Friday, January 4, 2008

Matthew 2:1-12 - Epiphany Sermon - Stargazers

Matthew 2:1-12

Today we are through with our journey. The process of preparation, seeking, finding, worshipping, and celebrating the Christmas Child all comes to an end today. But it is still today, there is still a reason to celebrate and worship. Today, like I told the children is the day of Epiphany and this year it actually falls on a Sunday. Epiphany means a couple of different things. Epiphany is a sudden revelation or insight. For example, while contemplating different ways to handle the situation, John suddenly had an epiphany about what he should do. Epiphany for us Christians though means that and more.

Epiphany is the day we celebrate the Magi coming to visit baby Jesus. Many of you are sitting there today probably thinking to yourselves, okay, big deal, isn’t Christmas more important than the wise men showing up? The birth of Christ is extremely important and ranks up there as one of the high holy days, yet Epiphany is just behind it. Epiphany is important because it celebrates the appearance of the God/Man to the Gentiles which is who the Magi represent. We are all Gentiles sitting in this sanctuary this morning and we celebrate today because Jesus didn’t simply come to save the Jews but also came to save us, the Gentiles.

We are all familiar with the story of the Magi but I do need to start off by squelching some of the most common myths about this story so we can look at it correctly. Matthew tells us about the visitors that come from a distant land to witness Christ’s birth, but who are these people. In the NIV, the translation I read, Matthew calls them Magi and in others they are known as Wise Men. One thing they are never called, in any translation, is kings. So the hymn we just sung is incorrect when is says, We three kings of orient are. It is more than likely that these Magi were magicians, astrologers, experts in interpreting dreams, or if nothing else people who were very into strange celestial happenings.

Another thing we need to get right is how many of them there were. In almost every nativity scene or Christmas pageant there are three. Yet the scripture never says how many there are. The only thing we know is that there were three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In order to get three gifts to manger scene, any children’s pageant director will tell you, you need three kids to each carry one gift. If not there is fighting or bickering about the person carrying two or not being able to carry a gift. Because there are three gifts we have also assumed there were three wise men. The truth is it is definitely more than one but that is all we know. There could have been two of them or there could have been 14, we simply will never know.

Then there are guesses on what the star could have been that they followed. Many think it could be Halley’s Coment, which appeared in the sky about 12-11 BC. That could be true but that date seems a little far off. There are theories out there that the star was really a supernova. But the idea that many scholars agree with is that in 7 BC, which would a much closer date, Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction with each other three times that year. In ancient astrology Jupiter was seen as the royal planet and Saturn was sometimes thought of to represent the Jews. Thus when these planets, which if you look at them with your naked eye in the sky look like stars, came together three times that year it probably meant that the King of the Jews was being born.

All this though is the details of the story. The overall story is the important part. The story of a journey from a distant land to find the King of the Jews that the star was telling them about. The important aspect of the story is that these people, these foreigners looked up to heaven and found a reason to search for a baby, a King and what they found was God.

That is what this journey is about, the search for a king which ends up finding God. That is the Christmas journey. That is the Christian journey. We are constantly searching and following like the wise men. We are always on the look out for something that is meaningful in our lives, something that is interesting, something that is amazing. Then when we find it, usually it is from God.

Three months after Alycia and I got married we moved to England where I was the minister of three churches in the Ashton-under-Lyne circuit of the British Methodist church. Through the United Methodist seminaries and the British Methodist church we were able to get a one year appointment over there. We lived in a little town called Mossley which was on the edge of the moors and about twenty minutes from Manchester. Every day over there was an adventure. When we stepped out of the front door of the manse, that is what they call a parsonage, we were stepping out into a world we didn’t know.

Usually on my days off Alycia and I would go out exploring. We would plan day trips and even some weekend get-a-ways. Most of the time we would simply drive around in our Vauxhall Corsa and see what we could see. For Alycia’s 25th birthday I surprised her with a trip to Wales. Her grandmother is Welsh so I decided to take her exploring in her family’s country. We went here and there and made fun of the funny looking Welsh language. We were driving around the coast line just after yet another a rain storm. The air was still misty when we rounded a corner and there it was. It was the brightest, most vivid rainbow we had ever seen. In fact there were two, side by side. They reached down from the heavens and kissed the water. It was so breathtaking we pulled over and watched them until the disappeared about 20 minutes later. For Alycia’s 25th birthday, God gave her a double rainbow.

That is what happens when you go on a journey, you find things unexpectedly. The Magi headed out from their homeland on a whim, on a hunch, on their gut feeling something big was happening. What they found brought them much joy. For the scriptures says, When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. They were filled with such joy, such amazement, so much awe they could do nothing else but worship.

That is not the case for the other prominent character in the story, King Herod. When the wise men arrive in Jerusalem, home of the Jews, they went to the head guy to find out if a King was born. Herod was not a nice guy and was very worried someone was going to take over his kingdom. He was so paranoid that he killed his wife and most of the rest of his family. When he hears the wise men come and say a king was born he was as anxious they were to find out where the ‘king’ was. He calls in experts and found out it was in Bethlehem. He tried to play the wise men to come back and tell him where he was, but God is smarter than Herod and that plan backfires.

What happens to Herod is the same thing that happens too many of us when we come face to face with God. We are scared. Herod is scared that this King of the Jews will take him over. He is so scared that after the wise men don’t return he send out a degree that every baby boys in Bethlehem two years old or younger must be killed. He wipes out hundreds of children to keep one away out of fear.

Those are the two reactions we get on this Epiphany Sunday. We get the joy of the Magi and the fear of the King. Yet that is the journey we are on too. When we journey to see God we end up with those same feelings. Some of you here today are full of joy because you can feel God working in your life and the people around you. You are pumped up with the Spirit because when you see the baby in the manger you see God and know it to be true.

There are others out there today that when you look into the manger you see God it scares you. It scares you because of what the baby means. This baby means your life will change. It means you cannot continue down the path you are on and all the questions and concerns, the unknown and the doubt, all mount up and fear is what you are left with. You look at the baby and fear is in your eyes.

The truth is we all have these moments in our journey with God. One day we have joy the other fear. It is all part of being a follower of Christ, a follower of that baby in the manger. Having fear doesn’t make you a bad Christian, it is part of the journey. Having all this joy doesn’t mean your journey is over either.

We don’t know what happened to the Magi when they went home that other way. We don’t know what they told others when they got back or if anyone believed them. All we know is that today, on Epiphany, January 6th, 2008, we stand in awe that the Christmas season is over. We gather at the Lord’s Table today and are caught up in the emotions that our journey is finished. We have seen the baby in the manger, we celebrate with joy and worship, yet we also worry because this baby makes us change and that creates fear within us.

No matter how you are feeling though the truth is that a baby was born in Bethlehem. Our Savior is here. God has come to earth. The Word has become Flesh and has made his dwelling here with us. We celebrate Epiphany because this happened not only for the Jews but all the Gentiles in the world as well. God has come for all of us and all of God’s people said…AMEN.

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