Speaking with Authority

January 29, 2012

(Deut. 18, 15-20; 1 Cor. 8, 1-13; Mark 1, 21-28)

When I was licensed as a Church of England Reader 25 years ago, the Bishop handed me a New Testament and said “Receive authority to exercise the ministry of a Reader in this diocese”. Very similar words are used when a Local Preacher is admitted and commissioned in the Methodist Church. What we are given is the delegated authority of our particular church to preach and lead worship in their name.

Max Weber, the sociologist of the late 19th and early 20th century, identified three sorts of authority. The first was traditional authority – the sort that is exercised by monarchs or tribal chieftains, which goes with a particular rank and tends to be hereditary. The second is rational-legal authority, in which the rules define who should be obeyed. This is the type of authority exercised by the government and police and judiciary in a modern society, and also in voluntary organisations, such as a church, where the participants agree to obey people who have been elected or appointed to certain positions.  The last is charismatic authority, found in a leader who inspires others by their personality and their vision. Very often, new religious movements begin with a charismatic leader, but when that person dies, their successors – either immediately, or in the long term, tend to be appointed through a system of traditional or legal-rational authority, or a mixture of both.

These different sorts of authority may overlap – and there is also the sort of authority based on knowledge or skill, to add into the equation.

The Bible readings we have heard this morning face us with the question of who or what authority we should obey.

In Deuteronomy, we read of the Israelites in the desert, who have been led by Moses in their journey from slavery in Egypt. As the people approach the Promised Land, Moses authorises various leadership roles, which will guard the distinctive faith of Israel once they are living among pagan neighbours. There will be judges, priests, kings as well as prophets; and we can see each of these groups taking over the main leadership role, and failing in it, during the history of the Jewish nation.

The authorisation of the prophets contains two warnings. First a warning to the people to obey the prophets, who, though human, will be speaking the true word of God, and communicating the divine will to the nation. No matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient the prophets’ words, they must be heeded above the voice of the military leaders, the monarchs or the priests. The later history of Israel demonstrates how often the people ignored this authoritative voice, and the Old Testament spells out the consequences.

The passage, also contains a warning to anyone who is called to be a prophet. They must remain faithful to the voice of God which was heard at Sinai. They are not to moderate the covenant when life gets difficult, or be tempted by the easier or more seductive rules of the pagans among whom they settle. They are not to give up when things get difficult, when they are persecuted, or when people refuse to listen to them. Authority must remain true to the one who gave it, and is not to be abused.

Behind the reading from 1 Corinthians is a question about which authority should take precedence. Paul’s converts, and especially the Jewish ones, are struggling with the question of whether they are still under the authority of the Jewish Law code, especially in relation to what sort of food they may eat, or whether salvation in Christ has released them from that obligation. Paul usually stoutly defends the authority of freedom in Christ, but in this instance, he reminds the church that there is a higher authority: that of love and concern for their individual fellow Christians. Though some may know that the gods to whom the meat was sacrificed before being sold in the marketplace are non-existent, others may be troubled by any association with pagan practice. Concern for them must always take precedence over individual freedom or principles. Later in the same letter, Paul spells out in details just how love is shown in Christian behaviour (1 Cor. 13)

This is a guide to what has ‘authority’ when Christians disagree. It ensures that the Christian community can stay together even when members disagree over interpretation. It argues that the diversity of the church is to be maintained even when its members have deep differences. It is not saying that injustice should be tolerated, or conflict avoided, or difficult discussions shelved, nor that no-one should ever expect to be offended by what another Christian believes or does. It does say that the opinions of each individual Christian are to be taken seriously, and that even if you consider another Christian weak in faith, or misguided in interpretation, they are to be treated with respect as a person for whom Christ died as much as he died for you.

And perhaps there is also a message for us as we modern Christians struggle with the question of whether the Bible, or reason, or the guidance of the Holy Spirit speaking to us now has the highest authority.

At first sight, the Gospel reading appears simply to describe a healing miracle. The healing is from demon possession, and that makes some modern day Christians feel uncomfortable. We are not very sure that demons exist, and tend to think that healing of the symptoms described as ‘demon possession’ are actually the province of doctors and psychiatrists, not religious professionals. That is perhaps a question for another time, although it is also about who has ‘authority’ in different areas of healing.

The Gospel writer, however, shows very little interest in the healing. What Mark is concerned with is authority. The story contrasts the authority of the scribes, the religious teachers of the time, and guardians of authority based on knowledge and tradition, with the authority of Jesus. Those who hear Jesus teaching acknowledge his charismatic authority, and the contrast between his teaching and those who have ‘book knowledge’. The crowd’s appreciation of his authority is reinforced after he heals the demon possessed man. His authority has been shown to be greater than that of a servant of Satan.

The story demonstrates that the unclean spirit knows the source of Jesus’s authority, but not all the people who hear him teach, or who witness his miracles, do so. They don’t make the connection between the teaching, the actions and the God from whom they come.

The Galilean crowd had to decide whose authority to obey. The people of Israel and the early Church had to do the same; and so do we, as we try to live as Christians and as citizens and as individuals in contemporary society. The communities to which we belong can give us guidance.  Some may even try to force us to make certain choices. It’s not easy and ultimately, it’s up to us.

We have to make these choices about things which are external to us, political choices and choices about who we associate with and how we behave.

We also have to make choices about things which are within, moral and spiritual choices, where our own desires, and even sometimes our own demons, drive us one way, and God, through the teaching of Christ and the influence of the Holy Spirit, drives us the other.

We will differ in the weight we assign to traditional, knowledge-based, and legal-rational authority, and no-one else can make our decisions for us. I offer two thoughts that you may find helpful as you decide what and whose authority  speaks best to you of God’s will.

The first is a traditional native American story.   A chief was telling a gathering of young braves about the struggle within.   “It is like two dogs fighting inside of us,” the chief told them.   “There is one good dog who wants to do the right and the other dog always wants to do the wrong.  Sometimes the good dog seems stronger and is winning the fight. But sometimes the bad dog is stronger and wrong is winning the fight.”

“Who is going to win in the end?” a young brave asks.

“The one you feed,” the chief answered.

The second is based on language and the origins of words. The words authority, authentic, authorise and author all derive from a Latin word, ‘auctor’ which means origin or creator. True authority comes from the Creator; that’s how we recognise it.

Amen.

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Turning Water into Wine

January 22, 2012

(Genesis 14,17-20; John 2,1-11)

 

After a family wedding some years ago, we sent a video of the ceremony and the reception to relatives who had emigrated to Australia. Some time later a report came back that their Australian in-laws were very surprised at how sober  and well behaved everyone was at the reception. It left us wondering what goes on at some Australian wedding receptions – they are obviously not always the nice respectable affairs you used to see on ‘Neighbours’ and ‘Home and Away’!

 

I can’t help wondering what the video of the wedding at Cana-in Galilee would have been like. With 120 to 180 extra gallons of wine to consume, even at a Middle Eastern wedding reception which goes on for some days, it must have been some party, and the majority of guests must have been really merry by the end of it all!

 

This Gospel reading always used to strike me as rather strange. Here we have Jesus performing a miracle, not to heal someone or save them from disaster, but simply for social convenience – to get a friend or a relative out of an embarrassing situation caused by their own incompetence. Not at all Jesus’s usual style.

 

Yet John placed this miracle at the beginning of his gospel and highlights it as the first sign which Jesus did, which caused his disciples to believe in him, and revealed his glory.

 

Then, however, I read more about John’s Gospel, and particularly about the Signs Gospel that scholars think underlies it. The seven signs included in John’s Gospel reveal what is already present in Jesus’s presence among us, and anticipate the glory that is to come at the end of time. As the Methodist Biblical scholar, Kenneth Grayston says, they are more like parables than miracles.

 

We always have to read John’s Gospel at two levels, looking for the hints, the references, the code that informs us what it is really all about.

 

On the surface, this story tells us about a happy occasion at which Jesus, his mother and his disciples were present. It tells us about his kindness, and about the trust that existed between him and his mother. It tells us about a rather spectacular miracle.

