Theme: Lessons in Fear and Hope
Lesson 1: Herod’s path of fear and anger
Lesson 2: The Wise Men’s path of hope and worship
Our sermon for today is based on our Gospel reading, which we just read from the bulletin, Matthew 2:1-15.
“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” That phrase sounds like it could be the theme for our sermon text. It sounds like it might be a passage out of the Bible. Certainly we would agree with what it says. But, it’s not from the Bible, it’s actually a quote from a movie. It was a piece of advice given by the Jedi master, Yoda, to his young apprentice. Anyone who’s seen Star Wars before knows how important the concepts of fear and anger are to the story.
But wise Yoda was not the first to speak about the connection between fear and anger. God has several things to say about it as well. In fact, it very well might have been from the Bible that the writers of Star Wars took this thought. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon gives the simple advice, Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:9). John instructs Christians in his first letter through a similar way: But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn't know where he's going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes (1 John 2:11). Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:15).
And in our text for this morning we see the same lesson through the actions of King Herod. Let me re-read the first 3 verses of our Gospel reading: Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him." 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
At the news of Christ’s birth we’re told that Herod was “troubled.” This word literally means to stir up or to throw into confusion. When people were troubled in this way they would even shake and tremble because of their concern and fear. The news of Christ’s birth shook Herod to the core. He was worried about losing his power and riches. He was afraid that this Child would be a new earthly ruler who would supplant his authority. And so he reacted in fear, which led to anger, which led to hate, and eventually to murder. Matthew goes on to record the atrocities that Herod’s fear led him to commit. Herod issued an order to terminate all the male children who were two and younger in Bethlehem and the nearby districts. Herod thought he could eradicate the Child before He posed a threat, but Herod was too entrenched in his hate to see the truth. Not only was Jesus no threat to his earthly kingdom, Herod was also trying to thwart God’s own plan. Surely common sense would tell him this was not possible. Yet, fear and anger lead to blindness.
Yet, Matthew tells us that Herod was not the only one who was shaken to the core by the news of Christ’s birth. This chapter also tells the story of the Wise Men, who traveled a long distance to see Jesus. They were not fearful of this Child, but were hopeful. They trembled in joy, not because they were afraid of losing wealth. In fact, they had hope that Jesus would help them lose something, their sins. They had hope about who Jesus was and what He would accomplish. They trusted in the promises of God throughout the Old Testament. And when they finally arrived, they worshipped. Here we see the contrast between human fear and hope in God. Hope leads to worship and faith, fear leads to anger and murder.
The Wise Men’s journey represents why we have hope and not fear in our lives; it’s something we celebrate at Epiphany. This is the great truth that God has come for all people. The rest of the New Testament tells us of the difficulty that people had with this thought. The Jews especially did not respond kindly to the idea that Gentiles too were heirs of God’s salvation. In their culture there were plenty of opportunities for fear and hatred of those who were different, especially those of a different ethnic background. It took a long time for the early church to properly understand that Christ’s atonement was universal. It was one topic that Paul and the rest of the Apostles had to address time and time again.
But all the way at the beginning of Christ’s life on earth, God’s message was salvation for all. This truth is contained in the story of the Wise Men and it’s also connected to the lesson about fear and hope. Herod wasn’t worried about the ethnicity of Jesus. He was worried about Jesus being the King of the Jews. But plenty both past and present still practice the same fear when it comes to others who are different. Regardless of where the fear comes from, it can lead to the same problems of anger and murder.
We’ve seen this play out in modern history many times. Hitler feared the Jews and other minorities and this led him to anger, hatred, and murder. Most other wars in modern times are fueled by fear and hatred of the opposition. America has its own history of this behavior as well. The oppression of Native American tribes was a product of fear. More recently we’ve seen how fear has dictated policy against terrorism and even Syrian refugees. As a nation that prides itself as the melting pot of all ethnicities, there are always going to be reactions based on fear and anger.
We often write Herod off as nothing more than a mad man. Perhaps he was even mentally ill. But sometimes, wickedness happens simply because of the sinful heart. Sometimes there are no higher explanations like insanity or mental instability. Sometimes, it’s just pure evil within humans. There’s no doubt that Herod was troubled, our text says as much. How much we may never know. But it doesn’t matter either because regardless of how much we know about Herod, there’s a lesson to be learned for our lives. We might sit back and ponder how Herod could commit such wickedness, even being willing to massacre infants in order to hang on to power. In our minds we distance ourselves from Herod and tell ourselves that we would never do such a thing; that he’s way worse that we are. Sure we’ve been led by fear before, and it’s caused us to hate others; but we’ve never killed anyone, let alone infants. In human terms Herod certainly was far more evil, but are we really any better in God’s view? And are we really any different on the inside?
