January 1, 2016 – The mystery of Christ

Epiphany Sunday   January 1, 2017  Psalm 72, Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12 The mystery of Christ

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Who are these mysterious Magi from the East, who come following a star? Seeking a newborn king… Coming to pay him homage…

Who are these mysterious travelers? We really don’t know, but… One solidly conservative bible commentary nicknames this episode “The Original Star Trek…”

Which has me re-imagining the Magi – as time-traveling Captain Kirk, Spock and company, coming to Jesus, saying “Live long and prosper.”

And to everyday people of Bethlehem, these Magi may indeed seem almost as strange as visitors from outer space…

Who are these guys? The term Magi can cover a wide range of activities, including astrology – which, in those days, was a blend of simple astronomy and what we now call astrology. (These guys had to be serious sky watchers to pick up and follow the star successfully. These were obviously not just casual horoscope readers.) Scholars guess they may have been Zoroastrian priests. Dream interpretation and wisdom teaching may have also been part of their job description. These are good guesses – but we really don’t know – because the gospel doesn’t tell us…

But… we do know the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh they bring are expensive. So probably they are wealthy. Quite possibly they have servants and body guards with them. Perhaps they are members of the royal court in their home country. (They seem unfazed in King Herod’s presence when summoned by him.)

We don’t know what country or countries they come from – except they’re from the East. Most scholars guess they’re from Persia… Though again this is only an educated guess. Contrary to one of our songs today, nothing in the gospel indicates there’s three of them, or that they’re kings. The guess that they may be kings comes mostly from two of our other readings today, Psalm 72, which speaks of Kings of Sheba and Seba bringing gifts, including gold. (We might remember also the Queen of Sheba, who came to visit Solomon, back in 1st Kings 10, bringing gifts of gold and incense…) Isaiah 60 also speaks of kings bearing gifts of gold and frankincense, proclaiming the praise of the Lord…coming to the light of a redeemed Israel, with a multitude of camels… But again – there’s nothing in Matthew’s gospel naming the Magi as kings…

What we know from scripture is that the Magi come into Jerusalem, asking directions, seeking to find the king of the Jews, saying, “for we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

We also know the news of this royal child brings – not joy – but great fear – in Jerusalem. Fear, predictably, for King Herod, who is intensely jealous of his royal privilege as top dog in the nation. Fear, also, though, for all Jerusalem. (Unexpected change often elevates anxieties… even when we know we ought to be open to changes that might bring us joy…)

But Herod is not into joy. Herod is into power. He summons the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem, asking where the Messiah (the “anointed one”) is to be born. The religious leaders point to Micah 5, which points to Bethlehem, home town of King David, of whose lineage the Messiah was expected… And these directions  help the travelers find their way…

But how very sad it is…The chief priests and bible scholars know where the Messiah is to be born. Yet none show the slightest interest… in following the star with the Magi. How sad it is…

It’s only strange star-gazing pilgrim travelers from afar… who follow the star to Bethlehem…

And among the many things we don’t know in this mysterious story – we do know – what the gospel writer wants us to know most. We do know these Magi come seeking a new born king. And we know they’re the first to name Jesus as king. (Except, of course, for the angel Gabriel. But he has unique insider knowledge; and he only speaks on the record about Jesus over in Luke’s gospel…)

And we know the Magi find true joy – as they find Jesus with his mother, and bow low before him and offer their gifts fit for a king. Untroubled by the fears and disinterest of others, undeterred by the humble circumstances in which they find Jesus and his family living…. They bow before Jesus and pay him homage.

And being warned in a dream, they go home by a different route, to avoid revisiting Herod…

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Whoever they are, these mysterious travelers from the East are probably doing the very best they know how to do…

So for today let’s skim quickly over the most disturbing part of the story, told in the rest of this same chapter of Matthew’s gospel… Where we see Jesus and family fleeing Herod’s death squads, going down to Egypt… as other children of Bethlehem are massacred by Herod, filled with jealous rage by the news of the birth of a different king…

Reminding us of the massacre of Israel’s boy children by Pharaoh in Egypt long ago… Except now it’s our local King Herod who acts like Pharaoh of old… while Egypt, ironically, is a place of refuge for Jesus and family…

And with these jarring images of abrupt changes that alter our spiritual landscape like an earthquake re-arranging ancient landmarks… Matthew’s gospel prepares us for the road ahead… for Jesus and family… And for all who travel with them…

Matthew’s gospel, remember, opens with a lengthy genealogy (which, we’ve read during Advent) – tracing the ancestry of Jesus, on his father Joseph’s side, going way, way back… Only to conclude by telling us at the end of more than forty generations of genealogy… that his father Joseph is really not his father…

We’re told Jesus is son of King David, and son of Abraham the patriarch of Israel… Son of a son of a son of a son of many a great man of Israel, going back to the time of our first ancestors and favorite king… But at the end of all the ancestral history we learn… Jesus actually only has God for a Father… And a young unwed woman for his earthly mother…

Along the way to this disclosure, we’re also reminded of four other biblical women in the lineage of the Messiah – probably all of them Gentile foreigners. Tamar, a Canaanite, daughter-in-law, first, of Judah, mother of twin patriarchs, then, through Judah. Rahab, also a Canaanite, a prostitute in the city of Jericho who hid the Israelite spies and smuggled them out of town safely before the walls came tumbling down. Ruth, a Moabite, of whom the book of Ruth is named, great grandmother of King David. And Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, who became the wife of David… after David murdered her husband…

Matthew has been the church’s lead-off gospel and first book of the New Testament, ever since our earliest days. And Matthew is the most thoroughly Jewish gospel, with 54 direct quotes from the Old Testament, and (by conservative count) at least another 262 allusions and references to Old Testament texts. Matthew is the gospel most thoroughly saturated in the scriptures of Israel… Yet, true to the traditions of Israel’s prophets,  Matthew is also most highly critical of Israel’s leadership….(And…)

Into this strange family story – full of apparent contradictions and real controversies, full of ironies and multiple meanings a-plenty…

Into this tumultuous story, and its strangely familiar families…

Jesus the Messiah is born…

And so – Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised… to see strange star-trekkers from the East bringing their best gifts to our newborn king…

While the empire’s local king does his worst – trying to kill infant King Jesus…

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to see religious leaders fearfully dis-interested in the Messiah King, born for us.

If we’ve read the book we shouldn’t be surprised… When many who are first become last… While others we thought were last…are first to welcome Christ our true King…

All this is part of the mystery of Christ… The theme of this season of Epiphany…

This season of light which, as Ephesians says, is all about the mystery of Jesus Christ – whose presence, from birth, causes us to consider where we stand… of the fault lines of love and fear…

As Jesus invites us and all people, everywhere, to be first and foremost his people – one new people made of all nations…

And together one body… Each of us members one of another.

This is the holy mystery of Jesus Christ our King and Savior.

Born to teach us the holy mystery of his perfect love that casts out fear.

Born to bring us by his grace… to live with him, in his love, forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Ephesians 3:1-6

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi 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 Magi 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 worshiped him. 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.