 

But at a deeper level, the story is about who Jesus really is, and what his presence on earth means for those who meet him; and to understand that, we have to decipher the clues.

 

A story about a wedding feast should immediately alert us that this is a story about the end times, the Day of Lord, when God will intervene in a decisive way, and reward those who have been faithful. In the Old Testament, Hosea writes of a marriage feast when God would renew the covenant with Israel, remarrying her in spite of her faithlessness. Christians also took up this symbol, particularly the writer of Revelation who, in the passage set for the third reading today,  writes about the marriage feast between the Lamb and his bride, who is clothed with the good deeds of the saints, so represents the church.

 

Wine is a symbol of rejoicing, healing, unity and the favour of God, especially at the end times. Amos writes that at the end time the mountain streams will run with wine not water. 2 Baruch a Jewish apocryphal book, written about the same time as John’s Gospel, says each grape will produce 120 gallons of wine in the last days. This association would also have been understood by Gentiles, for there was a myth about Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who would turn the local village stream into wine when he visited.

 

Our first reading spoke about Melchizedek, a mysterious figure who was believed to be both priest and king, and to be the ancestor of an alternative line of priests from the Aaronic line. You note he brought both bread and wine to Abraham, so here is an association being made with the Eucharist. In the Psalms Melchidedek is associated with King David, who like him, the passage says, will be a priest forever; the NT letter to the Hebrews applies this to Jesus. But a contemporary meditation on the story, by the Jewish philosopher, Philo, says ‘let him (Melchizedek) give wine rather than water, and give souls strong drink, that they may be seized by divine intoxication’.

 

As John explains, the water was used for the Jewish rites of purification, so is understood to stand for approaching God through obedience to the Law, or, more positively, for repentance. The number of jars, six, one less than the perfect number, seven, implies that this way of approaching God is imperfect. Mary, in John’s Gospel, stands for the perfect female disciple, as the Beloved Disciple stands for the perfect male disciple. She is addressed as ‘Woman’ as she is again at the foot of the cross when she and the Beloved Disciple are committed into each other’s care. When Jesus answers her, he says,’his hour has not yet come’. In John’s Gospel, the ‘hour’ is  the hour of the cross, when reconciliation between God and humanity is accomplished by Christ’s death.

 

So, the story looks back into the Old Testament, and forward to the cross. Most telling of all is a phrase which is unfortunately missed out in the lectionary portion we heard. The story begins “on the third day” a phrase which any Christian believer immediately associates with the day of resurrection. This is the strongest indication that this story is actually about eschatology, not matrimony. It’s about the glory of Jesus revealed when God raised him from death, and the reconciliation that brought, not just about the glory revealed at a wedding in Cana. The miracle we are meant to wonder at is not the turning of water into wine, but the the turning of sinful human beings into welcome guests at the divine wedding feast.

 

This morning we meet to share in Holy Communion, which is meant to be a foretaste of that heavenly banquet. What can the story of the wedding reception at Cana tell us about what we should expect from this experience?

 

The first sign in John’s Gospel tells us we should experience the glory and grace of God, pouring over us and into us, like hundreds of gallons of wine.  It tells us we should anticipate a real celebration, as we do when we go to a wedding. Do you feel like this when you come to communion? If not,  ask yourself, why not?  Could it be that our worship provides more water than wine? That is to say, we are more concerned with the rules and regulations than with joy and grace and love?  And if this is so, what can be done  to change things?

 

This sign also tells us we should experience the joy of union with God in communion, as the Eucharist is a symbol of the mutual love and self-giving between Christ and the church, in the same way as a marriage symbolises the mutual love and self-giving of the couple. But we are in Christ as a corporate body, not individually, so the communion should also express our unity as a congregation, as a church and as Christians – which is an appropriate thing to ponder on this Sunday in the Week of Prayer for Christian unity.

 

The Gospel and epistles of John speak a lot about love; but some commentators believe that John was speaking of an exclusive understanding of love, only between those who were within the community, and not of a love which included everyone, including those with whom they disagreed. That exclusive sort of love is very often demonstrated by groups of Christians who believe they alone have the truth, and those who disagree with them should be excluded from fellowship or from the sacraments.

