Epiphany 8/01/2017 – Vicar Matt Huckel

Sunday 8th January 2017  – Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

Vicar Matt Huckel

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 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.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 

6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 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.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.http://stpetri.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/20170108_message.mp3

Who remembers the 3 Stooges: Moe, Larry and Curly? I have memories of watching them on TV as a kid with my Dad. They are the classic example of American slapstick humour of the 1930’s and 40’s, always hitting each other and getting into mischief. Moe’s chief line was always:  ‘Oh, a wise guy, Eh?’ usually followed by Curly or Larry getting thumped. The dialogue that followed was always classic: ‘What’s that for? I didn’t do nuthin’!’ To which Moe says: ‘That’s just in case ya do, and I’m not around!’

Now I don’t wish to go all the way to suggest that the Magi in our text today were in any way as ridiculous and incompetent as the three stooges but just like Larry and Curly they risked a good thumping from Herod or even death if they didn’t do what he ordered them to do: seek out Jesus, and report back so Herod could destroy him. These men came to Judea as astrologers and then became ‘wise guys’ when Herod got his hands on them. We might as well imagine them with gangster hats, dark glasses and overcoats until the star of Jesus finds them again and they come into his safety worshipping at his feet.  This morning we’ll be unpacking this text and revealing its treasures but I want to emphasise just how complex and interesting this story is.

So who were these ‘wise guys’ anyway? Firstly these men are Gentiles, non-Jews. From a Jewish perspective they have quite a lot of bad press. They were astrologers, known for their studies of the stars and planets but also highly superstitious and may have even been involved in divination. But even worse than that is that they were very likely to be Arabs; a people group with a long history of conflict with Israel going right back to Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament. There is also much written evidence in support of the Magi being Arabic from early church sources and contemporary research, but it does help us form a picture of God using the most unlikely people in this situation. For Jews, the Gentile Magi were pretty much the 3 stooges of the ancient world.

Now the Magi being Arabic probably would have made king Herod squirm in his seat. Herod was Arabic as well! His family were ethnically from Idumea who had converted to Judaism. Herod was genetically Arabic, religiously Jewish, culturally Greek and politically Roman. Apart from being a tyrant and incredibly cruel he was hated by the people because he had Gentile blood and Rome had put him on the throne without their say in the matter. Herod knew this which is why he was so paranoid; he tried very hard to protect himself by killing off his rivals and also tried to appease the people by engaging in lots of building projects. Very close to his own death he ordered a thousand distinguished citizens to be killed once he had died so that he could manufacture widespread grief and mourning. Thank God his family did not actually go through with it, but Herod knew no one would grieve for him at his death. The massacre of the innocents is in full keeping with what we know about Herod.

When the Magi turn up in Jerusalem this is where things become a little strange. The Magi, based on their studies on the star believed that a king had been born; perhaps they’ve assumed Herod has a new son. They also assume Herod knows who this new king is. Herod has no idea. Imagine their surprise when they find out that Herod and all Jerusalem in their own back yard don’t even know that a king has been born. This is highly embarrassing. Remember these are Gentiles taking some risks here; non-Jews actually telling Jews that they have a new king. It would be like 2nd cousin Auntie Doris turning up at your house wishing you a happy wedding anniversary and you’ve forgotten!

Herod is understandably shaken and paranoid and so he gathers all his main people chief priests and scribes and casually inquiries about where the Messiah was to be born. The quoted Micah 5:2 text which names Bethlehem as the location of the Messiah’s birth kick starts Herod’s plan.

The Magi would have a good reason to be fearful and uncomfortable when Herod sees them in secret. They are very vulnerable at this point. The Greek text tells us that Herod meticulously investigated them to know exactly the time of the star; I would say interrogated them. Herod then sends them out in verse 8 with a command to use the same method of investigation with the families of Bethlehem: ‘Go, and meticulously investigate everyone and find the child, and when you find him, tell me so I can go and bow down to him.’ Its chilling language isn’t it? Just imagine yourselves for a moment as one of the Magi. You are a Gentile astrologer away from home and you turn up discovering that your findings seem to have alarmed people, being used for something sinister but you don’t know what. You are investigated secretly and intensely and now you are commanded to do a specific job of door knocking and investigating townsfolk from another land whom you don’t even know. You’re now somehow working for Herod. This is nothing like what you expected.

But then a miracle happens. The star the Magi saw in their homeland comes back. They don’t have to do Herod’s dirty work, because God has found them. What’s more it goes ahead of them, and leads them to the house where Jesus is. The star actually shepherds them into the safety of Jesus. No wonder they are overjoyed and over the top in praise. They have been converted from a bunch of ‘wise guys’ who’ve been embroiled in Herod’s dark plans since they arrived, into ‘wise men’ who encounter the source of all wisdom and protection: the living Christ.

What happens next is just pure worship. They bow down and kiss the ground; they’re lower than the standing toddler in front of them. Remember that Jesus is older now; this is not the tiny baby in the stable of Bethlehem. They present their gifts to the child priest, items actually mentioned in the tabernacle in Exodus chapter 30: gold for the altar, frankincense to burn on the altar and myrrh as the main ingredient of the anointing oil for the priests. But myrrh also speaks of Jesus death. The plant itself is thorny. It will ‘anoint’ and pierce Jesus’ head with its thorns and its perfume will embalm his body wrapped in cloths similar to how he was swaddled as a new born.

