Monday, January 05, 2015

Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 and Isaiah 60:1-6, for Epiphany, "Worship the Light"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The prophet Isaiah said, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:3). The rising Light is Jesus, and His infant home of Bethlehem was bathed in miraculous starlight announcing: the King of the Jews has been born! Wise men came worshipping. Kings came to the brightness of His rising—the dawning rays of Jesus’ infant light drew joyful worship, costly gifts, and hushed awe. Why would such a birth warrant such attention? This was not a king of the Roman Empire, or any similar superpower or great nation. The Jews were a subject people, a broken nation, held firmly under the Roman yoke. King David’s royal line was reduced to nothing but the stump of a tree, by all appearances dead and defeated. Why would the birth of a new king to this tiny, defeated nation, bring any foreign dignitaries at all? What were the wise men hoping to see? Who were they and why did they come?
The clues are limited. Their name—the Magi; their origin from the East; their gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and their recognition of the sign of the star. Some think they may have come from Persia, because the Greeks used the word “magi” to refer to Persians or Babylonians, and these empires ruled the Jews while they were in exile. This would explain how they knew of Jewish prophecies and expectations of a Messiah. Others think the Magi or Wise Men were from Arabia, because gold, frankincense, and myrrh were all local to Arabia, and particularly frankincense and myrrh came only from southern Arabia. The deserts of Arabia were directly east of the Jordan River, and would also fit the wise men’s description. But whether the wise men were Persians bringing “imported products”, or Arabians bringing local treasures, the point is that these were Gentiles, foreigners, come to worship the birth of a Jewish king—Jesus. Their presence at Jesus’ birth tells us that His birth and His kingdom was not for Jews only, but for Gentiles—indeed all the nations.
Of course we don’t know what Bible prophecies the Wise Men knew that shaped their expectations of the infant Jesus. It seems though, that they were at least familiar with the ancient prophecy of Numbers 24:17 “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. This passage announces the “star of Jacob”, pointing ahead to the miraculous star over Bethlehem, leading the way to a ruler: “a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” The scepter or ruling staff of a king, who would defeat the enemies of Israel.
Did the magi anticipate a Jewish uprising against their enemies, foretold in this sign of a king’s birth? Did they know other prophecies of who the Messiah, or Christ would be? Unfortunately we don’t know if they knew a little or a lot about what the Old Testament said about the coming Savior. We do know that one missing puzzle piece for them was the exact location of His birth. They naturally assumed Jerusalem, the royal, capital city—but they didn’t know the words of the prophet Micah, chapter 5. But the chief priests in Jerusalem filled in those blanks by turning them to Bethlehem, David’s city, as Micah said “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.” A ruler, a shepherd, strength, security, greatness to the ends of the earth, and peace. Images of who this Christ was to be, come flooding down.
Whether they knew a lot or a little at the beginning of their journey, when they first set out to find the One born King of the Jews, the important thing is that they came. We also must come and worship. They came, they learned from the chief priests, and joyfully went on their way to find and worship Jesus. They found a place for them, at the feet of the ruler, the shepherd, whose greatness would one day reach to the ends of the earth. And today, who can deny that the greatness of Jesus has in fact reached the ends of the earth? The knowledge of Jesus and the worship of Jesus has gone far from that provincial village of Bethlehem, and has circled the globe. And the wise men were the first foreigners to worship at the feet of the king. We too find a place at the feet of Jesus; we too are foreigners included with God’s people.
Back to our Old Testament reading, in Isaiah 60, that said “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising”—it says a few verses later, (60:6), “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord”. Notably, the camels coming from Midian, Ephah, and Sheba, in Isaiah’s prophecy are tribal regions of Arabia—again lending support to the idea that’s where the wise men came from. But a “multitude of camels” comes, bearing gold and frankincense, good news and praises of the Lord? It’s true that we don’t know how many wise men actually came to visit the child Jesus, and the number three has just been attached by tradition to the three gifts they brought. There could have been two, three, or even a dozen. But nothing in Matthew’s description points to a “multitude of camels.” Even a delegation of a couple dozen wise men would hardly seem to be called “a multitude.” But the connection to the prophecy seems rather obvious. How should we understand this? A commentary helpfully explains that the magi were the forerunners, the first of many powerful and lordly rulers that would come through history to worship Jesus.
