January 6, 2002
The Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
Sermon: "The Message of the Magi"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The Message of the Magi
Epiphany Sunday - January 6, 2002
Three wise men came from the East looking for the King of the Jews. They arrive in Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, and none of the leaders knows what they are talking about. Do you find that odd? I do. The Jewish people are God's chosen people. They can trace their relationship to God all the way back to Abraham. Yet, the King of the Jews is born and they are clueless about the birth. What has happened to the king, the priests and the teamed scribes that they do not know of the birth of the Messiah? What is God's purpose in telling these three wise men? What does their involvement mean for us? These three questions leap out of the pages of Matthew's Gospel. These questions cry for an explanation.
The three wise men really opened up a can of worms when they entered Jerusalem. They come to the city believing the new King would be there. They startled the king, the chief priests, and the scribes. After all Jerusalem is the capital city and Herod is the King. Wouldn't it make sense to believe the new king would be the child of the present king? In most instances the answer would be yes. However, Herod is not of the lineage of David. The Messiah can not come from his line and be truthful to the prophecy. Herod was having a great time as King. He was not anxious to give up his throne to anyone else. The news of the Messiah from the wise men scared him. The chief priests were also very concerned. They were not only priests. They were also part of the ruling party in Jerusalem. They were the Sadduccees. They were following the law of sacrifice as outlined in the desert under Moses. They were completely wrapped in the religious observances of thousands of years. For them following the same religious observances was following God. They had great power and they were very comfortable in their position. The coming of the Messiah might mean a whole new way for them. What might that way be? Would they have to change the way they worshipped? They were as frightened as the king.
How about the scribes? The scribes were not simply well educated men of letters. These men were experts in the religious and civil law of the Torah and Jewish tradition. They followed the Law of Moses as handed down in Torah. They would also have some difficulty with a potential new order. The biggest problem they had was their focal point. They were being king, or leading worship, or studying the Law of Moses. They were so busy with these endeavors they were not following God. Now, I have no doubt they believed they were following God. Yet, Jesus is born in Bethlehem and they miss it. Were their eyes closed? Did they not have ears to hear? They had the prophecy. When Herod asks the priests and the scribes about the birth of the Messiah they knew the prophetic word. They recited the words from the prophets Micah and Samuel. The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. However, they have already missed the birth. You see, God had to fit into their lifestyle. God had to come in their way and in their time. If they were the chosen leaders then God would have to let them know first about the Messiah. They would have to be in the know about everything of importance. Due to their power, their prestige, and their own self-proclaimed importance they missed the birth of Christ. As the country song goes "they were looking for God in all the wrong places."
Yet, God does make Jesus' presence known. God chooses three wise men to share in the birth of Christ. The three wise men are not Jewish. They are not scholars of the Torah, They are studiers of the stars, astronomers. They have nothing in common with the Jewish people, and yet, they are the ones who come to Jesus and pay him homage. These three gentiles see the sign of God in the stars and they come. After a two-year journey they come to Bethlehem and see the new-born King. They come to worship the King of the Jews, the Messiah. They are more than just three men in the know. They are a symbol for us. They let us know the Son of God has come into the world for all people. Salvation is for everyone.
What does this Gospel hold for us? I believe there are two things we can learn from this Gospel story. First, God's plan of salvation includes all people. We can be black, white, red, or yellow. We can be male or female. We can be readers of the Bible and know the stories of Jesus Christ or we can be someone who has never heard a word about Jesus. We still have a God who loves us all. God's plan, God's intention is for all people to experience the full love of God and the fullness of salvation.
Secondly, I believe we can learn something about ourselves from the lives of Herod, the priests and the scribes. They were not looking for God. They were focusing on power, wealth, and their own positions rather than focusing on the love and the works of God. Herod was focusing on power. The priests were focusing on their prestige and the way they worshipped. The scribes were focused on the Tradition. They were trapped in their own devices. Our own devices can trap us. I watched the church struggle with the prayer book. I have watched the church fight over the issue of the ordination of women. I am now watching the church fight over the issue of sexuality. I am not saying the church does not need to struggle with issues. However, since the late 50's all main line denominations have been losing membership. Beginning in the 60's we began a great deal of struggling, bickering and even fighting over a wide variety of issues including the ones named above. In the last General Convention of the 80's, the Episcopal Church proclaimed the 90's to be the decade of evangelism. Yet, we were so busy bickering and trying to maintain our comfort zones, that the end result of the decade of evangelism was a net loss in membership.
Like the king, the priests and the scribes, we lost our focus. We began to concentrate on our own concepts of worship and tradition. We began to focus on our own comfort zones. I once heard of a person who claimed they did not want to share the peace with their neighbor. They did not want to share peace with their neighbor because sometimes they felt like hitting their neighbor. They missed the point. The point of the passing of the peace is to reconcile with your neighbor before coming to receive communion together. We can get so wrapped up in our lives, ways, and actions that we can miss the incredible work of God in the world.
Today we are reminded of the incredible love of God for you and for me. God sent Jesus Christ for our salvation. God's presence with the wise men reminds us of God's universal plan of salvation. We are also reminded of where we need to keep our focus. Our focus is to be on God. We are called to follow God. We are called to proclaim the Gospel. We are called to be evangelists. Today, we have the greatest news to share. Our challenge is to be bold and share the good news of Christ in our own way in our world of Reidsville. Go, ye, into the world and proclaim the good news, telling them all you have seen.