Isaiah 60:1-7, Matthew 2:1-12
January 6, 2007
This is the day my true love gave to me 12 drummers drumming! It is the twelfth day of Christmas! So it’s kind of a noisy day – with all those drummers! Though I suppose it’s not nearly as loud as yesterday with those 11 pipers piping! Especially if they were bag-pipers! Personally I preferred 7 swans a-swimming! They’re a lot quieter!
This is Epiphany Sunday. And it is the twelfth day of Christmas. Actually Epiphany Sunday doesn’t happen very often! Since Christmas doesn’t fall on a Sunday very much, the 12th day after Christmas doesn’t either! And because of that, Epiphany doesn’t often get the recognition or the celebration I think it deserves. When it falls on a Tuesday or a Friday, we probably don’t give it thought – unless we have that song in our head.
Epiphany is one of the most important stories that would happen concerning this great event that had just taken place – the birth of the Messiah. This is the day we celebrate the story from the birth account as we find it in Matthew’s Gospel. And there we find this story of these wise men – the magi – coming to find this “newborn king.” I hope can get a sense today of how important and how amazing that event was.
Just the picture of what happened in Matthew 2 would have been a wild combination of contrasts. Here we have on one hand this poor, humble family, maybe not even that stable any more. Some scholars have placed this visit up to a year later. But even in a “house” as it says in Matthew, this would have been a humble family living a meager existence. Then to that picture we add these wealthy men, dressed no doubt in the trappings of another culture, often portrayed as being adorned with the riches of their status in life. Just imagine that scene for a moment.
Matthew doesn’t actually say all that much about these men. In fact, why is it that we usually assume there were three of them? Because there were three gifts they brought to Jesus. But also, that’s what the song says!! Matthew doesn’t really say. And when we say “three kings” we’re not saying they were kings in the sense that they were “rulers of three countries.” In fact, it’s pretty much understood that they were more like astrologers. However, in their culture, that meant that they were religious leaders, which meant they were people who held great power and influence over peoples’ lives. And it was likely that they were quite wealthy. And living in a time when travel was not very safe – especially for those who carried with them such things as gold, frankincense, and Myrrh – they were probably traveling in a large group! (Perhaps a caravan!)
Well, just the appearance of these men in contrast with the humble child they came to worship was amazing enough. But of course, that’s only part of this. The other part, which is possibly much larger, has to do with the fact that these men had come not just from another country, but from another religion! They had come to see the Jewish Messiah, and they even referred to him as “King of the Jews,”and they were gentiles. And very important Gentiles! What do you think all of these Jewish people would have been thinking about that?
I really believe that when Matthew wrote these words, “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying ‘where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have come to worship him…” that would have been shocking! Wise Men from the East? Foreigners! People from other religions! We read this as just a “normal” part of our Christmas celebration. But I don’t think we often get the impression of how shocking that was!
Remember, also that each of the Gospel writers had their own reason for writing, and they each had their “target audience.” And in the case of Matthew, he was writing his Gospel directly to the Jewish people. He wanted to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah as foretold in the Old Testament – their Bible. So his Gospel is full of Old Testament references. “Such and such happened in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet…” And yet it was Matthew alone who told this story of the Magi. And it was his audience, the Jewish people, who would have been the most unaccepting of these foreigners’ being included in this story of the Messiah!
I want you to think about that. And I want you to remember how the Jewish people in Jesus’ time had a very low regard for the gentiles. They thought ill of anyone who was not part of them. And I want you to think about that in light of all the messianic prophecies of Isaiah. His prophecies are chock full of the kinds of images as we have in our reading for today. (Both our readings, actually!) Again and again in Isaiah you find this theme of “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” And as we read those things, we need to understand the “universal” message they imply. All the nations shall come to the light of God they see in you! That’s what Isaiah was saying.
It is clear in the Old Testament that God’s people had blown it – and not just in the way they had forsaken their God time and time again – which they had! But they had forsaken their calling by God to be the light of the world. God started with them as a chosen people, but they were then to bring the love of God to all nations and peoples. And they had failed. They had turned it around and taken instead a very exclusionary stand about their faith. “We’re the chosen people!” “And you’re not!” “We’re the ‘in’s, you’re the ‘out’s!” That’s not what God intended for them.
So when Jesus came saying, “You are the light of the world,” we most often tie that into his statements about himself as being the light of the world. But the more I think about that, the more it seems to me that he was quoting Isaiah! “Your light has come… and nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising!” He was doing what he often did when he spoke to the crowds. He was telling them what they should have known already! They should have been the light of the world, and they weren’t!
That was a tough message for them to hear! It was a shocking thing for them to read this story in Matthew’s Gospel. And sometimes I think it’s tough for us when we see the implications of all of this. Because, my friends, the inescapable truth is that God loves all of the people he has created! Of course, the great tragedy is that some have gone away from him and want nothing to do with him – like the prodigal in Jesus’ parable. But that doesn’t change the fact that God loves all of his children. They are his creation! The “chief end” – of all people – is as it says in the catechism, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
However, to many people in many churches, this story in Matthew’s Gospel is just as scandalous as it was to the people who first read those words! To many people in many churches, the thought of dealing with “other people” in “other religions” is very uncomfortable. And they’d rather not go there. And you know what, it is uncomfortable! Thinking about people in other religions is hard to do. It’s a struggle in our minds. Yet we are, as Jesus said, the “light of the world.” We are to be people make that struggle, even though it’s not easy.
In our world, there are many that have a hard time with Christians because their faith claims appear to be quite exclusionary. And that’s very troubling to many people. We need to recognize that. As God’s people, we should give thought to how our message “lands on others.” This question of “what about people in other cultures and religions” has been around for thousands of years, and it may be more important today than ever before. We need to give a thought to that. We need to pray about it, asking God what he would have us think and understand about it. And we may need to ask for the strength to go beyond our “comfort zone.”
As we move into a new year, I hope we will do that. I hope we will see how we are the light of the world. If God truly loves all people, how does that look in terms of our love for all people – even those who might persecute us, even those who might hate us! Those are tough questions, I know. They are challenging for me, too. And sometimes I feel like I have more questions than answers. And this kind of message is hard! You may find that you leave here with more questions than answers! But that’s ok! Sometimes we do have more questions! And I would challenge us today to think in terms of seeking to know what God would have us do and think, rather than in seeking what we would prefer that God would have us do and think. That’s what it truly means when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…”
As we move into a new year, I would challenge us to think in terms of this being a “year of the Lord’s favor.” And how do we know what that is? Isaiah told us that, too. And Jesus quoted it in Luke 4. He stood up in his own home synagogue, and read these words. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
That is still Jesus’ job. And we are his body. We are the light of the world!
Eternal God, you have come to this earth because you love all of your creation. Help us to love as Jesus loved. Help us to reach out has he did. Help us to deal with the tough questions, as we strive to be Jesus’ body here on earth – the light of the world. For we pray in his name, Amen.