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Three Wise Gentiles and a Jewish Infant.

 

Matthew 2:1-12

It happened in Auschwitz, one of the Nazis’ most notorious extermination camps, in 1945. Jewish inmates only days away from murder by gassing, their remains then to be burnt in huge crematoria, are praying. Needless to say they have no Torah scroll. What are they going to do at that part of Jewish worship when a Torah scroll is carried around the synagogue sanctuary and worshipers reach out to touch it as it is borne past them? Elie Wiesel, himself a prisoner in Auschwitz and only fifteen years old at the time, survived to tell us what happened next. Lacking a Torah scroll (these scrolls are about four feet long), someone picked up a little boy, about four feet long, and carried him around the prison-barracks so that devout people could reach out and touch him. After all, wasn’t Torah to be embodied in a child at any time? Wasn’t Torah to be written on human hearts in all circumstances? And so a little boy was carried around the room while older worshipers touched him, the living embodiment of Jewish faith, in hope too that the youngster would survive and bespeak the faith of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel.

When I first read Wiesel’s description of this haunting moment I thought immediately of the prophet Zechariah and his Spirit-inflamed cry, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'” The Jews in Auschwitz touched the prison rags of a boy. But we aren’t Jews, we aren’t in Auschwitz, and we don’t have a boy who embodies Torah. Zechariah knew as much when his prophecy flew from his mouth. He cried, “In those days.” “In those days” is a semitism, a Hebrew expression that means, “In the end-times; when God intervenes definitively on behalf of the entire world; at the end of history when God acts so as to leave discerning people saying to each other, ‘What more can he say than to us he has said…?'” Zechariah also spoke of “the nations.” “The nations” was a Hebrew expression meaning “all the Gentiles.” It’s plain that Zechariah foresaw a day, the day, to be exact, the last day, the end-time day, when the world’s Gentiles would make contact with a Jew inasmuch as God was with him — or else the world’s Gentiles would be forever without God.

Shortly after Jesus was born some wisemen, Gentiles, came to him and worshipped. They were wise. For as long as it took them to get from their homes in the east to the birthplace of Jesus they had been repeating to themselves, “In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'”

We Gentiles in Streetsville have taken hold of the robe of one particular Jew because we are convinced that God is with him uniquely: this one Jew is the Word made flesh, the incarnation of God’s word and way and wisdom and will. We have taken hold of him in that we know he is God’s end-time intervention on behalf of the entire world. God’s self-disclosure is complete in him.

Yet in taking hold of Jesus Christ we must be sure to understand that we can have him only as we have his Yiddishkeit (Jewishness); we can have him only as we have his people and the prophets and priests and sages of Israel who course through his veins. If today you and I are going to exalt the wisemen who were wise enough to bow before the one who is Torah incarnate, then like them we must understand that to make contact with him is to make contact with Abraham and Ruth, Jeremiah and Deborah, Amos and Rahab. Intimacy with Jesus Christ means intimacy with a heritage apart from which Jesus is incomprehensible and we are lost.

 

I: — One aspect of our heritage is God’s passionate involvement with the world and with individuals alike. God is passionately involved with you, with me, with the church, with the surge and savagery of world-occurrence. Think of the images of God that Hebrew saints have hung up in our minds:

– a husband whose wife’s repeated infidelities have left him humiliated;

– a mother whose bond with her offspring is so intense that she will give up anything before she gives up her child;

– a she-bear who will claw you if ever you think you can trifle with her or exploit her;

– a father whose disappointment in his children is so deep that he wants to disown the lot of them, only to find that he can’t but instead renames them one by one. God is passionately involved, and passionately involved relentlessly.

Do you remember a year or two ago when anyone who could sing was singing that wretched ditty, From a Distance? “God is watching from a distance”, the silly song said over and over again. Nothing could be farther from the truth! In the first place, God isn’t a spectator; he doesn’t watch. God acts. In the second place, he isn’t remote. God irrupts in human hearts and human affairs.

The Hebrew bible speaks everywhere of God as patient or angry or sad or delighted or eager or wistful or disgusted or even amazed. “Anthropomorphism”, someone says, “it’s nothing more than primitive anthropomorphism.” Anthropos, humankind; morphe, shape. Anthropomorphism is a human-shaped God. It’s suggested that God’s impassioned life (so-called) is nothing more than a projection of our passion. “Not so!”, cry the Hebrew prophets. It’s not that God is human-shaped, anthropomorphic. It’s just the opposite: we are to become theomorphic, God-shaped. We are to cease spewing passion fruitlessly on trivialities and instead become impassioned where God himself is. Right now our passions are all mixed up: we love what is detestable, crave what is harmful, hate what is beneficial, ignore what is helpful, admire what is useless. It isn’t a sign of sophistication to think that God is a projection of anthropomorphism; rather it’s a sign of folly to live a human existence that is less than theomorphic.

