These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
No one was probably more surprised than Mary and Joseph when these strangers from the east showed up at their house. Talk about unexpected visitors! It was months or maybe even more than a year since their first born Son had been born.
It had been a long time since the first visitors had come. You remember, don’t you? On the night of his birth the shepherds had come to the manger to tell them that angels had spoken and sang to them of the birth of their son, the savior who would bring peace on earth and good will to all people. Shepherds… though dirty and outcaste… well, at least Mary and Joseph had something in common with those visitors. Like Mary and Joseph, they were of low estate… they came from the poorer members of their society. They spoke the same language and came from the same country.
So I wonder if Mary and Joseph were prepared for these visitors from Persia who came to their home. They were no longer at the manger, you know.
Apparently after things settled down in Bethlehem they had found a home to live in for a while. They have moved out of the manger or stable… Jesus is no longer sleeping in a feeding trough. Someone has offered hospitality to them. Perhaps a member of Joseph’s family. After all, this was his old hometown. And out of the blue… these visitors with their strange language and accents come to their home bearing gifts… I mean expensive gifts. Gifts that don’t make a lot of sense in some ways:
I’m reminded of the story I told the Wednesday Night live crowd of the Three Wise Women. If God had sent women instead of men, things would have turned out differently: Women would have asked for directions. They would have helped deliver the baby. They would have cleaned the stable. They would have made a casserole. They would have brought appropriate gifts!
Instead, the wise men went to the wrong city. They brought gifts suitable for a grown king, not a child… gold, frankincense and myrrh. They must have surprised Mary and Joseph.
In some ways I’m surprised. Based on our typical reading of the gospels, I expect the first people to respond and follow Jesus to be poor, not rich. Uneducated, not sophisticated. But not in Matthew’s story. The first to respond to Jesus are some of the best and brightest of their time. They are people of wealth and influence in their own culture. It sort of surprises me.
But more surprised than me may be members of Matthew’s congregation. I suspect this story was a surprise to Matthew’s primarily Jewish congregation. I think Matthew’s congregation might be very surprised that it is the wisemen who are portrayed as the first people of faith… the first to desire to worship Jesus.
Wisemen. Magi, some called them. Pagans and priests from another religion. Scholars and scientists as well for they studied the stars. They have nothing in common with Mary, an undereducated teenager… or Joseph the carpenter… but still, these scientists, scholars and priests from Persia are led by the star to find the child born to be king of the Jews… so they can worship. Worship!
And do you happen to notice who does not worship?-even when the wisemen tip them off that the new king… the messiah has been born just nine miles away– do you see who is not willing to even make a simple trip to see if it is true that the King of the Jews has been born?– The Jewish leaders, preachers and scholars. Jesus’ own family of faith. It’s sort of ironic, don’t you think. They know the answer to the question about where the king is to be born, they just don’t believe it has happened.
Then there is Herod. Herod, paranoid with power, wants to make sure it is not true. And just on the slim chance that there has been a rival born that could threaten his power-he does what so many powerful in the world seem to do when power is threatened. They seek to eliminate the threat. Even if there are some innocent victims… better than many should die than this one survive and "I lose power."
That’s what Herod is thinking. It’s all about power and keeping control. Oh, how he would miss that Jesus would understand the use of power in an altogether different way. Jesus would talk about the power of love. Herod was more concerned with his love of power than the power of love… he would have none of that in his kingdom! But Jesus would.
And do you see what Matthew is doing here? He wants to wake us up-he wants to invite us on a journey-to point us to the birth of Christ as if to say… don’t miss it.
He tells the story of the wisemen… for as they come from the east to follow that crazy star, they were responding to the prophecy of Isaiah: "Arise, shine, for your light has come." As if to say, don’t miss this thing God has done for us. Get up. Get going. Don’t be like his own family of faith and miss the presence of Christ in your midst. Don’t fail to let him light your way and guide you on your journey. Don’t be like Herod, and let your love of power blind you to the gift of love that is more powerful than any army you control.
Arise, shine-even as you have put away all the Christmas decorations for the year-don’t put Christ away… for the birth of Christ is meant for your good and the good of the world. This birth is meant to bring hope and peace to you and to the world. Not just for a day or a season, but for a lifetime.
It was a hope that was deeply rooted in the dreams and hopes of Israel and most of us who live in a world where we long for hope and peace.
It is still the hope of those of us who tire of hearing of people dying in churches in Kenya… or of the millions of refugees across the world… or of the paranoid fear that is fueled, especially in election years. Matthew wants to say, "don’t give into your fears or despair" Arise, shine, your light has come. There is one among us who can bring you that hope.
Walter Brueggeman, an OT scholar said of this story: "the story and plot line comes from Isaiah 60, a poem recited to Jews in Jerusalem about 580 BC. Those Jews had been in exile in Iraq for a couple of generations and had come back to the bombed out city of Jerusalem. They were in despair. Who wants to live in a city where the towers are torn down and the economy has failed and nobody knows what to do about it? In the middle of the mess, an amazing poet invites his depressed, discouraged, contemporaries to look up, to hope and to expect everything to change. "Rise, shine for your light has come." The poet anticipates that Jerusalem will become a beehive of productivity and prosperity, a new center of international trade. "Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…God has promised to make the city work effectively in peace…Like Matthew, the wise men know about Isaiah 60. They know they are to go to Jerusalem and to take rare spices, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Most important, they know that they will find the new king of all peace and prosperity…" (1)
Epiphany Sunday is a Sunday when we remember that while Christmas is over, the story of Christ and his message has just begun. We are invited to join the wisemen to worship the one who God gave to bring hope and peace to all people.
Not just Mary and Joseph… not just the Jews but all people. The gift of Christ is not just for the poor and uneducated but for the best and brightest among us who seek and long with all their heart, mind, soul and strength for both peace in their inner world and peace in the outer world too.
The story of Blaise Pascal is the story of a wiseman who received this gift.
He is best remembered for his genius in mathematics, but his work as a philosopher and theologian remains perhaps the most insightful of all his works. Born in France, Pascal was raised by his father and older sister after his mother’s death in 1626. Though he was often ill, he nevertheless displayed a sharp intellect at an early age. By the time he was 31 he was well known for his contributions in the fields of math and science. However, it was in that year that he visited his sister at a Christian community in Port Royal, where he heard a sermon that brought about a profound spiritual experience. He remembered that day-November 23, 1654-as the key moment in his life. He wrote the following on a piece of paper, sewed it into the lining of his coat, and carried it with him for the rest of his life:
"Fire. God of Abraham. God of Isaac. God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. Joy, joy, joy, oceans of joy!"
Sounds like worship to me!
After that experience, like the wisemen, he went home another way so to speak. His life was changed. Whatever he was searching for in his life was found… or it found him. For the next six years he would immerse himself-his intellect, his heart and his soul to begin to understand this experience. He would go on a journey of the mind and spirit. He lived with a community of people who understood faith… he studied the Bible and the church fathers. He sought to let the light of God’s gift in Christ begin to inform who he was and to transform who he was.
May the God who led Pascal, the wisemen and many, many others to the Christ, so lead you and me in our journeys — so we can find joy, peace, hope and love that God desires for you… and may we be so moved by the presence of our Lord, we will desire to share that gift with the world. That we may shine with the light of God’s loving presence… especially to those who live in darkness. May we hear in the words of Isaiah and in the story of the wisemen our invitation to "Arise, shine, for your light has come." Amen.
(1) Walter Brueggemann, The Christian Century, December 19-26, 2001 p 15.