To begin this morning, I ask you to turn to Isaiah 49:5-6 (page 508 in the pew Bibles). We're told:
“And now the LORD says-- he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength--he says: ‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.’"The speaker in this passage of prophecy written many hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, has often been believed by Christians to be the Messiah, the Christ, revealed later to be Jesus.
And in verse 6, Messiah, the Anointed King Who God promised would come to set things right in Israel--bringing people back to the right worship of God, granting forgiveness to those who repent and trust in Him alone--quotes God the Father.
Here, God the Father tells God the Son, the Messiah, in effect, “It’s much too small a project for You to usher in the Kingdom of heaven for the descendants of Abraham. I want every human being on the planet to have the opportunity for salvation from sin and death. All people. You will bring light into a world darkened by sin and death!”
On the first Christmas, Jesus came into the world to be a light to all nations.
The passionate desire of God for relationship with people isn’t confined to one ethnic group, race, or nation.
He wants to give all people the light they need to first, see their sins and vulnerabilities--and therefore see their need of God’s offered hand of forgiveness--and second, He wants to give all people the ability to see Jesus Christ as their hope for lives made eternally new by God Himself.
God doesn’t force the Light of the world on us. The spiritually blind will only be given sight if they want the Messiah.
But He shines still today in the witness of Scripture, in the Sacraments, in the fellowship and service of the Church, in the witness of Christians who prepare themselves always to account for the hope that Jesus the Messiah has given them.
Please turn to John 1:9-13 (page 739). Here, John writes about the Messiah after Jesus’ death and resurrection, at least seven hundred years after the prophecy from Isaiah we just read.
John writes: “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.”
Jesus, the Light of the world, scours the nations not just to show us our sins, but also to enlighten the hearts and minds of every person to know that...
- those holes in our hearts with which we all are born,
- that gnawing need for meaning and significance,
- that canyon of separation between God and us
They can be filled by the Messiah Jesus.
That’s what the New Testament is talking about when it says that all people can be saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. (See here, here, and here, among other places.)
We see God’s passionate desire to draw all people to Himself through Christ in today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 2:1-10 (page 668). Please turn to it now.
This lesson records the event we call the Epiphany, from the Greek word epiphaneo, which means to shine upon. On the first Epiphany, a bright star led men called Magi, often called wise men, to the Light of the world, the Messiah.
And throughout this season of the Church Year called Epiphany, we will read Gospel lessons in which people had epiphanies, aha moments when someone recognized that when they came into the presence of Jesus, they were doing much more than meeting a man. They were in the presence of God in the flesh!
To our lesson, now. Verses 1 and 2: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’"
The Magi were practitioners of both astronomy, a useful science, and astrology, quackery that believes the stars control the destinies of human beings.
You wouldn’t expect these guys to be among the first people to care about or seek out Jesus.
In Deuteronomy 18:10-11, God forbids relying on superstitions or mediums of any kind. Such practices are called abominations because they're expressions of the human desire to "be like God." Superstitions like astrology appeal to our human impulse to be control freaks, to take control for ourselves instead of submitting to the will and control of the Creator of the universe.
So, the Magis weren’t believers in God. Whatever knowledge they may have had of Hebrew Scripture would have merely been the result of human curiosity, not faith.
And they were also foreigners, Gentiles likely from Persia, modern day Iran.
Yet, when the Messiah was born into the world, God, in His sovereignty, chose to reveal the birth to the Magi through the very stars they superstitiously followed.
Folks, the Light of the world can use any means He chooses to invite people to worship Him, to lead us to grace and new life in His Name, to pull us to His Word of truth.
And the Light of the world wants to call even the most notorious sinners, people good Christians might think are hopelessly separated from God, into a relationship with Him.
In God's eyes, there are no hopeless cases! As long as human beings draw breath on this planet, there is a chance they can come to know Jesus and His grace and forgiveness and be saved from sin and death. That's why the mission of Christ's Church is critically important!
Verses 3 and 4: “When King Herod heard [the Magi’s belief that Messiah had been born] he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law [Herod had to get all his key advisors together in the Situation Room to face this crisis], he asked them where the Christ was to be born.”
Herod himself wasn’t Jewish and he wasn’t a descendant of David, which Israel’s kings were supposed to be.
