Bible Reading Isaiah 60:1-3, 6c
This is Epiphany Sunday, the 12th day of Christmas. It is the day we remember the Magi arriving at the manger. Among other things, the significance of this event was that the baby King Jesus was not born only for the Jews, but for all the peoples of the world. Isaiah foretold it hundreds of years prior when he said to the city of Jerusalem:
… Stand up! Shine! Your new day is dawning. The glory of the Lord shines brightly on you. The earth and its people are covered with darkness, but the glory of the Lord is shining upon you. Nations and kings will come to the light of your dawning day … bringing gold and spices in praise of … the Lord. (CEV)
Message He Comes to be Found Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12
Living in darkness
For some people, one of the negatives of this time of year is that we drive to school or work in the dark, and we eat supper in dark. By 7 o’clock, it looks and feels like it is 11, and that can take a lot out of a person.
Isaiah’s darkness is not about the length of day, but the sadness of the situation, which he had already described a chapter earlier:
No one has come to defend us or to bring about justice. We hoped for a day of sunshine [of blessing and happiness], but all we found was a dark, gloomy night. We [grope] our way along [though life], as if we were blind; we stumble at noon, as if it were night (CEV) among the strong, we are like the dead... (NIV) (Isa 59:9-10) [“grope” is from the NIV, non-italics bracketed words are pastor’s commentary]
They felt they had nothing to live for. They doubted whether God is real, or powerful, or cares. Until God’s light shines on them, until he desires to help them, there is nothing they can do.
Isaiah is trying to tell them that time was upon them. God’s light has shown upon them and now it is time to rise up! God has moved the Persian Empire to secure the land of Judah and city of Jerusalem, providing order and safety against oppressive neighbors. Only those who opposed Persia would remain covered in darkness.
Living in the light
For the rest, (who did not oppose Persia), Isaiah’s words are an announcement of salvation and a call to brilliant joy. The dark pain of Babylonian exile and feeling of abandonment is fading into the pages of history and a new day is dawning as the scattered people will return to their homeland and resume their rightful role as God’s children in that land.
Granted, they were still only a shadow of what they once were. They would face terrific difficulties and discouragements, requiring much determined effort to rebuild their lives and communities. But they once again had the right to own land, but even more, the Persian king provided silver, gold, and lumber; and decreed that with only minimal limitations, all the treasurers of all the nations under his power (some very wealthy because they controlled the major trade routes and sea ports of the eastern Mediterranean). And they were to be caught up in this new thing God was doing by offering tangible resources (clothes, money, perfume, and sacrificial animals) and they were to give them to Ezra and Nehemiah to rebuild the temple, and the gates, and walls and to beautify Jerusalem itself. This is just like in their past when foreign leaders like the Queen of Sheba came with gifts of gold and spices to honor Solomon. Matthew actually picks up that a little later (See Matthew 12:42) when he points out that connection even more clearly. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and he is comparing the willing acceptance of foreigners such as the Ninevites (remember Jonah?) and the Queen who offered Solomon tributes --- while Jesus’ own religious leaders rejected him -- all the more amazing because Jesus was much greater than Solomon, but they couldn’t see it. But I digress.
Light replaces dark, poverty turns to riches, foreigners offer gifts to rebuild the city and temple. If God’s people trust and respond, if they rise up and shine - the holy city would flourish with God’s glory in no time.
Of course, we know that what is declared in official circles and what happens in our real backyard are not always the same thing. It is one thing to legally declare all people equal and another thing for everyone to experience that equality. It is one thing to claim love for all people and for all people to sense and experience that love. We know from Nehemiah that the rebuilding of the walls was a long and odious task filled with mocking and serious threats from neighbors -- even though they had been ordered to be supportive. (See Nehemiah 4). And yet they rose up in faith and the walls and gates and temple were successfully rebuilt. Even if it didn’t physically match its former glory, it was still rebuilt, and a new start was made. It is not unusual for prophecies to have multiple fulfillments, some more immediate (like the Persians in the days of Isaiah) but then down the road, fulfilled more fully.
Dark to Light Candles
This early physical restoration of God’s city is seen by Matthew as fulfilled more com-pletely in Jesus. It is no longer only God’s city that will shine with the brightness of his glory, but it is his own Son who will light up the world with his sacrificial love and grace -- and through which he will draw all people to himself -- allowing all people to become children of God by belief and faith in the Christ who was born to set us free.