It’s easy to see how a Hebrew understanding of God differs from assorted Gentile understandings. For the ancient Greeks God set the universe in motion as its prime-mover, and then from a distance watched it unfold. Eighteenth century Deists compared God to a clockmaker. God fashioned the universe in all its intricacies the way a clockmaker fashions a clock, wound it up, and now sits back to hear it tick. Twentieth century writers don’t think of the universe as a clock ticking away with admirable regularity; they look upon the universe as a bobsled. God gave the sled the initial shove to get it going (or else the sled began to move spontaneously), and now the universe’s momentum has it careening faster and faster, amidst greater and greater danger, everyone in it hanging on for dear life. And there’s the more recent Gentile phenomenon of New Age and “spirituality.” People taken up into New Age spirituality confuse it with Christian faith; it never occurs to them that New Age spirituality has no place for sin or evil. (No wonder suburban “yuppies” are so taken with it!) The Hebrew prophets happen to have a large place for both, convinced as they are first of the holiness of God.

The Hebrew prophets in fact are qualitatively different. They don’t have a notion of God. (Notions are sheer speculation.) They have an impression of God, impression in the classical sense of “impression”: “pressed into.” God has stamped himself upon the prophet; the prophet is im-pressed in that he’s been indented and forever after bears in himself the stamp, the indentation, the impression of God’s descent upon him. Arising from his undeniable encounter with God, the prophet now possesses an irrefutable understanding of God. The prophet’s understanding of God arises from his encounter with the one who first grasped him and shook him. The name “Isra-el” means “one who contends with God, struggles with God, wrestles with God.”

Because Israelites are those who contend with God, the older testament unashamedly depicts people adoring God, questioning God, raging at God, even accusing God. But even to be furious at God is nevertheless faith! Indifference towards God, on the other hand, is inexcusable.

In other words, dialogue characterizes God and those who are serious about him. Very often the dialogue is riddled with anguish. People shout at God, “How long do we have to put up with the oppressor?” The psalmist feels abandoned and cries, “Where are you when I need you most?”

Dialogue, however, is never one-sided. Therefore God also puts questions to us. The first question God asks he addresses to Adam and Eve after their outrageous ingratitude and monumental defiance have incurred God’s displeasure. They try to hide from him, and stupidly think they have hidden from him. God questions them, “Where are you?” Of course God knows where they are; but he wants them to know that how ever hard they may run from but they can’t escape him. And God’s second question? After Cain has murdered his brother Abel, God says to Cain, “Where is your brother?” We must never think that savagery visited upon any man or woman anywhere is going to go unnoticed or unrequited. When Israelite people think they can divert God’s attention from their sin by heaping up sacrifices in the temple (as though God could be bamboozled by a liturgical extravaganza) God asks them all, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?”

Yet not every day is anguish day. Like a shepherd, God protects his people against marauders. Like a mother, God cannot part with what he has brought forth. Like a father who puts back on her feet the toddler who is just learning to walk, God bears with and supports us his people throughout our infantile totterings. Ultimately God points to his Son and exclaims, “He’s the apple of my eye! Now you be sure to hear and heed him!”

The wisemen adored the one in whom was found incarnate the impassioned God of Israel.

 

II: — In seizing the robe of a Jew we come upon yet another aspect of our inheritance: the world matters. Everyday life matters. The smallest detail of everyday life matters. Christians insist that the older testament is authoritative for Christian faith and conduct, as authoritative as the newer testament. Yet there are huge tracts of the older testament that Christians neglect. Think of the book of Leviticus. It’s the last book of the bible that Christians read, if they ever get around to reading it (even, of course, as they will continue to swear that it’s divinely inspired.) On the other hand, the book of Leviticus is the first book that Jewish children read as soon as they have learned Hebrew. Christians tend to regard Leviticus as nothing more than a compilation of legalistic trivia. But in fact Leviticus has everything to do with the sanctification of everyday life, God’s claim upon all of life and his involvement with all of life. The book of Leviticus has everything to do with holiness. Holiness, for many Christians, is a “trembly”, spooky feeling they have or hope to have. Holiness, according to the book of Leviticus, is simply what God’s people do in obedience to him.

Christians are impatient with the minutiae of Leviticus, like the prohibition forbidding anyone to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. There’s nothing wrong with eating boiled goat. The goat has to be boiled in something. In a land where water is scarce, why not boil young goat in goat’s milk? Mother-goat will never know. For Israelites, however, animals and humankind were created on the same “day”; therefore animals are humanoid in some respect; therefore to cook the offspring of an animal in the milk meant to sustain it is heartless and callous. No less a figure than Solzhenitsyn has said that a society which is indifferent to the plight of animals is a society soon indifferent to the plight of humans. There’s yet another reason for the prohibition. In ancient times, boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was a religious act practised by the devotees of the cult of Baal. Specifically, to boil a kid in its mother’s milk was to invoke the Baal deity, together with the disgraces and degradations that Baal-worship entailed. (If you want more details, re-read my year-old sermon on Voices United, The United Church’s new hymn book.) What are the seemingly-harmless practices in our society that in fact are invocations of something we ought to repudiate?

