Monday, January 07, 2019

Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12, for the Epiphany of Our Lord, "We have come to worship Him"

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. A blessed Epiphany! January 6 is the traditional celebration of Epiphany, which may be the second oldest celebration in the Christian church year after Easter. It seems to have been celebrated as early as the 2nd century, celebrating Jesus’ birth and baptism. Later, the visit of the Wise Men came to be emphasized in Western churches. Epiphany means “manifestation” or revealing, and focuses on miracles that showed Jesus is the Son of God.
Our love for the Wise Men at Christmas and Epiphany, is seen on Christmas cards and in nativity sets and children’s programs. Like the rest of the Christmas story, over time, there are lots of details that got “added in”, but aren’t actually in Matthew’s telling of their visit. For example, we’re not told they came on camels, or even that there were three of them—could have been more or less. They are not called wise, nor are they called kings. The word Matthew uses is “Magi”, found only in one other place in the Greek Old Testament, in Daniel, where King Nebuchadnezzar’s magi, or court advisors and wizards and sorcerers are unable to use their pagan arts to interpret his dream. Since the Bible explicitly condemns magic, sorcery, interpretation of omens, divination, etc—(Deut. 18:9-14), it’s clear that neither Matthew nor other apostles and prophets would have praised the astrology of the Magi, or called it “wise.” However, the point of the story is not their wisdom, but their response to what God did reveal to them, and their reverence to come worship the child born King of the Jews.
How could they have known? We are not told. From the Old Testament scriptures we can only say what is plausible. We can even find what made it plausible that Christians later associated the Magi with camels and kings. The most plausible connection to the Magi’s knowledge of a star is the prophecy in Numbers 24:17. Well over 1,000 years earlier, Balaam, a pagan oracle or seer, was compelled by God to bless the nation of Israel, even though he was hired to curse them. God used the mouth of a pagan oracle to deliver these true words: “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.” In the distant future, Balaam sees a star and a scepter. A connection between the star of Jacob and kingly rule. Did the Magi have a copy of the Jewish Torah, the first five books of the Bible? Had they studied this passage in Numbers, because of their interest in all things astrological? Had they acquired the Jewish Scriptures while the Jews were in captivity in Babylon, or Persia? All plausible, but we can’t be certain. But we know they didn’t know the birth location of this ruler. The Jewish priests and scribes had to point them to Micah 5:2, for Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Christ. Even wicked King Herod knew something of the Jewish prophecies of the Christ, though apparently not much.
But through all these murky questions and with all that they didn’t know, the Magi pursued this course and responded to what God showed and revealed to them, about the star, and then about Micah’s prophecy. They responded and followed their mission, which they described to Herod: “For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Herod, being both paranoid and maniacal, plots to discover if this child has actually been born, so that he might destroy Him. Later, when they return, the Magi again are given new information, through a dream, at just the right time, to turn away from Herod, so God kept Jesus safe. God has no problem orchestrating events in both miraculous and in subtle ways, to even work through people who are partly or even completely oblivious to His purposes, to accomplish His will. God led the Magi from their darkness into the light of Jesus’ rising, as Isaiah foretold. It’s fair to say that they were unlikely and unexpected visitors.
The Old Testament prophecies also show other themes that begin to unfold in the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Magi. Rule would belong to the tribe of Judah, that rule would narrow down to the line of King David (Genesis 49:10; 2 Sam. 7:13, 16). Tribute and obedience would flow to this ruler of Judah (Gen. 49:10; Ps. 72). The King from David’s line would be a Forever-King, ruling over an eternal kingdom. Also that the Christ would be the light of salvation to the ends of the earth, not only for Jews, but for all peoples. When Isaiah 60:6 describes tribute coming to them in this way: “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. We can see where the images of kings and camels comes from. All these prophecies reverberate and ring around the coming of Christ.
It’s too much to say that all of these prophecies are fulfilled in the Magi alone. But it’s a significant beginning, no less, of the coming of tribute to the child who would come to bear the titles of the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” and the “Morning Star” and the one who would bear the scepter of Jacob. The Magi are a significant beginning of Gentiles worshipping the light of salvation in Jesus Christ. Worshipping the king whose rule truly would be from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth. Jesus’ kingdom surpasses all earthly nations and boundaries, and upon His resurrection, Jesus was given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). But these prophecies do point to the reality that Christ’s rule would surpass all earthly kings, and that tribute and obedience would be paid to Him from all corners of the earth, and that kings, princes, and all peoples would bow down and worship Jesus Christ the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. All the prophecies are fulfilled in Christ!