 

I think however, that this sign, of water into wine, speaks of the superabundant, overflowing love and grace of God, which is available to everyone, regardless of their beliefs of practices. I think we are called to express that in our worship and in our fellowship.

 

We have come a long way in ecumenical activity during my lifetime, to a stage where most Christians can now express what unites them by sharing in Holy Communion together.  The Week of Prayer is a chance for us to give thanks for that progress, to repent of those things that still divide wedding guest from wedding guest, whether within  churches or between them, and to rededicate ourselves to cooperate more widely with God to bring more people to share in the divine wedding celebration.

 

There’s a joke that is often told in religious circles, about someone who dies, and goes to Heaven, and is shown round by St Peter. In one part of heaven is an area surrounded by a high wall. The person asks to see inside, but St Peter says “No. We can’t go in, because it would destroy their illusions. They think they’re the only people here”.

 

Who ‘they’ are depends on who’s telling the joke. Sometimes it’s the Roman Catholics, sometimes the jehovah’s Witnesses, or the Fundamentalist Evangelicals. It’s never the denomination of the person telling the story!

As we laugh at the punchline, perhaps we should remind ourselves of the times when we have mentally placed ourselves in that exclusive enclosure – when we have believed that we, and those who think like us, are the only ones who are going to heaven. We have all done it, to a greater or lesser extent; but that is not the attitude of the God described in this sign, who turns the water of purification into the abundant wine of celebration.

 

The miracle at the wedding at Cana reminds us again of our need to invite Jesus into our homes and our churches, to be present in our meals and our religious life, and to allow him continually to change our reliance on rules and standards, purification and separation into the enjoyment of the new and better wine of joy and love and fellowship which he provides for us, a sign of our unity with God and each other, a sign of his glory which we are charged with revealing to the world.

Who’s Calling?

January 15, 2012

Who’s Calling?

(1 Samuel 3, 1-10; Psalm 139, 1-6, 12-17; John 1, 43-51)

I’m not the sort of person who has visions; and I can’t say that there was a distinct moment when I was converted, as some people have: I was simply brought up in a Christian household, and continued to attend church when I was an adult. Nor can I identify a moment when I was ‘called’ to the ministry of Reader (or Local Preacher in Methodist terms). I began by speaking at family services, and ‘ghost writing’ some sermons for my then Vicar, and one day I had to take over and actually ‘preach’ one at a Parish Communion. It was at that point I decided that I ought to get myself properly trained and authorised if I was going to continue. So I did! And this particular ministry has felt right for me ever since.

Was that experience a calling from God? I don’t know!

Our readings today, in their different ways, explore the idea of being called by God.

In the first, from the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament, the boy Samuel is called to the life of a prophet, speaking ‘The Word of the Lord’ to the people of Israel. The second, from Psalm 139, explores the relationship with God to which we are all called, from before our birth to our death. The passage from John’s Gospel describes the calling of two disciples, Philip and Nathanael.

The passage from 1 Samuel can be heard as a rather sweet story, of a small child coming to personal knowledge of God for the first time. But, set in its context, it is a much more frightening and serious tale. The previous chapters of I Samuel have interwoven the story of the birth of Samuel with a description of sins of Eli’s sons, and therefore the failure of his role as a father and a priest. Eli’s sons have exploited their hereditary position to satisfy their greed and their lust, by taking the best meat of the sacrifices for themselves and using the women of the temple as prostitutes.

The beginning of our passage shows that, at first, Eli fails to discern the Lord speaking to Samuel; but eventually, he does recognise that this is the divine voice speaking, and he not only teaches Samuel how to respond, but demands to hear what Samuel has been instructed to prophesy, however bad it may be for him and his family.

The following verses of 1 Samuel describe the fate that God has in store for the priestly family: the death of the two wicked sons, Eli’s blindness and his eventual death, and the descent of his family into poverty.

Yet, they also describe Eli’s acceptance of all this as “what is good to the Lord”. No matter how much he has failed God, no matter how much his family has misused their position of privilege, he has not departed so far from his original calling as to fail to recognise the voice of God calling, nor to reject the truth when he hears it.

