Power or Weakness 1-1-17

In this sermon, taken from Matthew 2:13-23, I explore the illusion of power within the world, and just why God entered the world in a powerless fashion.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/power-or-weakness-1-1-17

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Considering that my college degree is Horticulture, you’d think that I’d have a lot more plants around than I actually do…at least inside plants. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t have a lot. We have a couple house plants that sit in our front window at the house…and currently, I have one small plant sitting in my office window. And that’s it.

But that being said, the other day I was standing in the kitchen over at the house, looking out over the parking lot, and I could see my plant sitting in the windowsill in the office, just soaking up the sunshine. And in that instant, I got to thinking about just how amazing plants really are.

Plants are pretty much the most passive life that exists on this planet. They are rooted into the ground…meaning they stay put…not a lot of movement in plants…and through the amazing process of photosynthesis, they are able to just soak up the sunshine and somehow get energy…their power…comes from sunlight.  (pause)
Now admittedly, the idea of energy within a plant is a very different meaning than we usually associate with the word power. Power is typically understood as strength or force, or perhaps authority. But yet as I thought about a plant passively living its life, and the power of the sun feeding it…I somehow came around to thinking about today’s gospel story. (pause)
Now admittedly…as we find ourselves 1 week after Christmas Day…still in the midst of the season of Christmas…still in the process of celebrating the savior…the messiah…coming into the world…today’s gospel lesson likely comes across downright shocking doesn’t it? A story known as the slaughter of the innocents…Not exactly something that gives us a lot of warm fuzzy feelings as we are still riding high from the holiday celebrations. (pause)

Now admittedly, chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel is really the story of Herod the Great. He’s an interesting character…he’s the king of Israel…appointed and authorized by the Roman emperor…a man who literally fought tooth and nail to get himself into this position of authority within Israel…a man who is so obsessed with his own political standing that he literally kills 2 of his own kids and one of his wives who he suspects is conspiring against him…not only, he’s so obsessed with his standings when viewed by the rest of the known world that he commonly bankrupted the nation with his expansive building projects.  Certainly…this is a man consumed and obsessed with his apparent political power.

Matthew chapter 2 starts off with the arrival of the wise men…so yes, today’s story is slightly out of order as we typically celebrate the wise men at Epiphany coming up in a few more days…but we see them arrive in Jerusalem, looking for a newly born king…as they have discerned from a star…and they quite literally end up on Herod’s door step.

Needless to say, this comes as a great shock to him when these foreigners come asking about a new king. (Pause) A NEW KING? I’M THE KING!  And Herod’s alarms are going off…but through some quick thinking, he conspires to use the Wise Men to find this supposed new king…and kill him. That was his MO…if there’s even a slight chance that someone is going to oppose his power…kill him…because they can’t challenge you if they’re dead.

Now this is where the story picks up today…the wise men get an angelic warning…something that is apparently pretty common right about this time…and they avoid Herod…but he’s still on the warpath and goes after the baby king anyway…and using the information that he’s gathered, he sends his soldiers off to the Bethlehem to kill all the baby boys younger than 2. (pause)
Shocking isn’t it…this abuse of power…that those innocent children would get caught in the middle of one man’s quest to hold on to his power.  It’s a sad reality…that those innocent lives were lost…that those families were shattered by the event…and honestly it raises the question of just why Herod was so paranoid in the first place.

But the more I think about that…the more I realize that the power that Herod possessed…was nothing more than an illusion. (pause) Think about it…because I think we often end up falling into the very same trap don’t we? The illusion of power…of control…this idea that we are in charge.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing for us in this day and age…but we like to be in control don’t we? We like to think that we’ve got everything figured out…and that we can direct the outcome of what’s going to happen. (pause) But let’s be honest for a second…can we?  Despite all the planning…all the prep work that we like to do…all the worrying about what may or may not happen…how much do we actually control? (pause)

I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently…and I’ve had conversations with many of you along the same lines…and I think we can agree that this past year has been rough, especially the past few months…a lot of death…a lot hardships and heartaches.

