December 18, 2016
By John Partridge*
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-13
In 1959 a story appeared in Showcase comics and was retold in a July 1960 magazine entitled “The Planet of the Doomed Men.” In this story, Abin Sur crashes his alien spaceship in a remote and desolate part of planet Earth. He is dying. And as he dies he searches for a man who is, at the same time, most outstanding and quite peculiar. Abin Sur wears a ring of power that searches the world to find the type of man that he needs – and in all of planet Earth, only two such men are found, Guy Gardner and Hal Jordan. Because time is of the essence, test pilot Hal Jordan is selected because he can be reached and summoned to the crash site more quickly.
And so, Hal Jordan becomes one of Earths greatest Super Heroes, The Green Lantern.
The thing that made Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner and later John Stewart and Kyle Raynor unique wasn’t their choice of career. While Hal Jordan was a test pilot, Guy Gardner was a school teacher, Kyle Raynor an artist, John Stewart an architect, and Abin Sur was a professor of history. Their careers were not what made these men unique. What made these men worthy of being selected as member of the Green Lantern Corps was something that they lacked. While every man and woman on Earth experiences fear, a Green Lantern has no such capacity. Sometimes the banner heading of the comic magazine would say that, “Green Lantern, man without fear.”
If you hadn’t guessed, I am a fan of Green Lantern, and for many years I collected comic books and there were things that I learned from them. The comics of the Golden and Silver ages and to a lesser degree, still those of today, teach such things as integrity, chivalry, honesty, patriotism, the value of every intelligent being, teamwork, and freedom.
The downside is that comic books aren’t real. There really aren’t superheroes that we can call upon when we are in trouble. There was no Superman or Green Lantern to help us on 9/11. And there is no such thing as a man without fear. There is an old phrase that says, “A hero isn’t a person that isn’t afraid, it’s a person that is afraid but does their duty anyway.” A hero isn’t someone without fear, but someone who perseveres, who does their duty, who does their job, or who just does what has to be done despite their fear. I challenge you to read sometime the stories of the men and women who have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Under the circumstances that arose for which they earned their medals, fear was natural and often pervasive.
The difference is that a hero keeps moving when normal people are paralyzed with fear.
As we read the Christmas story, we would do well to notice an underlying theme. It is one that we know but probably haven’t thought about consciously. Today I want to take a different look at the people of the Christmas story and I suppose the obvious people to start with would be Mary and Joseph.
These two young people often did not understand what was happening to them, or to the son that God had given to them. But do you suppose that Mary was afraid of what her father would think of her when she became pregnant before her wedding day? Do you think that she was afraid that her future husband would demand that she be stoned to death outside the city gate, as was his right? Do you suppose that she was afraid that Joseph would return her to her father and demand that the bride price be returned to him? We read a lot about Mary, but we need to remind ourselves that she was still just a tiny, thirteen years old, little girl. All of these things were real possibilities. And ye, Mary trusted God and moved forward anyway.
In Matthew 2:1-13 it says:
1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
3When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6” ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'”
7Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
What about Joseph? Did Joseph worry that his reputation, as well as his father’s and his family’s reputation, would be degraded because his betrothed had become pregnant before their marriage? I’m sure that he did. Everything I have read indicates that a family’s reputation, their honor, was literally worth money. From how you were treated in the legal system, to what kind of kind of loans and interest rates you could get, to what kind of deals that you could make in the public market to whether of not you could do business as a tradesman, all depended on the appearance of your family’s honor. I say ‘appearance,’ because honor was very much a thing of appearances.
This system of honor goes a long way toward explaining how the system of law worked, and how even the sacrificial system worked. If someone did something that dishonored another person, that dishonored the community or that dishonored God, some penalty had to be levied that would the system back into balance and that would restore honor and holiness to the people. This is why an unfaithful woman could be stoned for bringing dishonor upon her family. This is why the husband, father and brothers of the woman were permitted to hunt down a rapist and kill him, or demand from him the bride price and possibly, that he marry the girl. These were all means by which the family’s honor could be restored.
Did Joseph worry about that? Was he afraid of what the people of his village would think of him and how it would affect his business? You can bet that he did. You can believe that despite the promises of an angel sent by God, that Joseph worried about being able to feed his family and you can be absolutely sure that he was afraid when he heard that Herod was sending his soldiers to kill his son. Herod had done things like that before… and worse. This story was entirely believable and their fear caused Mary and Joseph to make good speed in getting out of town in the middle of the night and fleeing to Egypt. Was Joseph afraid? I’m sure that he was, but it never stopped him from doing what God told him to do, or from doing what he needed to do.
Were the shepherds afraid when the angels came to give them the good news of the birth of the savior? We know that they were. But were they afraid of what they would find in town? Shepherds were among the bottom of the social classes right near the prostitutes and the tax collectors. Shepherds smelled bad and they were most certainly not welcome in town. Were the shepherds afraid of the reception that they might get in town? Did they worry that angry townspeople would drive them out of town again? They had cause to worry. But the things that the angels had told them were so incredible that they had to see it with their own eyes anyway.
Were the wise men afraid when they realized that all of their study and all of their data indicated that the new king that they had expected (because of the signs in the stars) would be born in Israel? These men, government officials for a hostile government, would need to visit the Tetrarch of Judea, Herod, the man who was widely known as evil, vicious and cruel. They would visit Herod while in the company of a token force of their own military, but while flying the flag of an enemy to Rome and they would visit Jerusalem, a city with an entire Roman legion in and around it. Were they afraid? I suspect that they would have been less than wise if they were not, but they pressed on anyway.
Did Anna worry about how she would live when her husband of only seven years did and left her with no children and no way to support herself? Did Simeon perhaps worry that he had misunderstood God and that he would not really live to see the salvation of Israel?
And what about Herod? Was Herod afraid when he heard the wise men say that a new King had been born? What about when his own advisors searched their own scriptures and found pretty much the same information? From everything that we know, from scripture, history and archaeology, Herod was desperate to protect his job. An appointment within the Roman government was tenuous and subject to removal or assassination. Herod was constantly afraid of any upset in the peace or in the status quo in the nation of Israel. If there were unrest or civil war, the Romans would move into Jerusalem in force to restore order, and Herod would be sent back to Rome, or worse. Was Herod afraid? Absolutely.
But here we have a dividing line of sorts. When Herod was threatened and was afraid, he did not react the way that the other characters in this drama reacted. Herod’s response to being threatened was to strike back at the source of his fear. Instead of responding in love or in faith, he responded in violence. When others were afraid, they prayed and they trusted. When Herod was afraid he mis-trusted. When Herod was afraid, his fear and mistrust brought death to hundreds of innocent children in a sleepy town in the middle of nowhere. When Mary was afraid she trusted and her faith and her trust brought new life and salvation to all people.
We need to remember that in our real world, babies from the planet Krypton don’t crash to earth. In our reality Abin Sur didn’t give his ring of power to Hal Jordan, and none of the other amazing superheroes of the comic books are going to come to our aid.
We do however, worship a powerful God who created the universe, who knows each and every one of us, and who loves us so much that he allowed his only son to die in our place. We worship a God who orchestrates the movement of the planets and who answers the prayers of little children. The good news is that although our world doesn’t have Superman or the Green Lantern or even mutant warriors like the X-men, God has sent us heroes. God has sent us heroes throughout recorded history, people that we know from the Bible and from other books. Even today there are often even heroes among us. God has sent us heroes that have shown us how to be faithful and how to make good choices. From our heroes we learn things like integrity, chivalry, honesty, patriotism, the value of every intelligent being, teamwork, and freedom. All of us should have a hero.
But although there is no such thing as a man without fear, the good news is that heroes are very real.
The key to having worthwhile heroes is in how you will identify them.
Green Lantern Abin Sur searched the world for a hero using his amazing ring of power.
How will you search?
Who will be your heroes?
You might start with the Christmas story. It’s full of them.
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