Sunday, January 1, 2012

Sermon for January 1st: Matthew 2:1-12

Gifts to Bring for the Son of God

We’ve all recently experienced that annual exercise of ‘trying to find exactly the right gifts’ to give our friends and family for Christmas. Sometimes it’s not hard, especially if we know the person well, but sometimes distance, or lack of real personal knowledge, make it more difficult, don’t they? Most of us would really like to find a gift that’s appropriate, and will be treasured by the person who receives it. Usually, the better we know them, the easier it is for us to do that.

But sometimes the situation is different, and we find ourselves buying gifts out of a sense of obligation, more than out of friendship or love: “Well, I work with John, so I suppose I’d better buy him a gift”. In that kind of situation we often just don’t feel like putting in the time or effort to make sure we give them something they’re really going to like; they’re just a name we want to be able to cross off our list, and move on. It’s not ideal, but sometimes it’s the honest truth, isn’t it?

So, in what spirit do we bring our gifts of worship and service to Jesus, the Son of God? How do we pick a gift that’s appropriate for him? And does he mean enough to us for us to really put in some effort for him, or is he just an obligation for us to cross off our list? ‘Church on Sunday, Christmas and Easter – let’s get it over with, then we can get on with the enjoyable stuff’.

In our gospel reading today we read about some people who are not prepared to go to any great effort to bring the appropriate gifts to Jesus. Let’s start with Herod. King Herod the Great is well-known to history as an insecure, power-mad fanatic who would stop at nothing to keep his hold on his throne; he even murdered his wife, his mother in law, and three of his sons when he suspected them of plotting against him.

I can just imagine his reaction to the coming of the wise men. ‘A new king, you say? Funny, no one in my family is expecting a baby. A sign from God, you say? Oh, that’s very bad news’. Herod knew the old scriptures: God would send an anointed king, like old David, to establish justice and peace; he would cast down the mighty from their seats and lift up the humble and meek. That was not good news for a guy like Herod, who was in love with himself and his own power above everything else. Better to nip the movement in the bud by killing the Messianic pretender right away.

Well, you and I might find it hard to identify with Herod – I’m not in the habit of murdering family members, personally – although we might like to think about how important it is for us to be in charge of our own lives, and how challenging it is for us to bow the knee to Jesus and give him our unconditional obedience. Freedom, for so many of us, means being able to do what we want to do, without having to listen to anyone else. Being told by Jesus that we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him doesn’t always sound like good news to us, does it? We just wanted to visit him on Christmas Eve and then cross him off our list, thank you very much! We didn’t want him to march in and take over our lives!

Whether or not I can identify with Herod, I can certainly identify with another group of people in this story – the chief priests and scribes mentioned in verse 4. They were the religious leaders, the scripture scholars, the professional religionists of the day. Herod, we’re told, went to them with a question about the Bible: ‘…calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born’. And they had no difficulty giving him a reply; they knew that verse well: ‘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’”’ (vv.5-6).

Impeccable answer, wasn’t it? Interesting, though, that they didn’t do anything about it! Herod pretended that he wanted to go to find the child; they didn’t even pretend to have any interest in the baby. To them, the question of the coming of the Messiah was a fascinating question of Bible scholarship; they were quite happy to look up verses and discuss the issues back and forth, over and over again, forever and ever. The one thing they weren’t prepared to do was actually pick up the phone and book a ticket to Bethlehem themselves. Discuss the text? Of course. Actually do something about it? No, thank you!

Well, guilty as charged, I’m afraid. I don’t know about you, but I’m happy to open my Bible day by day, read the passages for the day, pray about them and tell God that I believe them. I’m happy to come to church and Bible study and discuss them with others. But what if someone were to come up and say to me, “Ah, yes, but what are you actually doing about it?” How would I answer that?

Challenging, isn’t it? But wait – it gets even better - here come the wise men!

Matthew tells us us that the wise men were not kings – despite ‘We Three Kings’ -but ‘magi’ - astrologers, that is – and that they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We have no way of knowing what they actually saw, although it seems very unlikely that they saw a star that actually moved at the same slow speed as their camels and then came to a stop twenty feet over the house in Bethlehem. It’s more likely that it was some phenomena in the heavens, something that their astrology led them to believe meant the birth of a new king over Israel. But unlike the chief priests and scribes, who didn’t even stir themselves from their seats in Jerusalem, these magi took the sign so seriously that they were willing to make a long and costly journey to find this child and bring him their gifts.

And talk about bringing gifts that were appropriate! Christian theology has pointed out almost from the beginning what these three gifts say about the child they were presented to. To put it briefly, gold was a gift for a king, incense was used in the worship of a god, and myrrh was used to anoint bodies and prepare them for burial. Let me explore these ideas with you for a minute.

Gold tells us that Jesus is the King, and we see this also alluded to in our passage when it talks about the wise men ‘paying homage’ to Jesus.  The word for ‘homage’ in the original language means ‘to prostrate yourself before someone’. It can mean ‘to worship’ and that’s why in the King James Version it was translated ‘we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him’ (v.2). But it can also mean to kneel down and give your allegiance to a king, and given that the wise men speak of the baby as a newborn king, that’s probably what it means here.

So the good news that this passage proclaims to us this morning is that Jesus is God’s anointed king – that’s what the word ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ means. As Peter says in a sermon in Acts, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord of all’. This is good news because it means that the one who will have the last word in history is not some vicious dictator, or even the faceless chairman of the board of a multinational corporation, but the Son of God who loved us and gave his life for us on the cross.

Of course, when we look around us and see the state of the world, it takes an act of faith for us to believe that Jesus truly is Lord of all. But then, it took an act of faith for the wise men to believe that he was a king too. After all, they hadn’t found him in a royal palace; they’d found him in an ordinary house in Bethlehem, and his Dad was a village carpenter. But despite appearances to the contrary, they believed the signs they had been given, and they acknowledged him as God’s anointed king.

So to be a baptized Christian is to acknowledge that Jesus is our Lord and King. Baptism is a citizenship ceremony, a pledge of allegiance if you like, in which we declare that we will follow and obey Jesus Christ as Lord above all other lords and rulers and authorities and powers in our lives. If we were baptized as children, our parents made this pledge of allegiance on our behalf, and we accepted it for ourselves in a formal way at our confirmation, and informally as we put our personal faith in him in conversion.

Gold tells us that Jesus is our King. Incense tells us that Jesus is more than that; incense was used in the worship of God. And Matthew gives us a pretty big hint that this is who he thinks Jesus is. Look back at chapter one of his gospel, where the angel is speaking to Joseph and quotes the prophet Isaiah to him: ‘”Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel”, which means, “God is with us”’ (1:23). So in Jesus, God has come to live among us as one of us; as John says at the beginning of his gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:1, 14).

So the next bit of good news in this gospel is that the answer to the song ‘What if God was one of us?’ is ‘He is; he has come and lived among us’. And so God knows our human condition from the inside. He has experienced birth and childhood, adolescence and adulthood. He’s lived in a working class family and made his living by the sweat of his brow and the strength of his hands. He’s had to run away from death squads as a refugee, he’s been misunderstood by his family and betrayed by his friends and nailed to a cruel cross. God knows us through and through: that’s what the Christmas message is all about. And to be a baptized Christian is not just to give Jesus our allegiance as our King but to acknowledge him as God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, the one who has given us the highest revelation of what God is like.

You know the story of the little girl who was drawing a picture in Sunday School class? The teacher asked her what she was drawing, and she said, ‘God’. ‘But no one knows what God looks like?’ said the teacher. The little girl replied, ‘They will when I’m done!’ And when Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were done, people knew what God was like: he’s like Jesus, because Jesus has made him known to us. ‘No one has ever seen God’, says John in his gospel; ‘It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18). That’s who Jesus is.

Gold tells us the good news that Jesus is the world’s true king; incense tells us that good news that in Jesus God has shared our life and in Jesus we see the most perfect representation of what God is like. The third gift is myrrh, which was used to anoint bodies for burial. This tells us that Jesus the King will lay down his life for his people on the cross, so that our sins can be forgiven and so that we can be reconciled to God.

Jesus came to do the Father’s will, and for this the world crucified him. But that cross turned out to be, not a defeat, but a victory; as the Bible tells us, he bore our sins and died our death, so that we could be forgiven and set free. On the cross he prayed that God would forgive those who were crucifying him, and through his cross forgiveness is available to us as well.

And this is a vital part of our gospel message today. Simply to proclaim Jesus as king and call people to follow him begs the question, ‘What if we fail? What if we fall short?’ And the answer of course is, ‘We all do – that’s why Jesus gave his life for us’. None of us follows him perfectly; we’re all on a journey, sinners gradually being turned into saints, but God loves us and Christ died for us, so we can have confidence that God welcomes us and gives us the forgiveness we so badly need. And – let’s not forget – he calls us to extend that forgiveness to others too, to forgive as we have been forgiven.

Jesus is our King, Jesus is God come to live among us, Jesus gave his life on the Cross so that we could be forgiven. This is the good news proclaimed by today’s gospel reading.

And what about the gifts of service and worship we talked about at the beginning? What do we bring to Jesus this morning? What do Anthony and Kathleen bring to Jesus as they come with Cecilia to have her baptized? What is our call as baptized Christians?

Simply: we are called to give Jesus our allegiance as our true Lord and King above all other authorities and rulers, and to put his rule into practice every day of our lives. We are called to recognize the face of God in Jesus and to worship him. And we are called to thank God that Jesus has given his life for us, and to bring our sins to the foot of his cross, where we can receive forgiveness and a fresh start, today and every day.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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