Isaiah 60:1-7, Matthew 2:1-12
January 4, 2015
Last year(!) – and yes, it was “last year!” Last year, I was talking about the world into which Jesus was born. And I was saying then that it was a very Jewish world. I feel like I’ve gotten a greater sense of that this year. (Or last year, as it were!) I hope I’ve given you at least a little sense of that, too. Because again, when we think of “Christmas,” I think the tendency is for us to think in terms of it a being “Christian” thing – which it is, of course! But the more I’ve thought of it, the more I’ve come to grips with the Jewish element in all of this.
Just think of it. Mary and Joseph were Jewish. The shepherds in Bethlehem were Jewish. So were all the people in that town. The whole country was Jewish. Jesus himself was Jewish. His friends were Jewish. Later on his disciples were all Jewish. Do you get the picture? This was a very Jewish world! Everyone in this story was Jewish. Except! – these visitors from the East!
Now some would say that there were people from all over who visited Israel and Jerusalem. That’s true. There were certainly travelers and foreigners in and around that area. There were some around who were converts from other religions. And there was, of course, a significant Roman presence in that world. Yes, we could dig into all of that. But, despite those kinds of exceptions, the people and the world of Jesus was predominantly Jewish!
I say that because I want you to see the great contrast in the story we celebrate today. On Epiphany, which is actually this Tuesday, we celebrate the fact that Mary and Joseph had some “Unexpected Guests.” And guess what! They were not Jewish! And that would have been, shall we say, “somewhat unusual.” (Perhaps we should say they would have stuck out like the proverbial “sore thumb.”) And yes, there were other foreigners who had visited Israel before, but these men were more than tourists or traveling merchants! They were dignitaries from a foreign country. And even if such “dignitaries” as these did travel through the area from time to time, none before had asked the questions they asked.
Our story today is about the fact that these men had seen some kind of celestial event, an event that was significant enough for them to pack up their caravan, and go on a journey. And by the way, it was most likely a caravan. Three travelers carrying such expensive gifts would not have been very “wise men” if they traveled about with just the three of them! Though that is the way we often picture them, isn’t it?!
This story is about these men, who were Gentiles, by the way, and who were searching for the one to whom the celestial event pointed. And low and behold, he was (what?) Jewish. (You’re getting the picture!) They had seen something in the sky at night that pointed to royalty, and to the country of Israel. There are a number of theories as to what that was. But what ever it was, Matthew tells us that “Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.’” We could stop right there, and try to grasp the significance of that question, and not begin to fathom it! But I want us to try.
As I’ve said on previous “first Sundays of the year,” the word “Epiphany” means “a sudden realization.” It is an “Aha moment!” So, into this Jewish world was born the Jewish Messiah. And Matthew’s Gospel was written to say precisely that. He uses all sorts of Old Testament references to do it. And yet his version, his Gospel, is the only one that contains the Epiphany story – the story of these Gentiles coming to see the Jewish Messiah. That contrast right there is amazing! And of all the writers, it was the one who had the greatest Jewish perspective, who recognized the importance of this story.
Then think about Matthew’s readers. (Who would have been, what? Jewish!) And yes, his Jewish readers would have picked up on that great contrast! They would have recognized that the whole world knew there was something important happening here. And the “Aha moment” for them was the recognition by the Gospel writer who had the most Jewish perspective of them all, that this event was to be for all people! That’s the big “Aha!” And make no mistake, that would have been tough for some people to accept. Maybe many people!
So, what does all that say about us? What does that say about our own understanding of God’s purpose in our world? If we truly understand that the birth of Jesus was not just a Jewish event, could we then try to understand that it might even be not just a Christian event? And does that make us uncomfortable? Are the words of the Angel, that would have been hard for those people to hear, hard for us to hear too – that this was “Good news of a great joy that shall be to all people”?
Make no mistake. Jesus himself did not say in John 3 and 16, “For God so loved his people.” (However we choose to define “his people.”) He said, “For God so loved the world!” I’ll bet that made Nicodemus a bit “nervous” at that moment. And the people of God have struggled with that from then on, whether it was then, when the Jews were “God’s people,” or now in our day when we Christians think of ourselves as “God’s people.”
What then will we say about all that? This can be uncomfortable, can’t it? Whether that means accepting people who are not like us, or just reaching out to others at all, it’s much easier to keep to ourselves. It’s much easier to stay inside our “comfort zone,” isn’t it? It’s easier to be like the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. They were called to be the “light of the world.” They knew that. They knew it from their scriptures. And Jesus told them that again when he was here! But they had become “exclusive” in their faith. They had kept to themselves. They chose to think that they were God’s only people, and everybody else was not. They were called by God to be the “light of the world” and they did nothing about it!
Let us not make the same mistake. Let it not be said of us that we are called by God to be the light of the world, and we did nothing about it. Like the people of Jesus’ time we are called to bring the light of God’s love to the world. We are to bring his message of Grace and Peace to others. And the “others” may be “unexpected,” like these visitors from the east.
So, think about it. When it comes to the “all people” the angel talked about – which included these unexpected guests, do we want them to feel like we who are called to be the light of the world want nothing to do with them? Or do we want them to know that they have seen the light of God through us?
In the New Year ahead, let us pledge ourselves to take seriously the call to be the light to the nations!
Eternal God, like the people of old, Jesus said we are the light of the world. Help us to have the courage to be so. Help us to feel your spirit inside of us, urging us to reach out with your love and compassion. Help us to have the strength we need to let your light shine through us. May this New Year be one of promise and joy for us here in this place. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.