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Sermon Ideas For Matthew 2:1-12 Part 1

Theologically speaking, our passage gives expression to at least three interrelated points. It underscores the historical, even cosmic importance of the coming or birth of Jesus the Messiah. It points to a significant tension between the breaking-in of the messianic rule and then-present political authorities. And it expresses the special measure of divine care afforded the child in order to preserve him for his all-important ministry and mission.
The importance of the coming or birth of Jesus the Messiah is underscored by the journey of the wise men or astrologers from the east in order to pay homage. The wise men come due to a cosmic testimony; they have "observed his star rising." When a frightened Herod calls together "all of the chief priests and scribes of the people" he gets a quick history lesson. He is told it is written that the premier event in the history of the Hebrew nation, the birth of the Messiah, is to be "in Bethlehem of Judea." From there "shall come a ruler who is to shepherd (or rule) [God's] people Israel." Moreover, anyone familiar with the readings of the Hebrew messianic prophecies current among the Christian community, would also understand that "Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham" is the one who shall establish the righteous Davidic kingship over all other kings and nations (Mt 1:1; Ps 72; Is 11). The net effect, then, is to point to the birth of Jesus the Messiah as the central event of world history, or the manifestation of God's kingdom (Mt 4:17).
This brings us to a second basic point. Matthew 2:1-12 gives poignant expression to the significant tensions between Jesus' messianic rule and ruling social authorities. What, after all, is Herod to think of "the child who is born king of the Jews?" Regardless of what one believes Herod should have thought, it is at least understandable that he should take the birth of the Messiah as a radical challenge to his own political rule and authority. The problematic relationship between Jesus the Messiah and social authorities (political, religious, and cultural) surfaces here in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew and again in the accounts of Jesus' trial and crucifixion in chapter 27. "Are you the King of the Jews?" will be Pilate's primary question. The soldiers who strip Jesus and place a scarlet robe on him as well as a crown of thorns will also mock him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" They will write this same charge on a placard over his head, and together with the bandits who also are being crucified, they shall mockingly observe that the King of Israel who saved others is unable to come down from the cross and save himself (Mt 27:11, 27-30, 37, 42-44).
A third basic feature of our passage, the extraordinary measure of divine care afforded the child Jesus in order to preserve him for his ministry and mission, might in some respects be regarded as an extension of the first. Threatened by the nature and the legitimacy of the messianic kingship, Herod is set upon killing the Christ, even to the point of massacring all of the male infants "in and around Bethlehem" (2:16-18). The wise men, having met with Herod on their way to Bethlehem, are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, just as Joseph soon will be warned and directed by angels and in dreams about where to take the child (2:13-15, 19-23).
In sum, for the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, the birth of the Jesus the Messiah is a truly extraordinary event, and not only because a virgin has conceived. The birth of Jesus the Messiah is the single most important event in the history of God's world. Its significance is marked by cosmic and historic indicators, and it provokes responses of exceptional concern in both earthly and heavenly courts.
We might, and perhaps we should say more than this. How shall we understand Herod's immediate, finally even maniacal attempts to kill the Messiah? We might attempt to dismiss them as a big mistake. Herod is deranged. Or, again, we might say that if Herod had only understood that the Messiah's kingdom is exclusively spiritual and otherworldly, then he would not have made the mistake of regarding Jesus as a political threat. Perhaps, but Herod is hardly the only person in a position of authority to have greeted Jesus and the social movement begun by Jesus with some trepidation and concern. Is there a sense in which the one who manifests God's kingdom does indeed pose a challenge to established authorities and the loyalties and practices that they often uphold? Are there any socially disturbing implications of a person, a message, and a movement that mean to put loyalty to God and God's purposes first? Obviously, these are questions that need to be approached with some care.
If Jesus really is the Messiah, the ruler who is to shepherd God's people, then it follows that he is the decisive embodiment or manifestation of God's reign. Thus, when we want to know God's fundamental aim or purpose, we ought to look to Jesus Christ. When we want to know what true righteousness is, true faithfulness, true power, and so on, we ought also to look to him. This is part of what it means to say that the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ decisively disclose the reality of God and of human life in appropriately responsive relation to God.
And yet, this means that we need to proceed with extraordinary care since, as Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, the Messiah who comes is not precisely the Messiah who was expected. If we carefully attend to the one who does come, then it becomes apparent that true righteousness makes few claims on its own behalf and is even willing to be accounted unrighteous. It becomes apparent that true faithfulness looks not to its own interests but to the purposes of God and the interests of others. It becomes apparent that the kingdom of God enters the world only by way of crucifixion.1 Life is caught up in a great reversal.2 If Jesus Christ is the one who inaugurates and manifests God's kingdom, then the power to bring about the kingdom of God is not the power of nations and empires, or of princes and kings. It is rather a power made perfect in weakness and in suffering endurance, a power that both enables and requires a revolution in ourselves and in the ways that we understand and exercise our powers.3
Here, in fact, we do find a radical challenge to established loyalties, practices, and powers. Herod is misguided, possibly even deranged. His subterfuge and his massacre of innocent children are immoral and unspeakably cruel. And yet, the truth is that Herod is not entirely mistaken. Something more than a little profound lurks in his perception that the coming of Jesus the Messiah poses a threat to his power and his reign.
Douglas F. Ottati Union Theological Seminary in Virginia
1. See Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Suffering Servant and the Son of Man," in Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937), pp. 170-193. 2. See Allen Verhey, The Great Reversal: Ethics and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984), pp. 246. 3. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1941), pp. 128-139.