Isaiah 60:1-7, Matthew 2:1-12
January 5, 2014
Last week we talked about the prophecies of Simeon. He was the man who spoke about Jesus when he was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem for dedication. Simeon said that Jesus was “God’s salvation,” “a light for relation to the Gentiles, and for glory to the people Israel.”
We talked about how great a confirmation that must have been for Mary and Joseph, a confirmation of all that had been happening to them. And we also said how that message would not be welcomed by everyone. Many of the Jews felt that the Messiah would be their savior alone. Because of that, the second of Simeon’s prophecies would come true. This child would indeed “be set for the rise and fall of many in Israel.”
Today’s story is about that very thing. This week we celebrate Epiphany. Actually Epiphany is tomorrow. It doesn’t usually fall on a Sunday, but we celebrate it nonetheless. And Epiphany is when we commemorate the coming of these “unexpected visitors” – these Magi – the “Kings” of story and song.
As we think about these men, we cannot get around the fact that they were not of the Jewish faith! They were Gentiles who had seen a light – literally. They had followed the light of the star to find the “the one who is born King of the Jews.” If you really stop and think of it, that is almost a bizarre image! Yet it is, by definition a “sudden realization,” which is what Epiphany means. An epiphany is an “Aha moment!” And in this case, it is a time when the world would finally realize that this “good news of a great joy” would indeed be “for all people!”
That is so important! It is at the heart of this story! And as we think about that, one thing about it that we have to remember is that this story from Matthew’s Gospel actually took place after the stories in Luke – perhaps quite a bit after! I know it comes first in the Bible. It’s the second chapter in the whole New Testament! And I know we often think of this as one of the “birth stories.” And of course, in many artists depictions, in a lot of movies and TV shows, on a lot of Christmas cards, and in most people’s “manger scenes,” the wise men are right there next to the shepherds. But it probably didn’t happen that way.
As we’ve said before, Bible scholars believe these unexpected visitors came to Bethlehem as much as a year after Jesus’ birth. For one thing, Matthew tells us that they “went into the house” to see the child. The family had moved out of the stable. I suppose we could say that their lives had become more “stable.” (Get it?) And then, of course, later in this story, when Herod sent his soldiers to destroy the child, he instructed them to eliminate all male children under two years.
So, there’s a bit of the time line here. And these men fit into it later on. As Mary and Joseph watched this story unfold in their lives, these “confirmations” continued to come in their lives – for years! These miraculous things that happened along the way kept confirming for them that what was happening was of God, and that they were, as I said before, part of “something big.”
Well, as this story goes, it wouldn’t be long before that “something big” turned into “something serious.” This passage confirms what Luke told us about last week in the prophecy of Simeon. He told us that this story would not be entirely “pretty.” And I know we want to make it that way. We want to make this be all about “the love of God and the beauty of that love being shown in a newborn child.” And isn’t that wonderful? Yes, but there’s more to it! And though many people choose to ignore the rest of the story, the sad fact is that when the Wise Men left, this family was forced to flee for their lives!
This story took a serious turn. And isn’t that helpful when we think of the state of our own lives at times? You know the circumstances in our lives are not always good. And holiday time is no exception! In fact, sometimes it’s a time of even greater difficulty! And when that’s the case, it seem to made worse because it then becomes very apparent that we are missing the “peace on earth” these stories seem to promise!
That’s one of the reason I like this story. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like to skip the “not so nice” parts. Because this story of Christmas says there’s more to it. Life isn’t always wonder, comfort, and joy. Sometimes it’s tough. Sometimes when it’s supposed to be the most wonderful, it takes a turn for the worst! That’s the story of this baby. He was God’s love and salvation, but he was also the great sacrifice by which we are healed. And this story tells of that. It “confirms” that for us!
The song we just sang, “We Three Kings,” tells of that very well. Some time read the words of the three middle verses of that hymn. There we find a wonderful musical interpretation of the meaning of the three gifts the Wise Men Brought. And this shows that they were wiser than we might otherwise have thought!
Verse two tells us that the gift of Gold was for kingship. “Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain. Gold I bring to crown him again.” That confirms that this child would be king. Verse three tells us about Frankincense. “Frankincense to offer have I. Incense owns a deity nigh.” That’s all about worship. Incense was used in worship, and some faiths use it even today. That reminds us that this child was and is God. Then verse four tells us about Myrrh. “Myrrh is mine it’s bitter perfume, breathes a life of gathering doom.” Myrrh was a burial spice. It was used to anoint the body after death. There we have a hint of the sacrifice and eventual death of Jesus. Those were the three aspects of who this baby truly was. And no, they were not all “pretty.”
But then I love the last verse. And this is made more meaningful because of the other three. “Glorious now behold him arise. King and God and sacrifice…” That’s a great song! And I’ve been thinking maybe we should sing it at other times of the year, and not just Christmas and Epiphany! I might just spring it on you sometime, maybe during Lent. So don’t be surprised!
In the meantime, let that song run through your head today. Let that be the thing that “sticks with you” as you leave. It’s a great depiction of this event we call Epiphany. It helps us see the big picture – the true picture – of this child, not just the “sanitized version” we often get, as a colleague of mine used to say. Let it remind you that God’s love for us transcends all that we could ever imagine that love to be. This is beyond just a beautiful story of a birth of a child. It’s an intense story of fear and wonderment and sacrifice.
Let it be that for you. No matter what may be happening in your life, know that God is there, and because of this child, his love and grace can overcome any and all circumstances! “Glorious now behold him arise. King and God and Sacrifice.”
Eternal God, your great love for us was shown in the story of Jesus. Help us to know the breadth and length and height and depth of that love. Help us to know you through this story of your love. Help us to seek you with all of our hearts, and to grow closer to you each day. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.