Monday, December 23, 2013

The Wise Men - Christmas Worship

Preached on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 22, 2013
Scripture Readings

 Isaiah 60:1-6; 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.
December 2013: Washtucna Church and Manse
The story of the wise men, who followed the star to Jesus, is about a journey that was every bit as important as their arriving. Sure they did arrive, but I think they hardly did more than stay the night. Their journey is what we remember.
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 the gifts were not the most important thing. Much more important were the gifts they received from Jesus because of their journey
Their greatest gift to Jesus 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: “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. The whole world has not yet made the journey to Jesus, but it will.
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 holds 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. Our journey of love is our gift to Jesus who traveled such a long way for us: from heaven to earth.
His journey was his grace. Of course grace means gift. Our life’s journey is our worship, just as the wise men journeyed to worship the king.
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. They are our worship of the king.
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. 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 an event so big that it was advertized across the universe: it involved all of heaven and earth. It is at the heart of what God has been doing for all time. He has done it for you, but much bigger than you.
Matthew and the wise men never explained exactly what the star was. They saw it at its rising, so it was a star that appeared on the eastern horizon as most stars do. Otherwise it behaves oddly.
Ancient people called everything up in the sky stars. The stars were stars. The planets were moving stars. The sun was a planet that ruled the day. The moon was a planet that ruled the night. The comets were moving stars. The seeming coming together of planets, so that they appeared to touch or group together in the sky, was also called a star. The star that led to Jesus 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. It happened three times during that year.
The way people thought in those days Jupiter stood for royalty, Saturn stood for Israel, and Pisces stood for the beginning of new age. So the conjunction meant that a king would be born in Israel who would bring the end of an age, and the beginning of a new one.
The king would change the way that the whole creation had worked for a very long time. Things would be different because this king was born.
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 and reappeared on May 29th, and October 3rd, and December 4th of the year 7 BC. It’s possible that the mention of the star moving and appearing over the place where Jesus was means that it reappeared when they arrived in Bethlehem.
This is not a justification of astrology, or even of astronomy. The star shows us 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 to produce that star. When the time came, if anyone was looking up for meaning in the stars, they would be able to see the sign of his coming written in the sky. They might follow that star to meet the king.
So the journey of the wise men to Bethlehem was also built into the shape of the universe, so that we could have the story of their journey to Jesus. Our lives in Christ, the way we come to faith in him, the way we persevere and grow in Christ, the way Christ shapes the way we live with all our relationships and our choices in life, are somehow a part of a story as big as the universe.
Our lives are not little things. They do not hang by a thread. They may seem to. But they don’t. We hang by something stronger than the universe and that is why our lives can be a journey that worships the king who set all of this in motion.
There is something stronger than ourselves that brings us to Christ, and holds us in Christ. This it is the very thing that 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) This is our faith: that God ensures the outcome of the gift of our life’s journey of worship.
What God did in Bethlehem, what God did on the cross and in the empty tomb are woven into the universe of which we are a part. What God has woven into the cosmos can get 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, according to the conventional wisdom, 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 breed 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. He came to make his home in those parts of our lives where we find it hardest to worship him.
The majesty of Herod was majestically cruel 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 injustices, the fears, the sins, and the evils 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. We simply go to them, and love them with the love of the God that we see in Bethlehem. That is where God’s majesty and power want to found.
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 he himself occupied and left behind.
This is the true nature of God. He approaches what he has made when it is broken weeping; and he is willing to be broken and weeping in order to mend it. This is the power of God.
We start our journey wanting to be dazzled. We want to walk on clouds. In Bethlehem we find out that something entirely different matters. We find our calling to journey in the humility of God.
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 the destination of our deepest worship.
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 truly be in control.
The journey to Jesus means that you surrender your will to be in charge. You stop insisting that life be what you want it to be. 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 will to be in charge. It’s the end of your being in 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. Making Herod mad was often fatal.
They were right to be afraid, but they should have been more afraid not to go with the wise men. Journeying to Jesus in fear and danger would have been real worship. They would have been change and they would have become new people.
The wise men had the same right as anyone else to be afraid, but they had the passion to go on anyway. One of the gifts of the journey is to not let fear conquer your passion: your love for life, your love for others, and your love 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 even though they made their journey to find something they expected, they also expected 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. Our willingness to change, and learn, and grow is what makes our life into a journey of worship. Real faith depends on this.
 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 in this journey of faith. The whole world will find that God’s destination for them will make it into a new world.
This journey of the world began long ago, 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 our journey.
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.
Jesus is like the star that lights the way. 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 just him being hard at work mending the world and setting it to rights.

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 of a life that worships the king. This is a purpose we can share with everyone.

No comments:

Post a Comment