Now I’ve never been one to say that God does this to us intentionally…or that these things that happen are God’s doing…because I don’t believe that…but hardships do happen…they are a reality…and they do provide us with opportunity to learn and to grow…and if these past few months…have taught me anything…it’s the sober reminder that tomorrow is not guaranteed. We expect it…we plan for it…but the truth of the matter is that we are finite beings and tomorrow may not happen for us.  And no matter how hard we try to fool ourselves into believing the opposite…we are powerless against it. (pause)

And this…is exactly where the Christmas story becomes so vital…because God…the creator of the universe…the absolute epitome of power…enters our reality as one of us…the ultimate power, who comes simply in order to overcome the forces of sin and death and darkness in our reality…does so in utter-powerless-ness. (pause)
Let me say that again. God gives up all power when he enters our world as a helpless baby.

This is on display in today’s story…Herod, the political bigwig…is so threatened by the mere notion of the Messiah, who had traditionally been the one anointed to be the future king…that’s literally what Messiah means…Herod is so paranoid that he tries to kill him…Herod tries to kill a helpless baby.

Now through some angelic intervention, Joseph heads off into Egypt with baby Jesus and Mary in tow…and here’s the thing that I find kinda funny. Several times in this short passage, we hear of Joseph acting, and bringing along “the child and his mother.” 4 times in 10 verses we hear that phrase…and through the repetition, we are reminded that Jesus was utterly passive in this moment…he was helpless…a very small child…utterly dependent…period. The ultimate power in everything…God…was in the world in an utterly dependent powerless fashion. A baby, cared for by political refugee parents, moved around from place to place to avoid death at the hands of those who were threatened by his very existence.

And the funny thing about all this…is that it worked. Herod…died, and Jesus was still alive. Later on, Herod’s decedents would still go after him. And not only that, but the religious power would one day go after Jesus too…because he was a threat to their authority.

It seems that Herod, and later on the Pharisees and Sadducees put too much stock in the authority that was granted to them by other people. Because that’s all this illusion of power is…that other people respect it. When it gets right down to it…power as we like to think of it…is nothing more than another person giving in to you. (pause)
And in contrast, God choses to be revealed to us in the physical sense in utter powerlessness…and why? (pause) Because that is where we are. Maybe you’ve noticed in your own lives…it almost always seems that God is revealed within the absolute worst moments in our lives…in those times when we realize just how powerless we really are…how broken we really are….when the world seems to be throwing absolutely everything at is and we know there’s nothing we can do about it.  It’s in these times that God seems to show up in our lives…though often times in the way we least expect.  (pause)
No one expected the Messiah to be a helpless baby, and yet somehow, some way, that baby defied the power hungry tyrant. (Pause) No one expected the savior of the world to die on a cross…and even more so, once he was dead, no one expected him to be raised up again…but it happened. (pause)

And I’m guessing, that when 2016 started, 1 year ago today…none of us expected that our community…that so many of our families…would be rocked by the loss of loved ones…and yet through each of those deaths…our community gathered around one another…bearing the burdens of one another…and in doing so, shining the light of God into the darkness that is still fighting tooth and nail against his divine light.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it…but not for lack of trying. Just as Herod fought tooth and nail to hold on to his political power….just as the religious elite fought tooth and nail to hold on to their cultural authority…and just like countless different examples of stuff in the world today…the darkness fights tooth and nail to hold on to its power here in our reality…but the glorious truth is that when Light shows up, darkness loses.

Our faith gives us hope to cling to in these times when the darkness looms…and we know that it does…and the amazing thing about the Bible is that it doesn’t sugar coat this. The darkness exists, and we don’t have look very hard to know that’s true…because we see just as much shocking stuff in the world…and on the news, and even right here in our community…shocking events that are right on par with a 1st century tyrant ordering the deaths of innocent babies.

In our weakness there is power…but it not our own…and God in the flesh…a helpless baby, hauled off into political exile in order to save his life against the apparent authority in the world…this is how God reminds us that he is with us always…in the good and the bad…in the triumphs and the struggles…and that this helpless baby would grow up and then be willing to undergo that same powerlessness on the cross in order to prove it…and that’s where God meets us. Amen.

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