In the rabbinical Judaism that followed the biblical era, the rabbis speak of “Sabbath blessings.” “Sabbath blessings” is a polite circumlocution for the sexual intercourse that married couples have and are supposed to have on the Sabbath. Long before the rabbinical era, however, in the era of Leviticus, married couples are forbidden to have intercourse on the Sabbath. Why? Because the surrounding Canaanite nations had divinized sex, making an idol of it; the surrounding nations magnified religious prostitution as an act of worship; the surrounding nations trafficked in promiscuity and perversity. Israel abhorred such a development and wanted to distance itself as much as possible from such degradation. For this reason Israelite couples were forbidden to have intercourse prior to worship, lest the notion be disseminated that Israel too had fallen in with the pagan nations that bordered it. What is it in our society’s approach to sex that is tantamount to idolatry? What is it that divinizes sex, albeit informally? What is it in magazines like Cosmopolitan (to mention only one) that is no different from the paganism of the ancient Canaanite nations? Only a fool dismisses Leviticus’ sanctification of life as “legalistic trivia.”

According to the Torah if you lend someone money and he gives you his coat as collateral, you have to give him back his coat at nightfall even if he hasn’t repaid you your money. Why? Because the poorest people in Israel used their daytime coat as a nighttime blanket. Someone can’t be expected to spend nights sleepless on account of cold, even if he still owes money and has nothing else to put up as collateral. Don’t you think there’s a limit to financial jurisdiction over human affairs?

When a criminal had to be punished in Israel he couldn’t receive more than forty lashes. Why was there a limit to the punishment? A reason accompanies the command: “Lest your brother be degraded in your sight.” No society can allow criminal behaviour to go unpunished; at the same time, whatever society must do to punish offenders and restore order, it mustn’t punish offenders in such a way as to degrade them. This isn’t legalistic trivia.

We read that if we see our worst enemy’s ox going astray, it is sin to say to ourselves, “Let him look for his own ox.” We must rather inconvenience ourselves and take the animal back to its owner, our worst enemy or not. Why? Not because to do so makes us do-gooders who can then feel proud of ourselves. Rather, to do so is an act grounded in the character of God himself and exemplifying the character of God himself: he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike; he visits his kindness and mercy and patience alike on those who love him and those who don’t, on those who like Abraham can be called “God’s friend” and those who are just as surely God’s enemy. What modern Gentiles dismiss as legalistic trivia is really God’s claim upon all of life and his involvement with all of life, which claim and involvement are rooted in the character of God himself.

Not so long ago the Toronto Board of Education disseminated a pamphlet stating that all cultures are of equal value. I understand what the Board wanted to say and why: it wanted to head off subtle bigotry, racism, ethnic superiority, prejudice of any sort. At the same time, regardless of the board’s motive, I think that the statement, “All cultures are of equal value”, is patently false. I do not think that a culture which punishes theft by severing one’s hand at the wrist is one with a culture that doesn’t. I am convinced that a culture whose Christian majority permits the construction of any number of mosques and a culture whose Islamic majority permits the construction of no church-building at all; these are not of equal value. A culture that approves or tolerates the torturing of political dissenters; a culture that prefers tyranny to fair trials; a culture that subjugates one group of people as sub-human; are we to tell our schoolchildren that such distinctions are insignificant and are to be overlooked? In the final 80 years of Czarist rule in Russia there were 17 state executions. In the first month of Lenin’s rule there were over 1000. Does the Toronto Board of Education expect us to tell our children that at bottom “it’s all the same?”

The wisemen who went to Bethlehem to see and adore and obey: they knew, Gentiles though they were, that Israel’s God had everything to do with every detail of every day.

There are ever so many more aspects to our inheritance. I should like to speak of two more this morning, life and hope. In taking hold of the robe of a Jew, of one Jew in particular, how are to we understand life in the face of the deadly assaults rained on it relentlessly? And how are we to understand hope in the midst of cynicism and despair? But the sermon is already long enough, and therefore such a discussion will have to wait for another day.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'” (Zechariah 8:23) Christmas is God’s definitive incursion. According to God’s plan and purpose Christmas is the beginning of the end. There has been given to us one Jew whose robe we must grasp, for not to grasp it, Paul reminds the Gentiles in Ephesus, is to have no hope and to be without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:12)

 

                                                                    Victor Shepherd
January 1998            

WHAT WERE THE WISE MEN ENDORSING OF YIDDISHKEIT?