in those thirteen words. “Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
To be clear, that does not mean that you get to go home or tune out now.
It does mean, however, that the gist of everything that fundamentally needs to be said in Christian proclamation is found in those words.
Jesus has come into this world, Jesus is the Christ, Jesus is risen thereby freeing us from death of every sort, and Jesus has come to offer grace and peace to you and to all people.
Now as it is, the word “Christ” even comes up in our gospel reading for the day.
In fact, the entirety of this oft-heard sermonic greeting is, but for now I want to zero in on the term ‘Christ,’
Smack dab right there in verse 4 it sits: “…and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, Herod inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.”
A person might say, “Hold on, hold on, I hear ‘Messiah,’ but not ‘Christ.’
As it turns out, we’d both be right.
In the Greek, the word translated here as “Messiah” is, in fact, “Christos,” and the word “Christos” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah.”
In very much related news, Herod was, of all things, a Hebrew, and a Jew.
At least in name.
In practice, though, he was a Roman king, a murderer, a protector of all things that concern him and a betrayer of his own people.
But isn’t that curious: it is this one, this Herod, this man who claimed to be a Jew, and therefore at least in name affiliated with the eons-long hopes of the people of Israel waiting in earnest for the arrival of the Messiah, this one who wanted to off Jesus and according to Matthew in this evil pursuit killed every boy under two, it is this Herod who identified this newborn baby as the Christ?
He figured it out, namely that this baby was no ordinary baby, that this baby was a king, that this baby was therefore a threat to him, and, therefore, as the text said, this baby necessarily made Herod “frightened.”
What’s also interesting, however, is that apparently he wasn’t the only one.
There’s this curious phrase, “And all of Jerusalem with him.”
And all of Jerusalem with him.
In this little noted passage, Matthew is referring to the religious elite who centered in Jerusalem, those figures who had traction and cache in religious and political circles, who liked how they had it in life, liked the protection of Rome, liked their way.
But then God incarnate up and arrived on the scene, and the implications of his arrival were not welcome, and therefore, neither was he.
With super heightened sensors, honed to detect threats to this way of theirs, they knew they had reason to fear.
Because they could tell in their bones that this newborn king would define kingship, engage in the world, and expect a different form of allegiance, all in each and every way, than the reigning powers of the day, Herod’s or ours.
And people would follow him.
Truth be told, any of us, all of us who have a different god, even those of us who claim Jesus as the Christ, we know it in our bones too.
We know that Jesus is a threat to our way and way of life, and we, too, are frightened.
Now, let’s circle back to his term ‘Christ,’ which,, as key a term as it is in the Christian lexicon, we don’t often pay attention, really so very much, to it.
We say it a lot, as in Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus, Christ have mercy, Christ-ian.
But I do believe that we aren’t always so clear about what we mean when we use the word.
Some of you have heard it said that, all evidence to the contrary, Christ is not Jesus’ last name! You know, like Mary Christ, Joseph Christ, and teensy weensy little baby Christ.
Christ is a title.
It’s an announcement.
It’s a claim that this one, born to Mary and Joseph, this one named Jesus, this one who lived a life of service to the poor, to the hungry, to the outcasts, to the sick, and this one who died because of this very commitment to the Least of These, this one did not stay dead.
Instead, he rose again.
It is this event, of course, the resurrection, that confirmed to those who were watching the story of Jesus unfold that he was not just an amazing man, a miracle-working man, a compassionate man, a man who was filled with righteous indignation.
If that were the case, of course, then we’d admire him.
We might even call ourselves Jesusians…kind of like followers of Luther call themselves, ahem, Lutherans.
But instead, we call ourselves Christians.
In so doing, we see that Jesus the man was Jesus the Christ and therefore God.
And we align ourselves with the agenda of Jesus and with the resurrection freedom of Christ, for the risen one is the same one who dedicated his life to those whom this world disdains, forgets, marginalizes, rejects, mocks, caricatures, excludes.
