An Epiphany sermon based on Matthew 2:1-16, January 1, 2012
I can relate all too well with the Magi. After all, they did what they thought was best. They even get a spot in everyone’s Christmas manger scene even though their presence is never said to have coincided with that of animals or shepherds. But we’ve all done it, do our best to love, or serve, or be kind, only to have it thrown back in our faces by the unintended consequences of our behavior.
Take Mark, for instance, who wants to bless his office mates with fresh hot made-to-order Starbucks coffees. He’s observant enough to know what everyone would order, and stands patiently in line, reading the sign-board which mysteriously advertizes a new coffee blend called “The Fair Trade Jungle Blend.” A catchy name, it boasts to be “sustainably grown” and “guarantees the growers are paid fair wages.”
Which of course begs the question, “Don’t the growers always get paid a fair wage? Is ‘normal’ coffee harmful to the environment?”
Could Mark’s act, designed for good, be causing the oppression and turmoil of someone he’s never met?
Unintended consequences of our daily behavior
And so it is with the Magi. Their good behavior had unintended consequences for people they’ve never met. The Magi force Jesus family to become refugees on the run, and they also cause the devastating treatment of all babies and toddlers (including little girls) in Bethlehem. Indeed, they trigger a dark lament that foreshadows the depth of conflict Jesus will face his entire life.
But perhaps the consequences of my own behavior today are more similar to Herod’s than I care to let on. Oh sure, I don’t order anyone’s killing like Herod, who was well known for his rage and brutality, even killing off several of his own children. But is that just a convenient layer of protection to block me from truly seeing the reverb my actions cause around the world?
Bertha Beachy, a longtime missionary in East Africa, said:
North Americans find it very hard to believe that their wealthy ways of living affect poor people on other continents. But in Africa, people are fully convinced that North Americans and their actions strongly influence their lives.” (Living More with Less, pg 38).
Doris Janzen Longacre says, “Our seemingly indirect actions can actually cause very direct consequences in the lives of many in parts of the world that seem distant.”
For instance: our insatiable need for transport demands oil – lots of it – which causes wars and rumors of wars, the killing of many innocents for our convenience.
For instance: our insatiable need for tomatoes out of season demands the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and transport which causes harm to our bodies and environment.
For instance: our insatiable need for computers, tablets, gadgets and phones demands the use of tungsten and other materials that come only from impoverished Congo, which has seen the longest most destructive conflict since WW2.
For instance: our insatiable need for cheap and fashionable clothing demands outsourcing labor to sweatshops, which causes unjust and unhealthy labor conditions and the perpetual poverty of those who make the garments.
The Magi allowed their guilt to be a productive, not a paralyzing, emotion.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the global complexities of injustice surrounding coffee, oil & cars, food & chocolate, clothes & computers, etc, etc, etc…. the list is long. Doris Janzen Longacre reminds us that the complexity of all this can be absolutely paralyzing. “Awed and even terrified” (pg 40) she says! Indeed. What can one person do in the face of overwhelming injustice done on our behalf?
What can one person do?
The Magi do what we all must do: take responsibility for their actions. When they discover the horror of what they accidentally did they allowed their guilt to be a productive, not a paralyzing, emotion. They didn’t pull the trigger. They didn’t give the order to do so. But nor did they blame others, insulate themselves, or say “I was just following orders.” They acknowledge their part in the injustice, and make a change. Rather than going back to Herod and Jerusalem, they go home by another route, keeping the new kings’ whereabouts secret. A faithful response demands we unpack the layer upon layer of distance we feel from the problems we’ve helped create.
- Take responsibility. We must see ourselves as part of the global family, and admit our decisions have global impact.
- Make a change. It doesn’t have to be huge, and we don’t have to turn Amish. But we are all capable of making changes, loving our global neighbors more. Did you know that UPS cut 28.5 million miles and 3 million gallons of gas simply by refusing to make left hand turns whenever possible? I’m not asking you to stop eating chocolate, but you might consider learning more about where it comes from, and why those cocoa-rich countries have the highest population of child labor and human trafficking of any region in the world.
- Notice they are can NOT undo the consequences or solve the problem.
The kids still die. Jesus is still homeless.
In the midst of competing loyalties, they pledge allegiance to Christ as king.
They are willing, and able, to change, because they believe in their hearts that Jesus is King. Are you with them on this? Do you believe Jesus is the king? Throughout Matthew and the New Testament we see Jesus elevated to the status of king. Of course the NT doesn’t see him in traditional royal terms. John has Jesus saying, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ John 18:33-36. http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=192423262
But neither do they “spiritualize” the concept of Jesus lordship. Later John doesn’t call him lord in the abstract, but puts it into political context, Jesus is “Lord of lords and King of kings (Rev 17:14)” to be exact. Paul certainly thinks Jesus is king and Caesar is not. For instance, “every knee should bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Phil 2:10-11). At one point followers of Jesus are called “people who have been turning the world upside down.”
In the complexities of this modern life, we must pledge our allegiance to Jesus above all else. We cling to Christ in the midst of the storm as if we were lashing ourselves to the mast of a great ship being rocked upon the waters. The Lordship of Christ means that we must serve, and obey him above all else. Above our bosses and careers, our spouses and interests, and our culture.
And so we shop Fair Trade as an expression of love for neighbor. We plant gardens and compost, recycle, reuse. We decrease our carbon footprint and take the time to ensure we’re not benefitting from someone’s forced labor. We pay a little more for our coffee as a reminder to ourselves that our behavior has consequences for children and families who are as loved by God as we are. If Jesus is king we must Start somewhere. All people, not just the specialists are required to Do justice, to love our neighbor, even those half a world away. We do all we can with our best energies to follow Jesus our Lord and king.
And then, at the end of the day we remind ourselves that we are responsible to act, but it’s not up to us to finish the job. At the end of this, a long and complex week, we rest today knowing that God and not us is in charge. At this, the end of a year, we open ourselves to knew possibilities of loving others as ourselves and to an increased capacity to care. We rest, and live our lives, knowing that it’s not our job to save the planet or her people, it’s God’s.
And, now that I’m thinking about it, there’s one more way I can easily relate to the Magi. At this the start of a new year, I’m eager to bring my best gifts to Jesus in worship and in life. He is, more than I, worth it. May it be so for us all.