Sunday, January 05, 2020
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I’m Still Searching for Something
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, January 5, 2020
Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

The BBC documentary, which is one of the very best, covered a story recently that caught my imagination. It was about Hideo Kojima, who is one of the world’s greatest video games designers. They were giving an account of his latest project called “Death Stranding”. This, for him, is one of the most exciting and challenging things he has done, but it is believed that it'll be played by young people all over the world. What makes it a fascinating story is how he came to develop this game. It's about a man, a singular man, called Sam Porter Bridges who has been given an assignment to save the world. There is acid rain coming from the clouds and environmental destruction. There's a child under his care and there are certain packages that he must find to save humanity from potential destruction. It involves other players who work together to help Sam find the packages that are going to save the world.

When being interviewed about it, Kojima gave the reason why he thought the game was so important. He said, "There are so many walls that are being built up in the world at the moment, so many people hiding self-centered lives behind those walls. We have lost the art of connection and are in danger as a human race of becoming self-centered". He also suggested that when one connects with others, there is a feeling of goodness and empowerment, but there are very real issues of life and death in the world. This game is one way of connecting with each other throughout it all.

I think Kojima put his finger on some very salient themes of our time and is using art and a game that is interactive to address it. He does not see himself as a prophet. He sees himself as an entertainer, but he knows that entertainment can make a difference. What was striking about all this, though, was that as I looked at the themes that arose from it, the danger and destructive nature of self-centeredness, and the notion of seeking to find a solution, I read into that our passage this morning. For it seems to me that almost like a ping pong ball bouncing around Matthew, Chapter 2, are all the themes that Kojima was writing about and dealing with in Death Stranding.

Two thousand years ago, Matthew is dealing with fundamentally the same issues that grasp our human condition today. When I look at the issue of the destructive nature of self-centeredness, and the importance of finding the truth, and the issues of redemption and good and evil, I can't help but go to Matthew Chapter 2 for guidance. In this passage we often overlook the very powerful impact, particularly as the protagonists address these very concrete issues.

I can't think of a passage of scripture that is more relevant for our time at the beginning of a new decade than this one and here's why. I look, for example, at the character of Herod in this story who seems to me to be the archetype, the embodiment of self-centeredness and the evil that can come from it. Herod, I think many people don't realize, was actually not of Jewish lineage at all. In fact, his father was Indumean and his mother was Arabian. He grew up in Jewish tradition but he wasn't a Jew. In fact, he was ethnically an Edomite, and only became the king because of a decision by Julius Caesar in 40 BC that Judea would be ruled by this incredible character, Herod the Great.

Now, Herod did some good things and he did them for the Jewish people. He built the temple, he made sure that they stayed out of the political fray within the Roman empire, which I addressed a couple of Sundays ago. So, in some ways, Herod was a fan of the people and yet they always looked upon him with suspicion. He was never the real king. He wasn't a Davidic king. He didn't come from any lineage that would have connected him with Israel's past and so from day one, Herod the Great felt a bit insecure. He knew he wasn't the real thing but was a puppet king put there by the Romans. When he heard that these magi had come along talking about the birth of a king of the Jews and that this king of the Jews would be from the town of Bethlehem, the City of David, he understood the power of that lineage as something he didn't have. He was frightened and wanted to check it out with the magi to make sure that what they'd heard was true that it was Bethlehem in Judea that the new king of the Jews would be born. What did he do? He went to the religious leaders to find out whether this kind of thing was in keeping with prophecy.

He went to the Sanhedrin and asked if it was true that the new king of the Jews, the true one, the messianic one, would come from the line of David and be born in Bethlehem. They confirmed that in one of the least of these places, Bethlehem, would come the king of the Jews. Herod was shaken and his response was to try and co-opt the magi. He simply asked them to let him know when they found the new king so he could go and worship him too, when he had no plans on worshipping Jesus whatsoever. He was threatened by it and we know this by because Matthew then tells us one of the darkest and most sinister things that you could ever imagine, namely the slaughter of the innocents. What Herod decided to do was to make sure that this child would never reach adulthood, so he made a command that children under the age of two would be slaughtered. Augustus once said (because even Herod thought of killing his own children for fear that they might be part of this conspiracy), “It is better and safer to be one of Herod's pigs than one of Herod's children.” That's how dark he was.

There has been speculation and debate amongst scholars about if this really happened or was it a myth or a legend. Why did not the Roman historian Josephus cover this story in normal written things in history? Remember, this only happened in and around Bethlehem. Bethlehem was not well known. It was not Jerusalem. It wasn't the centre of the empire, and certainly there was precedence for evil people having done this before. One need only look at pharaoh and what happened in the time of the exodus. Children must have been slaughtered, and clearly Herod was frightened, otherwise Jesus would never have gone to Egypt.

So, from the self-centeredness of Herod, from the dark heart of someone who was only interested themselves, came the death of others. Herod should shake our boots when we hear about him (notwithstanding his outstanding guitar playing at a certain time of the year. I feel guilty every Christmas for making him seem so musical). He was a dark character. Be under no illusion, but there was a second group and they were the magi. The magi represent the seekers, the searchers, those who, to quote Glass Tiger, were searching for something and someone. They were the good guys in this story. We don't know much about the magi.

We're told that they are wise people from the east and there has been speculation that because they looked at the stars, that they probably had some Zoroastrian background, probably then from Persia, what is now known as the boundary between Syria, Turkey, and Iran. They were guided by a star and discovered, as we know, the person of Jesus. What led them there, we do not know. Oh, there've been all kinds of stories written about them over the years. There've been even those who have tried to suggest that there were three of them and we don't know that for certain.

