December 31, 2017 – 1st Sunday after Christmas
The story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s gospel is not entirely what we expect. It begins with Joseph’s anxiety about whether he should marry Mary because of the uncertain circumstances in which she became pregnant. An angel appeared in a dream to Joseph and assured him that God was at work in this unexpected circumstance.
In Matthew, we don’t get any of the extended drama that Luke’s gospel has about Mary and Joseph leaving their home in Nazareth to go to Bethlehem. There’s no story about the inn with a “no vacancy sign.” There’s no manger, no shepherds, no angels singing, “Gloria!”
That Jesus is actually born is told in less than a sentence at the very end of chapter 1.
The very next thing we hear about Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s gospel is conflict. King Herod is approached by astrologers from far away (that’s another translation of wise men or Magi)—people who studied the stars and planets and their influence on human actions. These foreigners from the east had seen a star that indicated a new king had been born and they wanted to worship the new king.
King Herod says, “Oh, a new king? Well, you all go visit him and then let me know so I can worship him too.”
Now what do you think King Herod is really thinking? He, and all of Jerusalem, are agitated and stirred up. There’s only room for one king in a kingdom and the birth of one who is already being called a king, is cause for alarm among those who are committed to life staying the way it is. There’s going to be a big lot of trouble when one king is threatened by another king.
And it doesn’t take long for the trouble to show up. The astrologers, who are also skilled at interpreting dreams, have a dream in which they are warned not to go back to see Herod.
Joseph has another dream in which he is told to flee with his family to Egypt because Herod, determined that he will be the only king, is about to go on a rampage and kill all the babies and toddlers in and around Bethlehem.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus become refugees, fleeing for their lives from persecution, seeking asylum in the land where their ancestors were enslaved generations ago.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is born and this great conflict between kings and kingdoms is set into motion.
Which makes me think about Star Wars. Because, of course, the 8th episode was released this month and I saw it this past week. I spent my teenage years with the original three episodes so even though it’s been forty years since the original Star Wars movie was made, I’m still interested in the story.
The current episode, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, like the others before it, is a struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil—you might say a conflict between two kingdoms. It is an outer struggle between those who have chosen the way of domination and destruction and those who are choosing the way of life. But it is also an inner struggle as few of the main characters are ever only good or ever only evil.
Now I’m going to try and talk about The Last Jedi without giving it all away but if you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know anything before you see the movie, you might want to cover your ears for a few minutes.
In The Last Jedi the First Order (which is the evil empire) has far more fire power than the Resistance (led by General Leia—known in the first episode as Princess Leia—delightfully, there are a number of great women leaders in this Star Wars episode). This inequity in weaponry and people power does not stop some in the Resistance from launching themselves headlong into a battle with the First Order. The Resistance makes a bit of progress but mostly ends up with its fleet decimated and many of its fighter pilots killed. There is tension between members of the Resistance about strategy: do they keep fighting the forces of evil with decreasing military might or is there another way to regroup and find more allies?
This comes to a head in one scene where three fighter pilots are flying toward a huge battering ram aimed on a shelter where members of the Resistance are hiding. The lead pilot realizes this a death mission and he calls the other two pilots, Rose and Finn, to turn around. Finn, who used to be a soldier for the First Order, is intent on destroying the battering ram and refuses to give up the mission. But it is clear if he continues he will die and the battering ram will breach the shelter and the First Order will kill the members of the Resistance. The next thing we know, Finn’s plane is knocked out of the air by the plane piloted by Rose. Both planes crash into the ground. Finn rushes to rescue Rose who is badly injured in the crash. Why, he wants to know, did she intentionally crash into him, knocking him off the route of his mission? She says, “We’re going to win this war, not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love.”
That made me think about the incarnation. You know, God coming to be with us in Jesus. Born as a baby into this world, living a fully human life, showing us what it is to be fully human. Teaching us how to live as God’s people in the world. All of it built on love. Because at the heart, the most essential characteristic of God is love and the foundation of Christianity is love. You might not know that from listening to some Christians these days. But it is the truth: God’s essence is love and the way of Jesus—which we also call Christianity—is love. One of my teachers says, “The central practice in mature spirituality…is that we must remain in love…Jesus did not say, ‘Thou shalt be right’; Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment, ‘Love one another.’’” The writer of the letter of First John says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
Now this love is not a squishy, love-y feeling. This is a fierce love that enables us to courageously give ourselves to something bigger than ourselves. It is a fierce love that refuses to let brutality and lies be okay. It is a fierce love that rejects indifference when people are demeaned or the earth is degraded. It is a fierce love that insists on everyone having a place of value and respect in the human community. It is a fierce love that is fed by kindness and generosity and joy, even in the face of suffering or in the face of the anger of others.
Back in Matthew chapter 2, in the middle of the beginning story of the conflict between the two kings and the two kingdoms, there are two little verses filled with joy. The foreigners from the east, Matthew says, are “overwhelmed with joy.” I love that phrase, “Overwhelmed with joy.” Can you feel that? It feels like another way to express great love.
The 20th century Jesuit and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, said, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” Even in the midst of conflict, even with the deception by Herod and his murderous rage, there is joy because God is present.
The Magi worship the baby and offer the gifts they have brought with them for this occasion—with so much joy and love.
Rose says to Finn, “We’re going to win this fight not by fighting what we hate but by saving what we love.” Certainly saving what we love means we will fight against what we hate but not from a place of hate. “Hate cannot drive out hate,” said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “only love can do that.” And we see that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus loving fiercely, even in the face of opposition and criticism, suffering and hate, and even death.
One final Star Wars connection. One of the final scenes of the movie shows three small children gathered around some small homemade figures. These are children who appear to be kept as slaves and made to clean animal stalls. One of the children is telling a story to the other two with the little figures. As their keeper comes in the stall and yells at them to get back to work, you realize the one child has been telling a story of the Resistance to the other two—and you know the Resistance will gain strength again and a generation of children will be inspired by the stories that have been passed down to them and will rise up to commit themselves to what is good and to living out of love.
So, too, we keep telling these stories about Jesus (some told with little figures—like we tell the story of Jesus’ birth at Christmas) and his fierce insistence that God is love, not rules and regulations for a gated community. We keep telling the stories about Jesus and his fierce love for people who were overlooked and ignored. We keep telling the stories of people, throughout history, who were inspired by the fierce love of Jesus and dedicated their lives to abiding in God’s love. Hopefully, that is your story and my story too. We may feel we don’t do it as well as someone else or that our hearts tremble and we sometimes lose our courage and think our story is not worth telling. But it is in these stories—the stories of Jesus and his followers, including us—that will inspire another generation who will long to give themselves to something greater than themselves and to live from this deep well of God’s love for the world and the power of that love will live on and on and on.
I end with a prayer written by Miriam Theresa Winter, a musician, writer and scholar:
Inhabit our hearts,
God of history,
as You once inhabited
Be here among us
with all of Your wisdom,
all of Your power,
all of Your mercy,
all of Your love,
that we might learn
to be like God
from our God who came
to be like us.
Holy are You.
Holy are we
who are one with You forever.
* * * * *
 Star Wars: The Last Jedi
 1John 4.7-8
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 51.
 Miriam Therese Winter, WomanPrayer WomanSong: Resources for Ritual, (Crossroad, 1987), 74.