Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a, Matthew 2:1-15,19-23, Psalm 84 or 84:1-8
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
I expect you know that nursery rhyme. I cannot remember not knowing it. It first appeared in the mid 1800’s, makes an appearance in Through the Looking-Glass, and though often presented as an egg, egg is never mentioned. As interesting, as all this is, is the rhyme’s political history. For ears I have known, though I can’t cite the source,it is a critique of the King’s army and Calvary in a day when such critique could cost you your head. It may originally refer to Richard II or English Civil War. [i] In the interest of full disclosure, both those predate the earliest printed version, so who knows. Those connections bring up the reality that in literature there is often meaning behind what we read, especially when it’s an old text, whose cultural assumptions are lost to the ravages of time. This is often the case in scripture, and is certainly true in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel story.
You know the story of the wise men, who: follow a star to Jerusalem, ask Herod Where is the new born King of the Jews? follow the advice of Herod’s advisors, and continue to Bethlehem where they offer baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then rather than returning to Herod, as agreed, they follow advice, that comes in a dream, and head home by another way. The same dream giver warns Joseph, who gathers up Mary, baby Jesus and flees to Egypt. Denied his opportunity to kill off the rival claimant to the throne, Herod kills all the boys in Bethlehem Jesus’ age. After Herod dies, Joseph, in another dream is told to return home. He does, until he learns that Herod’s son Archelaus is King, and he settles in Nazareth.
I am sure you heard the cited references to scripture:
from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.
‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
He will be called a Nazorean.
The first is from Micah, anticipates God’s reign, which will end imperial ambitions [ii] and that gets any King’s attention. It also emphasizes Jesus’ connection to David, Israel’s iconic King [iii] strike two. The appearance of foreign dignitaries bringing treasures to Israel’s King fits Isaiah’s prophecy and references in Numbers, and the Psalms. [iv] Moreover to pay homage, also means worship, and implies submission to a political power. Strike three, four and … on the imperial attention scale. [v]
The out of Egypt bit evokes all sorts of historical imagery. From Genesis, the story of Joseph and the Hebrews going to Egypt to escape death from famine [vi] comes to mind. This connects Jesus to the last of Israel’s three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Joseph, who are at the heart of Israel’s relationship to God.
The third scripture citing, is associated with the murder of lots of innocent children. It quotes Jeremiah expressing lament for the tragedies of defeat by Assyria, and exile in Babylon; both defining events in Israel’s history. The lament also evokes the memory of slavery in Egypt, which includes Pharaoh’s effort to subdue the Hebrews by ordering the mid wives to allow all the Hebrew all boys to die at birth. The mid wives defer to their awe of God. The murder and attempted murder of the innocent, whoever they may be, is a common response of powerful elite who feel threatened. It is not God’s will for the innocent to die, or to be oppressed or dispossessed; unfortunately it has been and will be a reality until the Kingdom fully arrives. But we should note, neither murderous efforts of Pharaoh or Herod displace God’s purposes. In lament, there is hope. [vii]
The final bit of scripture He will be called a Nazorean. Jesus living in Nazareth, is a pun with Nazirite; one who vows to be set aside for God,under terms established in Numbers. The vow can be temporary, or lifelong. We are familiar with Sampson; others who took lifelong vows are Samuel, John the Baptist, and, while in in Corinth, Paul. [viii] The critical ideal is absolute dedication to serving God.
When we re read Matthew’s story of the wise men, from a Humpty Dumpty perspective there are a couple of gleanings. From the beginning the coming of Christ encounters hostility; [ix] empire, in whatever form, and modern empire looks very different than ancient empire, strikes back; and the insignificant people welcome God’s initiative. [x] Secondly, from the outset, Matthew wants readers to see Israel’s story in Jesus’ story. [xi] For us, Matthew wants us to see our story in Jesus’ story.
We are at the very end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, when we, by celebrating Jesus’ birth, remind ourselves, that the incarnation touches every corner of creation, touches you ,touches your neighbor, the environment, the very stars, so far – far away. That means everything is of God, is literally touched by God, and that defines our relationship with: the stars, our environment, our neighbors, and ourselves.
Monday is Epiphany, when we celebrate those infamous wise men, who traveled two years to pay homage, to worship Jesus, the light of the world. They tell us Jesus is sovereign over all, including governments, even elected governments. That does not mean we throw out our Constitution, and its provision that prohibits the state from establishing a religion. It does mean we should expect our elected leaders to begin every deliberation, to make every decision from the moral foundation of the incarnation.
It also means that we, as a church community as individuals begin every effort from that same moral foundation. The wise men’s story also tells us honoring God, serving God takes time; sometimes it takes years just to get to the place to begin.
As we a new year; as we begin inviting people to join us at our new worship time, as we begin – inviting our neighbors to Friday Families; as we begin to discern, plan and launch: Brewing Faith, and Stephen’s house we do so from the perspective of everyone’s incarnate being; knowing it will take us time just to get started; knowing that there will be push back, from the beginning from those who perceive it all as threat; knowing that amidst murderous intent there is divine hope; knowing that Jesus is in our story, that Jesus is our story, and that enlightens our lives even to far-end of the stars.
[ii] New Interpreters’ Study Bible, Matthew 2:1
[iv] New Interpreters’ One Volume Commentary, Matthew 3;
Isaiah 60:1-7; Numbers 24:17, Psalm 72:10-11,15
[v] NISB, NI1VOL
[viii] Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton; Holman Bible Dictionary General Editor, Trent C. Butler, Ph.D; The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia., James Orr, M.A., D.D., General Editor