Unmasking the Powers
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

December 29, 2013


Isaiah 63:7-9
Matthew 2:13-23

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

In the Christmas story in Matthew, the wise men show up in Jerusalem asking about a new “the king of the Jews” being born. They are wise enough to know the signs in the stars and to discern this new thing coming about. But they are unwise enough politically to not realize what they are telling and to whom.

King of the Jews was the language of revolution. It was a title claimed by those who sought to drive Rome out by insurgency.

No surprise then, Herod seeks out this child. He tells the magi, please let me know where he is when you find him, so I can go and worship too. By worship, Herod means get rid of. It is in the nature of the powers that be to not call things by their right names.

But the magi, having been warned by God, go home by a different route. And now, Joseph is told to flee. He is to run to Egypt to escape with Jesus and Mary from the evil of Herod. It is interesting how many times Matthew says, “in order to fulfill the prophecy…” Here the light of the world, the savior, the one whom God anointed is running for his life from the dangers of the powers that be.

Some suggest that this is a part of the emptying of Jesus, who did not come to be served but to serve, did not come to lord it over others, but to raise them up.

There is another thing going on here as well. When Herod makes the choice to kill the innocents in Bethlehem, when Herod plots it out and gives the order, it would be easy enough to say “the one with the power of the sword is in charge.” This is realpolitik, the way the world works, isn’t it? But not unlike the Exodus story, on which Matthew bases so much of the shape of his Gospel, at each turn when the powers that be make decisions or act, the final authority is always attributed to God.

Did God command the death of these children? No. But when Matthew says that the flight to Egypt and the coming back out of Egypt were to fulfill prophecy, he is saying that regardless of how much power Herod has, God is the one in charge. However much evil Herod may do, God is greater with good. It is a radical claim that Matthew makes, that even in the face of tragedy and death, God is God and God is working for good.

What we see in this story is what Walter Wink calls the unmasking of the powers. Herod can pretend to be a good ruler who exercises the prerogatives of Rome, but here we see the results. Innocent children killed and others made refugees.

The life and his death of Jesus show the powers that be for what they are. The politics and economics and military of empire exist to keep themselves in power and to achieve peace and security through violence.

We live in a world of death and refugees. According to the United Nations, there are currently nearly 10 million refugees in the world, and another 12 million who are internally displaced, meaning they are still within their own country, but cannot return home, and another 5 million people who are stateless. It is an often ignored cost of war. The numbers are beyond my ability to imagine. I know that when I lived in Chicago, the greater Chicagoland area had about 8-9 million people.

This is not the covenant of God. This is not the path of Jesus. Unfortunately, the church in North America has often forgotten the difference, and too often violence is sanctioned if it is for the sake of “security and peace.” It is justified as politics for the real world, and the Bible is relegated to how to save individual souls, not how to live with one another.

In the face of this, it is difficult to remember that God is the one ultimately in charge. But Jesus knows what it means to be a refugee, to be on the run. Jesus knows what it is like to be displaced. Jesus knows what it is like to be threatened by the powers that be, to be scorned by those who only want a so-called realistic view of what needs to happen for security and peace.

And in the Gospels God is doing an old thing in a new way. In the days of Noah, God wanted to change the world, so let’s get rid of all but this little piece right here. But did that change the world? In the Exodus, God brought the people from Egypt to a new land and a new covenant. But soon enough they built themselves up to be a little Egypt themselves. In the exile, God practiced regime change, but changing the king does not change the people. But now, in Jesus, God will live among us, as us, like us, and change people. The message is not to kings or empires or priests, but to fishermen, shepherds, tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, ordinary people.

When ordinary people hold on to the covenant of God, like a little leaven in the loaf, the system changes. When ordinary people live out the love of God, like a mustard seed that grows to be the largest of shrubs, the world changes. When communities gather around the Good News, the world changes.

In this light, Isaiah’s words this morning become both a statement of purpose and an affirmation of faith in the God who makes all things new.

I will recount the steadfast love of the LORD,
the praises of the LORD,
according to all that the LORD has granted us,
and the great goodness to the house of Israel
which he has granted them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For [the Lord] said, Surely they are my people,
[children] who will not deal falsely;
and [the Lord] became their Savior.
In all their affliction he was afflicted,
and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Thanks be to God. Amen.