Monday, January 11, 2016

Surprise and Search

Matthew 2:1-12
Upper Rogue United Methodist Church January 3, 2016

It seems to me that there are two basic ways people come to Christ: those whom Christ just surprises one day, and those who start a journey that may take years to finish. Some people get surprised—you might even say ambushed—by Jesus. One day Jesus shows up and says hello. These are the folks who can often tell you the exact date and time they came to know Jesus. The shepherds in the field were like that. They were just minding their business, trying to get through the night, hoping some storm wouldn't blow in and wreak havoc or some predator wouldn't creep down and attack the flock. They were having a little chit chat: "Hey, how's the wife?" "Good, good. How about you?" They weren't expecting anything. And then the sky lit up and a song broke forth and the news was announced, "For unto you, a Savior has been born in Bethlehem." And they spontaneously responded to that news: "Let's go
and see this thing that has happened." Jesus just showed up, in a sense. The glory of God unexpected, unbidden, unsought, suddenly was in their face. A lot of people have experienced that. They're minding their business, and then they meet somebody who tells them about Christ and something in their heart wakes up. They aren't on a spiritual search at all, but when they hear the news, everything in them says yes.

But then there is the kind of people the Magi represent. Those who are looking for Christ, even though they may not realize it is Christ they seek. These people are not just hoping to get through the night; they can't wait for the night, because when the night comes they look at the stars. They scour them and study their configurations; they plot them on charts. They study sacred books to learn about prophecies. They go to Egypt, and they go to the Greek prophets and the Hebrew prophets. They go all over the place, because they are gripped by a lifelong quest to find the meaning of life. They've been spiritually hungry from birth. Like the first group, they're minding their business, but their business is finding out if there is some truth out there worth living for and dying for.

As we come to the Epiphany, (which means “an appearance of the divine”) we, of course, come to the story of the Magi, the wise men, the visitors from the east who bring gifts to the Christ child. The magi first appear in history in the seventh century BC. as a tribe within the Median nation in eastern Mesopotamia.  Later they adopted, and were adopted into the priesthood of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion founded about 3500 years ago in what is now Iran. It later spread to Persia and throughout the middle east. . It was undoubtedly their training and knowledge in astronomy and astrology (the two were closely associated in those times) that led them to examine the meaning of the star they saw rising in the west.

Which raises an interesting point. The Magi recognized the birth of the Messiah using a practice that was illegal for the Jews. In Leviticus 19 the Hebrews are told:
"Don't turn to psychics or mediums to get help. That will make you unclean. I am the LORD your God.” And, again, in Deuteronomy 18, God spoke to Moses saying: “ “When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, never learn the disgusting practices of those nations. (10) You must never sacrifice your sons or daughters by burning them alive, practice black magic, be a fortuneteller, witch, or sorcerer, (11) cast spells, ask ghosts or spirits for help, or consult the dead.” The art used by the Magi to find the Christ child was forbidden to the Jews.

On the other hand, because they weren't very familiar with Jewish scriptures, the Magi did not know exactly where the baby would be. So, after a long and arduous journey, they find themselves wandering around Jerusalem, asking anyone who would listen: “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews. Because their practice of Genethlialogy, That's your 50 cent word for today,the science of calculating the position of heavenly bodies on nativities had told them the child was
born, they assumed that just about everyone in Jerusalem would also know, and be able to answer their question. I can imagine their consternation at the blank looks they received. It seemed know one in the city knew what they were talking about.

Being the tyrant he was, it didn't take long for word of these strangers, and the report of a newborn king to reach Herod. This was clearly not good news for the monarch, of whom it was said: “It's safer to be Herod's Dog than Herod's son.” A new king could only be a threat. But who was it? And where was he hiding? Herod had to find out.
As a Jew, (at least nominally,) Herod should have known the the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem; so he called in his experts; the chief priests and scribes who told him "In Bethlehem in Judea. The prophet wrote about this: Bethlehem in the land of Judah, you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah. A leader will come from you. He will shepherd my people Israel."

So here we have the foreign fortunetellers, who learned of he birth by means illegal for the Jews knowing that he new King has been born. While the earthly king, and the leaders of the temple, who should have seen and recognized the signs, are clueless. Meanwhile, for Herod, the birth of a “new king” could only be seen as a threat. So, being the sly, cheating, ignoble ruler he is, Herod sends the Magi on their way with instructions to let him know where they find the babe, so that he too could worship him. Right! If you define worship as murder.

Herod may have had all his cunning, all the power of his armies, all the power of the temple leadership, and even all the power of Rome on his side; but like the Pharaoh so many years earlier, he didn't have God, and without God, there was no way he could win.

The magi continued joyfully went on their way, and still led by the star came to the place where the holy family lived. Entering the house, they fell on their knees, and presented their gifts of Gold, incense, and myrrh (Royalty, Deity, and Death). And having been told by God in a dream not to go back to Jerusalem, they took another route out of Judea and out of history.

As I said at the beginning of this sermon, there are two basic ways to come to Christ: One is to seek him, as the Magi did; the other is to be surprised by him, as the shepherds were. If you've been surprised, Welcome! If you have sought and found, Welcome! If you are still searching, Welcome! The One who surprised the shepherds, the One the Magi sought and found, the One who was, and is royalty and deity, the One who died and rose, conquering death, has prepared this meal for you. His table is set, come, feast, rejoice, and give thanks. AMEN.

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