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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Wise Men (Matthew 2.1-12)

Sermons by: Robert Austell - December 29, 2013
Text: Matthew 2:1-12

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft
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:: Some Music Used
Hymn of Praise: "As with Gladness Men of Old" (DIX)
Hymn of Praise: "What Child is This?" (GREENSLEEVES)
Hymn of Sending: "Sing We Now of Christmas" (NOEL NOUVELET)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way. ~Matthew 2:1-12
She walked into the church service that day – a little late, a little uncertain, and a lot looking out of place. And she didn’t sit down right next to anyone – there were a few empty chairs all around, a kind of buffer. But people saw her. They smiled a little smile, as we do in the hospitable South; but they also felt a little unsettled. Should this woman be in church? Should she be in our church?

And then the preacher – yes, you know the one – started talking about those outside the walls and welcoming the stranger. And yes, it was suddenly less hypothetical and more specific than usual, and a few people seemed to rise to the occasion after the reminder. 

Why is it, I wonder, that we are so surprised at who Jesus draws to himself?  It’s like what we talked about on Christmas Eve: there is this unwritten assumption that we have to get cleaned up before we can get God and the related assumption that we have to get fixed up before God will use us. And neither is right!

Wise Men from Far Off

The story of the Magi, or Wise Men, is such a mainstay of the Christmas Nativity that I think the strangeness of their story is lost on us. After all, the whole birth narrative is already unusual and supernatural, and we are so prone to tone that down; what are a few extra travelers thrown in there?

We also tend to spend more time on Mary, Joseph, angels, and shepherds than on the Wise Men. Nativity scenes place the Wise Men there with the others, but we noted a few weeks ago that they actually came much later, perhaps as much as two years later, and their coming prompted King Herod to act so brutally and the holy family to flee for their lives to Egypt for a time.

But that’s not the part of the Wise Men’s story that I want to focus on today. I’d like to draw your attention to two unusual features of the story: 1) the star in the east; and 2) the presence of foreigners at the birth of the Jewish Messiah.

God’s Truth – General and Specific

The star is one of the really mysterious pieces to this story. Scholars have speculated that it is anything from an ordinary astronomical event with which God timed the birth of Jesus to a supernatural event caused by God to mark the birth for those with eyes to see it. So explanations have ranged from planets in alignment to comets to something for which we don’t have a name. While it is certainly a point of interest, to fixate on it is to miss the more important point: that Jesus was being born! God was coming into the world to live among us in the flesh. To not move on to the birth of Christ would be like fixating on the burning bush and missing the fact that God was talking to Moses. The point is: God showed up and spoke to a human being. What did He say? What was the message? What was the plan? Not, “Now what exactly was going on with that bush?”

Or more in the realm of our everyday life, it would be like standing in front of a beautiful ocean sunset or that breath-taking expanse of mountains and mist on the Blue Ridge Parkway or the awesome force of thunderheads gathering in the distance and never thinking of the one who created them by the power of His Word.

So the Bible talks about God being revealed generally in creation. It is possible to miss it, but it is also possible to see it. And these “wise men” – and perhaps you see now why they were wise! – were paying attention. They were of a culture that believed that events in the night sky heralded significant events on the earth. While that is not a Christian or biblical belief, it did cause them to pay attention closely to the world around them and even to pore over the writings of various peoples, including the prophets of Israel. They were familiar with the prophecies about Bethlehem and probably other of the Hebrew Scriptures as well. And so, God’s created world – whether something that happened in the normal timing of things like a comet or planets lining up or something God created especially for this occasion – pointed them to the more specific words of God through prophets in scripture.

We know these wise men knew of the scripture in Micah 5:2 promising a Messiah born in Bethlehem. Likely they also knew of Numbers 24:17, which speaks of this Promised King as a “star from Jacob” and Isaiah 60:3, which describes foreign kings coming to His light. My point is that God does not hide in buildings built by human hands or in the enclaves of the faithful, but is constantly revealing himself in the world. What IS the treasure of the faithful are the more explicit truths and revelations of His Word. What an extraordinary joy when people come seeking God with only the general truths of creation to prompt them! And what an irony and tragedy when those who have the explicit revelation and Word of God don’t treasure it, read it, listen to or follow it!

The star reminds us that those who seek God will find Him in the Word of God – both the written Word and the Incarnate Word, Jesus.

God for the World

This observation about the star leading the Magi to Christ relates to a second unusual feature of the story: the presence of foreigners at the birth of the Jewish Messiah. There seems to be something in human nature that wants to take possession of things, to set them off with walls and fences, and to create an ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We can do that in the simplest of settings: as children with toys in the preschool classroom. And we can do that with more complicated things like politics, cultures, and religion. We see it in the early church with the tension between Jewish Christians (Jesus was their Messiah after all!) and Gentile Christians (we have to be circum-what?). And we see it today with so much of the church’s focus on “our own.” Even the most generous helping and service ministries can still operate out of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ kind of thing: “I’ll help you in the name of Jesus all day long, but I don’t think you’d feel at home in our worship service.”

So, here at the literal birth of Christ, the Messiah promised to the Hebrew people through their Scriptures, isn’t it unusual to find non-Jewish, non-observant, non-believing, foreigners at the door? But that’s just it: they weren’t Jewish, but they had been extremely observant – not of the Law, but of what God was doing in the world. And who says they were non-believing? Before they left they had fallen to the ground and worshiped Jesus.

Really, it is a set of false assumptions and expectations that would not have them there. When the angels spoke and sang to the shepherds, they announced news that would be “for all the peoples.” It is true that the Jewish people had a very distinct identity that was formed back in their history between God and Father Abraham. But at the very core of that event – and their identity – was God’s declaration that they would be so formed and blessed in order that they might be a blessing to all the nations. And it is true that the early church struggled; but they also figured out that the Holy Spirit was propelling this movement OUT into the world, to all people.

Being God’s people has never been an “insider movement” but an “outsider movement.” We are always to welcome in those who are seeking God and seeking truth, no matter how “outsider” they look or seem. And Jesus, in his adult ministry, invited his followers (that’s us!) again and again to follow him out into the world to seek out those who would receive him.

It’s a messy business to be sure. Just look at the Magi. Their coming brought the heat on the holy family. But their coming was of God and used by God. We can expect to have some discomfort and some mess. We already have since God has directed our hearts outward. But it’s so worth it because it is faithful!

You are the Church and the Church is formed by God FOR the world because God is FOR the world. God is so for the world that He sent His one and only Son to be born into the world. And it is He whom we fall down and worship and serve. Amen!

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