God’s call to the young Samuel is to a ministry that proclaims the replacement of the old, failed order of priests, represented by Eli and his sons, with a new order, of prophets, who hear and proclaim the true Word of the Lord. Samuel is to become the first representative of that new order.

Psalm 139 (a favourite psalm of many people) describes how God calls us: how God searches us out and knows every one of us from the first moments of our existence in the womb. It is because God knows us in such an intimate way that we can know God. As the end of our passage reminds us, the knowledge is not equal: God will always know much more about us than we can ever know of God. The psalm reminds me of the theology of Paul Tillich, who speaks of God as both transcendent, existing outside and beyond all that is, but also as immanent and intimate, ‘the Ground of our Being’.

Perhaps we may be alarmed by the idea of a God from whom we can never escape, no matter where we run to, and who knows every detail of our lives before we live them. We all of us have our ‘dark side’, the bits of ourselves that we prefer others not to see, lest we be judged wanting. But there is no sense in this psalm of judgement, simply of a God who understands, loves and provides for us from before birth until after death. It speaks of what Martin Buber called the ‘I-Thou’ relationship.

In our New Testament passage we heard John’s description of the calling of two more disciples, Philip and Nathanael. Previously Andrew has been called from being a disciple of John the Baptist, and has brought along his brother, Peter. Now, having returned from the Jordan to Galilee, Jesus calls Philip, possibly a Gentile, who in turn brings along his friend Nathanael.

The passage seems to reflect a certain amount of rivalry between the towns of Galilee. Philip, Peter and Andrew are natives of Bethsaida (which means ‘house of fishing’) and Nathanael from Cana, where the first of Jesus’s seven signs which John describes takes place. Nathanael clearly doesn’t think anything worthwhile can come from Nazareth and particularly not the expected Messiah! Since Nazareth was located right on the border with Samaria, you can understand why those from other parts of Galilee might consider it a dodgy place!

Since this is John’s Gospel, the simple story is full of hidden meanings. Jesus describes Nathanael  as an Israelite, a son of Israel. The former name of Israel was Jacob, and Jacob means ‘trickster’ or deceiver’. But Jesus says Nathanael is not a deceiver.

Jesus says he saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. The fig tree is often a symbol of peace and prosperity, and of the Jewish nation.  Was Jesus then calling Nathanael from his old life as a faithful Israelite to a new life as a disciple of the Messiah?

Nathanael certainly thought so. He acclaimed Jesus with the Messianic titles, ‘Son of God’ and ‘King of Israel’.

But then Jesus immediately refers back to Jacob again, with his reference to a ladder along which angels pass from heaven to earth. His ministry will be one where heaven and earth are open to each other, where God and human beings are connected. But whereas, when Jacob saw the ladder, it marked a holy place, Bethel, where God was encountered,  now it marks a person, Jesus, where God is encountered.

None of the Gospels tells us much more about Philip or Nathanael. In this story of their call, they seem to represent the disciples in the post-resurrection church. They have seen the miracles of Jesus; they are aware of his supernatural knowledge. The only proper response to the this person’s command to follow him, is to do so, and to worship him as King and Messiah.

But that is not the end of the story. The disciple is to follow Jesus, and to believe. But the disciple is also to extend the invitation to others to “Come and see”. This section of John’s Gospel emphasises the important role of personal connections in the making of new disciples. It is an invitation to us, as well as to those first disciples. We who have seen the Word made flesh, we who have heard the Word of the Lord are not supposed to keep it to ourselves. We are to go and invite others to come, and see, and hear for themselves.

And what are we inviting our family, and friends, and workmates and neighbours to come and see? We are inviting them to meet a God who knows us intimately, and who is present in everything we do; who is with us in the bad times as well as the good, who accepts our dark side as well as the light in us.

We are inviting them to meet a God who accepts us as we are, who chooses the most unlikely people to bear the divine message: a small child, being raised by an elderly failed priest in a corrupt environment; a foreigner; a cynical adult, deeply prejudiced against people from a rival town, and supremely, a man from a rough border town.

