Sermon: Facing the Unknown

03 January 2010


Rev. Jennifer Whipple
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Second Sunday after Christmas
January 3, 2010

“Facing the Unknown”

Matthew 2:1-12

Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our minds and hearts be acceptable in Your sight, Oh Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

           Have you ever heard someone say the words, “But that’s the way I or we have always done it.”  Or “Why would we go about changing things now?”  There are certainly plenty of church jokes that have something along those lines as the punch line.  After all, churches don’t get to be over 250 years old without having some good and longstanding traditions and ways of doing things.  However, over 250 years there are plenty of things that change, as well.  Just ask Barbara in the office who began her work here on a typewriter and mimeograph machine in the early 80s – pre computer revolution!  Most human beings I know are not big fans of change, myself included.  After all, I am the one who married my high school sweetheart and moved back to my hometown the moment I had a chance.  But even though we may not like change, things do change.  Just think about all of the hoopla a few nights ago, if you watched any of the New Year’s Eve coverage on TV from Times Square of people talking about things that have changed just in the last decade – everything from technology, to presidents, to the way that they make those crazy year number glasses.  Some of these things, of course, come and go without really challenging or changing us at all, while others affect us pretty greatly.  And it is those things in the second category that might leave us a bit unsettled or pining for what once was. 

             That is the thing that caught me off guard in reading the story of the wise men as they met up with King Herod in Matthew’s gospel account again.  I’ve been listening to this story for 30 plus years now, but I guess I had never really paid much attention to what it says in just the first few verses as they arrive at Herod’s palace.  You see, after the wise men arrive and ask where the child is who has been born king of the Jews, it says, “When King Herod heard this he was frightened (some translations even say terrified), and all Jerusalem with him.”  Those five words… “and all Jerusalem with him.”  I never really noticed them before.  We can imagine that Herod had a lot at stake when he heard this.  He had worked hard to establish his rule over the kingdom and would have planned to pass it along to at least one of his sons, no doubt.  So for him to hear that there was another king in town meant that his life would certainly have been changed. 

             But it says that the rest of Jerusalem was frightened along with him.  Why were the rest of the people in the kingdom frightened?  Perhaps it was because at least under Herod they knew what to expect.  Most sources would venture that Herod had been in power for roughly 30 years when Jesus was born, so the people who lived under his reign would have known him and how he went about ruling.  They knew that he was a strong and successful warrior who would do anything to protect his position of power (as we find out when he orders the massacre of the innocents a bit later in the account).  They knew Herod was loyal to Rome and had undertaken some serious urban development in his time as ruler with some major building projects.  Love him or hate him, they knew him.  They knew nothing about this new “king of the Jews.”  And couldn’t possibly have understood how a ruler would shepherd his people, as it said in the prophecy.  Shepherding, after all, implied caring, compassion, and tending – certainly better perhaps then what they had experienced before – but how could they believe it to be true?  There were too many questions and not enough answers.  We can imagine that facing the unknown would have frightened the people. 

            The wise men had no idea the can of worms they had opened in Jerusalem.  They were scholars and astrologers who studied and observed that something special was happening westward.  So they traveled and stopped where they figured they could find out some more information.  They didn’t know that by doing so they were “rocking the boat.”  And the story of these innocent wise ones is what leads to what we are celebrating a little bit prematurely today – and will officially be celebrated on Wednesday – Epiphany or the Manifestation of Christ to the world.  The wise men were the first non-believers or non-Jewish folks to pay homage to Christ – to worship God in the form of the little baby.  Talk about “rocking the boat.” 

             The truth is that the whole story of Christ’s birth – indeed of the incarnation, itself, is full of the unknown – even with all of the prophecy that was declared before it officially happened.  In the 1920’s the Rev. Dr. James Allen Francis summed that up best when he wrote the following:

            He was born in an obscure village the child of a peasant woman.  He grew up in still another village where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty.  Then, for three years, he was an itinerant preacher.  He never wrote a book.  He never held an office.  He never had a family or owned a house.  He didn’t go to college.  He never visited a big city.  He never traveled two hundred miles from the place he was born.  He did none of the things we usually associate with greatness.  He had no credentials but himself.

            He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him.  His friends ran away.  He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial.  He was nailed to a cross between two thieves.  While he was dying his executioners gambled for his clothing – the only property he had on earth.  When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

            Twenty centuries have come and gone and today he is considered by many to be the central figure of the human race and the leader of mankind’s progress.  All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned put together have not affected the life of man on earth as much as that one solitary life.

             Love him or hate him.  Whether people have believed in him for centuries or not, Jesus certainly had an impact on the world that could not have been predicted by any of the people who were his contemporaries.  Some were frightened by him.  Some were healed by him.  Some sat at table with him – as we will do today.  Many have been changed by his coming and what he means to the history of the faithful – including many of us here this morning.

             As we enter 2010 we are certainly facing much that is unknown.  Anyone who has lived a day in our world, let alone years as we have, knows that the saying about best laid plans is entirely too true.  We can make plans, but plans can change for better or worse in the blink of an eye.  Those who were brave enough to continue that journey toward Jesus thousands of years ago were invited into a new way of life – into a new and more whole way of being.  Those wise men challenge us today to continue that same journey.  To head our lives in the direction of a shepherd king who calls us to a better way of life for ourselves and living toward others – perhaps to a way of life that challenges the way that we have always done things – but will offer us amazing opportunities to live and grow and work toward fulfilling God’s purpose and bringing about change not only for ourselves and our families but for our world.  So, whether we have had a sense of worry or weariness looking forward to this New Year or whether we have been looking forward to it with much enthusiasm, may we enter 2010 facing the unknown with courage, strength, hope, and faith, and with the support of both our brothers and sisters here and of our good shepherd who wants nothing but the best for us.  Amen.


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