Prepare to Uproot: Advent-ure afoot
This last weekend I preached on the story of the wise men (here). We are focusing on advent-ure this season and the various journeys people took to find the Christ-child. We began with the longest journey, these star-followers who might well have started journeying first, and arrived last. On Sunday, as often happens, there were sermons that didn’t get preached. I like to say that the Holy Spirit holds my sermons upside down and shakes out all the loose change. Sometimes I hold on too strong and keep the rabbit trails in my sermon – but on a good week I let them go (kicking and screaming). This is one of those trails, but it just might have been the more important sermon. It isn’t the story of the wise men. This is our story when we meet them…
“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:3)
The words form a very important counter-point to scripture’s tendency to remind us early and often to “Fear not” or “Do not be afraid.” When the wise men bring word to Jerusalem that they believe the child who will be King of Jews has been born the reaction they get is not what we might have hoped for. They do not get excitement. They do not get intrigue. They get fear. First from the current King, and then from all Jerusalem.
Both of these movements are important and telling and need attention. It’s not a throwaway line in the story of the wise men. In fact, it is the story most of the people lived. Once the small band of astrologers continues off to find the child… EVERYONE ELSE STAYS PUT.
Hear that again: the long-awaited Messiah may be born…. Let’s do nothing but sit here afraid.
King Herod heard this, he was frightened…
The very first bit of wisdom is a reminder that there cannot be two masters, and if a new order is emerging (think Isaiah, “Look I am doing a new think, do you not perceive it?” and any conversation about the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom… prepare the way of the Lord) this is not good news to the establishment. How many times have you seen some version of the church joke that says something like, we want a new innovative pastor who will bring new energy and life to our church and give us a great vision for the future in which we do not have to do anything different… (cue rim shot).
The potential of the messiah coming isn’t necessarily good news for those who profit from the current arrangement. If Mary’s child does half the overturning she claims he will… I’m not convinced the child’s birth is good news to me. I stand to lose a lot. It’s not just King Herod’s fear. It’s my fear too.
How willing am I to embrace a new order? Am I willing to leave the comfort of my settled ways for the journey of following one who intends to turn the world upside down? The birth of a messiah is the ultimate moment when preaching moves to meddling. God is getting’ all up in our business. What are we going to do about it? This birth narrative says we will choose to ignore it, to look the other ways, to cling tightly to what we have in fear that change will be harder than we wish it to be. It says, in fact, even more than that. It says a small group of outsiders will get caught up in the movement and drop everything to follow a star (just like a small group of religious left-overs will drop their nets to follow this child many years later) in hopes of participating in a word-changing event… THE climactic moment of creation. And the people for who the event was known about and long-awaited? We will use every means at our disposal to double down on the way it always has been and rationalize why this isn’t really the moment to be stirred to action.
…and all Jerusalem with him.
I think I can read this two ways at the same time and they both can be simultaneously true.
The first is that we take our lead… from our leaders. When we are led by fearful people than we become fearful people. The rhetoric of power forms our reality. I remember having a leadership consultant say to me once that people go where the leaders go. Leaders have to lead. When the leaders go to fear… that is where everyone else will go as well. When leaders aren’t able to lead but hide in uncertainty… than that this where the people go too. King Herod doesn’t follow; the people don’t follow. King Herod choose suspicious not confirmation; the people choose the same. King Herod became afraid; the people get caught up in that same fear. King Herod will strike out with death; the people too will cry for death.
We need better leaders. We need self-differentiated people. We need discernment. We need, most of all, not to be afraid. Because we cannot do any of those things – lead, be whole, and seek the path forward – when we are caught in fear.
But the other reality is this, I will name it because it has to be called out to be countered, the structures of power also have our lives in their hands. The people don’t only join Herod in fear because he led them there… they also have every reason to fear the consequences of a scared leader. Herod will slaughter innocents out of his fear… and those will be their children. The fear is natural. The response to it is problematic. The fear is real but the consequences of it are worse for their desire to resist waking up and taking note of the change that was taking place in their world. Being afraid didn’t stop the slaughter.
They needed better leaders. They needed a better way. They needed change.
And so do we.
So do not be afraid. Be prepared to uproot and seek diligently the new things God is doing and become agents of that change – leaders of the way, in word and deed, this day and forevermore.