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A Comedy of Errors

1/6/09

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Shakespeare has a play titled "The Comedy of Errors," but a comedy of errors is "a ludicrous event or sequence of events." Now doesn't that fit Epiphany?

Look at the characters involved. We have the wise men. Here you should picture them in their traditional manger scene garb. Go ahead and picture 3 though it's funny that we don't know how many there were and only assume that many because of the number of gifts but wherever you read the words wise men in the text substitute scientist. The Greek has magi. Magi were a religious group among the Persians who studied nature, astronomy, and medicine.

Think of the most learned men of the day, and see a comedy of errors. These scientists follow a star for two years over hundreds of miles, but the star doesn't act like any of the thousands of stars they had studied. It moves; it disappears, it reappears, and it stands still. We're no astronomers, but when we see a light in the night sky and it starts to move contrary to what we know stars do, we immediately say, "It's a plane." Not these three scientists. They pack up everything and chase after that light for years.

Traditionally the wise men are thought of as kings. Our opening hymn treats them that way. Again, the joke's on us, nothing in our text, the only text that treats this account, calls them kings. However, magi were men of court. They operated in the courts of kings. They were familiar with court etiquette. It's true; the wandering star led them to Jerusalem, but to ask in the city of the reigning king, "Where is He who is born king of the Jews?" is surely comedic...especially when the king is the demented Herod the Great.

This is the king of who it was said "Better to be Herod's pig than son" because while not being Jewish he curried people's favor by acting the part and so abstained from pork. However, he didn't abstain from killing his sons. Becoming suspicious of two favorite sons, he accused them of treason and had them strangled. This happened either the year before or the very year that Christ was born. The year the wise men show up is the year Herod will die. He is 70 years old, suspicious, mean, and ailing. On his death bed, he will give orders for leading citizens be executed the moment he dies so that there will be great mourning when he goes. Surely "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?" wasn't the question to be asking this king, but the magi weren't wise enough to know that. How funny.

Magi weren't just scientist and men of court they were religious leaders. It isn't funny that these priests came to worship a new born king. Emperor worship did take place, but usually not until after he died. But that's not what's funny here. The funny part comes at the end where Matthew reports, "They fell down and worshipped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh."

Gifts you give to people usually reflect what you believe about them. You give iTunes to some one who likes music, and you don't give burnt orange to an Aggie. Gold was given to kings in recognition that they reigned over you. That's not unusual or funny; the other two are both. Frankincense was offered to God not men, so these priests are recognizing this Baby as God. That's funny, but the real comedy comes with the myrrh, and it can only be described as "black" comedy. Myrrh was used in burying people. These "wise" men give a coffin to a baby.

The wise weren't alone in this comedy of errors. Herod the Great does a pratfall of sorts by tipping his hand. The wise men asked where the king of the Jews is, but Herod asked his religious leaders where the Christ is. The word Christ or Messiah was a political hot button enflamed by religion. Then "crafty" King Herod "secretly" summons the wise men. Just how secret do you think anything a crazy king does is? He summons them and Eddie Haskell-like says to them, "I want to worship him too." I'm sure they believed that after seeing how troubled he was. In any event, the really hilarious thing is not that Herod thought he could pass himself off as a Christian, but that he didn't have the wise men followed when they left. Wouldn't that have been the certain way to find out where the Messiah was?

What about the people? What about you and me in this comedy of errors? We can understand why Herod would be troubled by news of a king born to take his place, but why should "all Jerusalem with him" be troubled? Wasn't the birth of Christ what they had been waiting thousands of years for? Wasn't this what the prophets long foretold? Wasn't this Abraham's promised great reward, Zion's helper and David's Lord? Yes, so why were they troubled?

They were troubled for the same reason you and I are. They were content with the way things were. They were content with the fleshpots they had in their little Egypts, and as you know Christ calls His people out of Egypt. You can't have your fleshpots and your Jesus. And they were troubled that Gentiles had seen the star and they hadn't. All they got were passages from the Bible. The Gentiles got signs and wonders in the sky they got ancient words in the Bible: A Ruler who will Shepherd them is to be born in Bethlehem. All God did was tell them; they were troubled that God didn't do more than speak. And that's funny coming from people who believe God created them by speaking; saved them by speaking; and would raise them by speaking.

