The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
The overture of Matthew’s Gospel has been a lively, drama-filled one, with spine-tingling plots and sub-plots to rival any Stephen Sondheim play. We have encountered an engaged woman who has become pregnant, not by her betrothed, but rather by the Holy Spirit. We have had three wise men; Persian astrologers who travel two years to pay homage and bring gifts of great value to the new born Messiah, Jesus. Then there was the despotic, small minded king Herod who, threatened by what the wise men describe as this newborn king of the Jews, goes on a murderous rampage, killing every male child under the age of two in his realm, after the wise men foil his plot to lead him to the manager of Bethlehem. And then there is the flight to Egypt by the Holy Family to escape the murderous Herod; fleeing hundreds of miles and becoming refugees in a strange land.
Even Sweeny Todd wasn’t this suspenseful and intriguing!
Up to this point the events of Jesus’ life, as well as that of Mary and Joseph, have been fraught with spectacle and excitement. And now we arrive at the banks of the Jordan River and the baptism of Jesus. This is an epiphany moment when Jesus is revealed as God’s son. The text tells us that after Jesus comes up out of the water a voice comes from the heavens – presumably God’s – and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The Greek word eudokeo translated as “well pleased” is more accurately understood as content. Which means that what the voice actually said is, ““This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am content.” Content? God is merely content at this monumental epiphany, the revelation of Jesus as his son?
What an anticlimactic response to the baptism epiphany. Up to this point we have been brought to the edge of our scriptural seats with lots of drama, waiting to see what plot twist comes next and then this; God is merely content? It’s like taking the bubbles out of champagne; it was effervescent and exciting, and now is flat and dull.
The epiphanies of Jesus are almost always accompanied by excitement, awe, and even fear. The Wise Men are “overwhelmed with joy” when they find Jesus. The steward at the wedding feast at Cana is in awe by the appearance of excellent wine after he believed it had all run out. Not knowing where the wine came from, he exclaims to the bridegroom, “you have kept the good wine until now!” And when the disciples witness Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop and hear the same voice we hear today, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” They fall to the ground, “overcome by fear.” Epiphanies are high drama! Yet today at the baptism of Jesus, no drama God is merely content.
A commentary on the passage I read stated that, “God’s response is not of exponential proportions. It is not like the response shouted by fans at athletic events or concerts . . . One would expect more . . . Jesus travels from . . . Galilee, to be baptized by John in the Jordan. His vicissitudes in human form have not been light [thus far]. Surely, a baptism in the wilderness would garner more applause.”  I would say that Jesus being revealed God’s Son should result in timpani rumbling, clanging symbols, klieg lights flashing, balloons and confetti. Yet this is a subdued event. God is one cool cucumber. If there had been Anglicans back then I would describe God’s response to Jesus’ baptism as a very British one; controlled emotions with a stiff upper lip.
Why is this? Why did the drama and suspense give way to this more mundane inaugural of Jesus’ ministry?
The answer lies again in the phrase, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Biblical scholars have linked the “with I am well pleased” text to the first verse in today’s reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, which states, "Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” (Is. 42:1) This verse opens what is known as the first of the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah; songs that describe a redeemer of Israel who will bring salvation to the Jews, not by the sword, but by peaceful means that includes suffering.
The verses following describe the Suffering Servant thusly: “I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” (Is. 42:2-4)
Christian theology understands the Suffering Servant songs as describing Jesus, who, as the Messiah, brought salvation and justice to all people, not by the sword, but through peaceful means, and ultimately by suffering through his Passion and Crucifixion.
Linking Jesus to the Suffering Servant informs us that Jesus is God’s servant who will achieve God’s goal of salvation, but not without suffering. This is a pretty sobering acknowledgement. Sobering enough to see God’s subdued response of mere contentment at Jesus’ baptism, as being that of a father who understands that even though this is a joyful moment, it also is one of recognizing that as his child leads his life it will include many challenges, pain and suffering.
