St. John's, Centreville
January 7, 2018
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are in our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In terms of the readings that are designated for each Sunday in the church calendar, this is a confusing time of year. January 6, which was yesterday, is the Feast of the Epiphany, one of the seven principal feasts of the church year. That means it's a really important event. But since it was yesterday, that makes today the First Sunday after the Epiphany, which is when we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. However, it's also the Second Sunday after Christmas, which has a choice of three different gospel lessons.
Although I hate to miss the gospel lesson about the baptism of Jesus and the pronouncement of God "You are my well beloved Son with whom I am well pleased", the Feast of the Epiphany take precedence because of its importance.
In our reading from Matthew's gospel, we hear the story of the three wise men following the star to find the birth place of Jesus. They stop in to talk with King Herod to see if he knows where this child has been born. They refer to this child as the "king of the Jews" which was upsetting to Herod because the Romans had named him the king of the Jews. So Herod feels threatened by the birth of this child. Who is he? Will he take away Herod's power over the Jews? If he does, then the Romans will replace him. Herod is supposed to keep the Jews in line and be sure they are paying their taxes to the Romans. If he doesn't do that, his job and perhaps his life, are in danger.
So Herod is frightened, as is all Jerusalem, we are told. Why? Because the power center is shaken, someone might be planning to take over Herod's place in the political arena and that would upset everyone and everything. Herod was not a nice man, and if he felt his power was threatened, he was capable of doing anything - including murder and genocide. So the people of Jerusalem are frightened.
So after the wise men arrive, Herod gathers together some chief priests and scribes and ask them if they know where the Messiah has been born. They reply, "in Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet." The prophet in this case is Jeremiah (23:5) who says, "Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land."
The wise men, who perhaps were astrologers, had been following a star. They are looking for this child in order to pay him homage, to worship him. Their astrological wisdom tells them that something in the world is changing and they need to find this child to see what it's all about.
Herod fakes his interest in finding the Messiah so he can worship him as well and asks the wise men to send him word when they find the child. Fortunately, a dream tells them later not to return to Herod so they go back home by another way.
The wise men follow the star until it stops over the place where the child is and they are overwhelmed with joy. When they see the baby Jesus with Mary, they kneel down and worship him. They worship him first and then give him the gifts they had brought with them, gifts fit for a king.
How did the wise men know that this was the baby, the Messiah that they were looking for? Most babies look like....well.....babies, some cute, some not so cute. How did they know that this was the one to worship, this was the one they had traveled so far to see? Were there no other babies in Bethlehem? How did they know that this was the Messiah, the one they had been waiting for, the one of whom the prophets foretold? What was it that drew them to that manger in Bethlehem? We are not told that part in the gospel accounts but it must have been God tugging at their hearts, inspiring them to go look for this child, the Messiah. Because as soon as they see Jesus, they know he is the one born the king of the Jews, no matter what Herod said.
What is it that draws us to the manger? What is it that draws us to Christ? It is God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, that tugs at our hearts, to bring us to the manger, to help us to know Jesus. It is God who brings us together, week after week, to worship God in this community of faith. It is God who inspires us and calls us to worship God at home, or in the car, or at work. It is God's love for us that draws us to the manger, to know who God is, to worship God and to spread God's word to others.
But the question is, will we listen and respond? Will we answer God's call to worship God, to love God and our neighbor? Or will we do what we want to do, treat others as we want to, live the way we want to, without any regard for what God wants us to do?
God called the wise men, who were Gentiles, and sent them to find the baby Jesus and to worship him. They could have said no. They could have ignored the tugging of their hearts, their wanting to know what was changing in this world. But they didn't, and because they didn't, the knowledge of the Messiah's birth was brought to the Gentiles. God's love was not just for the Jews but for everyone.
The birth of the long awaited Messiah was a promise that fulfilled the scriptures - the Son of God coming into this world to show us who God is. The wise men were overjoyed - but Herod.....not so much. Herod felt threatened by the birth of Jesus, so threatened that when he realized he had been duped by the wise men who did not return to tell him the location of the child, that he had all male children under the age of two killed. In the small town of Bethlehem, that may not have been many, but it was still a tragedy to those families whose children were killed.
What is Jesus for us - a threat or a promise? Is he a threat to the way we want to live our lives; or is he a promise that through him, we know God better? Jesus came to show us a better way to live, a better way to love one another as children of God. May each of us be called to the manger to testify that Jesus is the promise that we have longed for, the Messiah, the Son of God, who came to show us God's love for us. Amen.