Bible Reading Matthew 2:1-2, 9b-11
Epiphany means appearance. This is the day we celebrate God revealing himself to the Gentiles by calling the wise men to Bethlehem where Jesus had appeared in the manger. They offered him gifts that honored him as king, as divine, and as the chosen sacrifice for our kings. Matthew describes the first and last of the story this way:
- Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem, in the country of Judea. Herod was the king. After Jesus was born, wise men came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, `Where is the child who has been born to be King of the Jews? We saw his star rising and we have come to worship him.' … the star, which they had seen rising, went in front of them. It stopped above the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were very glad. They went into the house, and there they saw the child and Mary his mother. They kneeled down and worshipped him. Then they opened their bags and gave him gifts. These gifts were gold, and frankincense and myrrh. (WE)
Christmas is full of signs. For these traveling wise men, it was a star in the sky, for the shepherds it was Jesus himself laying in the manger. For us, the arrival of the wise men from the east to worship the king is a sign that the Jewish prophets predicting a Messiah (a God appointed king to save his people) is not restricted to the Jewish people, but this king came to offer his salvation to people from all the nations. The prophets understood this, but that part of the message didn’t easily penetrate or change the traditional thinking that our God’s king would be only our king and our Savior. And we love that privilege.
There is a story about a Chicago bank that asked for a letter of recommendation from a Boston investment house who employed a young man they were considering hiring. The investment firm couldn’t say enough about him. They wrote that they would highly recommend him. His father was a Cabot, his mother a Lowell. Going further back in the family tree, there was a happy blend of Saltonsalls, Peabodys, and other of Boston’s finest families. The Chicago bank wrote back thanking them for the recommendation but noted that the information was inadequate. They were considering the man for work, not breeding purposes.
For those of us not in the genetic lineage of Abraham, the fact that God sent the star to other lineages tells us Jesus didn’t come from heaven and land in that manger just for the Jews is really good news.
But not everyone is excited that to learn that they are not the exclusive favorites of God. It makes them feel less special, because the only way to feel important is for others to feel less important – and so – as you see in siblings sometimes, they compare and contrast and compete to be the favorite, or at least to get the most attention, and that can lead to all kinds of good – or even bad -- behaviors. And sometimes it is not just siblings, it can be within ourselves, within our own group, or between all sorts of groupings…
I remember when I was in 7th grade and playing Tuba for the first time. I had selected and played I was the only tuba player. Early in the year, the director listened to hearing tryouts to place the order of the instruments, 1st chair, 2nd, 3rd, etc... She was announcing the positions and she said I was 1st Chair Tuba player; which brought a chorus of chuckles throughout the band. Then she explained that there was a difference between 1st chair and last chair. So the master of band room defended me and I felt special and favored in that moment. In some ways it is nice to be favored as the “only one”. But at the same time, being the “only one of one” doesn’t always feel that privileged.
On the other hand, I have 4 children and they are all my favorites in their own unique ways. When we all lived under the same roof, every once in a while I would say that Mitchell was my favorite oldest son, Ben my favorite youngest son, Angela my favorite oldest daughter, Sara my favorite youngest daughter. And like the band, they chuckle about it; knowing that no one else qualifies for those roles. But just because Mitchell is my favorite oldest son does not diminish the power of the “favorite” in that sentence – and the same with the other three. Hopefully, they all feel favored, and don’t feel a need to compete for attention or favor, but can simply accept who I am as I am, as I accept who they are for who they are, and they can accept each other for who they are.
In the same way, just because God favors all people doesn’t mean we aren’t favored. Our value isn’t diminished because we are the only one on the playing field. Nor is our value diminished because others are also legitimately on the playing field. Just because God loves all the peoples he has created does not diminish how much he loves us. We shouldn’t feel a need to be threatened by, competitive with others for God’s attention and approval. What the wise men tell us is that God cares for us all in such an extreme way that we are all his favorites in our own unique way. He loves YOU. You are his favorite you! It doesn’t matter what you background or heritage or gender or anything else… Paul tells us
- There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. … put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11 (NIV))
If the king of the universe can be born in a stable of insignificant Bethlehem, then our truest and best identity is not in our natural lineage or heritage or anything else, but what we can become in Christ.
This is why God put a sign in the sky for these foreigners, and why they came to the manger. And they, at least, understood this king wasn’t coming exclusively for his own people, but for all people, and they wanted to come and acknowledge that with their gifts, representing his kingship, his diety, and his sacrifice.
But as I said, when we are in the “in group” it is a really hard to lesson to learn, and sometimes it needs to be learned over and over and over again. After living with Jesus for 3 years, basically 24-7 365, following him, listening to him teach, watching him act, die, live again, and receiving the Holy Spirit; Peter still needed visions and God inspired timings and trips to the house of the Gentile Cornelius before he says he finally got it figured out. The text in Acts says,
- Then Peter began to speak, `I really understand now. God does not love some people more than others. But he takes anyone who obeys him. He takes anyone who does what is right. It does not matter to what nation they belong. To the people of Israel God has sent the good news. He gives peace through Jesus Christ. He is Lord of all! You yourselves know the story of what happened all through Judea. It started in Galilee after the baptism which John talked about. God gave Jesus of Nazareth the Holy Spirit and power. Jesus went about doing good deeds. He healed all those who were held by the devil. God was with him. We saw all the things which he did in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. And they hung him on a piece of wood and killed him. On the third day, God raised him up to let people see him. Not all the people saw him. But God had chosen us to see and to talk about him. We saw him. We ate and drank with him after he rose from death. He told us to tell the people that God chose him to judge both the living people and the dead people. All the prophets tell about him. They say, "Everyone who believes in him will have his wrong ways forgiven through his name." (Acts 10:34-43 (WE))
Prior to Christmas, 5-year-old Randy wanted a toy western stagecoach for Christmas. During a shopping trip with his mom, he found just the one he wanted. It was about 6" long and had cool wheels and dark brown plastic horses pulling it. "Mommy, I want this one. Pleeeease" he begged. He came near to throwing a tantrum, insisting that he get that stagecoach for Christmas. Mom finally closed the conversation with a "We'll see." Randy was sure he'd get what he asked for. Christmas morning came, and he opened the package confidently. Sure enough, it was the stagecoach he had begged for. He was so pleased – until his older brother said, "You really did a dumb thing to insist on that coach. Mom had already bought you a much bigger, better one, but when you begged for that little one, she exchanged it." Suddenly the small stagecoach didn't seem so appealing.
Sometimes we're like that with God. We pray about a specific need and tell Him how He ought to answer. We beg and plead. We want him to fix this issue or that – change this person or that, remove consequences of certain actions and choices, solve issues like food and drink and clothes… and it isn’t that he is not interested about every aspect of our life, and he also may give us exactly what we ask for, but He also may have had something better in mind. We ask for so little compared to what he is offering us.
Even in Jesus day, they wanted survival, freedom from Rome – and instead God sent Jesus to offer us victory over death, eternal life, and a full life even now. And he wants to gift this to all who choose to follow the path Jesus lays out for us. There's no comparison between death-dealing sin and this generous, life-giving gift. Sin and its consequences and its power doesn’t have a chance against God’s aggressive preemptive forgiveness we call grace. So trust and ask God's life giving power to make a difference in your life that goes beyond your expectations. Leave your life in his hands and trust his perfect way.