Monday, December 24, 2018

Fear or Faith

The gospel lesson for the Festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord is a well-known story - the story of the magi who come from the orient, asking, "Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?"  Matthew 2:1-12 is the text, and Matthew alone includes this story, its equivalent Lukan text the account of the adoring shepherds.  It is our first glimpse of what will become the last instruction of Jesus in Matthew's gospel:  Go, make disciples of all nations.  That continues to be our charge.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but have been developed to address some of the fundamental questions for Law and Gospel preachers regarding how the Word functions.  For more on this unique genre of preaching, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This story is a narrative form of Law and Gospel.  The characters who view the announcement of this new born king as threat - Herod and his court and "all Jerusalem with him" - show us the presence of the Law that Christ brings.  Christ will be their judge.  The magi, on the other hand, who view this announcement with humble ecstasy, show us the presence of the Gospel.  They see God doing great things and they receive this announcement with great joy.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Since it is always important to identify with those who are addressed by the Word, we have a choice here; we can identify with Herod and his crowd, or with the magi.  Or we may want to identify with both.  Perhaps a task of the sermon will be to bring out our resistance to the new born king (Law) as well as God's insistence that Christ is the newborn king meant for the life of the whole world. (Gospel)

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the text functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to the work of God in Christ.  The final verse in this text could be that as we see the magi not returning to Herod, but leaving for their own country "by another road."  We too, having been drawn to worship the Christ, are invited to leave the way of Herod behind and walk another road - the way of Christ.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  In the characters in the story we see the couplets that arise:  fear/faith; resistance/embrace; threat/promise.

5.  Exegetical work:  In translating the text we see clearly the contrast between Herod's reaction and that of the magi upon encountering the Christ.  Verse 3 says that when Herod the King heard, he was "thrown into confusion" (tarasso) and all of Jerusalem with him."  In contrast, when the magi saw the star again leading them they "rejoiced greatly with great joy." (vs. 10)  Superlatives both, but what a contrast is set up between the two.  An anonymous commentator from ancient times writes this about the magi:  "They understood that the birth of the king was revealed to them by divine authority... If they had been seeking a king of this world and thus [lowly] had found him, they would have been more perplexed than delighted... They recognized him at once. They opened their treasure chests... Those who abandon Herod and come to Christ with all their heart do not wish to return to Herod."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. Ia, pp. 27-29).

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  A sermon should always move a listener from disequilibrium to equilibrium, insisted Eugene Lowry.  How might we do that here?  By first identifying with the king and then with the magi?  Or another way?

Blessings on your proclamation!

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