A Great Joy to All People – January 2, 2011

Isaiah 60:1-7, Matthew 2:1-12

January 2, 2011

As I’ve said before, each of the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, tell the story of Jesus in a slightly different way. They each start the story from a different place. They each have a slightly different “slant,” or “emphasis,” in what they’re saying about Jesus. And they’re each writing for a slightly different audience.

Well, the emphasis and audience in Matthew’s Gospel is an important one. Matthew is writing to the Jewish people. He’s attempting to convince them that Jesus is their Messiah, as foretold in their prophetic writings – part of what we call the Old Testament. So throughout his Gospel we find references to prophecies. After some kind of event, we find the words, “This took place in order to fulfill what was written by the prophet…” And then there would be a quote from Isaiah, or Malachi, or whoever Matthew was citing.

Matthew was striving to convince his Jewish brothers and sisters that Jesus was the Messiah they had been waiting for, for centuries! And of course, it couldn’t have come at a better time! For now they needed a messiah, a savior, more than ever. Because this was the time in their history when they were under the oppression and occupation of Rome. And perhaps now, God would finally vindicate his people, Israel!

I remind you of all that because it makes this story for today even more intriguing! Because this is Epiphany. And “Epiphany” is a word that describes a “sudden revealing,” an “aha moment” – a moment when we finally understand something. And what is “suddenly revealed” here, what is suddenly understood, has to do with this story of the Magi, the “Wise Men from the East,” who came to find the Christ Child.

Much has been said about these men over the years. They were men from another culture – almost certainly what we would call an “Arab culture.” They were men from another religion – quite possibly the religion of Zoroastrianism. Maybe you remember that name from your history classes. They were probably very highly esteemed in that culture because they were ones who could read the fates and futures of people by studying the stars. And of course, somewhere in the heavens, they saw something important enough to go on this journey.

Well, the more I think about all that, the more I am amazed by the fact that, not only is this story is found nowhere else in the Gospels, but it’s told by the man with the strongest Jewish connection to this story! And he’s telling it to his predominantly Jewish audience! And the reason that is so intriguing is that, as you know, by the time of Christ, the Jewish people had become extremely exclusive in their faith. They were the chosen people! And the rest of the nations – the Gentiles – were “on the outside.”

So this is a bizarre and paradoxical picture! Here we have all together, the Jewish Messiah, his family, some shepherds, and now these Magi, these Gentiles, these astrologers, bowing down in homage before him. I hope you get the impact of that!

So far this year, each time we’ve looked at the people in this story, I’ve asked you to look more closely at your manger scene at home. I hope you’ve done that. I hope you’ve thought about Joseph standing there. I hope you’ve pondered the role of Mary. And I hope you haven’t packed it all away yet. At the very least, that part of your Christmas décor, should stay out until after January 6th – the day we celebrate Epiphany! If not, it would be like taking down your Christmas tree on December 21st!

Well, this time I want you to take a closer look at those Wise Men. They’re there! There are three of them, even though scripture doesn’t actually tell us how many there were. One of them is probably kneeling. (Am I right?) And they have their gifts. I want you to look at them again, and I want you to see how important it is that they are there. And as you look at them, I want you to see what Matthew was trying to tell his readers.

You see, he was trying to tell them something extremely important, as well as something that was extremely difficult for them to hear! The angel’s message of a great joy to all people wasn’t just a wonderful sounding song. It was actually to be a message of “good news of a great joy to all people.” God meant that! When he finally came, Jesus wasn’t to be the messiah for just one group of people. He was to be the messiah of all people!

I hope we get that, too! And before we think that “incongruity,” represented by those figures on our table, exists only there, let us think of how that same incongruity might exist in our lives. Are we ever exclusive in our own faith? Or do we consider how God loves all people – even those who don’t look like, or act like us? Do we respect and reach out to those who don’t believe like us? Or do we expect that when people come in here, they need to conform to our doctrine, our practice, and our dogma? When we say we want to “grow” the church, does that mean that we just want to find and reach out to people who are just clones of ourselves? These are enormous questions, I know! But they are ever before us. I asked you before how would you feel if a group of bikers came in that door on a Sunday morning. Would you greet them differently than you would someone in a suit and tie?

This is the dilemma of every church that has ever existed from the time Jesus created the Church! Who’s in? If you think about it, the whole “God loves me and not you” debate has caused more strife since the beginning of time than maybe anything else! It’s caused enmity in the body of Christ. It’s caused divisions between people in communities. It’s caused wars between countries! And I’m sure it’s caused great heartache for our God!

God loves all of his people. He always has! They are his children! And I’m not saying that some people don’t reject his love. They do. In fact, that’s the nature of love! Love is not love if it’s forced! It’s not love if you make someone love you. Love always has the potential of the other person not reciprocating that love. And since God has given us all “free will,” we all have that potential within us. We have the option of choosing to love God or not! If you think about it, that’s quite a chance for God to take when he created us that way! But in his infinite wisdom, he knew that was the way to go!

So think about it. If we start to see people – all people – as objects of God’s love, that changes things, doesn’t it? Does that convict you in any way? I know it convicts me! Whether it’s the outcasts Jesus calls us to reach – following his example, or those who are different than us who he calls us to accept, or the enemies he told us to love; all are objects of God’s love. And this “great joy, which shall be to all people,” is to them, too.

I don’t know about you, but this message of Christmas is more amazing to me every time I think about it. It is so far beyond our understanding that sometimes all we can do is sit and ponder. May we do just that this Christmas season. May we look at this picture, bizarre though it may be, and be thankful for the amazing love of God – love he has for all people – love that caused him to do this wonderful thing.

Praise God for this wonderful story, this “great joy to all people.” May it change, and continue to change our lives, all year long!

Prayer

Eternal God, creator of us all, help us at the turn of a new year, to know more fully your love and compassion for all people. Forgive us when we forget that and fail to reach out to people who make us uncomfortable. Help us to have the mind of Christ, who came to show your amazing love. For this we pray in his name, Amen.

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