Wonder Leads the Way

January 6, 2016

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
The Feast of the Epiphany 
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

(Gospel text is provided at the bottom of this post)

Tonight’s gospel reading is the familiar story of the three wise men from the East. They’ve seen a distant star and embark on a long journey to pay homage to a newborn messiah.

Christmas Pageants and Nativity Scenes include these three characters alongside the shepherds, donkeys, sheep, Mary and Joseph as they all surround Baby-Jesus in the manger. outdoor-lighted-nativity-scene-4-nativity-scene-5201-x-1654The problem is, in Matthew’s gospel there is no manger scene – no census; no long journey to Bethlehem; no “no vacancy” inns – there’s no stable at all. That’s all in Luke’s gospel.

Luke’s gospel is written to the Gentile audience, using characters that are non-traditional – like women and shepherds. In Luke’s birth story, Mary and Elizabeth take the starring roles. Consequently, we know right away that something is different. That this baby Jesus is creating a new dynamic. With a Gentile audience it’s okay for the writer to be “in your face” about this new thing.

But Matthew has to use a different approach. You see, Matthew’s gospel is written for a mostly Hebrew audience. There is a chosen-ness that the Israelites understand about their relationship with God. They have exclusive rights to God. For them, God even resides in their temple in Jerusalem.

With a Hebrew audience in mind, Matthew’s gospel explicitly links the Old Testament – Israel’s story – with the New Story of Jesus. We see this through the recurring refrain: “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.”

Even the arrival of these three wise men from the east is credited to the words from the prophet Isaiah:

“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.” (Is 60:3, 6b)

You see, Matthew’s gospel is all about continuing the tradition that already began through Abraham. There’s just one problem, with Jesus, their private club just went public! Jesus’ message is about to expand the boundaries, draw the circle wider if you will. This story of the wise men begins to deliver that message, while skillfully weaving in Old Testament prophesies. No longer just for the chosen people of God, Jesus came to open the doors, open God’s love and grace, to ALL people.

These astrologers from the East are the first outsiders who get a glimpse of this new thing coming in the form of a child, Jesus. bigstock_Three_Wise_Men_And_The_Star_8890138They have seen a sign, a rising star in the sky. They grasp that it has a deeper meaning; a call from God toward something new. Something they can’t ignore. Something they must seek out.

Even so, they aren’t really sure what to do once they get to this unfamiliar land. Unfortunately in those days, there was no iPhone with Siri to ask, so perhaps they just asked others along the road: “Where do we go to find the king of the Jews?”

And they were probably told to go to Jerusalem. That’s where the Temple is – the house of God – so, for the Hebrew people this is the place to be. It’s also where King Herod was, the official authority; the appointed leader of Judea by the Roman Empire.

And when they arrive, these outsiders didn’t try to be coy; they didn’t measure their words; they simply asked directly: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

So, here are these strangers asking about a messiah – a child that is to be king of the Jews. I can just picture the Jewish leaders looking at each other, perhaps saying “How did we miss that!!” or more likely, “We’ve got to do something about this! We like things the way they are, where we’re the ones in charge; we set the rules; we decide what God wants and doesn’t want… this is how it’s worked for hundreds of years and we want to keep it that way!”

But, they also recognize that these outsiders seem to have an inside track to finding this “new king,” so Herod doesn’t dare dismiss them. Instead, he calls the religious authorities to see if they might have a clue as to where to send the wise men so they can find the child and then report back. Zefad - 2006-06-26 - 2006-06-28_311-3The chief priests and scribes find this text as their answer:

“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

So the place of authority is no longer Jerusalem with the patriarchal power structure it exemplifies, but instead is Bethlehem, a small, unassuming town. And the child will not be a ruler-king, like Herod, but instead a shepherd who will guide the people in a new way.

Through this birth story, Matthew’s gospel puts forth a new vision of what and how God will be in the world. And, by linking it to the Old Testament, it conveys the message that we must stay nimble. We must be willing to reinterpret and reimagine the future, where God is in the midst of new things; unexpected things, all the time.

Through Jesus, the Hebrew people no longer have exclusive rights to God. Outsiders, those who come from a different land, who may speak and look differently, who most likely believe differently – these too have access to God, and this new messiah-child will shepherd them, too.

And what’s REALLY amazing about this story is that the wise men made the journey at all. They let their curiosity and wonder set them on a path to the unknown.

THAT’s the mysterious revelation of the Epiphany. Their openness to something new is the lesson we can all be reminded of and live into again and again. And, it stands in stark contrast to Herod, and all of those in Jerusalem whose response was one of fear, exclusion and attempts to eliminate all those who threaten the status quo.Fear-And-Curiosity-Quotes-HD-Wallpaper-06464

The wise men saw something on the horizon – a light in the darkness – and recognized it as a call by God to seek out this new thing. Their action – setting off on the unbelievable journey – was testament to their openness to God’s guidance in their life. They journeyed away from what was comfortable. They put themselves at risk with the authorities. They embodied in this opening story what Jesus, through his teachings later in Matthew’s gospel, outlines as discipleship.

As we reflect on this today, and embark on this new year, I wonder if we are open to seeing a new star in the distant sky? choice-fear-curiosity-250x250Are we, like the wise men, willing to embark on a new journey without yet knowing where it will lead? Can we give the journey the commitment and perseverance it requires so that we arrive at the intended destination; God’s intended destination for us?

What new revelation – what Epiphany – might God be calling you to right now?

What Epiphany might God be calling Christ Church to right now?

You are invited to bring your gifts – your time, your talent and your treasure – and let’s find out together!

Christmas Cat

Gospel Text:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matt 2:1-12)


One Response to “Wonder Leads the Way”

  1. Jim Greenwood said

    Wonderfully insightful. Love, Dad

    Jim Greenwood


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