Thursday, January 7, 2010

Expectant Believers: An Exchange of Treasures

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12

They say that life is not about arriving, but about enjoying the journey. I am not sure what to think of that saying. Around Christmas time I usually make a journey, and I am very interested in arriving.

The story of the wise men who followed the star to Jesus is about a journey, and not very much about arriving. Sure they did arrive, but I think they hardly did more than stay the night.

The story of the wise men who followed the star to Jesus is also a story about gifts. Matthew gives us a list of those gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Those are meaningful, significant gifts; royal and costly gifts: but that’s not what I want us to think about.

Their greatest gift was their journey. All their kingly gifts were probably not as costly to them as that journey they made; hundreds of miles or more, over deserts, and over the hostile borders between Rome and Persia.

Only the wise men gave such a gift: the gift of a dangerous, difficult journey. They gave their journey to honor Jesus, the King of the Kingdom of God. No one else gave Jesus such a gift, even though there was a whole city full of people in Jerusalem who knew what those wise men were looking for.

The journey of the wise men symbolized what the prophet Isaiah talked about; about, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60:4 & 6) Their journey was the first installment of a gift that the world has yet to give.

When you make a long journey with gifts for loved ones at Christmas, it is your journey that is your greatest gift. Your journey is the biggest and most difficult statement of your love.

If your whole life is a journey, the same truths hold true. If we are all on a life-journey, then our journey is our greatest gift to this world in which we live. Our journey is our gift to those we love and to those who travel alongside us.

In the story of the wise men, the journey and the gifts are all bound up into one simple thing, and so are ours. Our journey and our gifts are really the same thing.
There are many gifts of the journey. Let’s think about just a few.

First, let’s look at two gifts that God gave the wise men through the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. These are also his gifts to us. They are the grace of God.

The first gift is shown by the star. This gift is as hard to understand as it is important to understand. As the wise men would have understood it; what brought Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, and what brought them through their long journey to Jesus, was a cosmic event; an event that involved the whole universe, all of heaven and earth. It is important for you to know that Jesus coming into history, and even your own coming to Jesus, is part of a cosmic event that involves all heaven and earth.

The star that Matthew tells us about is a mysterious thing. We can’t fully understand it.

One aspect of that star is that it seems to be part of an astronomical event. Ancient people called everything up in the sky stars.

What they thought about the stars is not simple to describe. The stars were stars. The planets were moving stars. The comets were moving stars. The seeming coming together of planets, so that they appeared to touch or join together in the sky, was also called a star. This was a star that came and went.

Now this coming together of stars is called a conjunction of the planets. There was, in the year 7 BC, a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation Pisces. In the philosophy of that time Jupiter stood for royalty, Saturn stood for Israel, and Pisces stood for the end of one age and the beginning of the next. So the conjunction meant that a king would be born in Israel who would bring the end of the age and the beginning of a new one.

A record of this conjunction has been found on a clay tablet in the ruins of an ancient observatory in Sippar, Babylonia, in what is now Iraq. This record shows that Jupiter and Saturn came together on May 29th, and October 3rd, and December 4th of the year 7 BC.

This is not a justification of astrology. This is to say that God put into motion a plan as big and as ancient as the universe in order to draw representatives from the nations to visit him when he became a human baby in Bethlehem. God intended to prove that he had a plan to draw all people to him, even if his own people ignored him. He did this, at the beginning of time, by arranging the galaxies, and the stars of the universe, and the courses of the planets in our solar system in such a way that, if there were people looking up for meaning in the stars, they would be able to see the sign of his coming written in the sky, and come to meet him.

There is a sense in which the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was built into the very shape of the universe, the shape of the cosmos. This means that the drawing of the wise men to Bethlehem was also built into the shape of the cosmos, so that they would see it and come to Jesus.

Our lives in Christ, the way we come to faith in him, the way we persevere and grow in Christ are somehow cosmic events. They are not fragile things. They do not hang by a thread. They may seem to. But they don’t. We hang by something stronger than the universe.

There is something stronger than ourselves that brings us to Christ, and holds us in Christ. This is a great mystery, but it is the very thing Paul talks about in the eighth chapter of Romans, where he writes: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
We are sometimes afraid of the gospel; of the good news of God. We are afraid to share with others what we have seen and what we know. This is because we think we are handling something dangerous and fragile. In our living and sharing our faith we are afraid to be less than perfect, even though we think we know a God of grace, whose grace makes us strong, and whose grace ought to make us unafraid.