He had been given his throne by the Romans.
In the later years of his life--and Jesus was born sometime not too long before Herod’s death--the paranoid Herod killed off potential rivals.
The news of a newborn King of the Jews disturbed him.
But Matthew says Jerusalem was in an uproar too, people in their pious religious moments would have insisted that they were pining for the coming of the Messiah who would bring God's kingdom to people in need of Him.
Why? Maybe because sometimes God gets too close for comfort. We resist Him.
I shared my faith in Christ with a friend once. Nothing pushy. “That’s fine for you, Mark,” he told me. “But I really don’t need God right now.”
Another guy told me his plan: He would wait to let Christ into his life until he was on his deathbed. Until then, he intended to do without Him. Guess no one ever told him, death isn’t always that tidy or predictable.
Neither are all the other unplanned events where we need the God of the universe and Redeemer of our souls by our sides!
But, isn’t ironic that the Magi were more excited about the birth of the King of the Jews than “Jerusalem,” by which I think Matthew meant official Jerusalem, was.
They were comfortable with their perks and power and ease.
They didn’t want the Messiah messing things up.
This should remind us to never get too comfortable with the things of this world. If we’re not careful they can become so important to us that we gain the world but lose our souls!
In verses 5 and 6, the scribes and chief teachers of God’s Law cited Old Testament passages--Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2--to show that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, the hometown of Israel’s greatest king, David.
Verses 7 and 8: “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’"
The Magi followed the star to the house where Jesus lived with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Matthew says the Magi “were overjoyed.”
Do you remember how it felt when you first realized that the God of the universe loved you, then died for you and rose for you, so that you could turn from the death and sin of this world and receive life with God as a free gift?
Maybe it wasn’t a realization that came upon you all at once.
And hopefully, it’s a realization that hits you at deeper and deeper levels as you grow and mature in your relationship with Christ.
But this must have been something of what the Magi felt at that moment.
God’s unseen hand, His Holy Spirit, had used the star to lead them to the Child and they reacted as we do when we realize for the first time or once again the depths of God’s commitment to us despite our faults and sins.
Verse 11: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”
The gifts they brought were ones commonly brought to kings. But what strikes me is that they bowed down and worshiped Jesus.
The Magi, never identified by Matthew as kings, were nonetheless, as their gifts attest, wealthy men. They were important in their society. They might well have seen themselves as important people deigning to give their approval to Jesus, in effect legitimizing Him by their gifts.
Sometimes, you know, we can get caught up in thinking what wonderful people we are and how lucky God is to have us on His side. If thoughts anything like that ever cross our minds, we should look at the Magi.
The word translated as worship here is in the Greek in which Matthew wrote, proskuneo. It can be translated as give homage or honor, like you might give to a queen or a president. We stand when presidents enter the room because they represent the sovereignty of our nation. People bow to royalty for the same reason. The Magi may have simply been acknowledging their belief that this Child, living in the home of an impoverished couple, was, despite all appearances, a king.
But virtually every time Matthew uses this word, proskuneo, he means more than simply paying honor. It’s almost always the gesture of people who realize that when they come into the presence of Jesus, they come into the presence of God. They worship Jesus.
This, of course, is precisely the claim Jesus makes for Himself.
“I and the Father are one,” Jesus says in John 10:30.
And in John 14:6-7, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you really know Me, you will know My Father as well. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.”
That must have been what the Magi saw when they looked at the Child with awe and gratitude.
Two things I hope you and I will take away from Epiphany Day, 2014:
One, God’s love knows no bounds. God wants all people to know Jesus, the Light of the world.
And two, God wants to use you and me to extend His invitation to others, not to come to Church, but to know Jesus.
In 2014, may we learn to know Jesus better and learn to rely on the Holy Spirit more, so that when we have the chance, like the star, to lead others to the Light that darkness could not snuff out, we will be ready.
As we begin this new year, let’s make it our common prayer to seek God’s help in growing not as church members, but as disciples of Jesus Christ, so that call all who don’t yet know the Messiah or the life God gives in His Name to join us in following Him.
Listen: The brightest light that shone on the first Epiphany wasn’t in the sky; it was on the earth beneath, where “the Word made flesh” brought the way of salvation to all peoples!
God be praised!