Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sermon upon the Conversion of Paul

Conversion of Paul – Acts 9 – January 25th, 2015

In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
          Today we are observing the Conversion of St. Paul.  Whereas last week we heard of Peter, the great disciple and apostle, today we hear of the Paul, the last Apostle, the convert.  The enemy turned friend and preacher.  And it is good for us to consider the life of St. Paul, to consider how he came to faith, for it again shows us where our focus is to be.  So we will move through our lesson in Acts considering what we are taught and shown by our Lord this day.

          “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the LORD, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”  And here we begin.  First, I want to quash something wrong that you’ve been taught – Paul did not change his name when he converts – even at the end of our reading he still goes by Saul.  Here is the thing, Paul is a dual citizen – Jewish mom, Roman dad – he is both a Jew, a highly respected one – can get in with the High Priest and get him to cut orders; but also a Roman Citizen.  If you are a Roman Citizen, you have a Roman name, and Saul is a Jewish name – the name “Saul” just doesn’t work in Latin.  So he is called Paul outside of Jewish speaking areas.  A silly but similar example – when I was taking Japanese, they didn’t call me “Mr. Brown” because the Japanese can’t say the “br” in Brown – I was Buroun-san.  I didn’t change my name – that’s just how it sounds in Japanese.  Saul and Paul – same name, just Hebrew and a Latin variation.  With that little pet peeve of your pastor’s out of the way, let’s consider what Paul is, where he is.  Paul is one of the best of the Pharisees, one of the most zealous and respected folks in Jerusalem, and he has as his mission to stamp out these folks who are upsetting things theologically.  Paul is the one who orchestrates the stoning of Stephen, the first Martyr.  And he did a reign of terror in Jerusalem, and people scatter, and so now he wants to go to Damascus to go grab anyone who got away up there.  Paul is the villain – he is the bogeyman.  He is the bad guy.

          Here is the neat thing – the Christians at this time didn’t have the label “Christians”.  That name hadn’t developed yet – they went by “The Way” – remember what Jesus says in John – I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Christ Jesus is the Way, the path of salvation – that’s who we are.  And then we hear this in verse 3: “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.”  Paul wasn’t on the way – he was on *his* own way.  There’s a play on words here, and a warning for us.  If you had asked good old Paul while he is riding on up to Damascus, he would have been absolutely sure that he was just a good little boy, that he was doing everything right – in fact, he would have figured you should be a zealous as him.  But here is the problem.  What instruction, what guidance had Paul received?  Where in the Scriptures, where in the Old Testament would he have been instructed to persecute Christians?  No where – yet instead of searching the Scriptures, instead of listening to the Word of God, Paul is hell-bent on doing what *he* thinks is good, right, and pleasing to God.  He’s making it up as it goes, and according to his own standards he is spot on target and great.

          Now, this is sadly still a threat to us today.  Where do you find the truth?  Where do you find what is right or wrong about the Christian faith?  One of the most distressing things to me as a Pastor is how much “stuff” that passes as Christian out there has absolutely no basis in the Scriptures whatsoever – is basically made up.  This might be something silly like we become “angels” when we die, or “God helps those who help themselves” – neither of which is anywhere in the Bible.  It’s just made up feel goody-goody junk.  But the problem is this – we are tempted to think about religion not on the basis of what the scriptures say and teach, but rather what culture around us says and thinks.  Jewish culture highly approved of Paul and his zeal – the only problem was it wasn’t taught by God in His Word – and so it was off and vile.  How off and vile?

