“What Is Strength?”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
January 6, 2019
By another road. Such a simple yet powerful phrase. By another road.
Robert Frost writes about the road less travelled by. We each come to various points in our lives when we make important choices. This way or that way? When do you and I decide to travel by another road? When we hit bottom? When the way we are going, even though enjoyable at times, takes us into the fire or the flood? When we are finally able to see a new direction?
No matter our age, bullies, male and female, often intimidate us. Maybe it’s someone who demands our lunch money or our loyalty. Maybe it’s someone who shoves our face into the garbage or in our own weaknesses. This could be in school or at work or anywhere, really.
In any case, these bullies, they take advantage of us. They profit from us. They prey on us.
King Herod was one of those bullies.
History paints him that way. Not only in scripture, but in extra-biblical historical sources as well. They say he is Jewish in name only, not someone who pays attention to religious ways — or morality in general.
Scripture says that the wise men return to their own country by another road.
The wise men decide not to work with Herod. They decide not to cooperate with the most powerful man in the region in which they were traveling.
Why? Because they are wise and they know something about the world in which they live. They know there are people in power, people who will use their position to enrich themselves, to protect themselves, and to squash their potential opponents.
They know. They are wise men, men who have studied the stars, men from privileged families (probably), men who can afford to travel. They are men who have been taught not only the facts of the universe but the facts of life and the meaning of life.
And they look up into the beautiful night sky to find that meaning. We might not find anything more up there than pretty points of light in the night sky, but they find meaning.
And in that meaning is strength.
There’s an old adage: Knowledge is power. That is true. But it’s also true that wisdom is power. Knowing how things work and knowing why things are as they are are both helpful to us.
That’s what the wise men are all about, I think. Power in their wisdom. Power in their moral decision making.
Scripture talks about their generosity. They give Mary, Jospeh, and Jesus valuable gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Unbelievably lavish offerings for an impoverished family.
And then, when the wise men decide not to collude with a violent puppet dictator, when they decide to go home by another road, they free themselves morally from the atrocity which is to follow.
Herod can do whatever he wants because he has Rome’s backing. He has political and military strength. He uses his power, in the verses that come after the ones we hear today, to kill vulnerable children. He orders a massacre in case one of the children might grow to threaten his power.
This is one of the most disturbing passages in the whole Bible. But when we come through these doors, we have to deal with it! We don’t come to worship to hide from the real world.
What will we take from all of this? What does it mean to be a strong person?
Let’s ask Herod.
When we are threatened, what do we do? Lash out? Or engage with the other respectfully, learning all we can, challenging, asking questions, listening? When power rises up against our power, do we speak up, attack, or walk away? Herod chooses to attack. Does that make him strong or weak?
What does it mean to be strong? Let’s ask Joseph.
It seems as if he has very few choices. He has a pregnant fiancée and then a child born out of wedlock, which a cultural no no, so he’s in a social pickle. No one will welcome them. No one will hire him . Then the king is after them. What does he do? According to Matthew, he takes his family and flees to Egypt.
Sometimes, running away is cowardly; sometimes, it’s just plain smart. Joseph decides that he can’t fight either his own community’s prejudices or the Roman empire. Sounds pretty smart to me. At least at this point in the story, like many in our world today, Joseph’s strength is in his willingness to get out.
What does it mean to be strong? Let’s ask Mary.
She decides to go with what God wants. That may seem submissive, but over in the Gospel of Luke, Mary is anything but a wilting flower. She is bold and decisive when it comes to speaking out for the world that God intends for us. It’s a world where the powerful are brought down and the poor are lifted up.
What does it mean to be strong? Let’s ask Jesus.
At this point in his life, Jesus does not say anything. He doesn’t act out in the face of injustice. He doesn’t speak truth to power. He doesn’t stand up to the empire or to the Temple elite. He is an infant. A vulnerable child.
And that, in many ways, foretells his future. The fact that he’s born into a poor family in an oppressed environment creates his vulnerability, which he turns into a strength. It’s the same way with us. When our life struggles shape us, when they capture us, sometimes, our strength is not defined by how powerfully we push back but in how we resist violence and find another way.
And later, when Jesus grows in stature and in wisdom and in charisma, he can choose his own path — and he chooses a peaceful one.
At first, he chooses to avoid the emperor’s forces. He tells people to refrain from talking about him. He commands them to avoid telling anyone about the healings and exorcisms he performs in every community he visits. When he finally gets to Jerusalem, he camps out in a garden outside of town.
But he cannot hide forever. He knows that. And he finally confronts his destiny, not by raiding the garrison with a ragtag army, like others had done, but by turning over the money changers’ tables in the Temple, expressing his deeply held convictions. For Jesus, the Temple is about faith, not commerce.
I believe strength comes from a place deep within us. It begins with knowing what is is true and resisting anything that makes us stray from that truth.
I believe that to be strong is to live out our convictions, even when it is risky and difficult to do so.
I believe that the clearest sign of strength is serving others. When we do something for someone else, especially someone who is suffering, especially when it costs us time or money or anything of value, we demonstrate our power.
What is even more difficult for most of us is to allow others to serve us. There is something within us that resists making ourselves vulnerable. We think that if we need help, we are weak. If we let someone do something for us, we show ourselves to be feeble or powerless.
The opposite is true. When we are able to accept help, we show an inner strength and security that is rare indeed.
On his last night on earth, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. He fed them bread and he served them wine. He also trusted that God would be with him all through his coming ordeal. He put himself in God’s hands. Without lifting a hand against anyone, he showed us what it really means to be strong.
May we enter 2019 with the strength to follow in his footsteps.