January 6, 2019

The Light of God

Passage: Matthew 2

20190106 Sermon Rev

 

Merry Christmas!  Three years ago on January 6, I went to a Christmas Eve service at The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  In other places, December 25th marks the beginning of the twelve days of Christmas concluding on January 6 with gift giving and a feast marking Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day.  The church calendar we follow names the four Sundays before December 25th as Advent, the first Sunday after the 25th as Christmas, and the next Sunday, today, as Epiphany.  And so this morning we continue to read scriptures related to the birth of Jesus, this time from the Gospel according to Matthew.

 

The story in the first part of Matthew 2 is very familiar.  Three kings come from the East to Jerusalem asking where to find the newborn, who is the king of the Jews.  After being directed to Bethlehem, they find Jesus, bow down to him, and give him expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

 

But wait a minute, that’s not exactly how the story reads.  Who are these men?  Not kings.  They are magi, also referred to as wise men, seers, or astrologists.  Their identification as kings is probably linked to Psalm 72:11, May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.  How many are there?  Matthew doesn’t tell us.  Our tradition assumes there are three, based on the number of gifts mentioned.

 

We do know that the magi are strangers.  They are not Jews, they are foreigners, from other nations somewhere east of Bethlehem.  Their practices would have been considered foreign, even evil.  Magi (magicians) are mentioned in Acts – chapters 8, 13 and 19 – in negative ways.  In Acts they are considered some of the worst of the worst.  But these strangers play a prominent role in Matthew’s story.

 

They are drawn to Bethlehem by a star, an amazing light that glistens and gleams.  The metaphor of light can be found throughout the Bible:

 

From John – Jesus is the light of the world.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.   He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.[1]

 

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”[2]

 

From Matthew – Followers of Jesus are called to be a light to show others the way.  “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.[3]

 

The light of God, God’s bright star, draws people in.  From nearby and far away; humble shepherds and rich foreigners, insiders and outsiders.  For Matthew, the wise men represent the fulfillment of Isaiah 60, which prophesies the pilgrimage of the rulers of the nations to Jerusalem to worship Israel’s God, bringing gifts of gold and frankincense.

 

Jesus doesn’t come for Israel alone but for the whole world.  Paul confirms this in Ephesians 3.  God’s purpose was to show his wisdom in all its rich variety to all the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.  They will see this when Jews and Gentiles are joined together in his church.  This was his plan from all eternity, and it has now been carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.[4]  The light of God is meant for everyone who sees and follows it.

 

The light of God instructs.  It points the way.  It makes things clear.  It guides and it illuminates.  It not only shows the magi where Jesus is; it also clarifies who Jesus is.  Jesus Christ is the true king of Israel.  Psalm 72 describes what God’s intentions are for a king.  A righteous king, a true godly leader, is the one whose priorities match God’s priorities of righteousness and justice, of concern for those who are weak and needy

 

The light of God exposes wrong; it exposes evil.  Good news has enemies.  When we read the story from Matthew 2 each year, we usually stop after verse 12.  The magi visit Jesus and then return home another way without returning to tell Herod where Jesus is.  If we read further, we definitely stop after verse 15.  Joseph’s dream and then taking his family to Egypt.  We never, or almost never, read the end of the chapter.  Herod’s horrific murder of infants and toddlers.  This story isn’t conducive to Christmas pageants and beautiful artwork.

 

But Matthew doesn’t mince words.  Herod, when he realized that the scholars had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills.[5]  These words aren’t easy to hear, but there is value in reading this story because it helps us understand more about Jesus and it helps us with situations we face today.

 

Matthew makes it clear that Jesus' story has strong connections with the story of Israel. [6]  The account of flight and pursuit links Jesus with other people of God, including Moses, David, and Elijah, who had to flee from pursuers.  Like their ancestors who were exiles in Babylon, Jesus and his family became refugees because of threats and violence.  The hostility Jesus experiences at the beginning of his life previews the hostility he will experience at the end of his life and echoes the hostility the Israelites experienced throughout their history.  In spite of the threat which Jesus faces, it is God's purpose that prevails.  This theme recurs again and again in the biblical story.

 

In our human, broken world, love exposes evil and arouses hatred.  Speaking the truth threatens the network of lies and deception.  Looking at the world around us today helps us to understand why Jesus, who gave himself to loving the poor and neglected of the earth, would be killed.  There are institutions and persons who have other plans for the poor and neglected.

 

The good news is that the light of God changes lives.  The magi encounter Jesus and then hear a message from God to return to their homes by a different route.  We don’t hear anything more of the magi after this so we can only wonder how this experience affected their journey home.  We don’t know how their lives may have changed when they returned home.  The Bible is filled with stories of people whose lives are changed when they encounter Jesus.

 

The themes of this Advent/Christmas season sum up the story of Jesus.  The Lord is our righteousness and our justice.  God is our measuring stick, the one to whom we look for salvation and for guidance on how to live.  God sent the light of Jesus into the world to bring hope, peace, joy, and love to a suffering world.

 

As citizens of the world, as children of God, and as followers of Jesus, we are involved in this too.    As part of the church, we are part of a family of people who follow Jesus, offering love and compassion to everyone, especially those who are suffering.  Like Jesus we are to welcome all kinds of people from all kinds of places.  Like Jesus we are to show compassion to people who are not treated well because they are different in some way.

 

Stories similar to the one told in the second part of Matthew 2 have continued to happen throughout all of history.  Like Mary and Joseph, there are people around the world today who leave their homes because of threats to them and to their families.  Like Jesus, there are children whose parents take them into another country in order to save their lives.

 

How do we respond as we read the second chapter of Matthew on the first Sunday of 2019 when issues related to immigration continue to dominate the news?  Here are four possible responses.

 

We can listen to stories from people who are refugees and immigrants.  It’s important for us to think of them as individuals like us, not as some anonymous group.  Quoting a play I attended this weekend, “Strangers – once you get to know them – are just regular blokes.”

 

People leave their homes for many reasons – forced removal from their houses and land, war and violence, forced recruitment into gangs, drought, natural disasters, lack of jobs.  We can recognize that we play a part in some of those reasons, maybe not as individuals, but as citizens of this country and as consumers.  Factors making it impossible for people to remain in their home countries include: government policies concerning trade, the sale of weapons, and military involvement in other countries; and multinational corporations who use and abuse land, resources, and cheap labor all around the world.  We can make better choices as consumers, perhaps buying fair-trade products and avoiding products from companies we know exploit workers and resources.

 

We can influence those in power to make wise, just, compassionate decisions.  Plans, procedures, and regulations concerning refugees and immigration are necessary, but they must not be built on bias and prejudice.  Good policies would address the reasons people are leaving their homes.

 

We can support organizations who are working to help refugees around the world and addressing the threats that are causing people to leave their homes.  As conditions improve, more people will be able to stay where they are rather than face the danger and uncertainty of moving.

 

During this season and on this Sunday we celebrate the light of God, God’s bright star that is present in our world.  Matthew reminds us that this light is not just for us, however we might define who us is.  God’s light is for local, poor shepherds and rich, foreign magi.  It is for people living in comfort and people living in fear.  It is for citizens and refugees.

 

The light of God attracts and guides us.  It helps us to see how things are and how they are supposed to be.  It exposes our shortcomings.  It changes us.

 

And we are called to carry the light of God into our world – attracting, pointing the way, clarifying, exposing wrong, and being agents of change.  We don’t do this on our own.  We do this empowered and guided by God.

 

During this new year, as we encounter Jesus, may we be open to being sent in new directions, not simply as recipients of the light, but as bearers of God’s illuminating presence in the world.

 

[1] John 1:1-5, New Revised Standard Version

[2] John 8:12, New Revised Standard Version

[3] Matthew 5:14-16, New Revised Standard Version

[4] Ephesians 3:10-11, New Living Translation

[5] Matthew 2:16, The Message

[6] Richard B. Gardner, BCBC Matthew, Herald Press, 1991, p. 55-57.

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