          “And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’”  Paul, in his self-made attempts to serve God, was in truth striving against God.  In attacking the Church, in messing with the people of God, Paul was in fact messing with, persecuting God.  This teaches us something.  When the Scriptures refer to the Church as the Body of Christ, they aren’t just whistling Dixie.  This is the reality of who you are in your Baptism.  You are tied to Christ, and what happens you to happens to Him.  Why are you persecuting Me – because that is what happens when you persecute Stephen, when you go up to Damascus and persecute people.  But not only that – what has happened to Christ Jesus has happened to you, for you are tied to Him.  This is the heart of the Gospel – as Christ has died and risen, so too, even though you die, yet shall you live.  The righteousness that He has done is applied to you – you don’t have to try to create ways to impress God or prove how good you are – you don’t have to follow misguided zeal to work your way up to God like Paul tried to do.  No, Jesus comes to you and gives you all His righteousness and Holiness and forgiveness.

          And Paul’s reaction to this revelation is interesting.  “And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’”  Who are You, Lord.  I get that You are LORD, that You are Jehovah, Yahweh, God Almighty – but who are You?  Who are You, because apparently I didn’t know You.  I thought I had, but I was wrong, I didn’t get it – because if God had come to me I’d figured He’d be patting me on the back about how great I was, not coming with blinding light and casting me to the ground.  These words of Paul are a confession of his sin, his ignorance, his lack of righteousness – his declaration that he in fact knows nothing about God.  A humbling admission.

          Then we hear this.  “And He said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”  Who am I Paul, I’m the very God of very God Whom you are attacking, the One Whom your self-made “righteousness” is fighting against.  Now – just pause there.  What is the expectation if you are persecuting God Himself?  What is the expectation going to be if Jesus says to you, “Not only did you crucify Me, but you keep messing with Me even after that?”  The expectation is to be smashed.  The expectation is thunder and lightning and fire and brimstone.  Not what Jesus does.  “But”… you are persecuting Me, but rise.  I’m not going to kill you, Paul.  I’m going to raise you – and now you just go on into the city and don’t come up with something for yourself to do, don’t create your own persecution – when you create, when you come up with stuff on your own Paul, you mess it up.  Rise – go into town, and you will be told.

          And so then Paul gets up, he’s blind, no one else has heard a thing.  And he heads to town, and he fasts, he repents.  And what does Jesus do?  Well, he calls upon Ananias and tells him to hunt down Paul and heal him.  And Ananias is skeptical – “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to Your saints at Jerusalem.  And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your Name.”  You mean the guy who is persecuting us, who came here to throw me into the clink, and you want me to go find him?  Jesus, the dude is EVIL, flat out EVIL.  And do you see the problem with Ananias’ response?  He had be told by Jesus what to do, and he knew that Jesus brings forgiveness, that Jesus makes people holy, makes them saints – but You mean that jerk, that SOB!  That’s his gut reaction – forgiveness is good and all for me… but for that evil guy who hurts me, You’re joking, right?!  “But the LORD said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine to carry My Name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.  For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of My Name.”  Ananias, I have chosen him, just as I have chosen you – and My choice, My election is good.  

          This is something we also are to remember, something the conversion of Paul shows us.  There is no one who is too evil, too wicked to receive mercy from God.  That person who annoys you, who harms you, who is your enemy, Christ Jesus has died for them too.  Upon the Cross, He took up their sins, in fact their sins against you.  And the hope that we ought to have is that they know and receive and rejoice in this forgiveness – but so often our old flesh doesn’t want that.  Be wary of your own flesh, that you would make you want to ignore Christ’s proclamation of forgiveness as it applies to others – rather repent and listen to Christ.

          “So Ananias departed and entered the house.  And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’  And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight.  Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.”  And Paul comes to Church.  First, there is preaching – Ananias declares the Word of the Lord, and the scales fall from Paul’s eyes.  But more than that – Ananias is going to heal, but then also give the gift of the Holy Spirit – and when does that happens?  Paul is healed… and then he is baptized.  Just like you, Paul received the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism – was given new life and redemption right there.  And what comes next?  What is the normal thing for those who are baptized to do, how do we receive Christ and His Spirit again – Paul took food and was strengthened.  That’s pointing to the Supper – that’s given and shed for you for the remission of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith.  For the joining together, taking those who by the world’s standards should be enemies and gathering them together around the table and joining them together in Christ – the Communion of Saints.  And from there, Paul goes on.  He proclaims Christ in the synagogues, but not only that – note the last verse: “But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.”  He grows in strength – he hears the Gospel proclaimed, He receives the Supper… and then he is “proving” that Jesus was the Christ.  That “proving” refers to opening the Scriptures and showing from the Old Testament who the Messiah is and what He would do.  Now instead of making things up on his own like he was at the beginning of the chapter, Paul the baptized lives in the Supper and in the Word of God – and no where else.

