Sermon for January 4, 2015

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Text: Matthew 2:1-13


        On this Epiphany Sunday, there are three simple things I want to say to you. First, there is a God who loves you very, very much. Second, God came into the world through the life of Jesus to guide us, teach us and save us from a life of meaninglessness. The third thing I want you to know this morning as we begin this new year together, is that God has a plan and purpose for your life, and will reveal it to you, as you are prepared through faith to fulfill it. God’s plans are not always clear when we’re in the middle of living them. It all makes more sense when we look back upon circumstances in the Bible and in our own unfolding lives. I invite you to pray with me in this new year that we come to know God’s love more fully, that we re-set our intention to follow Jesus, and that we watch and listen for the plans God has for our lives.

Prayer: God of all creation, open our eyes to see your movement in this new year. Give us willing minds to think of you, willing hearts to love you and willing hands to serve you. Amen


If Only…

         Christmas is over. Just ask anyone. Nobody cares who’s been naughty or nice. The delight we experienced when handed a plate of chocolates just a week ago now turns to a slight groan as we guiltily hold our stomachs and pass the plate of goodies along. The Christmas ornaments are sold or broken, nothing remaining at Macy’s but empty shelves and crumbled bits of paper. Only a few odd pieces like nutcrackers whose mouths don’t really open remain on the discount shelves at the mall.

         At this point, Christmas feels more like a mess we’re supposed to clean up than good news we’re privileged to share. Christmas may be over out there in the world, but the story continues to unfold for those who believe. If it weren’t for what happens next, we wouldn’t be here this morning. Please join me on this last Sunday of Christmas as we reflect on God’s unfolding plans for Jesus and God’s continuing plans for you and for me in this new year.

         What happened after the shepherds went back to their flocks by night and the glory of the angel’s wings faded to heaven? What did Mary and Joseph do after that silent night when the candles extinguished and the hungry animals returned to their manger to eat? There’s much we don’t know. The Bible offers us precious little information. We’ve filled in the gaps with stories over the centuries and with our imaginations. We imagine Mary forever young, pure and innocent when the Bible tells us she and Joseph had a number of other children. Jesus wasn’t an only child. We envision Joseph hovering protective over Jesus and Mary as he is in every nativity scene, when in all likelihood he went back to work trying to put food on the table to feed his growing family and pay the rent like everybody else. We don’t know if Jesus was a sweet child, if he slept through the night or if he had colic and suffered fitful rest.  We most often imagine Jesus looking like us, when his features would have been those of a middle-eastern Jew: black hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. Jesus was neither white nor American, though we sometimes think him so.

         The Bible does give us hints though, that point us towards the rest of the story. We read in Matthew that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a brilliant light appeared in the sky and hung there for an extended period of time. Scientists using computer models that project celestial events back across time have identified several hypotheses about the star: as a possible eclipse of the moon, as a supernova, or something else. Now that we have advanced in our understanding of astronomy, we could pinpoint the details more easily if we could be sure what date and year Jesus was born. We celebrate in December, but we don’t actually know Jesus’ birthday, which could have been as early as 4– 6 B.C. or B.C.E, before the Common Era, as time is measured now.

         Matthew tells us that the Magi came from the east to Jerusalem to inquire about the birth of a child they believed had been born king of the Jews, that they might find this child and worship him. The text doesn’t say how many Magi came, or whether or not the Magi were men or women or both. In other ancient texts the Magi were Zoroastrian priests from Persian, foreigners, in any case, who traveled far and arrived long after the birth night. We only know that the text says that when they saw this star at it’s rising, they sensed that it meant a child king had been born, and they came looking for the child in Jerusalem.

         As they were asking around, King Herod the Great got really nervous. The job of King was already taken, and he wasn’t planning to retire or die anytime soon. In fact, he was grooming his sons to replace him, a situation that in fact took place after his death, when his three sons reigned throughout Jesus’ life, east of the Jordan, in Galilee, and south of Jerusalem. King Herod wasn’t interested in any kind to threat to power, but he was unfamiliar with the ways of the Jews and therefore called in the Chief Priests and teachers of the Jewish Law for a consult. He asked them where the Messiah was to be born and they told him of the prophecy that out of Bethlehem would come a ruler who would shepherd God’s people Israel.

         The possibility that this could be happening now, during his reign, required a swift but shrewd response. Herod was known as a murderous dictator who killed his own wife and members of his household for opposing his views. King Herod secretly sent his people out to find the Magi and bring them to the palace where he lived. He asked them where and when the star had first appeared and what they thought it meant. He took them into his counsel, telling them what he knew about the prophecy in answer to their queries. We can imagine his smooth behavior, cajoling the Magi to go on a secret mission for him, trekking to Bethlehem, and then searching for the child like detectives, figuring out where the family went after the birth. Herod acted as if he was working with them, supporting their research, and indicated that when they returned and told him where to find the child, he would in fact go and worship the child too.