And here’s the kicker: if we bear his title, if we call ourselves ‘Christians,’ then the way that he lived becomes our way.
We live life according to a different way.
To hearken to today’s text, we refuse to protect Herod, and instead opt to proclaim Jesus.
We go home by another way.
The season of Epiphany literally means the season of God made manifest.
It is the season, as I like to call it, of God made-knowings.
But it is also the season in which we who call ourselves Christians are also invited to ask this question: do we in fact know our God?
We can’t very well make God known if we don’t know who our God is.
In seminary, I forced myself to take a class on stewardship, because the word “stewardship” just ticked me off. My hackles went up, I became defensive and irritable and felt as if the church was just about asking for money.
On the very first day, my professor, a dear man some of you here might have known, Paul Fransen, he asked us to pull out our checkbooks and slap them on the table.
We did, deeply suspect of where this was going to go.
And then he said, “If you open those checkbooks, if you show me your ledgers, I will, in turn, show you your God.”
I will show you your God.
And he was right.
And he wasn’t just talking about our checkbooks.
Martin Luther defined God not by saying something super hyper low-hanging fruit pious like “Father/Son/Holy Spirit.”
Instead, Luther defined God as that in which or in whom you place your ultimate trust.
Whatever you believe is most important to you, that is; is revealed, is made manifest, is made known, in how you live, what you say, how you spend your time, how you treat those whom you know and love, how you treat those whom you do not like, how you treat those whom you do not know, for whom you vote, for what you advocate, or about which you keep utterly silent.
And lest it be missed: it is also revealed in how you treat you.
You show me your ways, and I will show you your God.
Or I will show you your gods.
Herod had a capital H to his name, but he craved to be a God with a capital G.
In God’s first commandment, one which we could safely assume Herod knew, God said “You shall have no other Gods before me.”
God didn’t say that there were no other Gods.
God simply said that we are not to have any other gods.
That is, God knew that there were, and are, options.
These false gods, these gods who garner our allegiance—allegiance which we sometimes give with full awareness of our loyalty (although perhaps less than awareness of the consequences of our loyalty), and sometimes while being utterly clueless to our affiliation with gods not worthy of our trust—these false gods receive our loyalty because they trick us.
They trick us into thinking that their intentions are noble, that we will be rewarded for our loyalty, that they will protect us from loneliness, insecurity, and harm.
They trick us into thinking that there is an us and a them, and we are part of the us and we are better than the thems.
They trick us with lies that they purport to be truth, much like Herod: “Tell me where the son is so that I may pay him homage.”
All of that is, of course, a word that I ought not say in a pulpit.
But it is that, make no mistake.
Here’s the irony: such leaders, such powers, such false gods make us fearful, only because they are themselves fearful.
Contagious fear, and projected fear.
They fear they will lose their power over us, and in order to prevent it, they in turn make us afraid.
But Christians—not Herodians, or fill in the name of any false god-ians—but Christians know that Jesus died, and that he didn’t stay dead.
Christians know that we are all going to die.
And we know that one can die a death that isn’t only that of the six-foot under sort—like the death of giving up privilege, the death of leaving a toxic relationship, the death of engaging in uncomfortable conflict, the death of entering into recovery, the death of confessing a sin, and even, with a nod to the preachers in this place, the death of preaching the implications of the gospel.
Christians know, that is, that death of all sorts is real.
Christians also know, because we believe that Jesus is risen, and is therefore the Christ, that life is real-er.
The season of Epiphany, you see, is a season of noting where God is manifest, and also which God is manifest.
It is also a season in which we are invited to note which God we ourselves make manifest.
And it is also a season of wondering about our ways.
Which way do we go?
Which God do we follow?
This Epiphany season, and in fact in every season, I invite you, and in fact the gospel news that Jesus is risen invites you, to make like the Magi.
Go home by another way.
As my mentor Walt Bouman said, Now that you know that death doesn’t win, there is no reason to preserve it.
So yes, please, go home by another way.
Go home by the way of Jesus.
And as you do so, I wish grace to you and peace to you from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.