Isaiah goes on to describe what the Redeemer will do as God’s servant: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Is. 42:6b-7)
This work of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah is reiterated by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. When the imprisoned John the Baptist sends his disciples to inquire of Jesus, ““Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matt. 11: 3-5) The prophesied work of the Suffering Servant, bringing justice to the oppressed, release to the captive, and sight to the blind is realized in God’s Son, Jesus.
Bringing people out of darkness to light, freeing them from the shackles that constrain them, feeding the hungry, bring good news to the poor is the, often, mundane work of ministry, but it is the necessary work of bringing about God’s reign. Our faith life can’t always be flash and dash and high drama. In my experience it usually isn’t. Being a Christian isn’t always about feeling the excitement of the Incarnation at Christmas, or the Resurrection at Easter. The reality is all too often we encounter a lot of suffering in living out the ministries the Suffering Servant in Jesus calls us too; we may even suffer ourselves as we do them.
At the final major epiphany of Jesus at the Transfiguration, there’ plenty of drama what with Jesus’ transfigured face, his dazzling white cloths, and three dead prophets appearing amid the bright clouds. But once it is over Jesus and the disciples descend the mountain to continue to journey and do the work of healing a broken world that they have been given to do. So, it must be for us as well. That is the journey of our Savior, and therefore it is our journey as well.
We have just completed the Christmas season; a time when there is plenty of scriptural and secular excitement and drama. Lots of drama in the story of the Nativity, lots of partying and lights, merry-making, song and food. It’s an exciting and adrenaline pumping season. But now Christmas is over, and we must descend the mountain and return to the work of bringing about God’s reign.
There’s a poem by Howard Thurman that captures the truth of this message perfectly, titled,
“The Work of Christmas.”
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers [and sisters],
To make music in the heart.
 Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Associate Professor of New Testament Chicago Theological Seminary; Workingpreacher.org, Commentary on Matthew 3: 13-17; January 12, 2020.
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
The road to joy can seem daunting, if not impossible, these days. A recent op-ed piece in the NYT was titled, “Are We Living in a Post-Happiness World?” The author stated that, with happiness harder to come by these days, people are grasping at any moment of joy they can get.” The premise behind the decline in joy was rooted in our vicious, polarized politics, the growing disparities in economic wealth and opportunity, and the destruction of our planet through global warming, that now appears to be beyond our ability to remedy.
“’In an age of despair, choosing joy is a revolutionary act,’ said Douglas Abrams, an author of “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World,” a 2016 best seller he wrote with Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.”
Today we conclude the season of joy. It is the 12th day of Christmas and tomorrow begins Epiphany. For the past twelve days, (or longer) we have been immersed in joy, or at least behaved as if we have been. We have sung, “Joy to the World, the Lord is come,” and “O tidings of comfort of joy.” We have heard the angel proclaim to shepherds in the field, “Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
As we conclude the Christmas narrative this morning with the arrival of the magi at the manger in Bethlehem, we hear, “When [the magi] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Christmas and the birth of Jesus are saturated with joy.
But in an age of despair, are we really feeling the joy? Is our joy authentic or is it faux? Did we mask the realities of our current circumstances with our Christmas celebrations, but now that they are over, have we returned to a state of despair?
The story of the Nativity is not meant to be a fleeting joy, but rather to offer us permanent joy and hope, even in the most despairing of times. As the angels proclaim, the birth of Jesus is tidings of great joy for all people. And for all time.
As in our own times, the circumstances of the world that Jesus was born into was one of great despair. I read a quote from an evangelical minister recently that stated that when Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape the genocide of Herod’s murdering all the boy children under age two in his realm, that they were not actually refugees. This pastor was refuting the claim by some Christians – like us – who understand that the Holy Family were compelled by the threat of violence to become refugees, just like those people today fleeing violence in Central America. His premise was that all the peoples and countries living under the Roman Empire’s Pax Romana were just one big happy nation and so, the Holy family could not have possibly been refugees. They were just residents moving from one part of the country to another!
I assure you, no one who lived under the brutality of Roman rule and oppression thought that they were part of one happy country. The perpetual efforts of the Jews to liberate themselves from Roman rule attests to that.
