January 6, 2019 Sermon
Jesus Made Known:
Visit of the Magi
First Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:1-8
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.”
Second Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:9-15
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.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
Jesus Made Known: The Visit of the Magi
Today begins something new. And I’m not talking about the new thing of the change in the secular calendar from 2018 to 2019, even though this is our first gathering as congregation to worship God in the New Year.
No, the new thing I’m talking about has to do with a change in liturgical season, a change in the calendar of the Western Church. The season of Advent…which marks the beginning of the Christian year, is behind us now. Even the 12-day season known as Christmastide will soon be behind us; it ends today. And so, a new season begins, albeit a season that has often been confused with the season of Christmas. This new season is the season of Epiphany…also known as the season AFTER the Epiphany. (In case you’re unfamiliar with this word – epiphany – it’s all about making known the essential nature of a person or thing. In this case, it’s about making known the essential nature of Jesus, the Christ. It’s about discovering WHO and WHAT Jesus really is.)
Since we follow something called the Narrative Lectionary here at First Christian Church – the story of the scriptures from beginning to end from September to May each year – this season of Epiphany is ALSO the season during which we look to the gospels of the New Testament for scriptural guidance. This year, we’ll be guided by Matthew’s gospel, up to the point where Jesus sets his sights on his final journey to Jerusalem…because that journey begins another season. But instead of reading the gospels like we might be tempted to do during any other season of the year – reading the gospels to learn about US – since it is the season of Epiphany we will read the gospels (Matthew’s gospel this year) to learn about Jesus.
Today, we begin this process of discovering how God makes Jesus’ identity known in Matthew’s gospel with the singular event that tends to cause confusion among Christians between Christmas and Epiphany: the visit of the magi to the child Jesus.
When I was a kid, my favorite Christmas carols included, among others, We Three Kings, The First Noel, and Do You Hear What I Hear, all of which, to varying degrees, either combine the story of the nativity and the story of the visit of the magi or, in the case of We Three Kings, ignore the nativity completely and focus wholly on the visit of the magi. If what I just said shocked you – if you’re wondering how a focus on the visit of the magi could be separate from the nativity – let me explain. The gospel writer Luke provides the story of the night of Jesus’ birth with which we’re familiar: the story of no room at the inn and shepherds and angels. The gospel writer Matthew provides a very short, one-sentence, account of Jesus’ birth, pretty much just telling us the virgin Mary gave birth to a child, and Joseph named the child Jesus. That’s ALL Matthew tells us about the day of Jesus’ birth, and it takes place in chapter 1 of Matthew’s gospel.
THEN, chapter 2, our reading for today, begins with the words, “In the time of King Herod, AFTER Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem…”
Y’all, our story from today, the story of the visit of the wise men or magi or kings or whatever you want to call them, it begins AFTER Jesus was born. And it includes a stopover in Jerusalem, some meetings with Herod, some time for Herod to communicate back and forth with his religious advisers – and remember, there weren’t any Smart Phones to speed the communication along, so it took a while for Herod to get the information he sought, and quite a bit of travel: to Jerusalem, around Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
The point of all of this is that by the time the magi arrived in Bethlehem, Jesus wasn’t a newborn baby anymore; this is NOT a nativity story. The text – in Greek – makes this even clearer. In Luke’s gospel, the Greek word for what the angels told the shepherds to find on the night of Jesus’ birth is the word that corresponds to our English words “baby” and “infant”. In Matthew’s gospel, the Greek word for what the magi find on their visit corresponds to the English concept of a child older than an infant but under the age of 7. And the magi visited the child Jesus in a house, not a stable. No, this is not a nativity story.
Why does any of this matter? In terms of the overall message of what God makes known about Jesus through the gospel writer Matthew in this story – it probably doesn’t matter so much. BUT, in terms of helping us all understand that if we allow CULTURE, even the seeming Christian culture of our hymns and carols, provide even a tiny part of who we understand Jesus to be instead of allowing God’s WORD and God’s Holy Spirit to fully inform us of who Jesus IS…we’re going to get it wrong. That’s why I mention all of this.
