Sunday, January 05, 2020

Free to Take a Different Way

[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 2:1-12

On this Sunday when we celebrate the Epiphany, I want to focus on a single verse from our gospel lesson, Matthew 2:12. It tells us: “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”

The ones warned here, of course, are the magi from the East. We have no idea how many of them came to worship the Christ child, just that they brought three gifts. But we do know that when God’s Word came to them after they had seen Jesus the Christ--the Messiah, they didn’t go back to Herod to tell him the identity or whereabouts of the Child as Herod had told them to do. Instead, “they returned to their country by another route.” 

The magi obeyed the Word of God, not the orders of Herod

They surrendered to the will of God, not to the ways of the world.

As foreigners from Persia or Babylon, the magi would have understood that nobody could intervene to help them if they were caught deliberately disobeying Herod’s order to them. Before seeing Jesus, they had naively gone to Herod and Jerusalem, thinking that the king and the people there would be as excited about the birth of the Christ as they were. 
Now, God told them that they needed to protect Jesus from Herod. 

It would have been less risky for them to do what Herod wanted, telling him where Jesus could be found. The pathway of convenience, of going along to get along is still the popular one in our world. But as Jesus would later warn, “...wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) 

That way really is narrow, comprised of Jesus alone, Who tells us, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) 

In traveling “to their country by another route,” the magi were taking the narrow, eternal way, rather than the wide, easy ways of our corrupt and dying world.

But what incited the magi's faith? What caused them to become subversives who rebelled against and disobeyed an earthly government? 

It was the Word of God. 

The magi lived in places where God’s ancient people, the Jews, had lived in exile as slaves of nations that had conquered them. Exiles like Daniel and Esther shared the Word of God with their Gentile conquerors in places like Persia, Babylon, Assyria, and elsewhere. The magi then would have likely known about the Old Testament prophecies of a Jewish Messiah Who would come to save the whole world from sin and death. They also would have known enough about the skies to notice a star they'd never seen before. Through the Scriptures and this strange sign, God spoke His Word to them: The Savior Messiah had been born!

You know, we Lutheran believe and teach that when we are exposed to God’s Word, it comes to us as either Law or Gospel, as threat or promise. When the magi considered that God’s promise of a Savior was being fulfilled, they saw it as pure Gospel. They understood that the birth of Jesus was good news for the whole human race. When they saw the star leading them to the house where the baby Jesus was in Bethlehem, Matthew tells us in today’s lesson, “they were overjoyed.” (Matthew 2:10) (Actually, in the Greek in which Matthew originally wrote his gospel, he literally says, "they rejoiced with great joy exceedingly." The magi were stoked!) 

And they had good reason for their excitement. The world, long weighed down by human sin and death, was now to be liberated from those curses by the King of kings they now met. God’s Word had come to the magi, causing them to bear any burden or sacrifice, face any danger for the mere pleasure of seeing and following Jesus. Is that how you view the gospel Word about everlasting life through repentance and faith in Jesus this morning?

I ask that because it’s possible to hear the story of the Messiah’s birth among us not as Gospel, but as Law; not as promise, but as threat

In fact, our gospel lesson for this morning makes it clear that Herod and the religious leaders and all of Jerusalem heard the Word of Jesus’ birth as Law and threat. “When King Herod heard…,” Matthew says, “he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:3) Herod saw Jesus as a threat to his continued corrupt and sinful rule. 

All Jerusalem feared this Messiah too because they were happy to keep on with their religious charades--like modern-day politicians who end every speech with a disingenuine, “God bless America”--while living as though God didn’t exist. A Messiah from God might confront them for not loving God and not loving their neighbor, then call them to repentance for their sin, call them to change the way they lived, call them to provide for the poor, welcome the stranger, forgive those who sinned against them, call them to trust in God more than they trusted in their money, position, comfort, or bigotries. Jesus threatened everything they wanted or really believed in. For them, the Word of Jesus’ birth was God’s Law and they did not want to hear it! They wanted to kill off Jesus before He had the chance to do His saving work on the cross. That’s why God told the magi to save the child from Herod by returning to their homeland by a different route. Do we sometimes drown out the Word of God so that we can pursue our ambitions to “be like God”?

The fact is that we need desperately to hear God’s Word, both as Law and as Gospel

We need to hear God’s Law so that He can confront us for our sin--our failure to love God and love neighbor, to honor God as God over every part of our lives. 

But once the Law has done its work of leading us to confess our sins and, like the magi, to seek Jesus, our encounters with Jesus and His Word, are pure gospel. As we meet Jesus in His Word, He gives us faith. And Jesus tells us that we are free from sin and death, free to live with the faith and courage God gave to the magi. 

This Word that emboldened the magi also sets us free to take a different route, one not dictated by the demands of earthly rulers or the world’s petty expectations, but the way of Jesus that leads to life with God that never ends. God’s Word tells us that we are free to follow Jesus, where we are enveloped by God’s forgiveness, grace, and love, by God’s peace, now and always.

Jesus tells us elsewhere, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29) When the Word of God came to the magi and set faith in Christ alight within them. They were set free by God to live for Christ alone. 

Don’t run from the Word of God, friends! Take advantage of every opportunity to be in communion with Jesus--through daily quiet time and prayer built around Scripture reading, time with small groups discussing the Bible, regular worship and receiving the sacrament. These are the means by which God slips past our inborn sinful resistance to His rule of love over our lives, the means by which we hear the Word of Law that confronts us and the Word of Gospel that comforts us. As we encounter Jesus in God’s Word each day, may God create deep faith in Christ within us. 

And may we, like the magi, travel by a different route, the narrow way, the way of everlasting life with Jesus. Amen

[The painter of the piece seen above was Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo, known as il Sassetta, who lived from 1392-1450, in Siena, Italy.]
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]