Peoples who lived under Roman occupation were over-taxed to the point of poverty, subject to the terroristic tactics of the Roman Legions, were quickly enslaved to meet Roman labor needs, and even more quickly crucified if they challenged or threatened Roman authority. This was not one big happy country.
So, under these conditions choosing joy at the time of the birth of Jesus was certainly a revolutionary act.
And the magi certainly faced some arduous challenges as they followed the star to where the Messiah was. Two years of travel by camel through dessert sands, in the blazing heat of the day and bitter cold of the night, through an environment inhabited by vicious animals and marauding bandits. I rode a camel for five minutes in Israel several years ago; it was hardly comfortable, and mounting and dismounting that animal was terrifying. Two years of doing that is beyond my imagination!
I’m sure the magi experienced more than a few moments of despair as the star moved west, constantly recalibrating their travels to – hopefully - bring them to the goal of seeing the new born messiah. At times I suspect it would have seemed like a hopeless endeavor. But they persisted. They held onto to the hope that the star represented.
Once the magi get to Jerusalem they encounter Herod, a small-minded, despotic king who feigns interest in what they say about the birth of a newborn king of the Jews. But as he is the king of the Jews, he is alarmed. Who is this threat to his throne that these exotic visitors are seeking? The scripture says Herod was “frightened,” but I would speculate that he exploded in rage once the magi were out of earshot. After consulting with the theology experts, he discovers that scripture foretold the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, David’s city.
So, Herod meets the magi again and points them in the direction of Bethlehem. He says to them, “"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."
Now, being learned people, I suspect that the magi might have been skeptical of Herod’s desire to pay baby Jesus homage. If for no other reason than small-minded despots seldom can hide their true feelings, especially if its malice.
The magi go to Bethlehem and the star stops over the place where the child lay. Two years of challenging and exhausting travel, in arduous and dangerous conditions, with more than a few moments when it must have seemed like a foolish endeavor to be pursuing this star. Under the circumstances who would fault them if they threw up their hands in despair, giving up hope and returning to Persia?
But they persevere, and the end result of their persistence, even in the face of huge obstacles, is that the magi are over-whelmed with joy!
Their perseverance leads to joy and was in all ways a revolutionary act!
Joy is always the result of encountering Jesus.
In the beloved carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem, we sing that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Who knows what hopes and fears the magi had met for them in Jesus when they arrived in Bethlehem. I can’t imagine they would be much different than the hopes and fears we all experience in our lives. The fear of being unaccepted, un-loved, unappreciated, uncared for. The fear of our very existence, and that of our children, and children’s children, being threatened by political, economic and climate forces that seem beyond our control. All these fears are cause for despair. And then there are our hopes: hope of being accepted regardless of who we are, of being forgiven our sins and offences, of being released from the abuses of the evil ways of the world. The hope that God can and will redeem all despair. In Jesus all those fears are eased, and all those hopes are fulfilled. No wonder the angels, the shepherds, and the magi all responded to him with joy! Their hopes and fears – like ours – were, and forever will be, met in him. What other response than joy could we possibly have in realizing this is the gift to all people in the child of Bethlehem? It was a revolutionary act in their time. It is no less a revolutionary act in our own time.
I think the most important phrase in this text is that once the magi had experienced the joy that Jesus brings, “they left for their own country by another road.” Their lives found a new path to journey on because they encountered the joy of Jesus. It was the path of hopefulness. And leaving by this new path of hope informs us that our lives are transformed after we encounter Jesus. We no longer travel on the road of despair. The babe of Bethlehem redirects our lives and places us on another road; the road of hope and joy.
As the dark clouds of despair seem to grow more oppressive, grasp the gift of good news for all people, and the hope and joy the message of the Nativity brings to the world. It’s a revolutionary act to do. And it will save us and redeem us. Joy to the world the Savior reigns! Merry Christmas!
 Laura M. Holson, “Are We Living In A Post-Happiness World?” New York Times, Sept. 28, 2019