Sunday, December 24, 2023

Sermon: “The X(mas) Files: Where?” Micah 5:1-5/Matthew 2 (December 24, 2023 - Christmas Eve)

Of all the questions we’ve asked this Advent, I’d have to guess that “Where” is the most practical. Even if we think that we’ve got the “who”, “what”, and “when” of the Messiah figured out, the “where” is what brings it all together; it’s the part that takes the Messiah from the hypothetical realm to the incarnational. And we can’t worship the Messiah very well if we don’t even know where to look! As they say in real estate, it’s all about “location, location, location”! So, for one last time before we gather to celebrate Christ’s birth tonight, let’s put on our detective hats, gather the clues, and see what answers we can find!

“Where” is an especially important question for the writer of Matthew. Although the first chapter of his gospel establishes Jesus' credentials as a descendant of King David, that's just the prologue. Matthew’s real story starts in chapter two with the magi’s question, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” With this seemingly simple question – the very first words spoken by a human in Matthew’s gospel – the magi establish the theme for the chapter.

Although the answer to this first “where” question is relatively straightforward, it’s loaded with meaning. Micah’s prophecy tells the chief priests and scribes that “the one who is to rule Israel” will come from Bethlehem. But Matthew’s Jewish audience would have found an additional layer of significance in Jesus’ birthplace beyond this prophecy: not only did they know from Matthew’s prologue that Jesus was a descendant of King David’s through his adoptive father, he was also born in the exact same town as Israel’s greatest king. The “where” of Jesus’ birth is the very first sign to the outside world that this child born to Mary is no ordinary baby.

But for all the significance of this location, for all that Bethlehem is discussed and represented in Christmas pageants everywhere, Matthew only ever mentions Jesus’ birth “after the fact” in verse one, and just a single verse in the gospel actually takes place in David’s city. In fact, Matthew 2 is a set designer’s nightmare; the scene keeps shifting from one moment to the next. The chapter begins with a quick reference to Jesus’ birth before abruptly panning over to Jerusalem, where magi from the east consult with Herod before heading to Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Messiah (remaining there for just one verse). Afterwards, the magi return to their home country by an entirely new route, while the holy family immigrates to Egypt in order to escape Herod and his murderous intentions. When Herod dies a few years later, the family returns to their homeland, but settles in Nazareth instead of Judea due to their fear of Herod’s successor. Depending on how you count it, that’s at least five different settings in one chapter!

Matthew makes it clear to us that the “where” of the Christmas story is a far more complicated question than we might initially assume. Maybe that’s why he neglects to include an actual birth narrative and chooses instead to document this exchange between Herod and the Magi. After all, this story isn’t integral to the plot. Matthew could have left it out entirely – as long as he included a reference to Micah’s prophesy somewhere in the first chapter, his audience still would have made the connection between Jesus and the Messiah. But by including this account of the determined foreigners and the frightened king in his gospel, Matthew actually implies two other “where” questions that we didn’t ask, but that are even more important than the one explicitly posed by the Magi.

The first is “Where ISN’T Jesus?” This might not seem like an especially helpful question to ask, but the answer speaks volumes about the nature of the Christ. The Magi don’t stop in Jerusalem by accident; they probably assume that’s where they'd find the king that they were looking for. Although Bethlehem has ties to King David, that’s insider knowledge – JERUSALEM is the center of Jewish life even during the Roman occupation. It’s the site of the Jewish temple and a symbol of the Jewish hope for restoration. If the Magi want to find a Messiah, it makes sense for them to start looking in Jerusalem, in the same way that if you wanted to find an actor today, you’d start looking in L.A.; if you wanted to find a country musician, you’d start in Nashville; if you wanted to find a politician, you’d start in Washington, D.C. It wouldn’t make sense to look anywhere other than the heart of the former kingdom of Israel for the king of the Jewish people.

That’s where Jesus “should” have been born…but he wasn’t, was he? Then at least it’s where Jesus “should” have grown up…but of course, he didn’t. Instead, the Christ was born in a tiny hamlet that Micah calls “one of the little clans of Judah” and was raised in the small village of Nazareth that Jesus’ own disciples will one day disparage, wondering, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” In fact, very little of Jesus’ life takes place in Jerusalem at all, with the notable exceptions of his humble entrance into the city on Palm Sunday and his crucifixion on Good Friday – the very last week of his earthly life. Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus’ being in no way “from” Jerusalem is a profound statement about who this Messiah is. He’s the exact opposite of a traditional figure of power and authority. He stands with the hoi polloi, the everyday people, because he comes from among them. That’s the first unspoken “where” of the Messiah: from the day of his birth, Jesus was, in every sense, with US.

The second implied “where” question in Matthew 2 is actually addressed to the reader, posed to us through the choices that the different characters make. Both the magi and King Herod alike are given knowledge about where to find the Messiah. The magi – the outsiders – are willing take this information and travel vast distances (especially given their limited transportation options), including indirect routes and detours, all to find and honor this Christ. Yet even for his own nefarious purposes, Herod – the insider – wasn’t willing to travel the comparatively short 90 miles to see Jesus himself.

Through these characters and their choices, the question Matthew poses to us is this: “Where are we willing to go in order to find the Messiah?” For people of faith, the distance isn’t all that far – we’ve heard the stories, studied the scriptures, done all the prep work. We know everything we need to know in order to find Jesus. But are we willing to leave the comfort our homes to seek the Christ where he is? Are we willing to travel into the streets and the shelters? Are we willing to go and find him in the faces of the poor and hungry? In our enemies? In the never-ending struggle for justice? If we aren’t willing to go where Jesus is, then it doesn’t matter how well we think we know him – we won’t find him.

Meanwhile, those without faith may have a longer road standing between them and the Christ, but if they spend their lives loving neighbor and enemy alike, seeking the good for their fellow human beings, then they will surely encounter Jesus long before any of us do. As with magi, God will be with them, guarding and guiding their steps, until they arrive at Jesus’ feet. And no matter what they call him, no matter what meaning they find, no matter how they explain it, they will know that they’ve entered the presence of something sacred and holy. Whether they realize it or not, Jesus is with THEM.

So, thanks to Matthew, we can now answer the question, “Where is the Messiah?” in several new ways: in David’s city, with the everyday people, and with all who are willing to seek him. But to get to the true heart of the “where” of Christmas, we have to go even further – and Micah can take us there. Although his prophecy begins with one of the smallest Judean tribes in Bethlehem, by its end, the Peace of God extends all the way to the ends of the earth. The Messiah is not with any one people or in any one place; the Messiah is about redemption and reconciliation for all humankind in all places. Through the anointed one, God embraces all people, no matter who they are, because the Christ’s purpose will not be fulfilled until all humanity lives secure in God’s kindom of peace.

This new, fuller understanding of “where” offers us more than just information; it offers comfort, community, and purpose. We should rejoice that the Messiah is not in Jerusalem, because we know God is with us. We should celebrate the “outsiders” who work hard to live according to the rule of love, because we know God is with them. And most of all, we should commit to building the prophesied kindom of peace, because we know that God is with all people to the ends of the earth. Let us, then, be modern-day magi, following God’s guidance and spreading the good news to everyone as we go. That way, no matter where our journey ends, whether in Bethlehem or Jerusalem, at home or in the streets, among friends or among enemies, we can be certain to have found the Christ along the way. Amen.

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