Sunday, January 03, 2010

Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12, for Epiphany, "Come and Worship!"

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.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

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.” 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 worshiped 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.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. We observe Epiphany today, which traditionally falls on January 6th, the 12th day after Christmas. As we do, we end our Christmas celebrations and begin the season of Epiphany which emphasizes Jesus’ revelation as God and man. The word epiphany means to reveal or make known. Throughout these coming weeks of Epiphany we’ll focus on how God revealed Himself in human flesh as Jesus. We begin this Epiphany season with the invitation to come and worship Jesus with the Magi who first came from afar to worship their infant King. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Come and worship Jesus! Though it may sound like a common invitation—there’s nothing ordinary or common about coming to worship Jesus, our King. The Magi or Wise Men who traveled from the East came without invitation or promise of what they would find, but they came searching for the honor of worshipping this child who had been born King of the Jews. How did they know to connect the star to Jesus’ birth? What did they expect to find? What reason did they as strangers and Gentiles have to believe that they would be welcomed at His birth? There are many fascinating questions we’d like to know about these Magi, but even the gospel writer Matthew gave no more specific information than that they were from “the east.” It’s usually thought that they came from Babylon or Persia because the word “magi” was used in Persia to describe royal astrologers or advisors. Also, people from there would have been in contact with the exiled Jews taken to Babylon and Persia as prisoners of war. Perhaps there they heard or read the Hebrew scriptures, like Numbers 24:17 that prophesied the star of Jacob: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.”

Whether they knew directly this prophecy of a star and a ruler coming from Israel, or whether they simply knew that the Jews were expecting a Messiah whose birth would be heralded by a star—they knew that they had arrived at a momentous occasion. It’s highly doubtful that these magi went on delegations to visit the birth of all foreign-born royalty in distant lands. Even more since no one announced this birth that happened in a backward corner of a small occupied state in the Roman Empire. Apparently they didn’t have the whole Old Testament scriptures at their disposal, especially since they didn’t know Micah’s prophecy that the birth would happen in Bethlehem. So they naturally assumed to go to the capital city of Jerusalem and speak to King Herod, the present king.

But despite the uncertainty of their destination, and the cultural differences that made the Jews wary and of foreigners like them, they pressed on to this foreign land for the sole purpose of worshipping and paying homage to this newborn king. Something convinced them that their journey wasn’t foolish, and that they would be received before their King, despite all obstacles. Oh that we would have the same desire and enthusiasm to worship Jesus our King! We’re asked to make no journey or pilgrimage or leave behind our home, but simply to come to God’s house and worship. That we wouldn’t be worried about what other people might think as we go to worship Jesus. Come and worship Jesus with the conviction given by the Holy Spirit, that Jesus will receive you. Whoever is estranged from God, come and worship Him with the repentant heart of a prodigal son who wandered from home, but now returns to his father. Whoever does not know God, come and worship Him and see how this King redeems and saves you. Whoever hides from God in shyness or fear, come and worship Him and receive the new heart and courage that He gives to believers. Whoever is sorrowful and lost, follow the Light of His star to the crib of God, and see how meekly and how approachable God has made Himself, by taking on human flesh. Come and worship with the wise men!

Come and worship Jesus with the sincerity and truth of the Magi. They came to King Herod searching out the truth about Jesus—and where was that truth found? In the Holy Scriptures, in the prophet Micah—telling that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. The lowly and insignificant town of Bethlehem would gain new honor and prominence because from there would be born a new King to shepherd Israel in a fuller and more complete way than David—the shepherd-become-king of 1,000 years before. The chief priests and teachers of the law in Jerusalem knew the truth of the scriptures, they knew the prophecy about the Messiah, and now they had inquiring Magi from afar confirming that this prophecy was now being fulfilled at this very time! And what did they do? Did any of them go to worship the Messiah with the Magi? None. Was it fear of King Herod and his vicious jealousy that kept them from joining in this search for the Messiah? Was it a cold indifference or skepticism to the reality of this promise unfolding before their eyes?

Matthew tells us that when Herod heard the question: “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,” it says that he and all of Jerusalem with him was disturbed or troubled. Now why would all Jerusalem be troubled with Herod? Wouldn’t they be ecstatic at the fulfilling of their long-held hopes? Probably the best explanation is to understand the insane jealousy of Herod. We read in Matthew’s gospel how he later ordered the death of all male children in Bethlehem in a last-ditch effort to destroy this newborn king who might present a threat to his throne. It’s hard to believe such a monstrous act of cruelty could be carried out…but it fits perfectly with the record of other ancient historians. Herod was so suspicious and fearful of threats to his throne that he murdered several of his own family under the suspicion that they might usurp his throne. He even arranged to have many Jewish noblemen murdered at the same time as his own death to ensure that there would be weeping and not celebration at the death of one of history’s ugliest tyrants. So it should come as no surprise that Jerusalem was fearful—though probably for different reasons than Herod. Who knew what irrational act of violence he might perpetrate against the Jewish people?