We are inviting them to meet a God who is transforming the world, replacing the old order of evil and corruption with a new one, led by those who hear and proclaim the true Word of the Lord. We are inviting them to meet a God who is not distant, but who comes to us in human form, who invites us into the relationship of intimacy and co-operation with the divine for which we were created.

We are inviting them to meet a God who calls human beings to become agents of the divine in changing the world and making transforming it into the Kingdom of heaven.

Who’s calling?

God is!

Come and see!

The Politics of Christmas

January 8, 2012

(Isaiah 60, 1-6; Matthew 2, 1-12)

May I wish you, again, a happy Christmas!

Yes, I know that, for the secular world, Christmas is behind us, all the decorations have been taken down, and we’re well into the New Year.

But in the church year, the season of Christmas continues until Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on February 2nd; and although we are now into the part of the Christmas season we call Epiphany, on this particular Sunday we are actually hearing another version of the story of Christ’s birth. This time, not Luke’s version with the Annunciation to Mary, the census, the journey to Bethlehem, the child in the manger, the visit of the shepherds, the presentation in the Temple and the peaceful return to Nazareth; but Matthew’s version, with the Holy Family living in Bethlehem, the annunciation to Joseph, the magi led to see the new born baby by a star, their visit to King Herod, their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, their return home by another way, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, and the family’s decision to live in Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem when they return. Two very different narratives, but asking the same questions and giving the same answers about who this child is, and what it means  to follow him.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was roundly criticised in some quarters for his Christmas Day sermon,which some people thought was ‘too political’. Politics can be defined as ‘of, for or relating to citizens’ or as ‘the process of human interaction by which groups make decisions’. Whichever definition of politics you use, the whole of the Bible, the Gospels and the Nativity stories in Luke and Matthew are about politics.

Do you remember the series of comedies starring Rowan Atkinson called ‘Blackadder’? In the one set in Tudor times, Miranda Richardson, playing a rather petulant Queen Elizabeth I had a catch phrase, which she produced whenever anyone disagreed with her: “Who’s Queen?” And that question is what the Nativity narratives are all about. Who is in authority, who wields ultimate power, whose laws do we obey?

Luke, writing for a predominantly Greek audience asks: who is the emperor, who is the Son of God, who is the Prince of Peace, who is the Saviour of the world? Is it the Roman Emperor Augustus, to whom all these titles were given at the time? Or is it Jesus?

Matthew, writing for a predominantly Jewish audience, asks who is the King of the Jews, who is the Son of David, who is the Messiah, who is the successor of Moses? Is it King Herod, the puppet king, installed by the Roman Emperor; or is it Jesus?

Matthew’s Nativity story demonstrates that Jesus is greater than the Roman Emperor, by mirroring the myths about the founding father of the Emperor’s dynasty with the story of the journey of the Magi. The imperial mythology tells of a star which led the ancestor of Augustus, Julus, his father Aeneas and his grandfather, westward from the doomed city of Troy to found the Roman race. Matthew tells of a star which led the wise men westward to worship the new born King of the Jews.

But Matthew also wants to show that Jesus is greater than, and is the summation of, all the leading figures of the Old Testament, and in particular the law giver, Moses, and the iconic king, David.

The Jews believed that Moses was the author of the Torah, contained in the first five books of the Old Testament. So Matthew includes in his Gospel five great discourses, giving the new Torah; and this pattern of five occurs also in his birth narrative, which is like the Gospel in miniature. There are (very unusually for a Jewish genealogy) five women mentioned in the list of Jesus’s ancestors; there are five dreams which guide Joseph and the Magi; there are five mentions of the town of Bethlehem; there are five texts of the Old Testament which illuminate the events of Jesus’s birth.

Matthew’s birth story also mirrors closely the non-biblical elaboration (targum or midrash) of the story of the birth of Moses. First century Jews and Christians would have been very familiar with these, but we miss the echoes, both because we don’t know these stories, and because we rarely read or hear the whole of Matthew’s story. Usually the visit of the Magi is tagged onto the end of the end of Luke’s nativity story, and we never hear the climax of the story, the killing of the baby boys in Bethlehem, (unless the Feast of the Holy Innocents falls on a Sunday – and we all know how small congregations are on the Sunday after Christmas!).  Yet Matthew wrote about this slaughter as a direct parallel to the slaughter of the Hebrew boy children by the Pharoah.

