Sermon Transcript January 3, 2021
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Matthew 2:1-12 ~ Sunday, January 3, 2020
Birthdays are a big deal! The older we get we might try to downplay or disregard the number we’re celebrating, but they’re still significant. They’re often marked with a celebration of some sort. Some way of recognizing this special moment. That’s true not just for our own, but for the birthdays of those we love too. Something inside compels us to pause in the busyness of life and send birthday wishes. To take time out of our schedule to celebrate. Even to use hard-earned money to buy the celebrant a gift. Yes, birthdays are a big deal.
That’s especially true when a happy couple announces to family and friends that they’re expecting the birth of a child. Even more so when the baby is born and the good news is shared. Do you remember that feeling? Can you feel the wonder, the joy, the gratitude, even now?
And if you can remember that excitement, that wonder, that hope for the birth of a new family member … really lean into those memories to better experience the story of epiphany.
The word “Epiphany” means “appearing,” usually referring to the appearance of a king or a god. The magi had come from the east to Jerusalem because God had caused a star to appear in the sky – which they understood to be a star announcing the birth of a king. Who were these magi? While we can’t say with certainty, they were probably Persian court astrologers who carefully studied the sun, moon, and stars for changes and movement and signs – especially (before the invention of the calendar) to determine when to plant or harvest or travel.
When they get to Jerusalem, they go right to Herod’s palace. That’s logical, right? Herod was the king of Judea – where else would you go to find the newborn “king of the Jews” but to the current “King of the Jews?” But despite their supposed wise reasoning, they got it all wrong: Jerusalem was the wrong city, the palace was the wrong house, and Herod was the wrong king. Here we see the grand contrast between God’s ways and man’s ways, a theme that shows up again and again throughout Scripture. The magi expected to visit “man’s king”; the star pointed to God’s king. Man’s king lives in palaces, in capital cities, in splendor and glory. God’s king lives in a humble house, in a small town, in poverty and humility. Man’s king strives to become a god. God’s king becomes a man. Man’s king expects his subjects to bleed for him; God’s king bleeds and dies to save his subjects. And so again, just like at the first Christmas in the manger, just like boy Jesus at the temple – we are reminded that God works salvation in the most hidden, mysterious, humble ways. Not the way of power and might – but the way of lowliness and self-sacrifice. God’s hidden ways are seen most clearly in a peasant virgin who becomes the mother of God, in a manger that becomes the cradle of a king, in a cruel cross that becomes a symbol of greatest comfort to all who believe on him, in the fact that a tomb proves his victory not his defeat.
And, while the star is what brought the magi to Jerusalem, it was the Word of God which brought them to Bethlehem. To Herod’s shame, he did not know where Scripture said the Savior would be born. He had to ask the religious experts. And even though they clearly lack faith in Scripture, they knew what the prophet Micah said: in Bethlehem in Judea. (Micah 5:2) Literally, the “house of bread.” It was a little afterthought of a town 5 miles away from Jerusalem – where the real “power” was. But with the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem lives up to its name. It was the “pantry,” the “breadbox” in which the living bread from heaven (John 6) was born.
So off the Magi go to little Bethlehem, urged on by Herod – whose claim to want to join them in worship veiled a heart that was bent on murdering this little threat to his power. And, to the great joy of the magi, the star appears again in the sky, like a divine GPS, verifying Micah’s prophecy, guiding them to the very place where the child was. No more manger crib for Jesus; now he’s in a house with his parents. Imagine the look on
Mary’s face when she opens the door and sees magi standing there – whether three or more, we don’t know – with their camels (or donkeys or horses – we don’t know that either) stomping in the yard - and they ask to see her young son and then … bow down and worship him. Imagine her surprise when they present him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. These Magi realize what Herod and all his chief priests and teachers of the law – people who should have known better – missed completely: this child is the true King of the Jews, the God of the universe, the Savior of the world.
