Friday, January 6, 2017

Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord - Mt 2:1-12

                                                                                                 Epiphany of Our Lord
                                                                                                 Mt 2:1-12

When was the last time that you asked someone to give you directions? As someone who drove in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I can remember when this was how you got to somewhere that was new. If you didn’t know where you were going, you asked for directions. The other person described the roads to take, and in particular noted the streets you needed to turn on while probably also mentioning some notable landmarks along the way.

You probably haven’t asked for directions in a long time. If you are a younger driver, you may never have asked for directions in your life. Around the year 2000 internet sites like MapQuest were available that provided directions to any place that you wanted to search. You would print out the directions which were step by step instructions on how to get to a place. Of course if you were driving alone this meant that you had to be looking down at the directions while driving. And if you missed one part of the directions and got off course, you were out of luck.

By around 2005 companies like Tom Tom, Garmin and Magellan were producing navigation devices at a price that many people could afford. These used the GPS signal not only to give you directions, but also to show you where you were and help you get back on course if you made a mistake.

And then in 2007 Apple released its first iPhone and began the smart phone revolution. Ten years later basically everyone has a smart phone. These phones use GPS and have navigation apps so that everyone has in the palm of their hand the ability to get to any place they need to go. Our phones show us where we are, where we need to go, and even talk us through our trip turn by turn.

Directions and navigation stand at the center of the events that occur in the Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord. We learn that magi from the east arrive in Jerusalem. The magi were the learned men of the ancient world. Their knowledge encompassed what today we would call, astronomy, astrology, divination and magic. 

We don’t know where the magi came from – Persia and Babylonia are the most likely options. They showed up at Jerusalem, and asked, “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.” Now the image in every picture of the magi that you see is that of exotic men on camels following a distant star. But the Greek of our text makes it clear that this is not at all the ways things happened. Literally, the magi say that they saw a star “at its rising.” 

The magi saw some kind of astronomical event that seemed to them to be unique – something that could be described as “a star at is rising.” And this event prompted them to believe that a Jewish king had been born. Most likely the text of Scripture in Numbers chapter 24 was the source of this. There the seer Baalam guided by Yahweh says, “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.”

The people of Judah had been taken into exile in Babylon. Certainly they had taken the Scriptures with them. After the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, they lived under Persian rule. There was ample opportunity for magi in these lands to come into contact with the text of the books of Moses.

The surprising thing is that when they saw this star and its rising, and associated it with birth of a Jewish king, they chose to make the trip in order to honor this royal birth. We don’t why they felt the need to do this. And surprise is a good word to use because a person in first century Judaism was not used to hearing positive things about magi – certainly not in relation to the true God, the God of Israel.

You may have noticed that I have not used the term that is most often employed to refer to these individuals: “wise men.” I haven’t because the phrase “wise men” has a very positive connotation. However, the Greek word used here had negative connotations for Judaism. Trapped in paganism, they were the people who were not wise – the people who couldn’t provide any answers, while God’s people like Joseph and Daniel could.

Unexpectedly, these guys – magi – showed up in Jerusalem. They didn’t follow a star there. Instead, they went to Jerusalem because to tem, that was the logical place where you looked to find a new born king of the Jews. And instead, they found Herod the Great, who although he descended from Israel’s enemy Edom, was reigning over the home of Judaism.

Herod the Great was a survivor. No matter how many times circumstances had been stacked up against him, Herod had always managed to come out on top. He did so because he was smart and he was ruthless. So he asked the chief priest and scribes about where the Christ – the Messiah was to be born. They told him it was Bethlehem, because the prophet Micah had written in the eighth century B.C., “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.”

Did Herod believe it? Probably not. But when it came to potential threats to his power, Herod didn’t take chances. So he sent the magi off to Bethlehem with instructions to find the child and send him word so that he too could come and honor him. We don’t have to guess what he would have done – Herod thought nothing killing his own children. 

Our magi are not wise. They don’t know where to go. It is the word of Scripture – God’s Word – that must tell them to go to Bethlehem. And they don’t know where in Bethlehem to find Jesus. Instead after leaving the king and heading for Bethlehem we hear in our text, “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.”

It is God’s star that must guide them. It’s only about six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. On this part of the journey – and only on this part of the journey – what is described here as a “star” actually led the magi to the very spot where Jesus was. It was miracle. It was God’s doing, not anything that fits what we experience in everyday life.

We hear that after God had brought them there, they went into the house, and “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.” They bestowed gifts to honor a king. And then, just as God had intervened to bring them there, he warned them not to return to Herod and they went home a different way.

The message of the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord is really very simple. It shares with us the surprise that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the Gentiles. He is the Savior for those who do not descend from Israel. By his grace, God has included those who had no right to be included.

The old man in us doesn’t really believe that. We think we deserve to belong. We take it for granted. After all, our family has always been Lutheran. Our family has always been Christian. It’s our right. Of course we are part of God’s people. It’s assumed.

What is assumed to taken for granted. What is taken for granted is ignored. And so, we look around tonight and consider how many people aren’t here to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord because they just decided not to come. Or we consider how many people aren’t here on a Sunday morning just because they choose to do something else. Or we consider how often we choose to do something instead of spending time with God’s Word.

Tonight we pause to consider that it is magi who arrive at the house in Bethlehem in order to worship the infant king. They are not expected to be there. They really shouldn’t be there. And yet by his grace, God has led them there. A star at its rising prompted their journey to Jerusalem. The words of God’s Scriptures sent them to Bethlehem. God’s star guided them to the very spot where the baby Jesus was to be found.

Their presence – and the fact that the Holy Spirit has shared this event with us in the Gospel of Matthew – says that this Savior is for all people. He is your Savior. Gentile though you may be, by God’s grace he sent Jesus to die on the cross for your sins. And then on the third day he raised him from the dead.

It’s a surprise. It’s a blessed surprise that brings forgiveness and eternal life. Our text tonight is one of Gospel that leads us to a renewed recognition of the precious gift we have received. We have received what we did not deserve. We have become what we were not. And now we get to live in this truth.

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