          Dear friends in Christ – the world is going to tell you a lot of stupid junk about God.  Your own flesh is going to want to tell you a bunch of stupid junk about God.  And that only leads to pain and sorrow and shame and vice.  But Christ Jesus has chosen you, He has baptized you, joined you unto Himself.  He reveals who He is to you in His Word, His Gospel showing you the forgiveness He has won for you.  He reveals Himself and gives Himself to you in His Supper, where you are joined to Him and receive His forgiveness.  God grant that He keep your eyes ever more upon Him through His Holy Spirit, given to you in His Word and Sacraments.  In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Office, Qualifications, and Life

We are coming up on the time of year where we see the saints days for Timothy and Titus.  We get Peter and Paul on Sundays this year -- Timothy and Titus flank Paul.  It's sort of one of those times where pastors get the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus brought up... and there is a reason this tends to annoy me.  Why?  Well, let's look at 1 Timothy 3:1-7 for the list:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer[a] must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,[b] sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

 These are high standards that no one obtains to perfectly.  At least if we believe Jesus in Matthew 5 -- but they are the standards, the goals towards which all pastors should strive.

And yet, when discussions about the qualifications for pastors come up, or reasons for pastors being removed, everyone seems to stop at item number 1 - "husband of one wife."  Adultery.  Sexual scandals.  The salacious and juicy horrible stories that explain why a fellow gets the boot.  And yes - you diddle - you should be gone.  And then, of course, there are the debates about what happens if a man was divorced before he became a pastor... or even worse, what if his wife up  and leaves him - shock, horror!  Wringing of hands.

That is around 95% of the discussion on the "qualifications" for pastors.  95% might be a low estimate.  Yet there's a much longer list to follow -- and actually, most of those are the things that are more often to hurt and harm a congregation.

Yes - if your pastor is sleeping around in the congregation - that is bad.  But what happens if a preacher isn't self-controlled... runs his mouth?  How much damage can that do -- and to how many?  What if he's inhospitable... and more dangerously what if he hides his jerkish approaches under the guise of "being right"?  How much damage does that do to a congregation, to the preaching of the Gospel?  What of the warnings of conceit, of not being able to teach?

Adultery is bad - but unless the pastor is sleeping with EVERYONE - other than embarassment that's sort of contained to one or two families.  But disrespect spreads everywhere.  If he can't teach, that hits everyone.  Greed harms everyone.

Of course - part of it is that the non-adultery items are harder to pin on a guy.  A pastor can say, "I'm not quarrelsome, not really... but Bob just got me angry because he was wrong."  You can't say, "Well, I don't normally sleep around, but she looked good in that dress" and have anyone buy it.

"Husband of one wife" becomes the thing on the list that we can hang our hats on (if we ignore Matthew 5, but still)...  *I* have never had an affair, *I* am not divorced... so there's nothing to see or think about here... move along, move along.

