January 5, 2020 / Epiphany / Richard E. Holmer
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6; Second Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12; Gospel: Matthew 2:1-1
Jesus for Everyone
What meaning can we find in this very familiar story of magi from the East who came bearing gifts? How might you and I relate to these wise men who traverse afar, following yonder star? It is a beautiful story that includes good guys, a bad guy, and the one best guy of all: the newborn King. Where do we find our place in the story?
A starting point is to recognize how religion, and even God, has the capacity to generate both joy and fear. In this story there is a sharp contrast between the way Herod reacts to the news of Christ’s birth – and how the wise men respond.
When the wise men arrive at Jerusalem and share the news that a new King of the Jews has been born – the impact is immediate: “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” The Christ child is perceived as a threat, a threat that will move Herod to take extreme and violent measures. On the other hand, note how the wise men react. “When they saw that the star had stopped [over Bethlehem], they were overwhelmed with joy.” Or, as in another translation: “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Where Herod saw a menace to himself, the wise men saw blessing and promise. Two very different responses to the same event.
Centuries later, in 612 A.D., Persian armies invaded the Holy land. In that conquest they demonstrated their fear and resentment of Christianity by destroying all the churches in that region. Imagine the devastation. Only two churches were spared: one was the church at the Monastery of St. Catherine, which they didn’t bother with because of its remote location way out in the desert at the base of Mt. Sinai. The other was actually quite accessible: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, just six miles south of Jerusalem. The church was built in 330 on the location believed to be the site where Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity was spared for a different reason.
Upon entering the church, the Persian soldiers noticed a mosaic over the doorway. They recognized the persons presented in the mosaic. There were three men who were dressed in the traditional garb of Persian priests. They saw men who looked like them. These were the magi, the wise men who had journeyed all the way from Persia centuries before to this very spot to see a newborn King. Those Persian invaders saw something familiar, persons they recognized. They saw that in this church they were not excluded, but somehow included. Perhaps their surprise at this discovery included an element of joy. In any event, they were moved to preserve that church instead of destroying it.
Which leads us to the reason this story is important for us. The story of the wise men has been told down through the generations not just so we can add three colorful characters to our Christmas pageants. This story has wider and enduring implications. Christ is born, King of the Jews, as the wise men declared – but he has come not only for the Jews or for Israel: Jesus is the King of Creation. Matthew tells this beloved story to assure us that Christ has come to bless all peoples – including those of other religions or no religion. The salvation Christ brings is even for characters like these strange visitors from so far away. They were out of their element. Way out of place in Bethlehem.
Who were they? Not kings, like the song has it, but magi. That is, priests / shamans / scholars / astrologers. They were of an educated, priestly caste. For certain they were foreigners, strangers, pagans, Gentiles. Gentiles is the key term here. They were not members of God’s chosen people. There had always been a sharp line drawn between those who belonged to the Covenant with God – and those who did not. The wise men were outsiders –and so would you and I be without Christ. We, too, are Gentiles, not members of the original chosen people. Yet the wise men were welcomed at Bethlehem, and they paid homage to the boy king.
Matthew is showing us that Christ hasn’t come for some of us – Christ has come for all of us. This was such a radical shift in God’s plan of salvation that even the human Jesus took a while to fully realize this change. Recall the story of the Gentile woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she persisted, and Jesus declared, “Woman great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Ultimately, Christ’s ministry expanded to include all who would receive him, all who would welcome the good news he came to bring.
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This same revelation dawned powerfully on St. Paul, who after his conversion focused his ministry on the Gentiles. This is what Paul is talking about in our reading today from Ephesians. Listen to a paraphrase of this passage, written by Pastor Eugene Petersen in The Message:
31-3This is why I, Paul, am in jail for Christ, having taken up the cause of you outsiders, so-called. I take it that you’re familiar with the part I was given in God’s plan for including everybody. I got the inside story on this from God himself, as I just wrote you in brief.
4-6As you read over what I have written to you, you’ll be able to see for yourselves into the mystery of Christ. None of our ancestors understood this. Only in our time has it been made clear by God’s Spirit through his holy apostles and prophets of this new order. The mystery is that people who have never heard of God and those who have heard of him all their lives (what I’ve been calling outsiders and insiders) stand on the same ground before God. They get the same offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The Message is accessible and welcoming to everyone, across the board.
Paul is talking about first century insiders and outsiders. Twenty centuries later, as Christians, you and I have been insiders for so long that we’ve forgotten what it is like to be an outsider. We take for granted our inclusion, our belonging, our blessing. Yet we belong only because of Christ – because Christ came to break down the dividing wall, because Christ came to welcome all into the Kingdom of God.
Like St. Paul, it took St. Peter a while to realize that Jesus was the Savior for both Jews and Gentiles. Yet he came to appreciate the wonder and the magnitude of God’s grace:
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of the darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received great mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)
Friends, once you were nobodies – but now you are somebodies. Once you did not have a place in God’s household – now you have a place there forever. This was the realization that brought great joy to the wise men. They came out of curiosity – they returned with a profound revelation. They went home by another road, says Matthew, having been warned to avoid Herod. They came by way of investigation, led by a star. They returned home by the way of grace, having seen with their own eyes the salvation of God for the entire world.
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