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January 10, 2021 (Epiphany Sunday) Sermon: Go Search Diligently for the Child

January 10, 2021 Sermon
“Go Search Diligently for the Child”

1st Scripture Reading – Isaiah 60:1-6

60  Arise, shine; for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
    and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
    and his glory will appear over you.

3 Nations shall come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

4 Lift up your eyes and look around;
    they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
    and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
    your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
    the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
    the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
    all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
    and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

2nd Scripture Reading – Matthew 2:1-12

2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

“Go Search Diligently for the Child”

Did you ever wonder why we sing “We Three Kings” instead of “We Three Magi” or “We Three Wise Men”…when Matthew’s text clearly tells us the child Jesus was visited by MAGI, not kings?  Maybe it’s because “kings” just sounds better than magi…and one syllable fits the music better than 2.  Maybe.

As it turns out, there’s actually another reason, a reason that gets back to prophesy.  If you want to understand quite a lot about what happened in the New Testament, it’s a good idea to go back and look at prophecies from the Old Testament.

Take, for example, the prophecies from today’s reading from Isaiah 60:

  • Nations shall come to your light,
        and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
  •  the wealth of the nations shall come to you
  • A multitude of camels shall cover you
  • They shall bring gold and frankincense,
        and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Sounds an awful lot like how we remember the visit of the wise men, doesn’t it?  So it makes complete sense that we Christians would read the visit of the magi found in Matthew’s gospel as the fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah 60, and, as a result, magi = kings.

(PAUSE)

Since today is Epiphany Sunday, a day on which we traditionally read the story of the visit of the magi to the child Jesus…and since the makers of the lectionary combined these readings from Isaiah and Matthew for our readings today, I thought it would be fun to explore a little bit of this background as an introduction to today’s message.  But this background is not what I intend to focus upon for the bulk of the message.

To set the tone for the message, let’s remember what the word “epiphany” means.  An “epiphany” is a revelation of the meaning of something.  In the case of Jesus, particularly with respect to Matthew’s story of the wise men and Jesus, “epiphany” is about Jesus’ identity being made known to these wise men and, really, to everyone, as both the One about whom God had long prophesied AND as a king for the whole world, not just God’s chosen people, Israel.  In fact, some variation of that message – that Jesus came for ALL people and not just a particular subset of people – is typically what I preach about on Epiphany Sunday.

Today, however, I want to focus on a different part of Matthew’s story of the visitation of the magi.  In fact, I want to focus on some words from Herod, the king of God’s people at the time of Jesus’ birth and so the person who was most threatened by Jesus’ birth.  Matthew reveals for us Herod’s response to the wise men when they arrived in Jerusalem inquiring about the child who was born king of the Jews.  (As an aside, there’s probably a sermon somewhere in the wise men having the audacity to approach the person who THINKS he’s king of the Jews and asking him about the child “who has been born king of the Jews.”  What a dangerous question those wise men asked!)  Herod’s response to the wise men was/is incredibly important: “Go and search diligently for the child…”

If you’re like me, you likely gloss over Herod’s words in this story.  You likely gloss over Herod’s words because:

  • You already KNOW Herod is the villain, and who cares what the villain has to say?
  • You likely already know the ending of the story as far as Herod is concerned: Herod only wants to know where Jesus is for the purpose of killing jesus.
  • You’d likely much rather get on to “the good part” of the story, which takes place when the wise men visit Jesus and present gifts to him.  Songs, television specials, and movies have been produced about this amazing moment, and nativity scenes the world over try to reproduce this moment.   This amazing moment is so much more worthy of our attention than the words of Herod!

Today, I will direct your attention to Herod’s words.  Even though the text tells us that Herod wasn’t sincere in his reason for wanting the wise men to find the Christ child, Herod’s words STILL have great meaning for us today.

“Go and search diligently for the child…”  Isn’t this our task for Epiphany Sunday, even for the whole season of Epiphany, maybe the whole year through?  If God is working diligently to REVEAL Jesus’ identity to us, shouldn’t we be working just as diligently to seek, find, and discover the identity of Jesus?

