Monday, January 23, 2017

The Long Way Home

Matthew 2:1-12  (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men 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 wise men 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 paid him homage. 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.

When Nancy was a little girl her mom had a nativity scene that was set out every advent.  Nancy would play for hours with the characters and make up all kinds of stories about the birth of Jesus. 

She played with the nativity so long that many of the pieces are now broken and have been cobbled back together. 

But there is something powerful and special about a nativity set that was so loved that  --- despite it's shabby condition --- it still holds a special place in ones heart, even to this day.  

But it wasn't until Nancy was a teenager and her family traveled to Europe to visit her sister, whose husband was stationed in Germany, that Nancy really fell in love with nativity scenes.  While in Italy, she bought her very first nativity --- made out of glass.

Today we have over 50 nativity sets, and every year she spends days setting them all up --- and even more time putting them all away.  A new nativity was added this year, our daughter who is living in Spain, brought back a traditional Spanish styled nativity.

One of the reasons that so many of us are drawn to Nativity scenes (and I loved the selection that was on display here at Meridian Street) is because they serve as reminders of a special baby that was born in very humble circumstances.

For many people, and I know in our Crèche out on the front lawn, baby Jesus is not placed in the manger until Christmas Eve. 

And for some, the Wise Men do not make an appearance until Epiphany --- twelve days after Christmas. 
I noticed that Matt posted pictures on Instagram of the Wise Men arriving at the Manger on Friday (Epiphany).

But if we were to be more accurate --- the Wise Men wouldn't arrive at our nativity scenes until about two years after the birth of Jesus.

All kinds of traditions and songs have led us to assume many things about these men that the Bible does not tell us.
For one, we often refer to them as “kings,” which we sang about this morning, which is probably not accurate.

To call them wise men is probably fair, as the mostly likely possibility is that these men were astrologers.

We have always referred to them as the “three wise men,” but we do not actually know their number; and we have no idea (despite tradition) what there names were --- all we know for sure is that they brought at least three gifts on their long journey from the East.

They traveled because they had seen a very unusual star, or perhaps an unusual alignment of several stars, that signaled to them the birth of divine royalty.

So, like captains charting a course by the stars in the middle of the vast ocean, these mean set off to “follow” the star.

Their journey brought them to the country of Judea. And, not surprisingly, they assumed that the star indicated a birth in the house of the ruler; so they went first to the king’s house, to King Herod’s home in Jerusalem.
“Where is the King of the Jews?” they asked Herod.

It was a seemingly innocent question, but it was also the beginning of trouble for Jesus.

Herod didn’t like the question, of course, because he WAS the King of the Jews, and the fact that it was being asked by some exotic men who had journeyed from a distant country was even more troubling to the king.
The idea that there might be a rival to his throne was terribly disturbing for him.

So Herod instructs the magi to go out and find the baby, then to report back to him about where this "king is" --- no doubt so that he can have him killed.

So the magi go, with the information that they have received from Herod --- that the future king is to be born in Bethlehem. And the star leads them right to the doorstop of the home where the child Jesus is now living with Mary and Joseph.

Immediately upon entering, these Wise Men know they are in the presence of the most wonderful king to ever be born.
So they do the only thing they know how in the presence of a king.
They fall to their knees to honor him, and they offer gifts fit for a king --- gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

And even though these Wise Men came from a long way away --- and were certainly not Jews --- they KNEW that this king was different and was king for all people.

Today we are celebrating two events.
Friday was Epiphany and what Epiphany is really is about is the revealing of Jesus to the world. Epiphany means "to show", "to make known" or "to reveal", we celebrate that Jesus is made known to the Wise Men, and to us!

Today is the Sunday in which we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist --- an event that was Jesus' coming out party.

An event that said to the world --- Jesus is exactly who the Wise Men thought he was --- King of Kings, Lord of Lords!

As we watch the whole scene of the arrival of the Wise Men unfold yet again, it raises what I think is an important, post-Christmas question: Jesus is here, what are you going to do about it?

We have just celebrated again the birth of Jesus Christ.

We have been reminded of God’s eternal presence with us through Emmanuel.

We have sung songs, baked goodies, opened gifts; all in honor of our Savior’s birth. Perhaps through the season we have even felt the wonderful warmth and assurance of Christ being born in our own hearts and lives; either for the first time, or the fiftieth.
So what are we going to do about it?

If we are going to truly know and celebrate a different kind of Christmas, this is a crucial question.

Jesus’ birth means nothing if it is not celebrated throughout the year.

Jesus’ birth means nothing if it does not change our lives.

And I’m not talking about lives changed for just a few days or weeks.
I’m talking lives changed for years to come.

The wise men followed that star for several months, if not years.
They did not stray from their path; they did not abandon their journey. They pressed on until they found what they were looking for. And when they did, they fell to their knees in worship of this tiny king. They knew their lives would never be the same, and so the worshipped the King of kings and Lord of lords. Wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of peace.

When the Wise Men found Jesus, they didn’t say, “Great, there he is! We’ll come back after we’ve grabbed a bite to eat and watched the game. We’ll just drop in when it’s more convenient.”
No. They fell to their knees right then and there to worship their king.
And we should do no less.
After all the gifts are opened and our bellies are full, the least, the LEAST, we can do is bow down to worship our Savior and say “Thank you” to God for the countless ways God has blessed our lives.

But really, there’s even more we should do.

Worship is not just about honoring God, it’s also about giving back to God generously, in the same way that God has given to us.
Did you remember Jesus on your gift list this year?
Did you set aside a gift worthy of a king?
Sadly, our general practice around Christmastime is to give gifts to one another, forgetting that it is Jesus’ birthday.

This is no way to honor our King, our Lord, our Savior. 

Too often we are worshipping one another and our stuff, instead of worshipping God. And the result is that lives are broken by debt, jealously, and broken dreams.

Jesus did not come to take our lives, my friends --- he came to give us life.
Abundant Life
And the way we experience that life is by giving to God in the same way that God has given to us.

If you didn’t honor Jesus with a gift this Christmas, that’s okay, because it’s not too late.
·         Give a little extra to the church mission projects this week.
·         Or go out and buy a coat and a blanket and carry it to a homeless person.
·         Take some food to the family whose children are on the free lunch program.

These are the kinds of things that Jesus likes to see on his birthday. And you don’t have to honor Jesus in this way only during the Christmas season.

In fact, the Christmas season shouldn’t limit us at all.

The magi were two years late, but their gift was no less important because of the span of time, and neither is ours!

Jesus is here, so what are we going to do about it?

After the wise men honored Jesus with worship and gifts, it was time for them to return to their homeland.
But remember, their lives had been changed by this encounter with the Living Christ.
They now understand completely the significance of this little boy in Bethlehem. So, it is no surprise that when they are approached in a dream and warned not to return to Herod, they refused to go back to Jerusalem --- instead they went home by a different way.

So must we.

Christ has come into our very midst.

Emmanuel has been born among us.

God’s kingdom has broken into this world.

But it is all for naught if we do not follow a different path.

Because, remember, God’s kingdom is not of this world.

God’s ways are not our ways.

Jesus’ birth is meaningless if our lives are still ruled by selfishness, money, consumerism, violence, and hatred.

We have to follow a different path, the path that Jesus prepared for us through his very own life. This is the way of selflessness, generosity, humility, peace, and love. It may indeed be the road less traveled, but it is the road that assures Christ’s continuing presence and growing kingdom in our world.

The gift is of God, but the choice is ours.

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