Even in infancy Jesus compels powerful responses. Some are inspired to worship while others show deep hostility. The magi wisely pay him homage, while Herod plots his murder. Same child, two wildly different responses. And the story presses each of us with the question: How do you react to Jesus? Is he your Savior and Lord, or is he a nuisance, even a threat? Even as I ask these questions, I realize I’m speaking to people who are gathered online and in person to worship Jesus. Yet I think these questions are still worth our consideration. Because when it comes to worship, true worship is always more than just something that is compelled (a family member made me come) or one of routine (it’s what I’ve always done). True worship is something that flows out of the heart! Do you feel a sense of awe and wonder moving within you, compelling you to come and worship your newborn King?
This is what compels the wise men. They are for us an epiphany of what this looks like and what this means. They set aside time for Jesus. They were people of power and influence. They had busy lives. Yet they made time to spend with Jesus. In fact, they journeyed, even going a great distance, to be with him. Some speculate they may have traveled as many as 500 miles to get to Bethlehem. And when they got there, they gave their treasures to Jesus. And when they returned back to their homes, they reveal how this child has changed them. Though King Herod had ordered them to report back to him, they follow the instructions of the Lord’s messenger, revealing that their ultimate allegiance was to the Highest Power!
In a Christmas devotional, Pastor Paul David Tripp asks, “How are you continuing to stand so close to the Christmas story so it overwhelms every other story that defines you?” And he quickly adds: “The further we stand away from the Christmas story the less we are gripped with the life-changing wonder of knowing that God became a child so that we would no longer be separate from God, but would be now and forever a child of God. You and I need to get so close to this story that it overwhelms any other defining story we have carried around with us.” Paul Tripp ‘O come let us adore him.’
And why wouldn’t it? Remember the wonder you felt the first or the last time you welcomed beloved new life into the world? Do you remember how excited, how eager you were to meet this child for the first time? Making the time, and making the journey, sometimes over many, many miles to greet this new person? The awe as you held that child in your arms and marveled at their tiny fingers and little toes? The newfound sense of purpose this child gave you when you heard that you’re now a big sister, a big brother? That you’re a grandma or grandpa, an aunt or an uncle? A dad? A mom? If a birth in any one of our families can fill us with such wonder, such hope, such purpose, how much more so doesn’t this one compel us in even greater ways?
Please, don't misunderstand that word “compel.” I'm not using it in the sense of forcing us against our will, coercing us, driving us like slaves, making us do something we don’t want to do. It's not that in any way at all. Rather I'm using it like St. Paul did when he wrote, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Cor. 5:14-15). When love compels you, it moves, motivates, empowers us. That’s what Christ and the love he shows us in his birth, by his death, and through his resurrection does in us. His love transforms our will so that we willing, gladly, eagerly want to. His love strengthens us, moving us to act, propelling us forward. It's compelling in the best sense of the word.
Look at the reaction of the wise men to his love. They gave their treasures to him and then followed the Lord's command when he told them to go home another route and not return to Herod. That's how they honored their King because of his great love that came to save them. So also, dear Christians, the announcement that comforts us with the good news that this baby is our God and Savior, that same proclamation powerfully moves us, compels us, to eagerly, gladly, willingly give him our best and dearest gifts and to follow the Lord's direction, obeying his commands revealed in the Scriptures. That's how we honor our King. Even as we pursue the earthly things the Lord gives us to do, we want to do it in a way that gives our King the best and follows his direction. We want him honored in all that we do whether at church, at work, at home, at school, out shopping, out fishing, dining out, playing sports, playing music, playing games, exercising, watching TV, and anything, yes, everything else. We want to honor him in all our pursuits, because of his love for us, a love that moved him to come from heaven to earth, born as a baby for you!
And that brings us right back where we started! Birthdays are a big deal. So it’s no wonder that Jesus’ birthday, the celebration of Christmas, is such a huge deal! Epiphany emphasizes why it is such a huge deal for everyone, no matter what your ethnicity. Jesus, while born of Jewish descent, came to bring light and hope and heaven to all! Epiphany is the reason why we can all rejoice in his birth. Epiphany invites us all to feel the joy of his new life. Epiphany reveals the fresh hope he brings forth in you because this is the hope he offers to all! It is the hope that draws us together, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, in heartfelt worship and true devotion to the One who was born to save us all! Amen.