January 6, 2019 Sermon
“It’s A New Road”
Old Testament Scripture: Isaiah 60:1-6
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 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 proclaim the praise of the LORD.
New Testament Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12,16
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.
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
Sermon: ‘It’s A New Road’
A group of Astrologers, having studied the skies according to their traditions for years, see something worth investigating. A new star sparks their imagination, and they decide to see what truths it might hold for them.
They have made these kinds of trips before, to honor kings of foreign countries. Nobody is sure why they do this, how many of them do this, or even exactly who they are. All we know is that they come from the East, some say Persia, some say Babylon, some say the Orient.
It’s a mystery, really. We don’t know why they come, except that that they have seen something that draws them to west, seeking out a new king.
The problem is, the lands that they’ve come to visit this time already have a King. King Herod, a Jew, has ascended the throne due to a combination of merciless oppression of his own people and the imperial support of the Roman Empire. His hold on power is slippery, and he rules by fear and the threat of the Roman Army.
And so it’s only natural that a paranoid like Herod is curious about these visitors from the East. He’s heard they are seeking a King. And yet, they have not come to him. They show no interest in paying homage to the present King of Israel, in fact, they would rather skirt the city of Jerusalem and the temple, and the palace altogether, and take the back roads to Bethlehem, a backwater town way out in the sticks.
Herod can’t stand not knowing what they’re doing, so he interrupts their journey, and forces them to appear before him. And what he hears from them is not comforting.
They’ve seen in the heavens a new day coming. There is something natural that points to the supernatural, a light pointing to the birth of king, they say, that will be a shepherd to all of Israel, a ruler born in Bethlehem. It’s a prophecy that they see being fulfilled by this mysterious star shining in the Palestinian sky.
For some, this prophecy brings comfort. For some, this prophecy brings hope. For some, this prophecy brings the confirmation that God is continuing to keep his promises to his people.
But for Herod and for people like him, this prophecy brings only fear and anger, because he knows what it means for him, and his hold on political power.
If these stargazers, from a foreign country, with their funny accents, and their strange clothing, and their crystal balls, and their astrological charts are seeking to find truth and power in the hick town of Bethlehem, what might other people think?
At the very least, it is an incredible snub to Herod that the Magi were not primarily interested in speaking with him. Their indifference toward him begs the question of Herod’s legitimacy as King. And at worst, their journey presents the possibility that there might be a challenger to his throne, someone who has even the stars lined up in his favor.
And this won’t do. At all.
And so Herod makes plans. And we know the plans. Kill the children in Bethlehem. That will fix the problem. And this is the same solution that Pharaoh had come up with 1500 years before, when it became obvious that the Israelite slaves were becoming a threat to his power. It’s the same solution that dictators have used throughout history to conquer and control. Kill the children. Create terror among the parents. Consolidate power.
It is a political decision. And like many political decisions, it impacts the vulnerable, the weak, the powerless, the children the most.
After the wise men visited Herod, they continued on to Bethlehem, where they found the Holy Family waiting for them. They offered gifts that were appropriate for a Jewish king: gold, as a symbol of power and wealth; frankincense the aromatic oil used as incense in the temple; and myrrh, a royal spice, used for both anointing and for embalming those chosen by God to rule, to speak for God, and to judge the people.
And then, the Magi left, and knowing that they couldn’t trust Herod with the knowledge of where they found Jesus, they went home by a different road, a new road, a better road.
You know, the word Epiphany is supposed to mean ‘to shine light upon’, ‘to cause to understand’, ‘to be illuminated’.
But in reality, after reading this text from Matthew, I’m admit, I’m still in the dark.
I have more questions than answers.
For instance, I wonder, what, exactly, were the magi looking for? I wonder, did they find it? Were their lives changed by what they found?
What are we looking for, when we come to the manger?
Do we find it? Are doors of the manger still open to us?
I wonder if we still even know where to look for the manger? Have we become so sure of our faith journey, that we don’t even look to the heavens any more to see if we are heading in the right direction? Do we still pray for the light of a rising star to guide our lives? Or have we already plugged to the destination into our spiritual GPS, and are running on autopilot? What happens if we hit a detour? Are we ready to change directions, if our life calls for it?
Or, have we stalled out in our journey to Bethlehem? Have we set up camp at a nice comfortable way station on the road, thinking that we’ve come far enough, here is a nice place to stay, there’s no need for us to go any further?
Where are we on our road to the manger? By what road did we come here today?
And now that we’re here, what gifts do we bring this infant king? How do show our love and recognition of his place in our lives? Where do we go, once we leave on our own road to go home? Will our visit at the manger today change the way we live our lives?
I’m not going to even try to answer these questions. Maybe some of them don’t have any answers.
But as I’ve read and studied this story of the journey of the wise men, I wonder if maybe it’s not supposed to be a story of explanation. Maybe it’s a story of confession.
Maybe it’s a story that doesn’t seek so much to describe Jesus, but rather invites us to consider who Jesus is, for us.
And especially, as we begin a new year, I wonder if this text is inviting us to consider our own understanding, as a church, of what it means to seek out Jesus, and to maybe take some new roads as we do it.
Over the next several months, I hope that we can examine everything we do in the light of Epiphany, the shining star of our Savior and see how our ministries help those who are on the road, hoping to find a new day.
Because Epiphany is not an explanation. It’s not persuasion. It’s not coercion.
Epiphany is our confession that Jesus Christ is given to us, to be our light, our truth, our way, and our life.
It’s our confession that the light of Jesus Christ shines for the whole world, not just a small, particular part of it. Not just Presbyterians, not just Americans. But the whole world, in ways that are strange and mysterious to us.
Epiphany is our confession that people will come from all walks of life and many different reasons to seek the good news that Jesus offers. Some of the reasons they will come are hard to understand, some of the practical, some of them spiritual, some of the relational, some of them accidental.
But they will come. Are the doors of our manger open to them? Or will they travel all this way to find the stable empty, the doors barred, the candles blown out?
Epiphany is our confession that the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. And today, we celebrate at the table that light, and the meaning that it has for our lives. Jesus Christ is alive, he is always alive, and he invites us to live with him, forever.
The year 2019 is just beginning. And I’m looking forward to seeing what it will bring. It’s a new year, a new day, a new road, and I’m feeling good. I invite all of you to join with me in exploring what the light of Epiphany will show in the coming months.
Thanks be to God. Amen.