Just like the Magi, the star poses intriguing questions. Skeptics, scientists, and believers alike have pursued an explanation. Natural? A comet, a conjunction of planets, or a supernova? Or supernatural? A miraculous heavenly phenomenon that God created specifically for this purpose? Or some combination of the two? Again, we don’t know enough to say, except to point out that the behavior of the star—appears, then disappears, and reappears again, and then moves to rest over the home where Jesus was—seems to defy any natural explanation from the movement of any heavenly bodies we know about. But again, that’s not the point, but only that the star was given by God to direct them to the Christ child, and it did that. It’s a small thing for the God who made the heavens and put the stars in their place (Psalm 8:3) to use His creation to point back to Him, and spotlight our Creator’s birth. Again we are left to marvel and wonder at God’s wisdom, power, and love to call these foreigners to young Jesus, that they might also know and worship Him.
Martin Luther wrote about the virtues of Christian discipleship, and one virtue he named was responsiveness. Consider the responsiveness of the Magi. Following God’s lead on a journey to an unknown destination, that began with incomplete information, met a wicked and deceptive tyrant, continued forward with new revelation from the Scriptures, culminated in the worship of the Christ child, and warned from final disaster by a dream. At multiple points along their way, they were steered by God in the right way, and they responded. Our lives also need responsiveness—to hear and follow God’s call, and to trust His leading. We won’t start our journey with all the information that we’ll have at the end, but that doesn’t matter—only that we trust and follow God’s lead, and that we trust that God has the answers we don’t have.
It’s enough to know that God knows, and we can be content to respond, and to follow. Opposite of responsiveness is stubbornness or self-determination, that hard-headed runs against God’s direction. Balaam, that unlikely oracle we mentioned before, had his experience of trying to outwit God, or defy God’s people, and that didn’t work out too well. Herod didn’t succeed either.  Nor did the three or four generations after who bore his family name. God grant that we would be responsive to His calling on our lives, and that no matter where our individual journeys take us, that they would also culminate in the worship of Christ. We can be content to take life one day at a time, obediently following Christ, not with all the future information we could wish to know, but enough for today. We don’t have to hesitate or be uncertain, but to confidently trust that God is leading us. I have a real sense of that as I’m preparing to leave you for an extended period of time, to pursue God’s calling in this chapter of my life. There are many things I would like to know about what will happen 3-4 months from now, or a year from now. But those answers aren’t afforded to me yet, nor are they absolutely needed yet. But Lord willing, I go forward trusting that He’s got it all under control.
And the same is true for you all here. There is no eventuality in life that catches God by surprise, nor situation for which He has not provided a solution. Even if we are waiting till the last moment for His will to become clear, God does not abandon His people or His purpose. Many things could have gone wrong for the Magi—and after they left, tragically, Herod lashed out in his rage and blind ignorance, and killed many young boys of Bethlehem, in a vain effort to kill Jesus, whom he perceived as a threat. That God does not abandon His people or promise doesn’t mean that we won’t ever come to harm in this life—but they won’t be able to thwart God’s ultimate purposes. God is ready for it all, even when we are not.
No earthly ruler at the time could understand Jesus’ kingship; that He came to liberate us from the power of sin and death. Not Herod, or his wicked son, nor Pontius Pilate or the chief priests and scribes—none at His birth, and none at His death—could grasp the true nature of His kingdom and power. A shepherd for His people Israel, the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep. Not even Jesus’ death on the cross, caught God by surprise, but was used to accomplish our salvation. God worked all things together for good. God’s will and purpose came through intact, even through death and resurrection. That’s proof enough! Confident every day that God will so love us and provide for us, and in response to all Jesus has done for us, may we with joy declare our purpose: “we have come to worship Him!” In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Did you know that Epiphany is second only to Easter, as the earliest festival to be celebrated on the Christian church calendar?
  2. What “extra details” often accumulate around the story of the Wise Men (or better, Magi), that are not found in Matthew 2, the account of their visit? Does the passage indicate that they were wise? What does Deuteronomy 18:9-14 show about God’s command about all things magical and occult? It is nonetheless marvelous and exciting that despite their ignorance, they are the first Gentiles called to worship Jesus!
  3. What prophecy could have pointed them to the star? Numbers 24:17. What were the unique circumstances of that prophecy? What missing information did the Magi inquire of the priests and scribes in Jerusalem? Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:6.
  4. What other prophecies tell about the coming ruler to be born, associated with this star? Genesis 49:8-12; 2 Samuel 7:12-17; Psalm 72:8-15; Isaiah 49:5-7; 60:1-6.
  5. How would Jesus’ rule and kingdom extend over all the earth? Matthew 28:18. Who will bow down to Him? Philippians 2:9-11.
  6. Is it any trouble for God to use a star to proclaim His birth? Psalm 8:3
  7. How did the Magi display the Christian virtue of responsiveness? What would that virtue look like and mean in your life? How does our knowledge come and change along our journey? What is true about God’s knowledge and purposes?