So while it’s understandable that they didn’t go, it was nevertheless left to Gentile strangers to go and worship King Jesus. And Herod sent them on their way with the chilling lie that he wanted to worship the baby also. We face no such fear or threat on our life when we come to worship—but still may we come and worship as the wise men with sincerity of heart and a search for truth. Do not come deceptively, do not hide from fear, and do not stay away from indifference. Come and worship with the sincere love of your King Jesus, and with the search for truth that is rewarded and answered in the Holy Scriptures that cradle our King. Come and worship with abandon—not fearing what it may cost you in this life, but with the confidence of the Holy Spirit about what it will gain for eternity.

Come and worship Jesus with the joy of the wise men. It says that when they continued on from Jerusalem and saw the star again shining before them, pointing the way to Bethlehem, they rejoiced with an exceedingly great joy. Have we ever known or felt that kind of joy that just spills over from deep inside of us when our heart wants to leap out of our chest? Fear and darkness can often conspire to quench our joy—to cast clouds on the daylight—but the light of Christ, the Morning Star that rises in our hearts (2 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 21:16) casts a brighter beam that gives light in the deepest darkness. Are our eyes lifted in hope to see the light of Jesus, or are our eyes fixed miserably on the earth, keeping our heads low? Come and worship the miracle of Christ, born in the manger, and allow yourself to stand in wonder at the miracle of God’s salvation. Rejoice with exceedingly great joy at the way God works.

Come and worship Jesus with gifts, as the Magi finally arrived at their destination, and saw the baby Jesus. What an astonishing sight it must have been to have richly dressed wise men bow adoringly before a child! Advisors to kings, they now lay face-down before the only King who had no need of earthly counsel, who had no need of earthly riches, earthly power, or armies. Before such a king as Jesus, what else is there to do but bow in worship and offer what little gifts you have? Even the costly gifts that they brought—fit for a king—were an insignificant tribute to the Creator of all the Universe, the one who holds all the earth in His hands! The hymn puts it this way: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a tribute far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all!” What can we bring in worship to our King? Nothing less than our soul, our life, our all! We’re taught in the Psalms that God desires one thing above all else from us: “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit—a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:16-17).

We who have no worthy tribute to bring to our King, can only bring the one thing that He wants—a broken and repentant heart. For He alone can take our hearts, broken by sin, and give us a new heart, and fill us with joy. Then we can bring tribute of our praises with our voices lifted in song—we can make our lives an offering as hands and feet are offered in service of His kingdom. But still what small gifts we can offer in worship to Jesus. But as we, with the wise men, open our tiny boxes of treasure—whatever gifts we bring already belong to God and were first given from Him to us. But as we come in worship to Jesus—the real event of worship is not our sacrificial giving and praise. The real event of worship for the wise men and for us is that God opened His treasures an gave us Christ! Whatever small thanks we show to God in worship, the first and greatest act is that here in worship, and long ago for the Magi, God gives the treasure of salvation.

For the King they and we bow to worship was born no ordinary King in golden palaces. This king was born in a treasure chest that looked remarkably like an animal’s feedbox, and was born to be a Servant King. He was not here to be served, but to serve. So He opened His treasures for us by giving His hands and feet in service to mankind by healing many and with His beautiful feet carrying the good news to others. Until His hands and feet given in service were cruelly fixed with nails to a tree. But there on the cross His helpless hands and feet performed the greatest act of kingly service. As the nails opened His hands, out poured the most priceless treasure—His innocent blood of priceless worth. This blood of Jesus was of infinite worth because it purchase us forgiveness, life, and salvation. The only hint we have that the Magi could have anticipated this act of kingly sacrifice which was for them and for all people, was the gift of myrrh—a burial spice that was in fact also used at Jesus’ burial. It was this future kingly sacrifice that gave the treasure of salvation to all mankind, and made the approach of the wise men to their God possible. It was this sacrifice that makes our approach to God possible. While we cannot worship Jesus any longer as an infant King as the Magi did—we now worship the King who has grown to fullness of age and wisdom, who lived righteously and died righteously, and rose victoriously from the dead and is seated as a King on His Father’s throne. It’s for Him today and forever that we come and worship. In Jesus’ name, Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Epiphany means to manifest, reveal, or make known. How is Jesus revealed as both God and man at the visit of the Magi? His baptism? His first miracle of turning water into wine, etc?

2. What expectation did the Magi have when traveling to see Jesus? Numbers 24:17. How might they have known this prophecy? What expectations can we have as we approach Jesus? How does their hope urge us on to believe that we too can be received by Jesus?

3. How did the Magi’s search show that they sought truth? Where did the priests in Jerusalem find that truth for the Magi? Micah 5:2; 2 Sam. 5:1-2. What was their response to it? Why didn’t they go and worship also?

4. How can we worship Jesus with joy like the Magi? How does the light of Christ, the Morning Star, give us joy? 2 Peter 1:19; Rev. 21:16

5. What sacrifice and gifts can we offer King Jesus? Psalm 51:16-17; Rom. 12:1; Heb. 13:15-16

6. How do the treasures that Jesus opens to us far surpass anything we could give? What treasures does He bring us? 1 Peter 1:17-21. How does Jesus serve us in worship? Mark 10:45; cf. John 13:1-20

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