We only know there were three gifts. There have been suspicions that maybe they had names like Gaspar and Melchior and Balthasar but that's probably from the writings of the great Venerable Bede who was English and a great monk. I'm always a big fan of the Venerable Bede, not least because I think his name is the best name going. I've always wanted to change my title to the Venerable but seeing as I'm neither Roman Catholic nor worthy of such a status, no one's ever offered it to me. But if they did, I'd take it. The Venerable Stirling has a nice ring to it, I think! Well, the Venerable Bede wrote this somewhere, but we don't know precisely where and he talks about three characters. It's a myth.

We know there were three gifts and we know the magi were wise, and we know what they did. That's what's important. What they did. When Herod approached them, they weren't deceived by him. They knew who he was and that he was lying. They were on a search and they weren't interested in whether Herod was going to benefit from it or whether he would suffer from it. When Herod declared to them that they should tell them where the child was, we never hear of this again. So clearly, they weren't duped by his complicity. They were seekers and interested in only one thing, finding out where the king of the Jews would be.

Then finally, when they get there, we're told by Matthew that they were overjoyed. And what did they do? These wise people from the east got on their knees and worshipped him. If you worship something other than the divine, you are idolatrous, but they knew, in this Jesus whom they had seen, that God was present and doing something powerful. I think the search begins always with worship. People who are seeking something are looking for God, and the divine. It begins with worship. It doesn't end with worship. We often think that you go through a series of thoughts, confirmations of ideas, or a knowledge of faith and doctrine before you worship. Not with the magi. The first response was worship.

I love what the great David Reid, a minister in New York City, and who has preached on this pulpit, wrote in one of his pieces on this. "You know humanity really deep down wants to worship something. It wants to have not only the horizontal within worship, it also wants to have an experience of the vertical. The worship doesn't always have to be relevant. It doesn't always have to address every issue that is going on around it. That worship has an innate value of bringing people on their knees together to worship God is enough."

In the face of the evil of Herod, someone trying to co-opt religious powers, someone with the power of life and death over children, the magi began with worship. The most revolutionary thing that they could have done, the greatest statement of their seeking is that they had found what they were looking for and they bowed down and worshipped. So when people tell you that they have a myriad of things going on, a myriad of problems all around us, and that worship seems an irrelevant thing, think of the magi.

They knew there were serious things going on but at the beginning of it, they worshipped on their knees. Not only that, but in keeping with the whole trajectory of the New Testament, it was Gentiles who got on their knees before the king of the Jews. It was those who had come from the east. It was those who had come from another part of the world altogether, who had recognized Jesus. This is in keeping with all of the gospel narratives, with all of the teachings of the apostles Paul and John, that in fact Christ's very presence as the saviour, as the redeemer, was to unite both Jew and Gentile in a common, covenant relationship with God.

The magi were the example of that, and I think that like the magi, Kojima makes the case in Death Stranding. There are a lot of people these days who are deeply concerned and wanting guidance in their lives to help navigate these complicated times. I think we are searching as a human race for a way of dealing with the environmental issues that face us seemingly every day. We're seeking wisdom to know how to navigate this in the light of the myriad needs and innumerable challenges in a complex world, and if we don't do these things together, as Kojima makes the point in his story, then we face not doing it at all.

We're trying to navigate our way right now as a society through issues of life and death. We're not quite sure what we should be doing here. We don't know how we're to treat life because once a life is gone, it's gone. There is no coming back. There is no reincarnation. There is eternal life but there's no coming back. Once a life is gone, it's gone. Delicately, gently, I warn our society, go carefully, go very carefully. Life is precious. Treat it that way. I think we're trying to navigate our way through the complex matrix of all our cultural associations, cross-fertilizations and conflicts.

I'm not sure we really know what we're doing, and we need wisdom, a sense of humanitarian compassion, and a sense of justice and protection. We need something and someone and this is not a straightforward time in the history of the world. Kojima knows that with his game. We know that because of the magi visiting Bethlehem. The protagonist in all of this is not Herod, thank God, and it's not the magi, as great as they were. It is the one to whom all of history was pointing. It was to God in the flesh, the king of the Jews, the Messiah. Forced out of his own country as a child to live in Egypt, just as Moses did, forced into a position of danger. This Christ child came and when he grew up, his whole life was dedicated to the redemption of others. If ever there was an opposite to the evil of Herod, it was the life-giving, self-sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth. If there was an antidote to the self-centeredness of people who are often in positions of power, it was the self-sacrifice of the person of Jesus of Nazareth. If ever there was a triumph of good over the destructive powers of darkness and evil and death, it was the life-giving power of the forgiving presence of Jesus of Nazareth. He was the one to whom history was pointing.

He was the embodiment of what people were searching for and I don't think the search has changed and I don't think that people who, like Herod, are in positions of power and influence and are only interested in themselves, not that all people in power and influence are self-centered, but for those who are, they don't want to look at Christ. They turn away from him. They're shamed by him. Then there are people, like the magi, desperately searching for something and someone who is going to transform their lives. Then there is Christ, who of God's own volition, of God's own initiative, came and dwelled among us full of grace and truth.

This Epiphany, when you come to his table, you will be struck by something. When you take the bread and the wine, you are affirming your conviction and your faith in Him and you are sharing in His life and in His death and in His resurrection until he comes again. May your search be over. May the Lord be at the centre. Amen.