Isaiah 60, like many other prophecies, blends together future realities both near and far in time. He describes the glory and the light that the Savior Jesus would bring to His people, and the worship that would come from foreign nations. But Isaiah also blends together images of the more distant future, like the coming of total peace for His people, and God becoming our eternal light in heaven. The worship of the wise men, with costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, is the first wave of Gentile worship, that continues wave after wave, generation after generation to our very worship service today. Whether we are of great earthly power or small, whether our offerings are shepherd-like or magi-like, we all fall down in worship before the same King and Lord of all, Jesus Christ. There is no difference of social status or worldly power or influence when we kneel before the Lord of all. Kings too must fall before Him in worship.
Whether they knew to expect it or not when they came, the magi met in Jesus the One who would have an eternal kingdom surpassing and superseding all earthly powers—Roman, Jewish, Babylonian, Persian, Arabian, British, American, Chinese, or Russian. The birth of Jesus Christ was not a “provincial affair” of only local interest, but it was of interest for the whole world. Which is why the good news of Jesus is worldwide news today—heard and believed on every continent and across the islands, as Isaiah also said would happen, Isaiah 51:4–5 (NIV84)  “Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm. Jesus light shines not only for His nation Israel, but for all nations, even distant Hawaiian islands.
Perhaps one of the most challenging realizations about Jesus’ kingdom, which came in humility and seeming weakness, was that the primary goal was not political liberation or overthrow of Israel’s earthly enemies. Through time and history, enemies have risen and fallen by God’s command. Instead of dealing especially with oppressive rulers like King Herod, or the Caesars, or Pontius Pilate—Jesus came as King to face a deadlier and more oppressive power. This purpose is bound up with the name the angel gave Him—“you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” When Jesus preached as an adult, His audience always found it easy to see the sins of others around them—especially the oppression of the Romans. Jesus’ own family would have reason to fear and to flee the power of cruel Herod, even before Jesus turned two years old. But more difficult to see are the sins we commit against others. Harder to see than the sins of others, is our own pride, selfishness, resentment, irresponsibility, anger, bitterness, and other sins that so easily creep into our hearts. This oppression of our own sins, is more deadly, but harder for us to admit.
Yet this is the very liberation and freedom that Jesus comes to bring. And this is why His kingdom is greater, and both eternal and universal, by contrast to earthly powers. His kingdom is built on the power of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Whether they knew it when they came or learned it after, this is the kingdom the magi discovered. It’s as citizens of this kingdom that we gather in worship, that we come on this Epiphany to honor and worship the One born King of the Jews. We gladly and joyfully join in the throng of worshippers who forever streams to His throne, giving all thanks and praise to our Savior. His Light and His glory rises upon us, it shines into our dark world, illuminating our sin and our need for a Savior. And whatever the darkness may conspire against Him and those who joyfully go to worship Him, we have this promise, that the darkness has not overcome the Light! Jesus’ Light forever shines upon His people, and we step into that light as people who are forgiven and set free. Come and worship at the feet of our King! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Herod the Great ruled under the authority of the Romans, and had been given by them the title “King of the Jews.” Herod was well known as a grandiose architect but also a vicious and cruel man. Why did he perceive the words of the visiting Wise Men from the East as a threat?
  2. What was the star that the Wise Men saw, and how was it connected to Old Testament prophecy? Numbers 24:17. What did the priests in Jerusalem know about the birthplace and identity of the Christ? Matthew 2:5-6; Micah 5:2; 2 Samuel 5:1-2.
  3. Why was the arrival at Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, the sight of the star, and meeting the child Jesus, a source of such exceeding joy for the Wise Men? Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; Psalm 98:3. Why are we included in that joy? Ephesians 3:6
  4. How was the arrival of the Wise Men a foreshadowing of a grander scale fulfillment of Isaiah 60:6? Who are the multitudes of people who come to worship Jesus now? What praises do you bring to the Lord?
  5. Isaiah 60:1-2 describes Jesus’ coming as piercing a “thick darkness” that covers the earth and the peoples. In what ways did His coming encounter and overthrow the darkness? Matthew 2:13-18; John 1:5; 3:16-21. When did it seem that this Light was extinguished? When did the Light rise again to show victory over darkness? John 20.
  6. What thick darkness covers people today? What clouds and darkens men’s hearts? How does Jesus Christ bring the Light and illumination to our hearts? Why do we need the constant presence of His Light?
  7. Who can you share the Light of Christ with? Where do you see darkness still present?

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