Sermons are certainly a challenging form of public speech these days. It is difficult to preach Sunday after Sunday. But perhaps a more difficult speaking challenge is the introduction of the main speaker at an event. This short but important introduction speech can be very difficult. It needs to be concise. But it also needs to recognize the speaker’s origins and accomplishments with perhaps a little bit of flattery, but not too much. It should take into account the interests of the audience and point out how those interests are important in the mind of the one being introduced. The introducer should use a bit of humor to lighten the mood and to warm the room. Then there are people to thank for their work on the event and other distinguished guests to recognize as well. And there should be just a touch of drama to the words so that everyone stops daydreaming (or eating or looking at their phones or talking) and senses that what follows is important. So this concise introductory speech is sometimes very difficult to accomplish well. It is one of the more challenging speeches people need to write.
Today we have the wise men or sages coming to the birth of Jesus. It’s hard to believe that these events actually happened as they are written. The sages are some of the most mysterious figures in the New Testament and the details surrounding their presence and journey may be more mythic than historical. Still, there appears to be a common Christian memory regarding the birth of Jesus shared by both Matthew and Luke involving Bethlehem, Nazareth, the parents of Jesus engaged but not married, angels, visions or something like that, significant visitors of some sort, and portents in the sky involving light, planets, or stars. It may be that much of this common memory is grounded in what happened at the birth of Jesus, but many do not think things actually happened as Matthew records them in chapters one and two. How would the light of a star stop over a particular stable in Bethlehem?
What is more likely is that the first two chapters of Matthew, his infancy story of Jesus, is Matthew’s introduction to the hero in the story that follows. Matthew one and two are like an introductory speech that warms the audience to the main speaker: Jesus who really does have major addresses in the Gospel of Matthew. And in the center of this introduction to the hero of the story: Jesus, come these mysterious magi.
Actually, the form of these introductions was set in ancient Roman rhetoric and literature. The introduction of the hero in a story or saga is called the encomium. And like a good introductory speech today it must cover the bases in a short period of time. An ancient Roman encomium would not use humor but rather embellishment and stretching the facts to engage the listener. It might begin with the hero’s genealogy and a legend surrounding the birth of the hero which contain some interesting characters, as does Matthew. There would be some tension in the encomium, some presence of shadows and struggles yet to come in the story. And those are here in Matthew not only in the tension between Mary and Joseph but also in the tyrant’s cruelty. There would be a vision or dreams or divine insight. That is here. Usually the birth of the hero was accompanied by celestial wonders. Somehow the hero would be connected to the divine or be considered a god. And outsiders would also recognize the importance of the birth of the hero. Chapters one and two of Matthew’s introduction to the saga of Jesus contain all of the elements of an ancient encomium, the ancient introduction of Jesus to the audience.
Now a good introduction is based on the interests of the audience and it uses those interests to engage the listener in the upcoming main event. That is also true in Matthew’s introduction of Jesus according to classical form.
Roman Gentiles especially would have expected that an important hero was somehow divine, and that the birth of the hero was an extraordinary event overcoming obstacles and hardship. This story does all that.
And Jews would have heard in Matthew’s encomium echoes of the great Hebrew hero Moses. Both Moses in Exodus and Jesus in Matthew have a Hebrew genealogy, have stories shaped by dreams, escape a tyrant’s killing of children by in one case a Pharaoh, in the other by Herod in Palestine, have an inter-cultural sense, either flee to or from Egypt, and are perceived as liberators or threats to the established authorities. So Matthew attends to his Gentile and Jewish audience and by the end of chapter two the stage has been set for the saga to follow in chapter three.
The star, the sages, the gifts, and the encounter with Herod are all part of this ancient introduction. But instead of trying to figure out what they all were or what they symbolized, it may be best in the time we have to recognize that through these details Matthew is covering all the bases in his introduction of the main speaker: Jesus. He is making the best possible encomium for what is to follow.
Which means that these chapters of Matthew, one and two, call us to think about how we introduce Jesus today. What is the best possible introduction we might make of Jesus to those we encounter every day? What would be the concise, yet engaging way to now introduce Jesus to growing numbers of people who have no idea about who Jesus was and what he stood for? What would be our best encomium of the Christ? How might we introduce people to the light of Christ?
That is a hard question. All encomiums are difficult. And introducing Jesus has become more difficult in recent years. That question lies at the heart of our own congregation’s ground game for 2015 as our neighborhood undergoes substantial change. How do we introduce others to Jesus? We would not do it the same way Matthew does. But we are inspired by Matthew’s introduction to craft an introduction to Christ as well as we can for our own time and place.
What goes into our encomium? We would probably start with compassion. In word and especially deed, we would point to a God who desires us to be a compassionate people and to care for others, our world, ourselves, and future generations as well as we can. We would want to lead with that. Not because it is what people want to hear, but because it’s the most important thing.
And our encomium would want to be inclusive. We would not want to reject the wisdom of other faith traditions, but we would want to see the truth of God calling all to love and forgive one another and to strive for harmony in a broken world.
And our encomium would stress hope and joy, courage and faith, as important ways to make it through the hard times. We all have shadows, hardships, sorrows, and difficulties. We share those with friends in faith whose mutual encouragement helps us embrace hope even in the struggle.
And our encomium would somehow show that we understand ourselves not only to be challenged by the demands of life but also to be challenging: to call into question those systems and ways of working that hurt others and treat people unfairly.
And our encomium would then stop talking and listen. So that people sense that it is not about what we think, but it is all about God working in your life, helping you shape your own future, your own compassion and forgiveness.
Compassion, inclusion, joy and faith, courage and challenge, listening as well as speaking would be our best encomium these days.
And at some point we may also want to add just a hint of wisdom, a hint of how useful it might be to engage the faith more fully: like the wisdom embedded in these readings this morning. For the first reading speaks of a coming together, God pulling a scattered people out of the darkness of exile back together. Isaiah 60 is the great ingathering. The second reading speaks of Paul going out with the gospel into the world: a flowing outward. And the third reading with the interaction of the wise ones with Herod and the massacre of the children speaks to consternation, to churning, to engaging the shadow side of things, twisting and turning, and milling around.
Sometimes we need to get it together. Sometimes we need to get out there and let it flow. Sometimes we simply need to let things churn for awhile while the plot thickens and we engage the shadow side. And today you may need to come together with someone or gather your things, or depart on a greater journey or get out there again, or just mill around in the recesses of your churning soul as you sort out the best way to go home. But no matter whether you’re coming or going, or staying put for awhile, the basic question remains, “how should we introduce Jesus now?”
Charles H Talbert, Matthew, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament, Baker Academic, 2010.
Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Doubleday, 1977.