My friends, if you want to know who God says Jesus is, you’ve got to work really hard to do so, you’ve got to work really hard to not get distracted – even by Christmas carols. It’s why every year, as I’m drawn to the Christmas cards that depict the wise men on their journey and I want so badly to purchase them as my family’s Christmas cards that I have to stop myself – actually, Susan usually has to stop me – because I don’t want to be part of this process of transmitting misinformation. Even though it’s just a teeny, tiny piece of misinformation that has become an acceptable part of our (Christian) culture, when it comes to something as FUNDAMENTAL to our faith as Jesus’ identity, we’ve got to do better…and it’s so easy to do better. In this case, just separate our celebration of Christmas and Epiphany by about 12 days like the makers of the Christian calendar intended.
OK…back to the story. In this story of the visit of the magi, we can learn so much about who Jesus is. Since our time together is limited, I’m going to focus on four fundamental aspects of Jesus’ identity made known by God in this story.
The first aspect of Jesus’ identity revealed in this story is almost too obvious to mention; it’s something we Christians always assume. But, remember, when it comes to Jesus’ identity, we shouldn’t assume anything, we shouldn’t simply believe whatever tradition hands down to us or whatever we see in movies or television shows or even hear in songs about Jesus’ life. No, we must find Jesus’ identity in the scriptures. And in this story, God reveals one of the most fundamental aspects of Jesus’ identity: Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. When the magi ask where the “king of the Jews” – meaning the Messiah – is to be born, Herod assembles the religious leaders who would KNOW, and, referencing Old Testament prophecy, they point to Bethlehem and to Jesus. We’re supposed to read this like a billboard proclaiming, “Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.”
The second thing we learn about Jesus’ identity, something that will be displayed again later in his life, is that Jesus somehow has power over all of creation, even over the stars. As much as we might try to make this story fit the laws of science, and I’ve read a great many attempts to do just that, the story does NOT fit the laws of science. In Matthew 2, a star stopped over Jesus. Y’all, stats DON’T stop, not in relation to the ever moving, ever rotating earth anyway. Only a being with power well beyond what humans possess can cause something like that to happen.
The third thing we learn about Jesus’ identity from this story is that through Jesus God expanded the definition of Messiah from being a king for the Jews alone to being a king for and over all people. The magi were NOT Jews and yet they recognized Jesus as a king, even THEIR king. In verse 2, our NRSV translation suggests these magi were visiting Jesus to pay him homage; the Greek word that gets translated as “homage” can also mean worship. The whole point of this word “homage” is that the foreign magi were visiting Jesus to pledge their allegiance to him as THEIR king. This aspect of Jesus’ identity, as a Messiah for all, alters the understanding of what it means to be a person for God. From that moment onward, being a person of God was no longer a product of biology but rather of allegiance to Jesus…which means WE can be people of God; all people can choose to be God’s people.
And the fourth and final thing we learn from this story about Jesus’ identity has to do with God’s means of communication to humanity. In these short verses, God communicated to some magi through a star and then a dream, to Herod and the magi through the prophets by way of the chief priests and scribes, and to Joseph through an angel. That’s quite a bit of rather direct communication…from a God who had been relatively quiet for hundreds of years in terms of direct communication with humanity. And even back in the “good ‘ol days”, when God seemingly communicated more frequently, God seemed to limit God’s direct communication to the prophets. But, suddenly, after Jesus’ birth, God started communicating rather directly with a great many people, different kinds of people from different social, political, religious, and national realms. This seems to have been a way of God signalling a change in God’s communication technology; starting very soon, God was going to communicate VERY directly with everyone through Jesus.
These are some pretty big developments for people back then, life-altering developments, really. But, what do they mean for us? What do they mean for people who ALREADY come to worship almost every Sunday and proclaim ourselves followers of Jesus?