God be merciful to us pastors, for the temptations surround us, as do plenty of paths to self-righteousness and the puffing up that Satan desires!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sermon upon the Confession of St. Peter

Confession of St. Peter, 2015 – Mark 8

In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
          Today we hear the Confession of St. Peter – next week we will hear the Conversion of St. Paul.  So in the next two weeks we will see Christ Jesus interact with possibly the two most important Apostles, especially relating to whom they teach and proclaim Christ Jesus to be.  And today, we heard the famous Gospel lesson – Peter proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ, and then dropping the ball, and Jesus rebuking him – Get thee behind Me, Satan.  And we hear this in its tersest, briefest form, the Gospel of Mark.  A quick note on that – when Peter is preaching in Rome, Mark is Peter’s assistant, and so basically when Mark records this Gospel, he’s recording things the way that Peter had preached them – and Peter apparently didn’t like to mince words, Peter apparently liked to get to the point.  So then, let us stop mincing words and dive into our Gospel text.

          And Jesus went on with His disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.  And on the way He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  So Jesus is wandering around, as is His custom, and wandering between towns, in one of those rare moments where there crowd isn’t crowding in on Him, Jesus asks the disciples what people are saying about Him.  Jesus is too busy whenever the crowds are there – He’s healing, He’s preaching.  The disciples, though, would get to drift around, mingle.  So, what’s the word on the street?  What are people picking up?  “And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”  And the response is so-so, but not quite hitting the mark.  There is the idea that Jesus is a spiritual Fellow, that He’s wise, that He’s a good teacher – even sent by God and even able to do miracles.  But… that’s as far as it goes.

          That’s as far as it goes.  There are fewer more dangerous and false ways of dealing with, of looking at Christ, than “that’s as far as it goes.”  Very few people, only the rankest and snidest of militant atheists, denigrate Jesus.  People will praise Jesus, they’ll say He was a kind and wise teacher, a mighty fellow – but that’s as far as it goes.  Even Mahatma Ghandi can say that he liked Jesus, thought He was a good teacher, but that’s as far as it goes.  And it keeps Jesus at a distance – He’s just a teacher – and if I’m not in His classroom, oh well.  Or in Jesus’ day, “Sure, He’s a prophet – but if He ain’t in my town – then, someone else can deal with Him.”  There is that grudging, arms length respect that can be paid Jesus – but after the healings, keep Him distant and far and away from me.

          And [Jesus] asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Alright, disciples, who do you say that I am?  You aren’t at a distance, you are here with Me now, who am I?  Am I merely your teacher, your friend?  That would have been true, but it only would have gone so far.  And then we get the Confession of Peter.  “Peter answered Him, ‘You are the Christ.’”  In Matthew and Luke we hear “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.  Oh, it’s a great confession.  Who is this Jesus?  Not just some teacher or prophet, not just our friend, but He is the Christ – and as such He has an impact upon every man, woman, and child on this planet.  You can’t keep Jesus at arm’s length, you can’t ignore Him, you can’t write Him off as a back water prophet – your life will be shaped by Christ Jesus.  This is what Peter is pointing to – You are the most important person ever to walk the face of the earth, Jesus – You are the Christ.

          And then we hear this: And He strictly charged them to tell no one about Him.  I always love hearing these times when Jesus tells the disciples not to talk, when He tells people not to yammer about miracles or who He is.  It’s one of those things that seems to throw folks into consternation – why wouldn’t Jesus want people to tell everyone who He is?  Well, the answer is given with what comes next.  “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.  And He said this plainly.”  They got the right answer – they knew that Jesus is the Christ, that He is the Son of God… but they didn’t know what that meant.  And when Jesus tells this to the disciples plainly, Peter is offended.  “And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.  But turning and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind Me, Satan!  For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” 

          Peter didn’t know what being the Christ meant, and when Jesus tells him, Peter doesn’t like it.  You see, Peter figures that the being the Christ ought to mean power and might and earthly blessings, respect from all corners, the defeat and thrashing of your enemies.  It should be a feather in Peter’s cap that he’s buds with the Christ.  And instead you have Jesus talking about… dying.  And not just dying, but dying rejected by every pillar of society.  Dying in disgrace and shame.  And Peter will have none of it, and he rebukes Jesus – think on that – rebukes Jesus.  Peter walks up to Jesus and says, “Alright Jesus, we need to have a little come to Jesus meeting” – and Peter is dead wrong.  Peter is thinking of earthly power and might – not thinking of forgiveness and life and salvation.  He is speaking like Satan, and Jesus calls him on it.  Peter didn’t get what being the Christ means.

