Sermon notes 01-02-22 Resolving to Go Another Way Pastor David King
Matthew 2:1-12 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
We are still singing Christmas carols today and we still have the church decorated for Christmas one last Sunday because today is Epiphany Sunday. On the church calendar, Epiphany marks the conclusion of the season of Christmas. The actual date of the Epiphany is January 6th, twelve days after Christmas. In most years, like this one, January 6th does not fall on a Sunday, so we always celebrate Epiphany in the church on the first Sunday in January.
Epiphany is a word that means manifestation or appearance, and the story of the wise men from our Gospel reading today includes several manifestations and appearances: the star appears in the sky, the wise men following the star appear in Jerusalem and finally Christ is made manifest to the wise Men. All those appearances and manifestations, or epiphanies, are the reason we call this first Sunday of the new year Epiphany Sunday or the Epiphany of the Lord.
The beginning of a new year is a time when we customarily make resolutions. Generally, we resolve to do something different, which could mean that we intend to do more of something, or less of something, in the new year.
On the “more” side, we might resolve to exercise more or read our Bibles more or attend worship more. On the “less” side we might resolve to eat less or spend less time on social media or misplace things less. Either way, our resolutions are a response to the fact that it is a new year, and we aspire to do things more or less differently this year than we did them last year. We might say, in other words, that we resolve to go another way than the way we had been going.
This morning I want us to think about Epiphany from a couple of angles. I want us to briefly consider the Christian history of Epiphany. I want us to think about the gifts brought by the wise men and the effort that it took these kings or wise men to deliver their gifts. And perhaps most importantly, I want us to ponder why it is that we say these men were wise, what it is that made them wise, and how we might learn from them to live wisely as we begin a new year together.
So first some history: Epiphany is an even more ancient celebration among Christians than Christmas. Originally it was on the day of Epiphany more so than on Christmas Day that Christians celebrated the birth of Christ. In parts of the world even today, especially in the Latino culture, the ancient way of celebrating Epiphany has been preserved. Epiphany in many Latin American countries is called Dia De Los Reyes, which is ‘Day of the Kings’ or Dia De Los Tres Reyes, ‘Three Kings’ Day.’ In many of those countries it is not on Christmas day, but rather on Epiphany, that children wake up to gifts that arrive mysteriously during the previous night. Before they go to sleep on the eve of Epiphany, children put out, not milk and cookies, but boxes filled with hay under their beds so that the camels will eat the hay as the kings leave presents for the children. So while in our country and much of the world, our children get gifts on Christmas from a man who travels by sleigh and reindeer, many of the children in Latin American countries get gifts on Epiphany from three kings who travel by camel. I’ll let you decide which tradition is more biblically based. At any rate, Epiphany, like Christmas, is essentially about giving.
In the Epiphany story we focus on the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh given to the Christ child by the wise men. It is through the identification of those three gifts that we arrive at the notion that there were three kings. You may have noticed that Matthew does not mention the number of the wise men. The Scriptures do not tell us how many wise men there were, but we traditionally claim there were three of them, because three gifts are named.
We know that, as it was back in the time of Christ, gold is still one of the most valuable of all precious metals. We are not so familiar today with the gifts of frankincense and myrrh, but in biblical times, frankincense and myrrh were, like gold, extremely valuable. The point is that these wise men gave the most valuable and extravagant gifts they could give to the Christ child. They gave the very best they had.
We should further realize that it took a tremendous amount of effort for these wise men to deliver their gifts to the Christ child. As best that biblical scholars can determine, the wise men more than likely came from Babylon. They would probably have traveled with a large entourage of attendants and guards and of course camels for the journey along the main trade route of about 800 miles. If they averaged 20 miles per day, the trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem would have taken about 40 days.
Why did these men go to such effort? Why were they so committed to making this trip and delivering these precious gifts? It must be because they really believed in what they were doing. The wise men would likely have been familiar with Jewish prophecies such as the one from the prophet Micah that the priests and scribes quoted to Herod when Herod asked them where the Christ was to be born, and they told him “in Bethlehem of Judea.” The wise men may also have been familiar with the prophecy from Numbers 24:17 saying, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” These wise men would have understood the star to point to the manifestation, the appearance, the Epiphany of a deliverer, a king, the Messiah. So when they saw the star, they were committed to following it until it led them to Jesus. And when they saw him, the Scriptures tell us, they fell down and worshiped him, and opening their treasures, they offered him gold and frankincense and myrrh.
We might wonder why is it that these men were referred to as wise? Matthew didn’t seem to think it was important to tell us how many of them there were, but he made a point of telling us they were wise. Were they wise because they were learned astrologers? Were they wise because they could interpret prophecy?
We could say that at least initially they were not wise to the ways of Palestinian politics, or they would not have gone to Herod in the first place. But they were wise in not being misled by Herod’s lies, or by his apparent power and wealth. They were wise in not being swayed or distracted by appearances or possessions or position. They were wise because in spite of the comparably humble circumstances in which they found Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, they recognized that this baby, not the man wearing the crown in Jerusalem, was the true king they were seeking. And when they found the one whom they had been seeking and they recognized him as the true king, they were wise to give him their very best. Then finally, responding to the dream in which they were warned not to return to Herod, these men were wise in resolving to depart to their country by another way.
Friends, there is much for us to imitate in the example of these wise men as we follow Jesus into this new year. First of all, if we are wise, we too will resolve to go another way than most of the world would go. The world would lead us to seek fulfillment through possessions or fame or power or appearances or accomplishments or the opinions of others. True wisdom is in the understanding that bowing to the authority of the Lord Jesus and submitting to his plans and purposes for our lives will bring us far great fulfillment than the ways of the world or our own plans and purposes. True wisdom is in the realization that the ways of the Lord are exceedingly better for us than our own ways.
I love the quote that you see often on Christmas cards, or even on bumper stickers: “Wise men still seek him.” If we are wise, we will still seek Christ. If we are wise, we will not be distracted by the many “Herods” of this world who will do anything to cling to power. When we are wise, we will be fully committed to following Christ and giving him our very best.
Brothers and sisters, wise people still seek him. If we are wise, we too, like the wise men, will go to great effort to seek him. We will seek him knowing that the way to true and abundant life is through Christ alone. May we each wisely seek him and give him our best in 2022 and always.
Let us now continue worshiping our King as we celebrate the Great Thanksgiving.