Searching for Jesus was certainly what the magi were working toward….long before Herod ever told them to do so.  They had been searching and traveling for quite a long time.  And we can learn some things from their search…about how we’re supposed to search for Jesus, how we’re supposed to live our lives as followers of Jesus.  I would suggest we can learn at least four things from the search of these wise men.

FIRST, we discover from the magi that we’ve got to be willing to give up quite a lot in our search.  Consider the example of the wise men.  Matthew doesn’t name them or tell us where they’re from, other than to tell us they’re from “the east.”  Christian tradition assigns them names and nations of origin to them, however.  Considering the various possibilities, these magi could have traveled anywhere from 400 miles to more than 2,000 miles.  A round trip of even the shortest potential distance, when traveled only at night…on camels, would take more than a month.  The longest potential distance would have taken around half a year.  Folks, THAT is a pretty serious commitment.

The sacrifice on the part of the magi of somewhere between a month and half a year of life…and friends…and family…and occupation…and wages to seek out – with no guarantee of finding – the Christ child should CHALLENGE us and CALL us.  It should challenge us and call us to consider what we’re willing to sacrifice to seek and find the true identity of Jesus and to discover what Jesus’ identity means for us.  Are you willing to give up some of the same kinds of things the magi must have sacrificed:

  • Time with family?
  • Time with friends?
  • Physical distance from the place of your comfort zone?
  • Distance from your emotional comfort zone?
  • Occupation…and the resulting wages…for maybe half a year?
  • Hobbies and whatever we do for enjoyment – in modern terms television, computers, cell phones, and more.  For those magi, they couldn’t take any of these kinds of things with them.  Every moment of every day was focused on the search for Jesus…likely nothing else.

Things are SO different for us.  We can call ourselves – imagine ourselves as – followers of Jesus without having to sacrifice very much at all.  Maybe go to a church building for an hour or two once or twice a month…if that much.  Maybe sacrifice $10-15 for a Bible.  Maybe read that Bible on occasion.  Maybe pray some.  But how much are we really sacrificing?  And how different are we from everyone else as a result of our minor sacrifices?

You see, that’s where this sacrifice stuff makes a difference.  Those magi, they gave up SO MUCH that they were definitely going to be changed by their experience, really changed.  I would suggest that your openness to being changed by something – even God – is directly proportional to the amount of sacrifice you make for that thing.  The more time, energy, and money you give to God, the more important God is to your life.  And the more time, energy, and money you give to God, the more transformational space you create for being changed by God.

That’s the first lesson of the magi with respect to our search for God  If you feel like you’ve been searching your whole life but you haven’t quite found that for which you search…perhaps you need to sacrifice more in your search.

The second thing we discover from the magi is that you’ve got to do the searching yourself; you can’t outsource it.

Can you imagine what would have happened if the magi would have gotten to Jerusalem, talked to Herod, and then told Herod to finish their journey for them, all while they waited in Jerusalem and enjoyed the pleasures of Jerusalem?  Not only would they have MISSED what was likely their one and only opportunity to be in Jesus’ presence, but they would have been replaced in that opportunity by Herod, who would have killed Jesus on the spot.  Y’all, outsourcing our search for Jesus is simply NOT an option.

Just like God had a plan for the visitation of those wise men…God has a plan for you to search and find Jesus in your own special way.  God will DO something amazing with your search.  God will do something amazing for all the world and for you with your search.  If you outsource your search to someone else…things will go badly…for you and for the world.

Things will go badly for you because someone else will reap the benefits of your search…the benefits intended for you.  If you’re wondering what I mean by “outsourcing the search”, I’m talking about all the aspects of faith that help us get ever closer to finding Jesus and discovering what Jesus was and is about.  I’m talking about opportunities to help people – you seek and find Jesus when you help people.  I’m talking about opportunities to engage in Bible Study and Christian education.  I’m talking about opportunities to talk about your faith.  I’m talking about opportunities to fellowship and both encourage and be encouraged by other Christians.  If you outsource these things, can you possibly get any benefit from them?

