Sunday, January 5, 2014

Epiphany Observed Sermon

Epiphany Observed – January 5th, 2014 – Matthew 2:1-12

In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
          Epiphany.  To shine upon, to be revealed, to come to understanding.  Or to have the light bulb go off in your head.  That is what an Epiphany means in modern English.  And as we move into the season of Epiphany, what we are going to have is a bunch of light bulb moments about Jesus, a bunch of moments where the dots get connected when we think about Him, when we see the true wonder of what it means that God becomes Man.  And the season of Epiphany starts off with the too familiar story of the Wise Men.  I say that it is too familiar, because oh, sure, sure, we all know it.  Three wise men, oooOOOOooo, star of wonder, start of light.  Yeah, we get it.  And we stick it in with Christmas, we have our three wise men at our manager in our Christmas nativities, and this lesson today is so December, so 2013.  It’s 2014, Pastor, get with the new!  And we get so many things wrong, we don’t get what is going on.  So, let us attend to our text this morning and learn again rightly the coming of the Wise Men.

          “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 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.”  Simple enough, right?  Wise men, star, got it.  But note the next line – “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”  Herod is troubled, he is scared.  Indeed, all Jerusalem is scared when they hear this news.  There’s no rejoicing, there’s no celebration.  There’s worry and fear.  Why?  Well, let’s talk politics for a bit.  Jerusalem has always been stuck in the middle.  In the Old Testament, it was stuck between Egypt and your northern powers – Assyria, Babylon – whomever.  And so, whenever Egypt would mess with one of those northern powers, Jerusalem and Israel is stuck right in the middle – and that’s why you have all those wars going on in Judges and Kings.  When Christ is born, though, it’s no longer a north/south divide – now the divide is East and West.  To the West, you have Rome – indeed, we today claim that we are part of Western Civilization.  And then, you had… the East.  Persia and parts beyond – and that was the fight.  The battle of Thermopylae with the 300 hundred Spartans was East vs. West.  And by Christ’s day, the border between Rome and the East was just East of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is basically a border town – and it’s one that is viewed… doubtfully by Rome.  Rome doesn’t quite trust Judea yet… it’s too Eastern – it’s in what we even today call “the middle east”.

          And what happens?  Wise men from the East come and tell Herod, the Roman vassal, that a new king has been born.  Do you see why this would be bad?  We aren’t just talking civil war – this isn’t just Herod thinking “I haven’t had a kid, there must be a rival for my throne”… wise men came from the East, and they like this new king.  It’s not mere Civil War – this could be the omen of WORLD WAR, because if some Eastern King takes over Judea, what’s Rome going to do?  Massive war between world powers, with Jerusalem right there in the middle.  Add on the fact that many Jews didn’t like Rome, and suddenly you have a terrible three way war that will be violent and brutal. This is what Herod, this is what Jerusalem hears when they see these wise men come.  Have a holly, jolly Christmas – I don’t think so.

          But the priests are asked – where is the Messiah to be born?  Oh, he’s in Bethlehem.  And then Herod decides to play politics.  He will use the wise men as a tool – “Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.  And he sent them to Bethlehem 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.’”  It’s a great plan – it gets the wise men out of Jerusalem and the public eye – out of sight, out of mind.  They can find the Kid quietly, and then Herod will come and “worship” Him.  Well, murder Him before He becomes a problem – at least that is what Herod thinks.  This is why Herod asked them the time the star appeared, this is why Herod ends up killing all the male kids in Bethlehem.  Cold, hard politics.  Better to wipe out a few babies than unleash world war.  Or so Herod thinks.

          Now, what do we see from this?  Here you have the heart of the Old Testament Church – Jerusalem, hearing about the Messiah… even searching the Scriptures to figure out where He will be born… and what’s the reaction?  Fear.  Plotting for murder.  Anger.  Violence.  Why?  They were all thinking about earthly power, earthly might, earthly politics.  If you use the Scriptures for that – well, you miss the point.  Oh, you might get a good club to whack someone with… but it doesn’t do much good.  It misses the point.  The light bulb does not go off in Jerusalem – instead they cling to the darkness of this world and its politics and fighting.  They missed something more wondrous.  Likewise, dear friends, we too must be wary.  The Church isn’t a political action group, it’s not focused simply on building a better community.  Now, do we serve our neighbors, show them love?  Yes, to be sure!  Are we to be good citizens – yes!  Render unto Caesar – so start getting those 2014 tax returns ready.  But that’s not the peak, the point of this place.  The point here is always forgiveness and salvation and everlasting life.

          The Wise Men leave the politics and plottings of Jersualem behind, and they make their way to Bethlehem.  “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.”   The Wise Men are the only ones who keep their focus on Christ – and note when they worship Him.  They worship Him when they see Him.  When they see that God has come to earth, then they worship.  This is the very point and focus on this place.  Why have this building – why spend the money on the upkeep, why was the money spent to build it in the first place?  Aren’t we told today so often that we can think about God at home, we can just read our bible there?  You know, the Wise Men could have stayed back East – they could have probably gotten copies of the Scriptures there, read in comfort.  But no – there, in Bethlehem was where God Himself came to be present – and so they went there.

          This place, this house, is built to be the place where you know God Himself will be present for you, where His Word will be proclaimed, not so that you can better plot to crush your political enemies, but so that your sin will be forgiven and that you will have life.  This is the place where God has placed His altar, so that His own Supper will be given out to people.  You don’t have to wonder, this is the place.  In 2014, this will be a place where you are forgiven by God, over and over and over. Because this is where God Himself has called you to be, where He has promised to have His Word given to you, His peace spoken to you, His blessing placed upon you.  This is the place where we worship the God who comes to us to forgive us.

          “Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”   Now, one kill joy note before we look at the treasures.  The Scriptures never say that there were three wise men, just that there were three gifts.  It could have been 2 or 20, we don’t know.  Victor got umpteen gifts from my parents, and there are only two of them, not umpteen.  The interesting thing here, though, are the gifts.  Now, what’s so special about these three things?  Gold and frankincense are part and parcel of worship. When Moses builds the tabernacle, when Solomon builds the temple – gold is used - the idea of a precious metal shows that what is going on is something precious. That's the reason why the chalice is probably the only silver cup that any of us drink out of – there is something wonderful and unique that happens in worship, in God coming to us. The stuff we use in worship shows that. Frankincense was also part of worship – the tabernacle and temple were always filled with smoke – smoke of incense. The incense, the smell was a reminder, a confession that God was present at worship for the benefit of His people. Gold and Frankincense were things that were present at worship, that let you know you were at worship – so the wise men brought them to be present at their worship. But then, they also bring myrrh. Myrrh is used to anoint the dying – myrrh is the chief spice that is used to cover the stench of death. On Easter morning when we see that the women are hastening to the tomb with spices to anoint the body – the chief spice of that mixture is myrrh.

          We do not worship a God who just sits around somewhere up there and maybe airmails us some goodies if our worship and offerings make Him laugh.  No, our God is one who offers Himself up to death, who comes down to be with us to go to cross to suffer and die so that we might be forgiven.  The myrrh points to that.  Jesus does all things backwards.  Instead of our faith being a constant attempt for us to somehow get closer to Him, to work our way to Him, to “find” Him – Jesus comes down to us, joins with us, even in death, all so that we will be joined with Him in the resurrection and life everlasting.  When Christ wants to be closer to you, He comes to you.  He says to you, “You are baptized, and I will dwell in you now.”  He says to you, “Your sins are forgiven – and I will be your God and you will be My own.”  He says to you, “Take and eat, this is My Body, take and drink, this is My blood.”  That’s all about what He gives to you.

          And the wise men, even these gentiles – they get the glimpse of this – they have the light bulb go off.  The Holy Spirit works and creates faith through the Word – and the Wise Men got it.  They behold not just someone who might cause earthly chaos, not a rival for a throne.  No, they see God come to die for the sake of mankind.  And that is the same thing we see whenever God calls us here to His house, whenever Christ Jesus gives Himself to us.  And that is a wondrous, wondrous thing.  In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World + Amen.

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