More than you might think.
Let’s start with power over creation. Y’all, at my core, I’m a science-y guy, a rational guy…really, I am. And so this aspect of the gospel of Jesus challenges me, stretches me, in uncomfortable ways. It does.
But the story of Jesus begins with a disclaimer that all the laws of science we THINK we know are not quite so fixed as we might WANT them to be. If God could make virgin birth happen, if God could cause a star to stop, if God could (as we’ll later discover) calm storms and raise people from death…all through Jesus, my friends, how can the laws of science be so fixed as we think they are? And so as much as I am logical, rational, and scientific, it’s when I INTENTIONALLY subdue my logical, rational side and look for God to work in unimaginable ways that I start to see and experience things I never thought possible. I’ve witnessed a baby who had only half a brain one minute suddenly have a full brain 5 minutes later. I’ve experienced visions from God in dreams. I’ve watched as people with spiritual gifts of discernment and prophecy DISCOVERED/KNEW things were happening before anyone knew about those things. What I’m trying to say is this: if YOU will truly allow Jesus to have power over creation, nature, even scientific law, you will experience some new things in life, some things that make life richer, better…but you’ve got to open yourself to Jesus’ power – to the possibility Jesus can work this way – to experience it.
Let’s continue with the expanded definition of Messiah. In Jesus’ time and in the time of the early Church as described in Acts, there were most definitely people who tried to CONTINUE to limit who Messiah was for, who Messiah could be for. No sinners allowed. No Gentiles allowed. And we modern followers of Jesus, we like to think of ourselves as the people who are enlightened enough to say Jesus is for everyone. But do we really get what that means? Do we really mean what we say? Are there people who we, any of us or even all of us, do not want to allow Jesus to be for? People of different religions, maybe: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or a little closer to home, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehova’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists? (Remember, the magi were practitioners of OTHER faiths.) Or what about people of different ethnicities – foreigners? Or even groups of people in modern society who some would classify as “sinners”: the LGBT community, politicians (particularly on the other side of the aisle), ordinary citizens with opposing political viewpoints, folks with tattoos covering their bodies, or even people who eat meat…or who don’t eat meat, or – gasp – Christians who believe differently than we do? Or what about people who have committed acts our society deems criminal, you know, the prisoners Jesus told us to visit? Y’all, won’t it change us if we TRULY live as if Messiah – Jesus – came for everyone, even THEM (whoever “them” is for you)?
Finally, let’s consider what it means for us that Jesus DIRECTLY communicated God’s desires for us, and we can find that communication in the scriptures…and even access new direct communication today through the Holy Spirit Jesus promised us? I’m guessing somewhere around 10% of Christians regularly study the words of Jesus in scripture. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that number is high – since studies indicate only 20% of Christians have read the Bible all the way through…how many could be studying it regularly? Y’all, if we have access to DIRECT communication from God, shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to try to figure out what God TOLD US and STILL tells us? Shouldn’t direct communication from God be more important than another meal out, a movie, more time with friends, cleaning the house, or whatever it is that keeps us from Bible Study? And please, hear this: I’m not saying these things to criticize; I’m saying these things to let you know that the most amazing communication ever given, words from God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, is AVAILABLE to you. But you’ve got to do more than just read a Bible to understand it, because it was written in a foreign language to people on the other side of the world a long, long time ago…so it takes WORK to understand what it means for us. It’s great stuff. Amazing stuff. It will change your life…if only you do the work to let it.
My friends, today begins the season of discovering who God reveals Jesus to be through the gospel of Matthew. It’s going to be a fun series of sermons. It’s going to be enlightening. It may even be a bit scary…because you may discover you need some adjustment to what you already believe or how you already live. But…isn’t it worth it to know who GOD says Jesus truly is…and to then figure out what that means for you, for us? I hope to see you…and your friends…here every Sunday between now and March 3 to discover Jesus’ true identity. Amen.