By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
Well, you may not be able to see the nativity scene on our altar but this morning, the shepherds have left and the magi have arrived…
Tomorrow, January 6, is Epiphany. Epiphany is a holiday or holy day on the church’s calendar. In fact, it’s more than a day; it’s a season. But Epiphany is also a word in the English language that means “revelation” or “manifestation.” At Epiphany, Christians celebrate that, through the baby Jesus in the manger, God has revealed himself or made himself manifest to us. Now one of the bible stories that became popular in the church at Epiphany was the story of the Wise Men or Magi which I shared this morning.
Although the title of the Christmas carol is “We Three Kings,” we don’t really know how many of them there were. Matthew doesn’t tell us. And, “kings” is not really an accurate label. They were, more accurately, magi, which comes from a Greek word, magoi, which means… anybody want to guess? Magician. Magi, my friends, were individuals who dabbled in the occult. These were not modern-day magicians at a five-year old’s birthday party who, by slight of hand, pull coins from behind people’s ears or rabbits out of hats. Ancient magi were some pretty freaky dudes. Now, a few of them did have more scientific leanings – and may have simply been astronomers who studied and observed the heavenly bodies. But, most of them were magicians, sorcerers, fortune tellers, or astrologists. Now, if it strikes you as a little odd that these kinds of folks showed up to visit the infant Jesus, it should. It should strike you as very odd. After all, the Hebrew Scriptures were very clear in speaking against things like magic and divination. And yet, these magi, these pagan outsiders, come to play a very important, even heroic, role in the Matthew’s gospel. These magi become role models because they are dedicated to seeking Jesus and to worshipping him. It is, for them, a long and treacherous journey. In the ancient world, people really didn’t travel much. Travel was difficult and dangerous and it took forever. Most of us are familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Look what happened to the guy in that story when he travels alone: robbers pounce on him, strip off his clothes, beat him and leave him for dead along the side of the road. In the ancient world, not many people endured the inconvenience and risk of traveling the open road. But these magi are fully committed to this journey and the king whom they seek.
Now, in the ancient world, there was also a common belief that the heavens bore testimony to the rising or to the decline of great leaders. In other words, a star suddenly appearing in the heavens was thought to signal the birth of a great leader or king. And, likewise, a star suddenly falling was thought to predict the death of a great leader. So these magi, believing that a rising star would indicate a rising new leader or king, naturally went to the place where leaders should be – in a palace; specifically, in the palace of Herod the Great, who was anything but, let me assure you. Now, this is not welcome news to Herod’s ears. Matthew tells us that Herod was frightened or disturbed by the question the magi put before him for they asked him about the child who had been born to be King of the Jews… which is not good news for Herod because HE was the one currently holding that job position. Herod finds the words of the magi to be more than a little unsettling. Yet, neither Herod, nor the magi at this point, can possibly begin to understand what the nature of Jesus’ kingship will be. He’s not applying for Herod’s position for Jesus’ kingship won’t bear any resemblance to Herod’s reign. Jesus’ kingdom will not be of this world and it certainly won’t operate from the same set of rules and values as do earthly kingdoms or governments. But Herod doesn’t know that and he’s scared. Herod can’t just let this one go and so he calls together the Jewish religious authorities – those who interpret the Holy Scriptures – to get their take on this troubling inquiry. They, in turn, quote scripture that indicates that this king the magi are seeking is destined to be born in Bethlehem of Judea, hometown of David, Israel’s most notable king.
Armed with this new information, the magi resume their journey. The see the star in the sky and they follow it all the way to the place where Jesus is. And when they see this child king, they’re overwhelmed with joy and their response is one of worship.
Now, Matthew is a very effective storyteller who chooses his words carefully. The word Matthew uses in this verse can mean either “worship” or “homage.” When it’s used of an earthly ruler, it’s intended to mean “homage” – to pay honor and respect, to acknowledge someone’s authority. But when it’s used of God, it’s intended to mean “worship.” And so, it is the perfect word for this passage. For, although the magi began their journey in search of an earthly ruler, they are now coming to see this king whom they seek as something more: as one who calls for more than homage. This King Jesus is a king deserving of far more than respect. This is a King who is worthy of our worship and devotion, our full and total commitment.
Friends, this morning we stand at the start of a new year and – depending how you interpret it – even a new decade and this morning we will engage in a ritual Methodists have been using for roughly 265 years, the Wesley Covenant Renewal Service. This morning I do not know where you are in your journey with Jesus. Perhaps you’ve been following him for decades and have spent much time bowing before your Savior. Or perhaps your journey has only recently begun and you are still not quite sure what or who you are seeking. Or, maybe you’re somewhere in between the two. But, whatever may be the case, let me give it to you straight: this is a rewarding journey, but it is not always an easy one. It demands a great deal from us. It can even be dangerous. Those ancient magi put everything on the line, engaged in a long, dangerous and difficult journey so that they might bow before the child king, Jesus, offering themselves and their gifts. Wherever you are in your journey of seeking Christ, I pray that this year, in 2020, you will be willing to commit yourself fully – your time, your talents; all that you are and all that you have – to drawing closer to Jesus. We grow closer to Jesus by committing to the discipline of spiritual practices; things like prayer and study of scripture, worship and service and submission to Christ which I preached about a few weeks ago. Also, beginning the week of February 23, I’ll be offering a six-week study in spiritual practices called Companions on the Journey. If you are interested in participating, let me know. Following Jesus is a serious journey. It changes our lives: who we are and how we live; it changes our priorities and our perspective. But this is an important journey and it’s never too late to get started because the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So let us step into this New Year with a renewed commitment to seek and follow Jesus.
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