  • If you let someone else – even the government – help out with the needs of people, you will get no benefit from someone else meeting those needs.
  • If you let someone else attend a Bible Study instead of yourself, you will get nothing out of that Bible study.
  • If you let others talk about their faith but keep matters of faith to yourself, you will get nothing out of their sharing of their faith.
  • If you let others engage in fellowship while you keep to yourself, you will get nothing out of their fellowshipping.

But as I mentioned a moment ago, this is bigger than you. 

  •  If you don’t meet the needs you encounter, those needs may not get met…and the world suffers.  
  • If you don’t attend Bible Study, your unique voice and the Spirit speaking through you will be absent from those studies…and the world will suffer.
  • If you don’t share your faith with others, many people may not hear what you have to share…and the world will suffer.
  • If you don’t spend time with and encourage other Christians, those Christians may not receive encouragement or love…and the world will suffer.

I can’t stress this enough: you CAN NOT outsource your faith…or you and the world will suffer.

The third thing we discover from the search of the magi is quite awesome.  It is this: in your search, you’re likely going to encounter some amazing supernatural stuff.  

Those wise men encountered a star that moved and stopped and moved again.  Those wise men encountered some kind of warning in a dream.  Y’all, in their search for Jesus, the wise men encountered some WILD, supernatural stuff.  And as far as we know, their search comprised less than a year of their lives.

If you spend your whole life searching diligently for Jesus, you will likely encounter supernatural stuff far beyond the experiences of those wise men.  But you’ve got to be open to the experiences…so you’ll recognize them for what they are.

  • How many people would chalk up that miraculous moving and stopping star to a natural scientific phenomenon…like the great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter and therefore miss the miracle?
  • How many people would have a dream in which they get a sense to change their travel plans…and just chalk it up to anxiety?

Y’all, the search for Jesus will/DOES result in supernatural experience.  Be open to it.  Be on the lookout for it.  And don’t downplay it or rationalize that it’s something other than what it is. These kinds of supernatural experiences – if you accept them – will change your life!

And the final discovery we can make from the wise men involves obstacles.  If you search for Jesus, you WILL encounter obstacles…likely very significant obstacles, like a king who wishes to manipulate you to be part of his plan of death and destruction and power.   There really are evil forces out there trying to do something quite the opposite of the One for whom you search.  And so, here’s the learning of the wise men: stay true to Jesus.  Stay true to the One for whom you are searching.  Matthew doesn’t tell us, but I have little doubt Herod offered the wise men great glory, positions of power, and great wealth if only they would betray Jesus.  But they resisted whatever may have been offered; they remained true to the One for whom they searched.  

As you search for Jesus, the evil forces will place obstacles before you.  Sometimes, those obstacles will look and feel like obstacles: you might lose wealth or status or even good health in your journey; you might feel tempted to give up to take care of other things that need tending to.  But remember, if you remain true to Jesus, God WILL guide you and keep you on your way; you will get past the obstacles.  And sometimes, the obstacles will look like opportunities to do something else, something OTHER than what God guides you to do: a great financial opportunity, an opportunity for an increase in status, position or power, and opportunity for better health – with each of these “opportunities” requiring only the small sacrifice of your search.  Abandon Jesus and gain something; that’s how evil works.

Remember the lesson of the magi when these obstacles arise: remain true to the One for whom you search!

(PAUSE)

A long time ago in a land far away, some magi, some wise men – maybe three but likely more – set out on a journey to find the Christ child.  Along their journey and in their search, they had some once-in-forever experiences that changed them and that changed all the world.  And those magi, they HAD those experiences precisely because they searched diligently for the child and never stopped.  If YOU spend your life searching diligently for Jesus…and never stop…you can have some amazing experiences, as well – experiences that will change you and experiences that will change all the world.  Amen!