          And even today, people still don’t get what that means.  Interestingly enough, Muslims will say that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah – but they deny that died on the Cross – God surely wouldn’t have let that happen to the Messiah, they say. Rather, someone else was killed instead of Jesus while Jesus looked on and laughed.  Or even in the Christian Church – you don’t have to look very hard to find “preachers” who will talk about Jesus being the buddy who will give you all sorts of earthly blessings, all sorts of the “things of man” – but they skip over and ignore His death or resurrection.  But not just them, even us.  How often does it happen that we ourselves see misfortune and think, “Come on, I’ve been a good little Christian, this shouldn’t be happening to me!”  How often are we ourselves tempted with the thoughts that our faith in Christ should mean that we get things better, that we who show up here should have better luck in business, better luck in love and family, than those other folks out here?  Where’s the tangible benefits, Jesus!  And those are the whispers of Satan, those are the attacks of our old sinful flesh against us.

          Jesus did not come to give us all a gold star on our lives because we are just so gosh darn good.  Not the point.  Jesus sees the bigger picture, Jesus keeps His eyes upon the goal.  Jesus sees Satan prowling around, sees your sinful flesh tearing at you and killing you – and so He is determined to go to the Cross, to suffer and die so that your sins would be forgiven.  That is what it means to be the Christ – not that He makes your life now better, but that He wins you eternal and everlasting life. 

          And lest you think I’m selling short the Christian earthly gravy train we are entitled to, Jesus continues.  And He called to Him the crowd with His disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after Me, let Him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.”  Deny yourself – look at all that you have done, look at all your stuff, look at all your things and say, “it’s worthless, and apart from Christ it’s just going to go to the grave and the junk heap and rot and rust and decay.”  Deny yourself and take up your cross – to be a Christian is to live a life where you suffer.  Crosses aren’t fun.  But we suffer, we suffer and we serve and we fight against sin and we stumble and it hurts… and it does until we die.  That’s the way life is whether or not you follow Christ, but we are honest.  There isn’t going to be a day of our lives where we aren’t struggling, where we aren’t called to serve others (even our enemies), where we aren’t dealing with our own pains and frailty, where we aren’t beating down temptation.  That’s the reality – and a Christian is called to face that reality – and not only that, but to see that it is a bigger challenge than we can endure.  We fight, but it’s not a fight we win.  Not a one of us in this room is going to be sitting around 100 years from now saying, “I can’t believe how wonderful my knees and hips feel”.  Jesus came to deal with sin in a fallen world, and we are stuck smack dab in that fallen world.

          But what we learn from Christ is that we don’t cling to this life now – we are strangers here – we cling instead to Him.  Why?  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it.”  Do you hear how blunt our Lord is here?  You’re going to lose your life, you’re going to die – that’s a given.  And no matter how you cling to riches or wealth or power – that won’t save you.  But when you lose your life for Christ’s sake, that is when your life and death is shaped and conformed to Christ, when you view who you are through Christ and the Gospel – then you see Your salvation.  And why?  Because He is the Christ, and He has come to earth not to have awesome power and might, but to join you in your death.  To take up your sin and your death upon Himself, to come and say “You are with Me and I am with you.”  You are baptized, you are tied to Christ and Christ to you, and so you will follow Him, even through death, through the cross, unto the resurrection and eternal life.  This is the same thing we confess and receive in the Lord’s Supper – we will die, but as Christ has died, so be it.  This is My Body, given for you – that is, given over to death upon the Cross.  This is My Blood, shed for you for the remission of sins, spilled upon the Cross.  See, Christ has died for us, and we are forgiven – fantastic, now let us die in peace, according to God’s Word.  Let us take up our cross and serve as long as God would have us serve, let us lose our life for Christ’s sake, tied to Christ, in Christ, with Christ – for in Christ we have forgiveness and life everlasting.