But something remarkable has happened to the Magi. Their encounter with Jesus at his feet changes things. Firstly these Gentiles are now receiving a warning dream from God just like Joseph. Secondly they are specifically warned not to return to Herod according to his instructions. In fact the Greek text is highly revealing in terms of the relationship between the Magi and Herod. The Greek word for ‘return or turn round’ it is a worship term meaning to ‘bow or bend at the knee’. In other words God is saying: ‘Don’t continue to bend to Herod’s influence or bow down to him. You are now protected and free from him’.  That dream not only bought Joseph and Mary time to flee, it also protected the Magi. Herod would have likely killed them to cover up his original plot. Doesn’t this show how caught up the Magi were with Herod? Sadly although the Magi would go home another route, their lack of return would trigger the terrible Bethlehem massacre of young boys in verse 16.  In fact the Greek text tells us that Herod felt not only merely outwitted by the Magi but actually ‘played with’; as a child plays with a toy. Such incredible irony given his manipulation of these foreign astrologers.

However this seemingly vulnerable child is God incarnate. If Herod felt played with it was because God is in control of everything. God used the stars, even the Magi’s own profession to bring these Gentiles to the feet of Jesus.  God also used the Magi, the most unlikely instruments of his grace to alert the Jews that their king had finally come. Sometimes God uses unusual instruments to get our attention. I remember once having such a bad day at work I wanted to quit. I pleaded with God at my desk to let me off the hook and then a known hard core, angry atheist nurse came up at that moment saying: ‘Just wanted to let you know that I think you’re doing at great job. Love your work. Keep it up!’ I nearly fell off my chair.

Friends, God cares about both Jews and Gentiles. He cares about Christians and non-Christians. He desires with such intense love for all people to come to the feet of Jesus, to weep with tears of joy and relief to find that their saviour is real; that he is strong, and he is safe. Jesus allowed himself to be vulnerable. He allowed his body to be pierced with myrrh thorns and his body battered and broken on the cross so that we can bow down at his pierced feet and receive his precious blood flowing into us in the Sacrament cleansing us of our sin and renewing us. But the Herod inside us doesn’t want to let go. He is curved in on himself. He seeks to maintain control, he is paranoid, anxious and creates meticulous methods to remain in power. He even goes to the extent of trying to eliminate the very thing that could save people from their sins: Jesus. That hardened old Adam, our sinful flesh who has such a tight grip on us doesn’t want to let us be vulnerable at the feet of Jesus. That Herod is also offended when God uses the less desirable people of this world to do the Lord’s work.

As you go into this week, allow yourself to be vulnerable. Perhaps in areas you’re not used to. Allow God to use you as an unlikely instrument to share the Gospel in this community. You don’t need to pretend you have everything right in your life and all neat and tidy. But show that you are a broken person who is in constant need of Jesus as your source of joy and renewal.  It’s also ok to say you are struggling when people ask: ‘So how are you?’ Try not to habitually say ‘Fine thanks!’ and not mean it. Be prepared to admit mistakes when they happen. You’d be surprised how at ease you can make people feel when they discover that you are a prepared to show some vulnerability. But I also think that although we always should try to do the best with the gifts that God has given us we should also be humble, realistic about our shortcomings and be in constant need of Jesus. We can let ourselves be all of these things simply because we are safe. We are safe at his feet and safe in the light that shines over us and through us. Spend some time at Jesus’ feet. Worship him but also let him lift you up.

But even if we get lots of things wrong the star of Christ shines above us and shows us the way to Jesus. He does something about the thick darkness that is over us as it says in Isaiah 60: 1-3:

1 Arise, shine for your light has come, and the Glory of the Lord has risen.

2 Behold for the darkness will conceal the earth, and thick darkness is over the people.

But over you the Lord will rise and you will see his glory over you.

3 And Gentiles will travel to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising.

We can easily become ‘wise guys’ by being wise in our own eyes can’t we? But the truth is we are broken people that need Jesus. He is our wisdom, our strength, our safety and our light. Thank God that he seeks us out, especially when we struggle so much to seek him. May the light of Christ shine on you today, and rescue you from all harm and danger. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

CONVERSATION STARTERS

Matthew 2:1-12

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 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.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 

6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for out of you will come a ruler

who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 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.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Confession

It is often hard to admit things aren’t going well in our lives and we often find it hard to talk about our frailties with others. Pray about how you might be more able to share the less perfect things in your lives so that God can use that vulnerability to minister to others.

Thanksgiving

Spend some time with thanks and praise at Jesus’ feet. Thank him that he is always protecting you and that his light always shines in your dark circumstances showing you a way out.

Supplication

Ask God to help you look outside the box by seeing God’s unlikely instruments in your everyday life. Ask him to sensitise your eyes and ears through key conversations and interactions with people in the community, to see people’s spiritual and physical needs.  Pray for those people that God brings to your attention and pray how you might help provide blessings for them.

Prayer

Lord God, just like the Magi who were manipulated by Herod, confused and afraid, we too can become lost in thick darkness where we don’t’ know where to find you. Thank you that you seek us more than we seek you, and that your light shines over us always. Help us come to terms with the fact that we don’t have everything right in our lives and help us to be more vulnerable with our brothers and sisters in Christ and with others who don’t know you. This is all possible only because of the death and resurrection of your son Jesus who creates safety and security for all his children because he allowed himself to become vulnerable; to let his body suffer the sins of the world for our sake. Amen.  

#Epiphany #magi

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