Jan 4, 2013
Focus Readings: Isaiah 60:1–6, Ephesians 3:1–12, Matthew 2:1–12
Today is Epiphany, the day when we usually celebrate the coming of the wise men. It is also the day that we celebrate the good news that the special promise and choosing of God was not for just the Jewish people but for all people. The wise men, travellers from the East are not Jewish,they are foreiners who come to worship Jesus. Isaiah speaks of a time when Israel will be a light to the nations and in Ephesians Paul speaks of how all the promises of God have now extended to the gentiles. (They have extended to non-Jewish people.)
We are gentiles! We were not part of the chosen people before Jesus, but now the light has shone in the darkness, on all people. That light was Jesus and today he is honoured and worshipped in virtually every corner of the Earth.
Questions for Thought and discussion.
Have you ever thought of the wise men as being the sign that God’s love and promises are not just for Jewish people but for all people? What do you think of that notion?
How did the light shine in your life? How did you first hear the Good News about Jesus? Who was involved? Have you played that role in other people’s lives?
Last week we witnessed a baptism. Catherine a little girl from Christchurch New Zealand was baptised here at St Stephen’s Toowoomba. Her parents though were not born in New Zealand they were born in South Africa (I think - Jan and Fee’s oldest was not born there). Her paternal grandparents live in Toowoomba, but they came of course from South Africa. Though they were not born there Jan at least I know was born in the Netherlands. In every place they have lived however they have been active members of a church.[ I was the minister and I am Australian born and bred. However one of my grandparents was English, another was Danish, another was English by heritage, and another (this is where the Gillies comes from) was Scots (and I believe half German). Indeed I am probably only one Eighth Scottish. My great grandfather Peter Gillies came to Australia from Scotland in 1875 and settled on the Downs around Dalby where he became a wealthy grazier. (And one of his daughters and her Children moved to Toowoomba and worshipped at St Stephens.)] If we added to that the heritage of every other person in our congregation on last Sunday we would have a wealth of nations represented. In most cases those nations would be nations which for hundreds of years have had a Christian background, though they are very far from Bethlehem.
Today’s New Testament readings come from a time when the church was very small. In their final form they come from less than 40 years after the first Easter. At that time the church had spread to many places but it was still a tiny minority in the places where it existed. Today we worry about less than 10 percent of the population in Australia & Europe being in church on any given Sunday, in those days less that one percent of the population would have gathered for worship.
The Old Testament reading near its final form almost certainly comes from the period when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had been destroyed. All the leaders had been taken into exile and the people of God were a tiny minority in a foreign country. There was a real danger that their faith and their culture would be destroyed. Yet they looked forward to a time when the nations, the whole world would come to the light of the people of Israel. They would come to the light of the presence of God and they would bring tribute including gold and frankincense and they would praise the Lord.
The Gospel reading is a fulfilment of this picture. Travellers come from the East, wealthy wise nobles, magi, and they come to see the light of the world. Jesus the infant, but also the one who the early church came to know as the Son of God and Saviour of the world. The one who the book of Revelation calls the bright morning star. They come to honour him and pay him tribute with costly gifts.
There are many strange things about this story. One of them is that it is in Matthew’s Gospel. [On Christmas Day I briefly mentioned that there are some Christians who believe the birth stories about Jesus are beautiful symbolic stories which are true because of what they tell us about God, but not literal history. Many who hold this view would claim that Jesus was born in Nazareth and not in Bethlehem and that there were no shepherds or wise men. As I said on Christmas Day I don’t hold that view. I think that because both Matthew and Luke record that Jesus born in Bethlehem, to Mary and Joseph, in a miraculous way and that visitors (Shepherds and/or wise men) came to him there and honoured him in the first year or two after his birth, is a strong indicator that the belief of the early church was that Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem. I only mention all of this because although I believe that both the story of the Shepherds and the Wise men could be quite literally true, they also tell us more than a story. They tell us something about God and about Jesus and who he is. They are not just pretty stories.
In some ways it is odd that Matthew includes this story about foreign star gazers in his Gospel. I don’t think Matthew would have made this story up - he would have been told it by those who taught him the faith. (That’s part of the reason he includes it, but Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels.] Today most scholars believe that Matthew was probably Jewish writing to Jewish Christians. The story of Jesus in Matthew is very Jewish. Matthew is saying - this story about Jesus is a Jewish story. So why have the first witnesses to Jesus be these foreigners?
You would expect Matthew would have either have not told the story like Mark or John, or he would have included a story where a rabbi, or a prophet, or a priest came instead of foreign Astrologers. Well Matthew’s gospel begins and ends with a reference to foreigners. At the start foreigners come to pay tribute to the infant king. At the end Jesus says to the Disciples in the great commission, go to all peoples everywhere making them my disciples.
For Matthew the story of Jesus is a Jewish story, but it is a Jewish story for all the world. It is our story but it is also the world’s story. When we think of the recent death of all those children in the Newtown massacre in the USA, those of us who are parents, and those of you who have ever lost a child will feel that story is their story in some way. The Father of Rachel Scott one of the girls who died in the Columbine massacre, has done his best to make her story the world’s story, and has begun a foundation to try to prevent similar things ever happening again.
For most of us the Jesus story has become our story even though we are not Jewish. On every continent, probably even Ant Arctica people bring Jesus worship and tribute as the Wise men did. We believe that all the promises of God to the Jewish people have become our promises because like Matthew we believe they have been fulfilled or come true in Jesus. In the words of Paul from Ephesians: the Gentiles, non Jewish people - that’s you and me, have become fellow heirs and members of the same body and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Paul devoted his life to spreading this message, this gospel, this good news, that God has come among us and shares life and forgiveness and all the blessings and promises with all people in Jesus.
That message spread and the baptism last week of Catherine was a powerful witness to that incredible truth! The light of Christ has shone into every corner of the globe.
On Christmas Day I talked about how this love, this light had changed everything. As I said:
I believe that things such as free education, the abolition of slavery, the notion of the equal dignity of every human being that there is no distinction between jew and gentile slave or free male or female for all are one in Christ Jesus and various civil rights movements that have followed it, all began in Jesus.
From humble beginnings in the son of a Carpenter - the light of Christ, the light of the world has shone forth throughout the world. On Sunday (on this day) hundreds of millions of people speaking hundreds of languages will be gathering together to worship Christ and bring their gifts.
How should we respond to this? Like the wise men we too should come in worship also bringing our gifts. But we should note something else. Everything and everyone in God’s economy has a place. I do not believe that God needs us. If we will not do God’s will then as with Balaam’s Donkey, God will find a way in spite of us. But God invites us even though we are not needed as a part of God’s plan, God invites us to share the message of love in Christ. We are invited to be mirrors of the light that has shone into all the world. It is through fellow fallible human beings like us such as Paul, the shepherds, and the disciples that this message of hope and love and forgiveness and transformation has been passed on and spread to all the world. We are invited to be beacons of that love. Shine that light in your homes, among your friends, amongst your neighbours and wherever else God may be calling you. Amen