We, too, are troubled by our sins, even if we have a hard time admitting it. We all have our own particular things in life that we are afraid of; things that lead us to respond in anger. Maybe we’ve never be led to commit murder as Herod did, but remember what God said through John, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer…” I wonder, who are the ones that we look down upon in life; the ones we fear to the point of hatred? Is it the slick politician who can’t be trusted because he’ll say whatever he has to to get elected? Is it the outcast teenager who doesn’t fit our norms or expectations? Could it be that we fear our parents or superiors because they just don’t understand what life is like today? Could it even be my fellow Christians who act like they’re close to me but don’t really understand my problems? The list could go on and on, we’ll never find an end to those that challenge the way we think and make us afraid of what we’re not used to. For Herod it was a tiny baby. For us, the settings change but the thoughts and intentions of our hearts are the same.
This is why a celebration like Epiphany is so important. For many Christians, Epiphany is nothing more than an afterthought. It’s the lesser known holiday that comes after Christmas, sometimes we use it as a gauge for how long our Christmas decorations should stay up. Most people don’t even know what Epiphany is all about. But Epiphany is vitally important to our faith because it reminds us that all people matter. Jesus came to save the entire world and He calls us to go to all people with that Word of salvation. That’s the real meaning of Epiphany and even we today need that reminder.
Our sinful heart will always lead us to fear those who are different and if not checked that fear will turn to hatred and murder. Because of Epiphany, we don’t have to be like that. We have a way that we can embrace those who are different than us. We can reject the path of fear which Herod chose and follow, in faith, the path of hope that the Wise Men chose. Their hope stemmed from their worship of Jesus. It wasn’t because they brought such great gifts, even though gold, frankincense, and myrrh were great treasures at the time. The value of their worship came from the One they worshipped. In their worship they were connected to their Savior. In that connection new life was breathed into their hearts so that their sins were taken away and they were renewed with the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is what led the Wise Men to rejoice at the sight of the Child, Jesus. They knew in their hearts who Jesus was for them. And in that moment, after their long journey, God blessed them with the opportunity to connect with their Savior. There was no place for fear or hatred in that setting for Jesus wiped it all away. It’s not that the Wise Men never felt the way we do, or Herod did. They knew what fear was like, they knew what anger looked like. But the difference is that they had hope against those problems. They were sinners in a sinful world yet at the same time completely protected from that sin in Christ Jesus. You and I are in the same position today and every day.
We have a connection to Jesus through the Word of God. We have opportunities to sit at His feet and receive His life giving forgiveness in worship. Herod’s story reminds us why we need that forgiveness. The Wise Men’s story reminds us that all people have it.
I saw a meme on facebook yesterday that reminded of this. For those who are unfamiliar with what a “meme” is, it’s just picture with a short message or statement on it, usually meant to invoke feelings. It was a picture of the world from space and simply said, “Imagine what 7 billion people could accomplish if we all loved and respected each other.” That’s true isn’t it? It’s sad that fear and anger dominate people so much because of sin. But even more so, what a perfect opportunity to be reminded of our Epiphany hope. We can try as much as we want, but on our own we will never bring humanity together. We can hope, we can wish, we can try change people by showing how foolish anger is. But that will never change. The world will always be like that.
Instead, we can show people that God can change things. He has a solution to fear and hatred. He can gather people together and lead them to work together to love their neighbors. That’s what He’s been doing from the very beginning and it’s why He sent His Son to earth. He wants to unify His creation under the holiness of His Word. But to be united with God means to be disconnected from the things that separate us from Him and that starts with the evil and wicked thoughts in us heart. People aren’t always so willing to give those things up.
When you are tempted to draw battle lines in your heart with those who are different than you, remember what God has done for you. Before you judge someone else, remember that not everyone fits in your way of seeing expectations and attitudes. Before you cast an evil thought, word, or action someone else’s way, even if they deserve it, remember where fear leads. And before you doubt the Lord’s work in your heart or in someone else’s, remember the meaning of Epiphany. No matter who you are, we really aren’t all that different. We’re sinners who struggle with fears and sinful thoughts of anger and hatred. But we’re also all saved through our Lord Jesus Christ and we draw closer to that truth through worship and His Word. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.