The primary celebration of this event (for most of us) is the birth itself on Christmas Day. So as we have lit the “dark to light” candles of preparation, each week getting lighter and brighter, building like a vertical pillar of water (shooting straight up) until it climaxes at his birth (the top white center candle which we lit on Christmas Eve) -- but as the water reaches the apex, what does it do? it begins to spread out and fall down covering everything. In other words, it is not the end of the story. And last week, we responded to the birth with Elizabeth and Mary, who treasured Christ’s light and his life, his words and his teachings and responded to his birth in her heart. And this week it is about the wise men who have come as the light continues to spread to the ends of the earth and continues to flow to us even this day. (light the last candle)
For some cultures, this is the climax of Christmas. We start with day 1 being the climax (Christmas Eve or Christmas Day) but it is this 12th and last day of the Christmas season that is the climax for some. Traditions vary by country and culture, so I’ll just mention some of them because I thought it was interesting, and I thought it might be interesting to you to, if not it’ll keep you awake for a minute 😊).
On Epiphany Eve, the wise men are added to the nativity scene. Children set their shoes by the outside door of the house, or even outside the door of their house. Or, they decorate shoe boxes or baskets with wax or wrapping paper. They are filled with grass or hay (and sometimes a glass of water is added), It is kind of like like milk and cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer, except this is for the camels and the wise men. A wish list letter might be placed on top of that box as well. During the night, the grass is removed and replaced by candy and a gift. Or, sometimes, since camels are kind of sloppy eaters, they will use the grass or hay to create a trail for the children to follow to find their gift. In some places, this is a second gift giving - (often even more important that the Christmas Day gifts) and in some settings, it is the only gift giving of the season. Children are told that the kings left a gift for them (sometimes in exchange for the feeding of the camels) but more importantly, as a gift of love in the same way they brought gifts for Jesus in love when he was born.
During that day itself, there are family reunions, and carol singing (that focus on the wise men), special church services, community parades, concerts, balls, carnivals, and a family feast meal (for which children sometimes make crowns to wear in honor of the Magi) and includes a dessert called the King’s bread (well it sometimes the bread is a city event too) but the bread is a sweet bread shaped like a wreath (a crown), adorned with dried and candied fruit (representing precious emeralds and stones often in a crown) -- and in the bread is placed a small plastic baby Jesus (symbolizing the need to hide Jesus away from Herod) -- and the one who gets that piece is charged with or for the bread for the next year, or preparing tamales for the next festival (Candlemas) (which is February 2 and celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple); Which, to me, at least, seems like the only time in the world that finding Jesus would be a punishment.
But all of this is done out of respect for the Magi who demonstrate how to offer love and honor to Jesus for all that he is going to do for them and our world. This is a very familiar story, so you may know a lot of it but we will review it anyway in case you might be new, or maybe you’ll pick up something you hadn’t remembered or heard before…
After Jesus was born… Magi from the east came to Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1a,c) (NIV)
It was probably a considerable time before the Magi arrived from the east, and we don’t know for sure to where “east” refers, but Magi was a proper name used of Persian priests. I like the connection between the Isaiah Persians who helped Jerusalem and now the Persian Priests who are now coming again, and Persia is a good possibility. But “magi” also became a wide spread, generalized term, so we can’t be sure.
Sometimes tradition (even as hymn we tried to sing with the video. That “pirate” hymn we sang (because it says, “We Three Kings of Orient ‘Rrrr’” 😊). Tradition makes the Magi “kings”. This helps Matthew do something Matthew himself did not do -- connect the prophecy of Magie to passages such as Isaiah 60, and Psalm 72 (where kings come to bring tribute).
“…We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2b (NIV))
But more to the point, these Magi were Gentiles - which means Jesus wasn’t sent to the world just for his own people - he was sent for everybody. This is the main point of them coming. Jesus was for the entire world, and they probably didn’t know a lot about Judaism, but they recognized his rising star. Matthew probably had in mind Balaam’s prophecy where he says, But someday, a king of Israel will appear like a star. (Numbers 24:17) In that case, the star was the king himself. Of course here we have another star, and there is no science that can fully explain what is going on with this star in the New Testament. There are some theories that kind of explain it, but not fully.
And the word “worship” in this verse can refer to honoring human dignitaries, but Matthew often uses that word of Christ when he is being recognized for his divinity as well -- so it is probably also true here -- so the Magi recognize that this is not just another great king that has born, but he is something special. Do we see Jesus as more than a great figure of history?
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matthew 2:3 (NIV))
So, they come to Jerusalem and ask Herod, and when Herod hears the question about the birth of a Jewish king, he is disturbed. Herod is disturbed because (1) he is an Edomite (an enemy of Judaism) and (2) he is a Roman appointee over the Jews (which makes him an enemy of Judaism); and he would feel vulnerable and threatened by a Jewish king, and in Herod’s later years, he was already paranoid about threats to his throne against which he sometimes drastic actions.
