Isaiah 60:1-7, Matthew 2:1-12
January 4, 2009
I’m calling this sermon “Wise Men Still Seek Him.” And I know that’s a bit of a cliché, but I wanted to use it anyway! After all, it is the time of Epiphany, and I have always liked this play on words. “Wise Men Still Seek Him.” Wise men once sought the Christ child, and those who are wise will still seek him today.
We’re sort of working backwards in Matthew. Last week we looked at the end of this story. We read about what happened when Herod thought the Wise Men had “tricked him.” That was what I called the serious side of the Christmas story. Now, we’re going back to the first part of the story in Matthew 2, and we’re looking at how these Wise Men – the Magi – came to the Christ child in the first place. This is the event we celebrate which we call Epiphany event. Actually Epiphany takes place on Tuesday of this week, because it is always January 6th, 12 days after Christmas – after all those “drummers were drumming,” I believe.
Sometimes I think we ought to have all these celebrations on a Sunday – including Christmas! That would make scheduling much easier! But one of the benefits of celebrating Epiphany on a Sunday is that we might have a better sense of the importance of this story. Too often it gets forgotten with the Christmas and New Years celebrations. (And of course preparing for my Birthday!)
I think that’s a loss. Because this is one of the most important things that happened in the Christmas story. Here we have these men coming from another country seeking the newborn King of the Jews. Here we have the words of Isaiah, “Nations shall come to your light, and Kings to the brightness of your rising.” (Isaiah 60:3) Here we have the words of the Angel being played out, “Behold I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all people.” (Luke 2:10) The visit of these Wise Men exemplified all of that. The word Epiphany means a sudden revelation. It is an “Aha! I get it!” moment. That’s what this visit was.
When my daughter was very young. I told her two jokes. I told these in the first service, and I said to my wife I wasn’t going to tell them this service because the emphasis was a little different. She said, “No, you can’t let them off the hook!” “Yeah,” I said, “I suppose I should torture them, too!” So here goes.
The first Joke is this. “What’s Irish and stays out all night?” The answer, “Patio Furniture!” (Get it? “Patty O’Furniture?” You see what I mean by torture?!) The second is this. “What do you call a mushroom who buys all the drinks?” The answer, “A fun guy to be with!” (A fungi to be with!)
Well, their mother said, “Don’t tell her those jokes, she’s only 2. She doesn’t understand them.” But I said, “She’s having a great time. She laughs and laughs, and some day, it’s going to dawn on her what they really mean, and they’ll be funny all over again!” Well, my daughter still to this day tells how funny it was to her when she was telling those jokes to someone, and all of a sudden she got it. And she laughed that she told them for years and all of a sudden they made sense. That was an “epiphany” for her. That was a “sudden revealing” to her. That’s the idea we celebrate here.
I want us to think about these men for a moment. What did this scene look like? I don’t know about yours, but my manger scene has the Wise Men standing all together with the shepherds and the cows and the sheep – all on the same table. But we know that probably wasn’t the case. Biblical Scholars have said that this “Epiphany visit” may have taken place up to a year later. I also have three Wise Men on that table. But we really don’t know how many there were. The Bible doesn’t actually say. There were three gifts mentioned by Matthew, but that doesn’t necessarily mean three men. (The plural form means there were at least two!)
The other day I was watching a show on the History Channel about these guys, and it was very interesting! It said that they may not even have been riding camels, the way most artists and movie makers have depicted of them. There is some good ancient evidence that suggests they may have been riding horses.
However they got there, and whatever they looked like, and however many of them there were, these were interesting men. They were from another country, which also meant they were from another religion. Probably one called Zoroastrianism, which was an ancient form of astrology. They charted the movements of the heavens believing they told of earthly events. And that’s amazing, if you think about all of the buildup to the coming of the Messiah. Because most of the “prophecies” of this event came from the Jewish scriptures! Yet here were the outsiders – the gentiles – coming to this child.
What makes that even more amazing is that the only Gospel writer who tells us this story is Matthew. And Matthew wrote his Gospel for the express purpose of convincing the Hebrew people that Jesus was the Messiah predicted in their scriptures. Matthew is full of prophetic references, “Thus happened to fulfill what the prophet said,” and then the reference. And this second chapter has a lot of them! Matthew is telling the Jewish people about these visitors from another religion, and how they recognized their own signs that pointed to the Messiah’s arrival.
Scientists have tried to determine just what it was they saw in that eastern sky. One theory was that it was a comet. Though that’s not as likely because comets were usually seen as harbingers of doom. Another theory is that this star was the conjunction of planets – planets which had special significance in terms of Israel and kingship. It could also have been a supernova – a star that exploded. Whatever it was, these men understood it to mean that a king was coming in Israel. So they went off to see this king. And that set up this most bizarre conjunctions of people.
The importance of this event is that the good news of the angels was to be to all people! This scene told of that, and Matthew felt it important to tell the Jewish people about it. And the thing is, they should have understood that! Their scriptures told them that they were called by God to be the “light to the nations.” Again, the words of Isaiah, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (Isaiah 60:3) But they didn’t do that. Instead, they made their religion very exclusive. Their attitude was, “We are the chosen people.” “And you’re not!” And that was one of the reasons God was not too pleased with them in the Old Testament.
Do we ever forget that? Do we forget that God loves all of his creation? Do we ever feel like we’re in and others are not? For years, I have struggled with how God relates to people of other faiths. And that’s always a tough struggle! And I have always believed we should all have that struggle. I don’t have all the answers on that one, except to say that God loves his creation, and so should we. We should ask ourselves, what would we have thought about these foreigners who came to the Christ child? And isn’t it amazing that they didn’t know Christ, yet they were compelled to seek him out!
So, the sentiment I started with is still valid, I think. Wise men still seek him. And I would ask, “Do we?” You know, sometimes Christians think they’ve already “found him,” and that’s it. They think they already know him, so the search is over. And it’s easy to fall into that. But I believe seeking Christ is a lifelong pursuit. The Psalmist told us we are to “Seek the Lord and his strength. Seek his presence continually.” (Psalm 105:4-5) And that’s a direct quote of I Chronicles. (I Chronicles 16:11-12) So why do we seek him? Because we need his strength. We seek him because we need his presence every day!
Isaiah wrote, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” Then he says why. “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’” (Isaiah 55:6, 8-9) We seek God because he is so far beyond us and it is a lifelong pursuit to know him better and to understand him better.
As we seek God, we deepen our relationship with him. We seek to know and to be known. That’s where a lot of people miss the boat. They think what they know about Christ is “all there is,” which Isaiah would say is not possible. Or they think what they know is “good enough” which is a problem. Because that’s what makes for a stagnant faith, one with no joy, life, or growth!
So, it’s a new year. Have you made resolutions? Let me suggest that you make it a resolution to seek the Lord. Let this phrase stick in your mind. “Wise Men Still Seek Him.” Seek to spend more days “in his presence” or should I say, “in the awareness of his presence.” Seek his strength in living this life. Seek to know him and to be known. Seek a deeper relationship with God in 2009. May this be a blessed year for all of us!
Eternal God, we look to you for our strength and our peace. Help us in this sacrament to find your presence. Help us to know your strength in our lives, that we may follow more closely our savior, Jesus Christ. Teach us to be more like him in all of our ways. For we pray in his name, Amen.