Last week on Facebook I saw a humorous picture; an old dog and a young dog were having a conversation, and the young dog asked, “What are New Year’s resolutions?” The old dog replied, “A to-do list for the first week of January!”
Well, I don’t know whether or not you make New Year’s resolutions, and if you do, I don’t know how successful you’ve been in the past at keeping them. But it seems to be a natural thing for us as human beings to take stock when we come to times of transition. And it’s usually a healthy thing for us to do at any time of the year, to examine ourselves, see how we’re doing in terms of the direction our lives are taking, and make some decisions about what we’re going to focus on in the immediate and not-so-immediate future.
For us as Christians, we can’t really make those decisions without thinking about God and his call on our lives. And we can’t really think about God and his call on our lives without referring to Jesus, God’s anointed King, the one who calls us to follow him and to learn the new life of the Kingdom of God from him. And as soon as we start thinking about this, we realize that Jesus’ voice is not the only voice calling for our allegiance! There are all sorts of rival lords and rival gods demanding our attention, and if we aren’t very careful, they will drown out the voice of Jesus as he calls us to follow him into this new year. So let’s give our careful attention for the next few minutes to the voice we hear in today’s gospel reading, a voice that calls us to acknowledge Jesus as our King and to commit ourselves to following him wholeheartedly through this coming year.
In this Gospel reading for today Matthew is trying to show us that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised King, and that his arrival means that God’s kingdom is now very near. But the word ‘Messiah’ is Hebrew, and these ideas are very Jewish. How can you and I relate to them today, in western Canada in the year 2014?
Actually, I don’t think it’s all that hard for us to relate. We all dream of a better world, a world where there would be no terrorist attacks and no inequalities between rich and poor. We’d all like to see a world where hatred between different races is unknown, where there is no crime, where people don’t die from strange killer diseases. And we also have dreams for our own lives. No doubt some of those dreams are along the lines of the Barenaked Ladies’ song ‘If I had a million dollars’! But in our better moments we also dream about reaching our goals for personal growth, about finally getting free of our negative habits and becoming the kind of people we wish we could be.
The Christian good news tells us that these dreams are not just wishful thinking. The reason we have them is that God put them into our hearts. They point to a deeper longing yet, a longing for the restoration of God’s original plan for his creation. This restoration is going to take place. The day is going to come when God’s creation will be healed of all its hurts, and when all people will experience the peace and justice that is God’s original dream for us.
The Jewish people called this hope ‘the reign of God’ or ‘kingdom of God’. Many of them believed that God would send them a human king to establish it. He would be a good king, like their ancient king David. They called this king ‘the Messiah’, and many of them saw him as a political or military leader. That’s why they were surprised by Jesus, because he came as a servant king, and instead of ‘taking out’ his enemies, he allowed himself to be ‘taken out’ on the cross for all people.
This was a huge stumbling block for Jewish people; how could Jesus be the Messiah when God had obviously abandoned him to his enemies, rather than giving him victory over them? In the early days of the Christian church this was very much a live issue, and early Christian thinkers gave a lot of time to demonstrating from the scriptures that yes, Jesus is the Messiah, even if he hasn’t done exactly what we always thought the Messiah would do. Some of the details in today’s passage are there to convince Matthew’s first readers of this. So the scribes quote the prophecy from Micah, which identifies Bethlehem as the place where the coming king would be born. The gifts that the wise men brought were gifts fit for a king, and the fact that they knelt down and did homage to Jesus as a king would reinforce the point.
Matthew is announcing good news to us. God’s kingdom is close at hand! The time will not be long! And as his Gospel continues, he gives us an invitation to come and be a part of God’s kingdom. We’re invited to become part of a kind of resistance movement, working together to subvert the values of sin and evil and to prepare for the loving rule of God over the whole of creation. And we do this work, not out of desperation, but in the sure and certain hope that God’s promises will be fulfilled.
So you and I are invited to participate in the coming kingdom of God. What is our response to this invitation? Are we going to refuse it and cling to our own autonomy, like Herod, or are we going to accept it wholeheartedly, like the wise men? And what might that look like in our daily lives?
Let’s start with Herod. Historians actually know quite a lot about Herod, and the picture Matthew gives us certainly rings true. As Brian told us last week, Herod was a fanatically jealous and insecure ruler; he had his wife, his mother and several of his children murdered because he suspected them of plotting against him. So it is not at all out of character that he should react to the news of the birth of the Messiah by attempting to trick the wise men into leading him to the baby, and then, when that didn’t work, by killing every boy in Bethlehem under the age of two to make sure he wiped out any threat to his throne. After all, he knew that the Messiah was God’s coming king, and that he was to usher in a realm of peace and justice. Did that sound like good news to a despotic tyrant? Probably not! Herod was addicted to his own power and autonomy, and he had no intention of submitting to another king.
What part of me does Herod represent? Could it be the part that will accept no one’s rule but my own? Jesus asks for my allegiance; to call myself a Christian means voluntarily giving up my autonomy and joyfully accepting his rule as my King on a daily basis. If I’m not willing to do that, or at least to try to do that, then Jesus can’t really set me free from my inner enemies – the sins and fears that trap me and hold me back from God’s best for me. Jesus is like a doctor who wants to help his patients, but can’t do so if they won’t trust him enough to put their lives in his hands and do what he tells them to do.
We all struggle with this. Perhaps you know the story of the man who fell off a cliff and clung desperately to a branch, which was slowly pulling away from the cliff face. He screamed out a cry for help; “Is there anyone there?” To his surprise a voice replied, “Yes”. “Who is that?” he asked. “This is God”. “Can you help me?” “Yes; let go of the branch”. After a moment the man said, “Is there anyone else there?”
What ‘branch’ might Jesus be calling me to let go of today? What are the things that give me a false sense of security, the things I need to let go of so that I can find my true freedom in God? Might it be my addiction to the good things that money can buy? Might it be my need to control my world and the lives of the people around me? Whatever it is, am I willing to let go, and trust that God’s will for me is best?
Herod refused God’s invitation to participate in the coming kingdom of justice and peace; he refused to let go of his own power and autonomy. But the Magi, or wise men, are different: their response was one of wholehearted acceptance of God’s invitation, to the extent that they were willing to put their lives on hold and go on a long and arduous journey to find the one God had promised. Let’s think about them for a minute.
Bible scholars have speculated for years about who the Magi actually were. We sing about them in the hymn ‘We Three Kings’, but the text doesn’t say that they were kings and it doesn’t say that there were three of them, either; only that they brought three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. The most likely explanation of them seems to be that they were astrologers; belief in astrology was almost universal in biblical times, when almost everyone took it for granted that the movements of the stars influenced human affairs. So these Magi were Gentiles, and God spoke to them in a way that would have made sense to them, by the appearance of a star.
What actually did they see? Again, there has been a lot of speculation about that. Some scholars point out that Halley’s comet would have been visible about 11 B.C., but that seems a little too early. In 7 B.C. there was a brilliant conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Ancient astrologers often thought that Saturn represented Israel, and Jupiter was of course the royal planet, so they may have deduced from this that a great king was about to be born in Israel. We don’t know for sure, but one thing is certain: they took their studies so seriously that they were willing to do something about them!
Notice their willingness to give their search priority in their lives. Their journey may have lasted for as long as two years, during which they were away from their homes and their other commitments. I love it when I see people taking their walk with God this seriously. Some summers I’ve gone down to Regent College in Vancouver for summer school. Many of the people who attend are ordinary Christians who are taking some time out of their summer holidays to study the Bible or to think in a Christian way about the concerns of our times. Nobody is paying them to be there, and every week they spend at Regent is one week less holiday time for them. But they do it because they are committed to their walk with God, and time at Regent helps them in that journey. The Magi show me that accepting God’s invitation involves this kind of wholeheartedness: as Jesus said, ‘seek first the kingdom of God’, before all my other concerns.
So this is part of the challenge I need to face up to on this first Sunday of 2014: In this new year that lies ahead of me, am I willing to seek first the Kingdom of God? Am I willing to give Jesus first place in my life, rather than just giving him the time that’s left over from all my other activities? Am I willing to count God’s good opinion of me as more important than the good opinion of friends, or family, or work colleagues? Am I willing to put obedience to Jesus ahead of my own desires and plans? Am I willing to be wholehearted in my commitment to Jesus, like the Magi?
All that may sound tough and gloomy, but it’s not. Notice what verse 10 says about the Magi: ‘they were overjoyed’. To follow Jesus as our King is a joyful thing, because to serve him is to really be free for the first time in our lives. After all, the first Christians on the day of Pentecost were so overwhelmed with joy that they were accused of being drunk! That should tell us that to know God and to discover God’s will for us is the deepest joy we could ever imagine – deeper, in fact, than we can ask or imagine.
So we are invited to participate in the Kingdom of God. What is our response? If we’re honest we have to admit that sometimes we’re like Herod: “No thanks, God – I like my plan better”. But God’s dream for us is that we would respond as the Magi did, with wholehearted commitment to Jesus as our King.
This will not happen by accident. It won’t be something that we fall into without a conscious decision on our part. Even on the level of ordinary habits, we know this is true. If there’s some bad habit that we’ve fallen into, we don’t usually get free of it without making a conscious decision to do things differently, and then making concrete plans about how to put our decision into practice. So let me suggest that we do the same thing in our relationship with Jesus our Lord. God has given us an invitation to participate in his kingdom by giving our wholehearted allegiance to Jesus and by putting this into practice in our daily lives. In this year of our Lord 2014, let’s resolve to accept that invitation and make that wholehearted commitment, let’s ask God to guide us about the changes this will require in our daily lives, and let’s pray for the help of the Holy Spirit so that we can make those changes. And then, like the wise men, let’s be ready to be overjoyed - because following Jesus really is the best way to live a joyful life!