Jerusalem may have been worried “with him” the text says, because they may be disturbed about how Herod may lash out (as he soon did against all babies in the area under 2 years old); or may also be that their worry was with Herod -- against the baby king -- because they eventually rejected and fought against him as well. (Or it could refer to both).
When he had called together all the people’s
chief priests and teachers of the law… (Matthew 2:4 (NIV))
So, Herod calls together an ad hoc group of experts (he wasn’t on good terms with the Sanhedrin, (the official Jewish leadership) so he calls together this group together and asks them about the Messiah. This gives Matthew opportunity to adapt some quotes from the Old Testament which we talked about earlier in this season (See Micah 5:2ff, 2 Samuel 5:2) about Bethlehem giving birth to a ruler who will shepherd their sheep - the latter quote coming from Samuel aligning Jesus the shepherd with David’s shepherding of Israel; putting Jesus in line with the fulfillment as the son of David, born in David’s city who will rule like David over God’s people.
Then Herod called the Magi secretly… sent them to Bethlehem… (Matthew 2:7-8 (NIV))
And then some second guess Herod’s strategy to pull the Magi into a secret meeting, tell them he wanted to worship the child too, and send them on ahead to Bethlehem to find the child for him and let him know where it was. Some people said, well that’s not how he should have done it, it didn’t work. Well, it probably could have worked. These were foreigners, after all, and they didn’t know Herod. If the Magi knew Herod well, they’d probably have seen right through his ruse, but they were foreigners, so he may have gotten away with it. He would not have gotten away with it if (his second guessers suggest) he had said, “Let me send all these troops with you so when you find him… ” Being escorted by Roman troops -- they would have seen through to his true motives pretty easily, and the Child would have had to been buried deeper into seclusion, for the time; perhaps even away from the ability of the Wise Men to see him.
…When they saw the star they were overjoyed. (Matthew 2:10 (NIV))
The Magi were led by the star, a light source that can be explained by only by miraculous intervention at this point of the text. Stars don’t move around like that. So, something happened that God did. They were overjoyed that it got them to where the child was,
… and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures
and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11b-c (NIV))
and when they entered the house, and worshiped Jesus by offering what are typical gifts given to neighboring kings. Tradition (as the We Three Kings hymn pointed out) connects those gifts with certain things like kingship and Godship and sacrificial death. But in the Old Testament, all those gifts (even myrrh) were given in joy and festivity. So, we learn more
and add more to the story as it goes along, helping us to learn and understand what the good news of Christ is all about.
If we seek, he will make himself be found by getting you where you need to be.
Herod’s devious plan ultimately failed because God intervened in a dream to the Magi, a tool of discernment that was common to the Magi’s native culture.
For me, one of the most comforting ideas that flow out of this story -- is that if we are seeking, God will bend over backwards and go to unimaginable lengths to find a way to get us where he wants us to be. We aren’t much on astrology these days, the Bible says things against it, even in the Old Testament, but God used it because that is what those people understood. He used it to get them where they needed to be - because they were earnestly seeking. Early in my days at seminary, many of us were young students who had pretty much given up everything to travel across the country to a strange land (Kansas City was strange to us if we aren’t from Kansas City); a strange land, to gain a Master’s degree that in that denomination would often lead us to a career that paid less than an entry-level minimum wage job, while demanding full time professional-like standards. We gambled that we were correctly sensing in our heads and hearts what God was calling us to do. Something that even the circumstances of trying to get through seminary often called that into question, filling us young idealists with self-doubt. Part of the humility of being whatever we are, I think.
Then one day in chapel, our preaching professor, in the midst of his sermon, gave us this line: “The greatest sign that you are truly called to ministry is that you are sitting on this campus in this chapel today.”
If God’s power can shape the world, make Persians supply the needed stableness for the rebuilding of Jerusalem (and why would a Persian Empire care?), and later inform Persian priests (if that is what they were) of the coming of a great king in the only way that they could have understood…then what makes us think that God can’t get his cooperating people where they need to be - when they need to be - and protect his plan from all hindrances and opposers? God will get us where we need to be, as long as we are seeking him. He will get us there -- it may take a while -- as long as we are not a Herod and just refuse to cooperate -- as long as we are really trying to see what he wants - he will get us there eventually.
So, the question is, for today -- As we enter the new year, where might God want us to be? Are we still seeking? Still worshiping? Still offering ourselves to his guidance? Still exploring how we can best honor the name of our king? Still being grateful for his overabundance of blessing -- for the light has dawned upon us? Still finding the joy and thrill of serving him each day as we anticipate his light -- dawning on our futures?