In the Moses midrash the Pharoah has a dream that a Hebrew boy will be born who will threaten his power. So he decrees that all Hebrew boys are to be drowned at birth. The Hebrew men vow to divorce their wives, so they don’t produce any more boys. But Moses’s father is told in a dream to remarry his wife, as their son will be the saviour of Israel. He does so, and the child is protected and survives the slaughter of the babies to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.

In Matthew’s version, Joseph (another name that harks back to the time in Egypt) vows to divorce his wife after finding she is pregnant. He is told in a dream to take her back, which he does. Herod finds out about the child from the wise men, and attempts to kill him, but through messages given in dreams, the child is protected and escapes to Egypt. When the danger is passed, in a new Exodus he returns to Nazareth to grow up, and eventually begin his ministry.

The Moses midrash is not the only Old Testament reference in Matthew’s birth story. The references to Bethlehem, and to the king who will be a shepherd to his people, refer back to the story of David, the greatest Jewish King. The five prophecies refer back to the prophet Isaiah and the threat from Assyria, the hope for a restoration of the Davidic kings, the Exodus, the Exile in Babylon and the time of the Judges. As we heard in our first reading, Matthew also draws on passages in Isaiah and the Psalms (particularly Psalm 72 on which Hail to the Lord’s Anointed is based); these refer to foreign nations and kings being drawn to the light of God in Jerusalem, and bringing gifts of gold and incense. Other passages which influenced his story include the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24, 15-19  and the dreams of Daniel.

But Matthew’s birth story does not just look back to the Old Testament and its prophets, kings and heroes who served God, revealed God’s will before Jesus, and so prefigured him. It also looks forward, to the climax of the story of Jesus in his death and passion, and his continuing story in the life of the church. The third gift of the magi, myrrh, foreshadows his death. The attempt by the Romans’ puppet king, Herod, to kill a rival King of the Jews, foreshadows the decision of the Roman governor, Pilate to crucify Jesus as King of the Jews. The escape to Egypt foreshadows Jesus’s escape from death through the resurrection.

The star foreshadows the acclamation of Jesus in the Gospels, especially John’s Gospel, Paul and Revelation as the light, which reflects the glory of God;  and the Magi, foreigners and pagans who recognise and worship Jesus as the Messiah when the Jewish leaders try to destroy him, foreshadow the Gentiles of Matthew’s church, who recognise and worship Jesus as their Saviour, when many of his countrymen reject him. Matthew’s birth story is filled with joy, like Luke’s, but is much more obviously filled with conflict and foreboding – which perhaps explains why we prefer to ignore many of its details.

But if we do only read ‘the nice bits’ of Matthew, we will fail to hear the message Matthew intended us to hear. Matthew wrote in a tradition that believed that hearing the stories of the past made these events real and effective in the present. His story says that Christmas is not just something that happened two thousand years ago; it happens now, and demands a response from us, as it demanded a response from those who witnessed it then.

It asks us who we are in the story. Are we like the Magi who follow the light, and refuse to comply with the attempts of those in religious and political power who want to extinguish it?

It asks, who is king and emperor over our lives? A secular ruler or party leader, or the one who embodies the values of God’s kingdom? When we vote, who is uppermost in our minds.

It asks what most completely discloses the divine will for us? The law of Moses or the grace, forgiveness and sacrifice shown by Christ?

It asks what really brings light and peace to the world? The exercise of military and economic power or following the example of a persecuted and crucified Messiah? Peace through military victory or peace through justice?

Matthew’s Christmas story is not a nice story for children, about exotic kings, guiding stars, dreams and strange gifts.   It is an adult story, about religion, and power and politics, and how they can be abused. It places before those who hear and read it a choice about  the decisions they make, and the guidance they follow.

The Christmas story proclaims the beginning of a new world order, initiated by the birth of Jesus, It challenges all of us to consider what we are being called to do to bring about that new world order in our time, in our church and our town. And that’s politics!

Will we follow his star? Will we bring our gifts to offer to him? How will we pay him homage?