          And so yes, Jesus is the Christ, but it is important that we confess this rightly, not as the world would, not as our flesh would, not as treating Jesus as some guy far away who might just give us awesome stuff now – but as the God who becomes Man to suffer and die with us sinful men so that we would have life in His name, life for His sake.  This is where we are, this is where put our hopes – not upon ourselves, but only upon Christ.  God grant us by the power of His Word and Spirit that this ever more be our confession.  In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Epiphany Observed Sermon

Epiphany Observed – January 4th, 2015 – Matthew 2

In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
          Techinically, today is the 2nd Sunday in Christmas, the 11th day of Christmas as it were, but we are going to pretend it’s Tuesday, January 6th – we are going to observe Epiphany today.  Epiphany is the new season of the Church year – one where we focus on the revelation of Christ Jesus to the world – where we will see that this Child who was born in Bethlehem is in fact True God, come for the entire world.  So in the next few weeks leading up to Lent, we are going to see Christ’s Kingdom opened to all, we are going to see Christ’s Divinity shine forth.  And to start, we get Matthew 2 – the coming of the Wise Men.  Now, this is one of those incredibly familiar stories.  Even non-Christians are familiar with the idea of three wise men, we three kings of orient are.  And I think we miss a bit of just how shocking this story is, how it would cut across the grain of so many Jewish held ideas and assumptions.  So let’s reexamine Matthew 2, and see just what is going on, and then think about just what is going on in our own lives, in our own congregation.

          “Now, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.”  Wise men.  Now, we today, when we think of the wise men think precisely of that – these are wise men.  Why, they are Kings from the orient.  The word in Greek is “Magi”.  The word from which we get magic, get “magician”.  Now think for a bit, what this would be like for Jewish folks – because they’ve run into magi before.  The magi were the “wise men” of Babylon, the sages of the east – you know, the very people that keep trying to kill off Daniel in the book of Daniel.  The ones who get him thrown into the lions den.  Magicians were bad – witchcraft was bad.  You never come across a good magician in the Old Testament – the ones in Egypt were evil and wicked, the local ones in Caanan were terrible and get King Saul into trouble, the ones in Babylon were corrupt and charletans.  Because we know how the story turns out, there’s an air of respectability that we give to the wise men, but for a Jew hearing the story the first time – not at all.  There would be disdain, mockery, and fear.  You know what the reaction would have been like – if into this church walked a gypsy, Madame Cleo from the TV, and Long Island medium with the bad hair.  Hearing this, you are expecting at best incompetence, and at worst villains.

          “saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?  For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.’  When Herod the King heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  The star comes in – and we love the star – star of wonder, star of might.  But that’s again, because we know how the story plays out.  What would be your reaction if I walked on in here one Sunday morning and started preaching off of the Sunday morning horoscope from the Enid paper?  Or if I said, “Well, I didn’t know what to preach so last night I called Miss Cleo and she did a tarot card reading and this is what it said”?  You’d have my head.  But yet – what does Herod do?  What does all Jerusalem do?  They instantly believe – and not even a hopeful belief, but they are fearful, terrified.  Think on that – the Messiah is come, and they aren’t happy, they are scared.  Why be scared of that?  That’s good!  And even if it were bad, if some crackpot on the TV starts ranting about how the end of the world or something, our reaction should be, “Well, I think you’re wrong, but if you happen to be the blind squirrel that found an acorn, well, come quickly Lord Jesus.”  Herod and Jerusalem have the exact opposite reaction to what they should have.