         The Magi didn’t need to do much detective work as it turned out. They continued to follow the star, to an unnamed place where Mary and Joseph and Jesus now lived. Matthew doesn’t say where that was, their starter home, but only that it was a house where they now lived and that Jesus was now a child. We sometimes assume there were three Magi as three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were given, but there is no reason from the text to believe that was the case. Any number of people could have come bearing three gifts on behalf of the country, also unnamed, from which they came.

         We do know that they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod.

Dreams at that time were a means through which people trusted information that came to them, and so we read that they thwarted Herod’s plans, though it is not clear whether or not they knew from their dreams what he was brewing. They did consider their dreams to be a warning of some kind, and returned to their home country by another way. Today’s lesson then ends with another dream, that came to Joseph, warning him to flee, to escape the area where they were living and go to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. There we assume he stayed for some time, raising Jesus during his pre-school years outside the political reach of Herod until Herod’s death. And with good reason. When Herod realized that the Magi weren’t coming back, he was furious, and ordered all male children under the age of two killed in Bethlehem and the surrounding countryside and small villages. And a great lament arose at the cruelty and barbarism of this act of terror against innocent families whose only crime was birthing a male infant.

         It’s a miracle we ever knew about Jesus at all isn’t it? If Joseph hadn’t listened to the first dream and taken Mary as a wife, they would never have traveled to Bethlehem for the census as a family. If they hadn’t traveled to Bethlehem the prophecy that the Messiah would come out of Bethlehem would not have been fulfilled. If the prophecy hadn’t been fulfilled, there would not have been shepherds, nor angels, nor star in the sky. If there hadn’t been a star in the sky the Magi would not have come looking for Jesus. If the Magi hadn’t come looking, Herod wouldn’t have investigated this story. If Herod hadn’t become scared of his loss of power, he wouldn’t have threatened the Magi, or terrorized the families in fulfillment of the prophecy by Jeremiah that a great weeping and mourning would rise in the land of Ramah, around Bethlehem, for the children of their ancestor Rachel would be no more. And finally, if Joseph hadn’t listened to this dream to escape, likely in haste in the night, then Jesus would have died as a toddler without ever learning to read, or understand the destiny for which he had been born.

        The world hinges on these six big “If onlys” of history. Each one of these events, the world might call a coincidence. As Christians, we call each one a miracle, a God thing, further evidence through faith that God is with us as God has promised in both the beauty and wonder of that first silent night as well as in the bloody suffering caused by a zealous and greedy king. Just look what we would miss if we packed up Christmas too soon!

If the story of the Magi teaches us anything, it is that life brings us both birthday parties with gifts of gold and also the funerals of those who left us too soon. God uses everything.  There is no circumstance or event that befalls us that God cannot weave into the greater story of a faithful and meaningful life. As Paul says in his letter to the people of Rome, God works for good in all things for those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes.

Most of our lives have been shaped and formed by a set of unremarkable circumstances and seeming unrelated events that directed our course. We perhaps have no more awareness of how it all fits together than did Mary, who likely knew nothing of Herod’s plotting and scheming or of the death of neighborhood children left behind. She knew Jesus was the child of God, the angel had told her that early in her pregnancy. She knew that Joseph would stand by her no matter what, and she trusted him, getting up to move to another country when he said it was time. But not even Mary knew what would happen next or how the story would end.

         If we hadn’t been born here, then we wouldn’t have gone to school there. If our parent’s hadn’t done this, then we wouldn’t have done that. If we hadn’t gotten or lost this job when we did, then we wouldn’t have been able to do this new thing there. If we hadn’t been delayed there, then we wouldn’t have met him here, and the rest is, as they say, history, our history.

         Like these first fourteen little verses of the gospel according to Matthew, our lives are made up of a series of seemingly unrelated circumstances, some joyful, others catastrophic. The near misses and disasters both small and large, play their part in shaping the story of our lives, that will impact others down through history, generation after generation for centuries to come. That’s an awesome thought isn’t it? When through faith we believe that God has a plan and a purpose for our life, we accept what comes to us in a different way. No longer is our life a set of problems to be solved or a set of unfortunate circumstances to overcome. Rather, we come to see that everything that happens, the good, the bad and the ugly, bring us into closer relationship with the God who made us and who came to be with us through Jesus.

         When we live as Christmas people, we watch for stars, the signs that God is guiding our path and we follow it. We listen to dreams, and then rise from our sleep to go a new direction, even though we don’t yet understand the logic of it. We accept life with gratitude and wonder, pondering the events that happen without worry or panic, trusting that even in the hard stuff God is already at work for good in ways we do not yet see.

         As we enter now this new year as people of faith, we cannot know what the future will bring. We make New Year’s resolutions and we even make some of them stick. But what matters most in this new year is this. Since God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, then we can set our intention to live as Christmas people. Hear the good news that there is a God who loves you deeply. Receive the good news that God sent Jesus in to the world to guide and redeem you. Believe that your life has meaning and purpose, whether you see it in this present moment or not.

         Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace.  Amen