But that is part of the lesson of our journey. The problem is that we may very well arrive at our destination before we have truly learned this lesson.

What God did in Bethlehem, what God did on the cross and in the empty tomb are woven into the cosmos of which we are a part. What God has woven into the cosmos gets woven into us. Our coming to God in Christ and our life in God in Christ are part of a strong, cosmic thing that God has done.

That is what the wise men were journeying to see. That is what we actually believe. It is what the Bible teaches us to believe.

The wise men set out, following the star, knowing this; but, in the end, they found something completely unexpected and surprising. This is the nature of a journey with God; to find something that you never expected or understood.

It was wise, in a way, to seek the new king in the Jewish capital, in Jerusalem. It was wise to consult King Herod. It was wise to expect that kings would sire kings. But this was not God’s way or God’s wisdom.

What the wise men discovered in Bethlehem was the lowliness and the humility of the majesty of God. This was completely unexpected. It was an absolute surprise. God expressed his power by making his home with the poor, and the weak, and the needy.
The majesty of Herod was gloriously unjust to the people he ruled, and they suffered for it. The majesty of God was different from the majesty of Herod, or even of the emperor in Rome. The majesty of God chose to live among those who experienced the injustice of the great powers of this world.

When we experience our greatest need, our greatest loss, our greatest weakness, we are experiencing the very reason why God came into this world. We are experiencing the very reason God comes to us.

When we see another person in need, in loss, in weakness, that is when we see our calling to go to them with the lowliness and the humbleness of God in our heart, to be with them and help them however we can. We simply go to them, and love them with the love of the God we see in Bethlehem. That is where God’s majesty and power want to be.

The baby of Bethlehem is where we see the face of God. This is the secret of the gospel, the good news of Jesus. God is the God of the manger, and the carpenter’s shop. God is the God of the cross. God is the God of a tomb that was occupied but is now empty.

This is the true nature of God. He approaches what he has made when it is broken; and he is willing to be broken in order to mend it. This is the power of God.
We start our journey wanting to be dazzled. We find out that something entirely different matters.

These are the gifts that God in Jesus gave to the wise men. They are part of the gospel, and they are God’s gifts to us as well. These gifts make us fit for our journey, and they guide us to our destination.
There are other gifts.

Herod was an example of a false gift; the example of a life that seeks to be in control and in the spotlight. The wise men were a contrast to Herod right from the start. To go on a journey, until fairly modern times, was definitely to risk being out of control. To journey was to be prepared for what might happen, and yet knowing that you could never really be prepared, and never really be in control. To journey truly is to surrender your sovereignty in life. This is one of the gifts the wise men show to us.

All good things begin this way. A good marriage begins this way. So does parenthood. Any calling to serve God begins this way. The life of a child of God begins and ends with the surrender of your sovereignty: the end of your control. It begins and ends with the preparation of the lowliness and the humility and the certainty of the unexpected; the certainty of surprise.

Only the wise men went to Bethlehem, even though all Jerusalem knew what they were up to. The priests and the scholars of the law represented those who were closest to God, yet they were too afraid to take the chance of angering King Herod. They were right to be afraid, but they should have been more afraid not to go with the wise men.

The wise men had the same right as anyone else to be afraid, but they had the passion to go on. One of the gifts of the journey is to not let fear conquer your passion: your passion for life, your passion for others, and your passion for God. John in his first letter says this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)

The final gift of the wise men was that they were willing to make a journey to find something that they expected to find, but they were also willing to find the unexpected.

They knew they would be changed by their journey. They did not know how they would be changed. They did not know what they would learn. But they were willing to go. And that is the faith of all the people of God.

When Isaiah says, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” it means that it is God’s design for the whole world to join the journey that began when the Lord called Abraham to travel to a land that he would show him. (Genesis 12:1) Abraham is the prime example of what it means to be a person of faith; to travel to a place one can never know beforehand. This is the journey for every person of faith; including you and me.

As with the wise men, our journey to Jesus is a journey to something we do not fully understand as yet. But it is a journey to the dawn and to the light.

In a way, Jesus is like the star that shines the path. Only the fact is that Jesus is the way. Jesus, in his manger, and in his shop, and on his cross, and in his getting up out of the tomb is at work to build the mending and the setting to rights of the world.

Everything Jesus is, and everything he has done, is devoted to mending us and setting us right. This is the meaning of our journey, and this is what points the way to our destination. And this is a purpose we can share with everyone.

No comments:

Post a Comment