          “and assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.”  And they tell him of Bethlehem – but again, this is something sort of sad.  I mean, this is the king – you think he’d have paid some attention to this theological training – you’d think the coming of the Messiah would be a BIG thing that you would know about.  Nope. And so then Herod concocts his little plan – “Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.  And he sent them to Jerusalem saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.”  Of course, we do find out at the end of the text that Herod doesn’t want to worship – he wants to go and slaughter the child – in fact, when the Magi don’t return, he wipes out all the boys in the town, just to be on the safe side.

          And then you have the Magi, the hucksters and frauds – what do they do?  “After listening to the king, they went on their way.  And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  And going into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him.  Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts – gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”  Herod and Jerusalem had done everything wrong – and then here you have the Magi.  And they nail it.  They at first are obedient to the king – they go quietly.  They see this star and know it’s not like the huckster stuff they had been pulling.  They behold Christ and they worship, they bring gifts, they open up their treasures to give their offering, not just toss something into the plate without thinking about it.  No, the gifts are well thought out – gold for a king, Frankincense fit for worship (because in the ancient world you always had incense in God’s Temple), and then myrrh, the funeral spices.  The magi had remember Daniel and the promises of the Messiah he and his people had proclaimed – the King who would come and die to redeem not only the Jewish people but all the world.  And they worship.  And finally, when God sends an angel to warn them in their dreams, just as he warns Joseph, they listen, and they head home avoiding Herod.

          Do you get just how shocking this story would be?  Not just Herod, but all of Jerusalem drops the ball.  And who comes off smelling like roses?  The “magi”.  The very people who should be the villains of the piece end up being the heroes.  The rotten gentiles get it, but the “good, faithful Jewish folk” mess up completely.  And so, as we ponder this text, let us consider ourselves this new year.  Your old, sinful flesh wants to act like Herod and Jerusalem.  Think on this – which does our flesh tend to prefer more – diligently studying the Scriptures… or waiting on the latest and greatest rumor to come flashing down the pike?  When those wise men came and talked about a new King – that was juicy – what juicy stories are we waiting for this year?  Or do we study the Scriptures, the great story of our salvation?  Which does our flesh tend to prefer – enjoying our houses and palaces and feasts, or opening our treasures before God and giving them away?  Which was the more special part of Christmas – the gifts under the tree that we get, or the ways in which we give ourselves away to others in our offering and in our service?  We all know which way our sinful flesh would answer that.  Our Gospel text is indeed a warning against complacency – against just going through the motions and assuming you’re a good little Christian.  The folks in Jerusalem would have simply assumed as a matter of course that they are better than those scummy magi – but they had fallen into cold indifference. 

          However, there is also fantastic hope.  Consider what God does for the Magi.  Yeah, they were scum, they were lost and condemned.  And yet, God in His great mercy and wisdom reveals the Christ to them, calls them to come before Christ, brings them to worship.  And this is what God does for you here this day.  You see, one of the biggest dangers our faith faces is pride, is the assumption that we are just fine and dandy – that’s why we begin every service confessing that we are poor, miserable sinners – the service opens with a reality check – we aren’t all hunky dory in and of ourselves, we are in need of Christ, we are in need of the forgiveness He has won for us upon the Cross with His death and resurrection.  And then in the rest of the service, we act like the wise men.  We enter in, we then hear the Word of God, search the Scriptures, hear them explained – all of that goes on right in the pews – and then we have the Communion service.  We come before the altar, we open up our treasures, and then we worship Christ, we praise Him and receive Him in His most holy Supper – indeed, if we had a communion rail and kneelers those of us with youngish knees would literally fall down before Him (again, with incense if we were super fancy).  And then, we receive the Supper – as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim His death until He comes – as one of the old dismissals goes.  In all things we are brought before and pointed to Christ our Savior.

          Dear friends, in the weeks of Epiphany to come, and indeed in this whole year, we will be pointed and brought to Christ again and again.  Your sinful flesh will tempt you, but Christ is always here to redeem and forgive you, for behold, He who is your King has come.  In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +