On the Lookout

“On the Lookout”

Matt 2-11 Adoration_magi_Pio_Christiano_4th cent. sarcophagus, Vatican museum

Matthew 2:1-12 (2:2) – January 7, 2018

Christmas Day has been over for two weeks. To modern-day Americans, this was a long time ago! But the full holiday isn’t really over on December 25th. There are the twelve days of Christmas (remember the song about the twelve days?), during which many would have parties and feasting and especially Twelfth Night celebrations.

As we think of Nativity scenes or paintings, how often do we see them with shepherds and sheep, as well as the three wise men? All of them at the same time visiting the baby Jesus in the manger?  That is not quite the way it was, as presented in the Gospels. We are all familiar with the Nativity narrative from Luke chapter 2, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. All went to their own towns to be registered.”

For the visit of the wise men, we need to turn to Matthew’s gospel, chapter 2: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi [or, wise men] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the One who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”

Here we have some wise men—probably noblemen who know a great deal about stars and constellations. They have been studying the heavens for years and years, as well as studying religious books and writings. Just as it says in the gospel record, a great sign (or star) rose in the sky, so these wise astrologers knew that something momentous was going to happen.

These wise men, or Magi, were not Jewish wise men, but instead were Gentiles. Non-Jews. “Could an unusual phenomenon in the night skies have caught the attention of some of them—interest in the stars was legendary in the region—and led them to set out to Jerusalem? That people of other lands and religions are drawn to Jesus, even as a child, is also significant: in Christ, God is speaking to the hearts and minds of all people.” [1] It is important to point out that they were on the lookout and knew which way to go—towards Jerusalem. And, eventually, they turned up at the palace, on King Herod’s doorstep.

What was King Herod’s response to the question of these noble Gentile wise men? “When Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.” “Why was Herod so frightened? Of a baby? What did he have to lose and how did he see this baby as a threat?” [2]

For the how and the what, we need to look at Herod’s psychological profile, which is not nice at all. He was bloodthirsty, cruel, narcissistic, and always on the lookout for trouble brewing that might affect him. Herod was installed as a puppet king of Israel by the Roman overlords. I suspect he did not feel very secure to begin with. When he heard about a newborn King of Israel, you can imagine how his anxiety level rose. Herod did not want any rival claim to the throne.

Herod is sneaky, and sly, and ruthless. Listen to his response to these wise men: “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

That leads me to ask some uncomfortable questions. We know Herod was threatened by the thought of a newborn King. Are we threatened by the thought of Jesus? Does the newborn King make us anxious? We know that cruel King Herod had horrible plans ahead for the boy babies and toddlers in the area of Bethlehem. But, are our motives clear when we think of our fear and anxiety concerning strangers and visitors coming into our hometown?

A telling observation comes from Dr. David Lose: “Perhaps it is because the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power. Gone from Herod and his court is any notion of the kind of servant leadership prescribed and required by Israel’s prophets. Gone is the memory that God placed them in their positions to serve rather than be served. Herod seeks his own ends and so is immediately threatened by even the mere mention of another – and therefore rival – king.” [3]

What about any self-interest we might have? We know King Herod was a prime hypocrite. But, is there any hypocrisy in our words and actions, when we think of how we treat strangers, visitors from far away? Serious questions, requiring serious thought.

We follow the wise men as they leave Jerusalem and go to Bethlehem. Remember what brought them on this journey in the first place? They had seen a star in the heavens, and by consulting their books of ancient wisdom, they knew that a King had been born. They followed that star, that Light.

We don’t know, and we cannot tell for sure, but perhaps one of the books the wise men consulted was the book of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. Chapter 60 begins: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you, and His glory appears over you.” Maybe this was one of the ancient writings they poured over.

On Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, we sing about the wise men from the East. “We three kings, of Orient, are.” What is the chorus of that Christmas—actually, Epiphany—carol? “Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright.” Although they were Gentiles, they still recognized that the one who was born the king of the Jews was worthy of worship. And, they came to the house where the Holy Family was staying, and offered Him gifts fit for a King.

Here in the United States in many Protestant denominations, Epiphany is not that big of a deal. Yes, the coming of the wise men is incorporated into many Christmas pageants, and is found in nativity scenes and Christmas cards. Except—I want to let everyone here know that this is a totally separate event. The coming of Light into the world—so beautifully mentioned at the beginning of the gospel of John—is the whole meaning behind our celebration of Epiphany.

One of the grand symbols of God is that of Light. Mentioned repeated throughout the Bible, when we picture Light we can think of a star, the sun, a candle, a lamp. We have the Advent wreath lit today, with the Christ candle in the middle letting us know that Jesus is with us right now. We lit those candles on the Advent wreath one by one, and on Christmas Eve lit the Christ candle to remind ourselves that God our Light is always with us. And, at the end of our service today the light from the candles behind the communion table will travel down the central aisle and out the back door to call worshipers to follow the Light of God out into the world. [4]

As the wise men followed the star—the Light—to worship the Child in Bethlehem, so we can follow Him, the True Light. The shining Star of our hearts is the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Do you know He is with us today? He opens His arms wide to all who would come. Come worship the True Light, the Child born in Bethlehem, today. Amen.

[1] http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2012-01-01

“Jesus, Herod, the Magi and Us,” Commented Bible Passages from Taize, 2012.

[2] http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/gold-frankincense-myrrh-alyce-mckenzie-01-03-2013.html

“Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh,” Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1509  “An ‘Adults Only’ Nativity Story,” David Lose, WorkingPreacher, 2013.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/11/year-epiphany-monday-january-6-2014-or.html

Worshiping with Children, Epiphany, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

We See Your Salvation

“We See Your Salvation”

Luke 2-30 Simeon words

Luke 2:22-40 (2:30) – December 31, 2017

Many of us had a marvelous celebration last week for the Christmas holidays. Gatherings with extended family and friends, special parties and programs, holiday concerts and pageants, often ending with the caroling around the fireplace. And the stockings hung with care, and mounds of gaily wrapped presents around the Christmas tree.

But, too soon after the grand holiday, the main event, and the wonderful days of celebrations, everything is ended. The crumpled wrapping paper is in the trash, the many leftovers packed in the refrigerator. The unexpected visitors have gone home, and we have returned back to the plain old mundane, ordinary routine. What happens now? What next?

Mary and Joseph might have been wondering a similar thing. After the marvelous birth announcement given to the shepherds by the chorus of the heavenly hosts, and after the impromptu visit by the shepherds and others to the newborn Baby in Bethlehem, what happens now? What next? Great question! What does happen?

Reading from the second chapter of Luke: “22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took the child to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

We are told that Mary recuperates and takes the time prescribed for mothers of a first-born son from Leviticus chapter 12. Then, she and Joseph bring Jesus up to the Temple for the Child’s dedication. The Mosaic Law Code is very specific about what needs to be done for a first-born son: forty days after the birth, the parents of the newborn son take their Child to present Him before the Lord.

Now that the grand celebration of the birth is over, Mary and Joseph get down to the ordinary, everyday matter of living. The main way they do that is to follow the laws and rules prescribed for them in the Mosaic Law Code. The laws and rituals of the Jewish people were ancestral traditions. It’s pointed out that these “are a reminder to [the parents] that Jesus is born in the context of the covenant established between God and the people Israel.” [1]

The Jewish people were supposed to be sensitive to the Holy God, and this rite of purification in the Temple is a reminder of that relationship to God. “One way a woman encounters the holy is through the miracle of giving birth. It is a holiness which belongs to and describes the natural rhythm of life.” [2]

Our Gospel writer Luke breaks in right here with a new figure in his narrative. A cameo appearance by a guest star, if you think of things in terms of television or movies, in the birth narrative of Luke chapter 2. We meet the older man Simeon, and we find out about his backstory.

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for Him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took Him in his arms and praised God.”

It is similar to what we covered in the weeks of Advent this year. In the midweek bible study during December, we studied the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew chapter 1. Pretty dry stuff, all of those names, and all of those “begats.” So-and-so the son of the other guy, the grandson of such-and-such. Genealogies were extremely important to the Jewish people, because keeping an orderly and exact account of who was related to whom helped cement the lines of ancestry and inheritance.

Except—the genealogy of Jesus had some surprises. Four women were mentioned in Matthew’s account. We studied the backstory of each of those four women, and found out exactly why each one was included in the genealogy of Jesus. In Luke’s birth narrative, he tells us some backstory, so we can find out exactly what the godly man Simeon is doing here.

Luke tells us that Simeon is called “just and devout,” and was waiting for the dawning of the kingdom of God – “the consolation of Israel”. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. He now sees the fulfillment of this promise. In the power of the Spirit, he sings a song of praise and utters a prophecy concerning Jesus. [3]

What a marvelous expression of faith and trust in God comes from Simeon. He sings to God: “29 “Sovereign Lord, as You have promised, You may now dismiss Your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation, 31 which You have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.” 33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about Him.”

Sizeable words spoken about someone so small. Here we have the baby Jesus, and His mother and adoptive father did marvel at such weighty words!

However, Simeon is not finished yet. He prophecies after this wonderful expression of song. “34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, His mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Serious, solemn words, indeed. Simeon has waited for his whole life for this very moment. After years and decades of expectation and longing, the Messiah has finally arrived. What is more, Simeon spontaneously blesses Mary and Joseph, too, along with Jesus.

Simeon was right there, at the beginning, with Jesus as a baby. He gave witness that Jesus was as foretold, by many prophets throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus had the greatest future, here at the beginning of the Greatest Story Ever Told. “We are left in anticipation to watch as the Child grows strong, filled with wisdom and blessed with the favor of God.” [4]

Where are each of us in our understanding of Emmanuel, God being with us? Is this narrative from Luke just a fairy story, suitable only to be shared with children every December at the holidays? Or, is it more than that? Have we heard the Good News from the angels and are waiting for more assurance, more evidence that the Messiah has come to earth?

The faithful servant of God, Simeon, was waiting at the Temple for years.  He was waiting and hoping for the Messiah, the chosen One of Israel. When we come to church today, do we expect to have an encounter with the Messiah? We fall on our knees with those who came to worship. Jesus has his arms open wide to welcome all who would come to Him. Come to Jesus, today. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=207

Commentary, Luke 2:22-40, Holly Hearon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyg/christmas1bg.html

“Jesus Grew in Wisdom and Stature,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.  

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=207

Commentary, Luke 2:22-40, Holly Hearon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008