Justice and Joy

Following la Estrella de Paz in a World of Violence

Sermon by Rev. Paul Ortiz

First Sunday after Epiphany. 

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

As some of you may know, I grew up attending Spanish-speaking Pentecostal churches, where my grandmother was a pastor. While in some ways quite different from the Methodist tradition I am a part of today, we practiced things that overlapped with all Christians—Catholic and Protestant. One example is Christmas pageants!

I remember every Christmas Eve my friends and I would dress-up in bathrobes and sandals, and be handed walking sticks. I remember wearing a cotton beard on my face, way before I could grow a real beard. And toward the end of the service, while an adult read the final lesson for the night, all us children would run to the back of the sanctuary where we would slip out of our costumes to remain in our church clothes, and we would be handed candles with the little wax guards around them. Then, when the time was right, we would process back on to the stage. The lights of the sanctuary would dim to almost off, and we would begin to sing Silent Night, except in Spanish it is Noche de Paz, or Night of Peace—not night of silence. And as we sang the hymn, we would begin to light our candles in the dark one by one.

We would start the song by singing, “Noche de paz, noche de amor,” which means, night of peace, night of love—again, not night of silence. And toward the end of the song, when all the candles were lit, we would repeat a phrase that I still find myself repeating today in my deepest prayers, “brilla la estrella de paz, brilla la estrella de paz, which means, shine, star of peace, shine, star of peace.        

I like the Spanish version better. For it points to the gospel’s story of God injecting God’s peace into a world overtaken by violence. While the English version emphasizes everything being “calm” and the child being “mild,” as if baby Jesus did not cry or poop his diapers, or mother Mary scream as she gave birth to our Lord in a stable, the version in Español does not paint this picture. Rather it points to our deepest human longing for God’s shining star of peace, and the child born the Prince of Peace, to break into our darkness, and bring salvation. Today is the first Sunday after the feast of Epiphany, when the church celebrates that God actually reveals Godself to all nations. Today we celebrate that the star of God’s peace, la Estrella de Paz, can be seen, and together we can follow it to a new way of being.

In today’s Gospel reading we encounter a group of travelers that have journeyed far, following la Estrella de Paz. It is the Magi or the wise ones. We often refer to them as the “three kings”—this is likely due to the prophecy from Isaiah where it says that kings will come from afar bearing gifts (Is 60:1-6). However, the careful reader of the gospel of Matthew will notice that the text does not mention them to be kings, nor does it say there were three of them. Although, we do know that they brought three gifts.

Interestingly, however, while we talk so much about the “three kings,” there are two other kings which are indisputably part of the story. As our passage from Matthew begins, “In the time of King Herod wise men came asking, where is the child who has been born king of the Jews.”

Now if you were Herod at that time, this might have stuck you as an awkward question. You might be thinking, “Wait a minute, I’m the king of the Jews!” Herod the Great was appointed king over Judea as a vassal of the Roman Empire. 

Historical documents such as the writings of Jewish historian Josephus describe his tyranny as a leader. He spent lavishly on building projects paid by the taxes of the impoverished Jewish people. He lived a decadent lifestyle. He was intensely paranoid of losing his power. He had 2,000 body guards, and monitors in the streets to find out what people were saying about him. Perhaps the worst of it was that he executed members of his own family, including his wife, brother-in-law, and three sons. He also had a number of rabbis killed.

Matthew’s characterization of Herod as paranoid, easily threatened, and brutally vindictive is quite consistent with these historical records. In today’s text, Matthew describes that upon hearing about the child king Herod was frightened, “along with all of Jerusalem with him.” Familiar with the consequences of Herod’s wrath, if Herod was afraid, they all had reason to be afraid. Matthew’s account of the massacre in Bethlehem where Herod tries to have Jesus Killed by killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem also reflects Herod's willingness to kill anyone who stood in his way.

This is who was in power at the time of Jesus’ birth. This is the world into which God’s Estrella de Paz broke forth and shined into. And it continues to boldly shine today. In a world where men with way too much political power arrogantly boast about who has the larger button for nuclear destruction—the inhalation of countless human lives and the environment—God’s Estrella de Paz continues to shine in protest and calls us to follow a different way. 

It is interesting, radical even, that while Herod was sitting on his throne in Jerusalem, the region’s urban center and locus of political power, another king was being born in the small, inconsequential town of Bethlehem, who will grow up to be everything Herod is not.

Where Herod showed an utter disregard for life, Jesus time and again shows that every life is important to God—especially the oppressed—coming along side people who society deemed worthless. Where Herod took life to gain power, Jesus taught that whoever wants to gain life must lose it, and gave his life for others. Where Herod craved admiration and wanted to be the greatest, Jesus taught humility, and that being great comes through being least. Jesus was constantly using whatever power he had to give power to others, calling unlikely people to rise up as leaders. Where Herod lived in a place of paralyzing fear, Jesus lived in a place of assurance, rooted in God’s love—a kind that no one, not rulers, not principalities, and not even death can take away.

In modeling this counterintuitive power, and inviting us to follow him, Jesus reveals that power is not just for the Herods of this world. We are all meant to be powerful in the way of Jesus. It is the power of peace that Jesus talked about when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they are children of God.” And it is the power of la Estrella de Paz, which called the wise ones, and calls us today to follow the way of Jesus.

Today the reading of Matthew juxtaposes two kings, two vastly different takes on what it means to be powerful. And while Herod is an extreme version he is not that far off from the way our world envisions power. A way that assumes that everyone should be in pursuit of being the greatest, that our nation should be the greatest, no matter the cost. A way that is unreflective about how our own pursuit to get ahead can come at the expense of others. Herod’s actions are easy to condemn, yet how much of his model is present in our society and in our own hearts?

Much like the people in Jerusalem who were afraid, it may feel like our only two options are to join Herod’s way of power or to live in fear of those who are like him. But the wise ones in today’s story show us that there is another choice. They confronted Herod, his kingship, his false perverted sense of power, by asking for the other king. They had the audacity to go before the king of the Jews and say, where is the child born king of the Jews? Where is the true king who embodies real power—the power of peace. We, like them, must follow la Estrella de Paz.

We like the wise ones are given a similar choice. We must ask, what kind of power do we really trust? Do we trust the power of God’s love and peace, or the power of controlling other people in our lives? If you are like me, you often find yourself going back and forth without realizing it. It is hard to unlearn Herod’s power system, as it is pervasive in our world.

Yet, thankfully, God continues to break into our world, shining a great light, leading us down another path. Here at Berry Church, we are beginning a new year as we are also continuing a new path in living into a community of “justice and joy.” By following the light that shines before us, we have discerned this is who God is calling us to be. Like the wise ones in our story, it is a long path, yet it is a path to our true selves.

Thanks be to the God that breaks into our world in the son of Mary, and continues to shine La Estrella de Paz. May we follow. Amen.