I don’t think we can understand the light, unless first we understand the darkness.
Here’s what I mean. My five year old son proudly helped me yesterday clean the inside of my car. When we were finished, there were 2 strange lights on the exterior of the car which were stuck in “on” position, and I couldn’t turn them off. No burned out fuse, no broken wiring, nothing was detected to solve the problem. I resigned myself to a dead car battery in the morning. After 45 minutes of anxiety, I figured out he had hit the “parking light” button I didn’t know existed. Proper diagnosis; meet simple solution.
I think the same is true in our story today, in order to embrace the light of epiphany, we need to understand the darkness.
In the midst of exile, chaos and confusion the prophet Jeremiah says in 4:23-26 “I beheld the earth and lo, it was without form and void, and the heavens had no light.” The word they used, tohu wabohu, defines the world as they knew it: dark, churning, chaotic, broken. Empire had literally mowed over their nation, temple, and faith and forced them to migrate to a land they did not want to be in. The darkness looked like this: administrative violence, idolatry, forced migration, slave labor, loss of faith and utter confusion on the faithfulness of God.
And it was in this setting, the context of empire and exile, that the Genesis account was written, “And the earth was formless and void (tohu wabohu) and darkness was over the waters.” Out of this context of darkness God is said to be creating. Not out of nothing, not out of space dust, but out of chaos, confusion, where the people had lost their bearings and life looked bleak. God speaks, God acts, God brings hope in creation.
And this again, is the exact context of our story this morning: empire, devastation, longing, doubt.
For instance, how could such a horrific event like the mass killing of innocent children happen??? That’s the story of Matthew chapter 2, and it’s the story from Dec 14, 2012 in Newtown CT. It’s also happened no less than 178 times through Drone attacks carried out in our name by our soldiers with our tax dollars.
So let’s look deeper at the Matthew text and explore the deep roots of this story. We Mennonites have dabbled on the surface of these issues for far too long. Let’s press in by looking at the cast of characters involved in this unspeakable evil.
- Caesar Augustus: The Roman Caesar’s were worshipped because they brought peace and security (Pax Romana) to Rome through violence. “Peace through violence” was guiding assumption, carried out with brutal force. The executioners cross is the perfect image to understand how Rome created and sustained peace. Both birth stories in Matthew and Luke frame the darkness with specific reference to the powers of the day, Caesar Augustus and his minion Herod the Great. The administration violence of Rome has crushed the Maccabeees and the will of the people by an ever present threat of violence. How do you secure peace? By killing people.
- Herod: Widely known to be “a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis,” (ancient source), he also held a special and safeguarded position within the system PRECISELY BECAUSE of his brutality. Indeed, he was given near unlimited powers of violence. Rome didn’t care how he did it, only that he ensure Pax Romana. And the threat the wise men presented to him was too much to pass up. Herod functioned perfectly legally and perfectly within the accepted narrative of his day.
- Hitmen: But Herod isn’t the actual person who does the killing, which, according to scholars was likely in the 20 child range. “Just doing my job” would likely have been the mantra of these hitmen. Which puts them in the same category as Texas’ executioners in Huntsville who killed 15 people in 2012 and are scheduled to kill 10 in 2013. Or the NRA which has so loudly proclaimed, “guns don’t kill people, people do.” What’s most noteworthy is that these killers are welcome in the system! Indeed, they have protected and special status in the system that caused these deaths.
- Religious Leaders: The leaders of the faith completely cave in to Herod’s demands and offer up Jesus on a silver platter. Of course, this is no different than what we see them doing later, when in John 18 they make the clear choice to kill the one for the sake of… you guessed it, Pax Romana. It’s the exact same narrative played out by both Caesar and Religious Leaders: violence brings peace.
- Wise Men: Now here’s an interesting inclusion, but the wise men play a complicated role in this violence. They trigger the system unintentionally! They trigger an act they did not intend and do not support, but without them there is no slaughter of the innocents. They are now not only part of the light, they are also part of the darkness! This is what Coldplay meant when they said in their lyrics to a song a number of years ago, “Am I part of the cure, or am I part of the disease?” Over and again Paul reminds us this is our reality too: we are also sinners! Colossians 1:21 says it well, “You also were once estranged and hostile in mind.” From war taxes to Petroleum products in diapers, we’re part of the problem.
This is the chaos out of which God chose to create! Where Administrative violence rules the land and men who inhabit safe and special space destroy families to ensure a misguided notion of “peace.” Where subordinates bow to the destructive wishes of those above and feel powerless to resist. Where the assumption is that only violence begets peace, and more violence and threat ensures even more peace.
It’s a time where people, good people, are caught in the system and become complicit. Where no one person is to blame, and everyone – absolutely everyone – has an out; every person can say, “It wasn’t me! I’m not responsible. I was only doing my job.” The nebulousness, the confusion, the complexity of it all is exactly what the Bible meant by tohu wabohu (and later, in the New Testament, by “Powers and Principalities.”.
You can’t understand the light, until you understand the darkness.
But the roots of peace are also present in this story. “The light shines in the darkness but the darkness did not overcome it.” We can summarize these with 3 F’s.
- Focus on the Light. In Matt 2:11 the wise men worshipped Jesus and paid him homage. In the midst of all the darkness of the day, and Herod’s terrible anger, the focus was and must be on Jesus. We ascribe allegiance to Jesus and orient every aspect of our lives to the gospel and God’s mission in our world. Without worship, how oh how will we fall in love more deeply with God and the things of God? About this light Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel… for it reveals the justice of God.” (Romans 1:16-17)
- Finance the Light. Matt 2:11 The wise men do more than worship, they also Finance the Light by giving their best treasure to support what God is doing in our world. With extreme generosity they pour themselves into the Jesus story by blessing a family in need. The trip to Egypt that is necessary because of the Wise Men’s mistake? Covered. They finance the light because the darkness has such deep pockets! Listen folks, this is not only an act of resistance, it also moves the story along. God’s kingdom doesn’t depend on money, but we’ll get nowhere without it.
- Fast from further support of the darkness. In Matt 2:12 the wise men make a calculated decision that they will not support Herod any longer, they refuse to be complicit any longer, and instead choose to fast from the darkness. Isaiah 58 defines what Biblical fasting looks like, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” This is an essential step, to turn our back on the darkness, on administrative violence, and myths about violence, and loosen the weights of materialism that cling so closely.
This is our call, this is who we are. If we want to be part of Jesus story in 2013 we must Focus on the Light, Finance the Light, and Fast from the darkness. I invite you to join me on this journey, it’s certainly nothing that can be done alone.
Above all, remember that no matter how dark it gets, or how muddied our souls become, that the Light is stronger than the darkness. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation (including tohu wabohu), will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8
Marty will be blogging an entire series that came out of this sermon from January 6, 2013 on the roots of violence. You are encouraged to follow along and share with friends at: http://blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor/