Sunday, January 6, 2013

Matthew 2:1-12 Epiphany

If I had been king in Jerusalem, I hope that God would have told me about the birth of his Son, the true king of the Jews.  I would have gone to worship him myself, and sent the royal heralds through the streets blowing their trumpets and shouting out the news.  I would have built a church for the holy family to live in, with a steeple reaching to the skies so that everyone would know where to find him.

I wonder if the wise men expected to find the same.  The city was quiet.  The king was clueless, and noticeably disturbed.  Even the priests and teachers did not know.  They must have wondered if they were in the right place.  If it weren’t for God’s personal attention bringing them to the place where the child was, I suppose they might have turned around and gone home.

New Christians often have the same reaction when they have an epiphany—God reveals himself to them.  They see his amazing love and mercy, and they wonder why more people aren’t excited about this.  Why aren’t more people here?  Sometimes they wonder why the church members themselves seem so sluggish and complacent with their church. 

This story of the wise men is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the great blessing that is ours, because God has reached out to us and revealed his Savior to us, as much as he did for these wise men.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 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.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6     “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 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.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Matthew 2:1-12

And how glad we are that God warned the wise men not to go back to King Herod—because, as history shows, Herod would stop at nothing to kill the child.  Furious that his plot with the wise men had failed, he ordered the murder of all the baby boys in the Bethlehem area.
Isn’t the devil a tricky devil, for putting this psychotic ruler on the throne in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth, so as to destroy the Savior as soon as he was born?  Herod was psychotically obsessed with protecting his throne.  At one point, because he was afraid that the Maccabbean family would take the throne back, he murdered 5 Maccabean princes, and since his own wife Mariamne was Maccabean, he murdered her and her two sons also to eliminate the threat to his throne. 
But what was the problem with baby Jesus, that Herod felt so threatened?  It was the simple phrase, “king of the Jews.”  No matter how young, if he was born “king of the Jews” he was a threat to the Herodian dynasty.  Herod didn’t know that Jesus would be a spiritual king who came to rule in our hearts.  He didn’t know that Jesus came to save even him from his sins, even the murder of babies.  God didn’t reveal any of that to Herod, so Herod didn’t worship Jesus, and he went to hell for his sins.
Herod really isn’t all that different from all the people today who are so opposed to Jesus and the Christian religion.  Maybe it threatens their ambitions, or condemns the lifestyle they love.  They don’t understand that the words of Jesus that condemn are meant to turn them away from a way that leads to hell, and that his words of forgiveness and life hold out a much better life in heaven.    Some of them knew this at one time, but rejected it.  Others of them have never had their eyes opened to the truth, because God has not revealed it to them.  They will go to hell for their sins.

The more troubling question is, “Why didn’t the priests know?”  They were supposed to be closest to God.  God didn’t reveal the birth of his Son to them, though.  Perhaps it is because they had given up the true religion of humility and hoping in God for a Savior.  They had become more concerned with their great learning and the respect that they were given.  Their hearts had become cold to God, and God left them.  They didn’t even go with the wise men to find the baby Jesus.  God did not reveal his Son to them.  Most of them, if not all, would go to hell for their sins.
Unfortunately, they were not all that different from many of the respected Christian leaders today.  It seems to me that the greater a pastor or priest’s learning, the less he knows about what it means to be a true Christian.  I had the opportunity to listen to a certain pastor, a Doctor of Ministry.  He was speaking on the meaning of Christmas.  I don’t know if I have ever heard anyone use so many words, and say so little.  I don’t think he had a clue what Christmas is about.  I have serious doubts about whether or not he actually has faith.  If he does, I wonder what he actually might believe, because he apparently wasn’t aware that the baby Jesus is God, born to save us. 
This is what you get at most of America’s biggest churches, and it makes me afraid that most of their members have never been told of the great blessings of Christmas.  Their pastors have no clue of the spiritual blessings found in the historical fact that baby Jesus is God and man.

In this world where most people don’t care or don’t like what the Bible has to say about Jesus’ birth, I’ve found a helpful lesson that I learned first on my fishing adventures.  I used to fly-fish the tributary streams of Lake Michigan.  In the fall and spring, the clear, shallow rivers are full of trout and salmon, like the rivers here.  You can watch the fish ignore your fly.  You can see how disinterested they are.  You can see how some of them plainly don’t like it—they swim out of the way when they see it coming.  You can’t get all upset about all the fish that don’t care and don’t like it.  If you’re going to have a good day on the river, you need to keep moving until you find one fish that is dumb enough to bite, and be happy for that one.  And so it is with God, that he keeps moving past those who are too smart for the simple truth that a Savior from sin has been born.  He reaches out to others.

In the great breadth of his love, God reached out to the Magi, who were not Jews, and probably had not believed in God before this.  They were astrologers, highly educated men who watched the movements of the planets and stars in order to predict the future. They had detailed records of the things they saw in the sky, and also detailed records of the events of history, believing that there is a connection between the things that happen above and the things that happen here below.   When they saw something in the sky, they would search their records to find out what might be about to happen down here.  These men might seem unlikely candidates for God’s mercy—men who had worshiped other gods, men whose eyes were searching the skies instead of the Holy Scripture.  And yet, God reached out to them, simply because of his love and mercy.  He wanted them to know, and so he gave them a baby announcement that they would not miss— a new star in the sky.  I don’t know how they connected that star to the birth of a king, but they did.  God made sure that they would get the message.  Then, after Herod and the priests failed to tell them where the child was, God himself showed them.  In a very surprising way, the star led them, and only them, to the exact place where the child was.  God was showing them that he wanted them to know this child, this Savior who was born for them. 
Then, because God revealed his Savior to them, they worshiped him, and laid their gifts at his feet.  This is one of the places where I get a little bit of joy in knowing Greek, because then it says that they rejoiced a great joy, exceedingly!

What a blessing this story is for us, because we are not Jews either!  Some of us have not always been Christians.  None of our families have always been Christian, if you go back far enough.  God has passed by so many who have not cared and have not wanted him, and he has revealed his Savior to us.
I want you to think a little about what an honor this is.  There are about 7 billion people in the world, and only a third of them call themselves Christian.  In this country it is higher, about 80% are Christian.  But only 16% of the people in this country show any evidence of actually having faith, actually caring that a Savior has been born for them.  16% is the number of people who honor him by coming to church even just 3 out of every 8 Sundays—and remember that most of them go to churches where the pastor has no idea what Jesus was born to do.  Now and then, you too may be tempted to ignore him, and there are times when you have—when the blessings he brings you through Word and Sacrament in church have not been important to you, because of your personal ambitions, or because you have thought yourself too smart to have to go to church.  Pay attention now, or else God may move on and reach out to others.
Today, God has revealed his Savior to you.  Through the sermons of the Christmas season you have been hearing that baby Jesus is true God, so that his life and his words have life giving power.  But he is also a true man, so that he could be a patient and understanding Savior, and also offer up his perfect human life to God on our behalf.  Since he is the Son of God, by whose powerful word the world itself was created, he has been able to give us all the blessings of that sacrifice—the forgiveness that his death won for us, and the life giving power that we see in his resurrection—he gives it all to us by his powerful words in Scripture that tell us about these things.  He commanded that the Sacraments be used, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, so that the blessings of his death and resurrection could be given personally to each of us.  The miracle of Christmas that most people either don’t know about or don’t care about is that we have a powerful Savior, whose life and death rescue us from our sins and our death.

How privileged, that out of all the people in the world, God has revealed these things to us!  Worship him, as the wise men did.  You can give him no higher honor than to take what he gives through his Word and the Sacraments.  Be here to take it, and sing and say your praises for what he has done for us.  And you also have an opportunity to do something for him, by living in love with your fellow man.  Jesus is found in his people.  Love them, be kind to them, and know that you are doing this for Jesus.  Jesus said, “whatever you do for even one of the least of my people, you do for me” (paraphrased).  How can you not do these things, because God has so honored you?  God wants you to know that you have a Savior from sin.  He wanted the Magi to know, so he gave them a star.  He wants you to know, so he has made sure that you would be told.  Worship him, because God has revealed his Son to you.  Amen.