One definition of a comedy of errors is "a ludicrous event or sequence of events." Another one adds "which typically culminates in a happy resolution." I think that can happen with our comedy because in the end the joke is not only on us but for us.

All that we think we know about how God acts, works, or shows Himself is turned on its head. A Baby is given to save us from the strong man Devil who has us imprisoned condemned to death based on God's own Law which convicts us of being self-centered sinners. God shows up in flesh and blood not that of a tough warrior king, but that of a little baby. Everyone knows how vulnerable baby skin is.

We think what we need is a king to unseat us from the throne of our lives where we have ruled our own way into so many messes. We think we need a God to take charge powerfully over our doubts and fears, our pride and love. And we do need a King and God, but first and foremost we need a Sacrifice. Power and might couldn't free us from our self-made prison of death. Our sins and sinfulness couldn't be ignored by godly authority or defeated by kingly might. If He did either, God would deny His Word and break His promises. No, the Law that convicts us and condemns us has to be dealt with, and to do that you need flesh and blood, so God sent His only, beloved Son as a flesh and blood Baby.

When God the Son entered the Virgin's Womb, He entered the battlefield in your place. He was required to keep all the laws of God, and keep them He did in your place. Just today how many of God's Law did you break in deed, in word, in thought? Jesus broke none, but paid for all. God's Laws don't just require they be kept; His Laws require punishment for those who break them. His Laws demand shame, grief, guilt, sorrow, and death from those who break them. Once Jesus entered the womb all of this pressed upon Him. He was not only a Man of sorrows acquainted with grief but a Baby like that. To each and every one of your sins, not just of today but of yesterday and tomorrow, Jesus said, "Guilty." And for each of your sins not just of today, but yesterday and all your tomorrows Jesus paid drop by bloody, sweaty, teary drop till all your guilt was paid in full.

Go you are free. The Devil can't hold you in prison because he has no law to point to that requires you be locked up. Jesus kept them all. Go you are free; leave the prison of death; stop punishing yourself with sorrow, guilt, grief over your sins when Jesus already suffered so purely, so completely, so painfully for them.

This comedy of errors is for us. The forgiveness that results from this repents us. It repents us from being people happy with the status quo, happy with our fleshpots. No longer do we think Christ has only as much of our lives as we give Him. We repent of thinking our Lord can be kept in a box. And knowing Him as Savior means we know we need Him as our Ruler and Shepherd too.

This comedy of errors leads to our forgiveness and therefore to our repentance. Rather than looking for God to rule and shepherd us in extraordinary ways that He never promised, we follow the "signs" He has given us in His Word. He says Baptism indicates that our Old Adam has drowned and our new man lives as free of sin, death, and the Devil as the risen Jesus does. He says when our pastor forgives us heaven itself does too. He says, "My Body is Bread and My Blood is Wine; take eat, take drink; take life."

Reality is no longer what we think; what scientist, doctors, politicians, or even our spouses, friends, and parents tell us. Reality is what God says. His forgiving us leads us to repent of going by our words or those of others. He says, "You're forgiven," and we go by that rather than our feelings of guilt. He says, "You're loved," and we go by that rather our sense of being unloved. He says, "You're healthy, alive, and whole," and we say "Amen" to that rather than to the sickness, death, and halfness we see, sense, and sorrow over.

The joke is not just on us but for us. It saves us; repents us, and returns us to our life different. Notice the wise men don't stay with Jesus. Had they been seeking an earthly king they would have. They were seeking and found a heavenly King, God, and Sacrifice, so they returned to their earthly home, but they returned changed, different. They came guided by a miraculous, wondrous star, but returned home guided by God's plain, old Word to them. Funny how that worked out. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

The Epiphany of our Lord (20090106); Matthew 2: 1-12