Micah 5:2-5a; Matthew 2:1-12
January 8, 2012
© 2012 Norman Stolpe
I. Happy Epiphany Sunday! And Happy New Year! May 2012 reveal unexpected happiness. It seems to be a year of looking for happier alternatives to what we had in 2011.
A. In the 2008 election cycle the financial scandal and crisis had a lot of people looking for an alternative to George W. Bush. Now in the 2012 election cycle at least the Republicans are looking for an alternative to Barack Obama. As the primary season kicks off, some Republicans are looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney.
B. In the Arab Spring of 2011, many people in the Muslim World were looking for an alternative to oppressive dictatorships. In 2012 they may be looking to alternatives to Islamist or secular democracies.
C. What alternatives are you looking for in 2012?
1. An improvement in the economy? A better job?
2. Resolution of a health concern?
3. Joy in a relationship?
4. All else being equal, you should expect to have a new pastor in 2012.5.
If you are looking for Jesus in 2012, he will find you. If you are looking for something else, you will find it.
II. Matthew 2:1-12 tells the familiar if mysterious story of the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus. King Herod, the Chief Priests and Scribes, the people of Jerusalem and of course the Magi were all looking for some kind of alternative that year. Do you think they each got what they were looking for?
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
A. King Herod was looking for rumors of threats – real or imagined – to the power and position of his throne. He seemed to be the first and maybe only one who connected the Magi asking about a child born King of the Jews to the promised Messiah. He seemed to believe that this Messiah may very well have been born. But he completely failed to see that the Messiah could liberate him from the prison of his jealousy, paranoia and regret for rash responses to rumors that had prompted him to kill even his favorite wife and his sons. King Herod somehow believed the prophecy of God’s Messiah, the Ruler from Ancient Days, but still believed he could eliminate him and cling to his throne.
B. The Chief Priests and the Scribes, on the other hand, had all of the correct information about the coming Messiah, but they failed completely to connect the dots between the foreign visitors to Jerusalem, the frightening rumors circulating in the city and Herod’s inquiry about the birthplace of the Messiah to even suspect that the Messiah might actually have been born. Despite their scholarly knowledge, they were not looking for the Messiah; they were looking to maintain their positions of prestige and control.
C. The people of Jerusalem were looking for stability and security. Like people today who live under violent dictators who are afraid of uprisings, the people of Jerusalem were so afraid of the crackdown that the rumors of the birth of the Messiah did not inspire hope but anxiety. They were so terrorized by King Herod that they missed that the one who could liberate them had been born.
D. Only the Magi were looking for the King of the Jews. Matthew says almost nothing about what they knew about this child. Did they understand Hebrew messianic hope? Did they know enough Hebrew Scripture to expect the Ruler from Ancient Days? Yet, when they enter the humble home where the infant Jesus was with Mary his mother, they show no hesitancy about having found the one whom they were looking for.
E. If you are looking for Jesus in 2012, he will find you. If you are looking for something else, you will find it.
III. Matthew’s story of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus is steeped in mystery. In our post-Enlightenment, rationalistic culture, we try to unravel the mystery and come up with an explanation for every detail of the story.
A. Matthew and Luke each connect Jesus with Bethlehem and Nazareth, but they do it in dramatically different ways. We want to ask: which one was right or how can we merge these into a single consistent narrative? Why don’t Mark and John’s Gospels tell us about the birth of Jesus? Why don’t these details that seem so vivid and important to Matthew and Luke show up anywhere else in the New Testament?
B. Why can’t we find anything in secular history to corroborate the census of Caesar Augustus or the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem? Where is the boundary between history as we know it and legend?
C. Who were these Magi? Where did they come from? Why does Matthew accept their use of astrology that is so consistently condemned in the rest of the Bible?
D. Perhaps most intriguing is trying to identify the star that prompted the Magi to travel to Judea. Astronomical calendars have been correlated with government records to see if a comet or a planetary conjunction might have been the star, but none are fully satisfactory. Picturesque Christmas cards notwithstanding, the Gospel says nothing about the Magi following the star across the desert. They clearly came from far east of Jerusalem, and seeing the star at its rising, that would have been farther east yet. They don’t seem to have seen it after leaving their home country until after the leave King Herod and see it stop over the place where Jesus was.
1. In Babylonian cosmology, a star may be the angel of a great person guiding and protecting them. Whether the star was such an angel, it certainly was God’s messenger announcing to them the birth of Jesus.
2. When I read about this angel and star connection, I was reminded of the old man Ramandu that the crew of the Dawn Treader meet on their voyage in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia stories.
“And are we near the World’s End now, Sir?” [Caspian asked the Old Man.] “Have you any knowledge of the seas and lands farther east than this?”
“I saw them long ago,” said the Old Man, “but it was from a great height. I cannot tell you such things as sailors need to know.”
“Do you mean you were flying in the air?” Eustace blurted out.
“I was a long way above the air, my son,” replied the Old Man. “I am Ramandu. But I see that you stare are one another and have not heard this name. And no wonder, for the days when I was a star ceased long before any of you knew this world, and all the constellations have changed.”
“Golly,” said Edumnd under his breath. “He’s a retired star.”
“Aren’t you a star any longer?” asked Lucy.
“I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu. “when I set for the last time, decrepit and old beyond all you can reckon, I was carried to this island. I am not so old now as I was then. Every morning a bird brings me a fireberry from the valleys in the Sun, and each fireberry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child was that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at earth’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.”
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star if a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” (pp. 179-180)
E. I would like to suggest to you today that rather than trying to solve the mystery of the Magi, that we savor it. Let it prompt us to awe and wonder in much the same way that candlelight is more romantic than florescent lamps.
IV. If you are looking for Jesus in 2012, he will find you. If you are looking for something else, you will find it.
A. Several years ago I read a book aimed at college students. The title said it all: God’s Will Is Not Lost. God is not playing a shell game with us to keep us from finding God or God’s guidance. God did not hide the infant Jesus. He was out in plain view for all who would look in the right place.
1. In Matthew’s story of the Magi, those who should have recognized the messianic signs missed them because they were looking for something else.
2. But the King of the Jews, the Messiah, the Rule from Ancient days was revealed to foreigners who didn’t even seem to have Scripture but they recognize him. Thus, the Magi are celebrated at Epiphany. Epiphany means the revealing or the uncovering.
B. The story of the Magi tells us that we only need to look for Jesus and he will find us. Yes! Jesus will find you!
1. Sometimes in the expected places: Scripture, prayer, the worshipping community of the Church. But like King Herod, the Chief Priests and Scribes, and the People of Jerusalem, we can have all of this and miss Jesus if we are looking for something else.
2. So for Jesus to meet us in the unexpected is probably not so surprising. But we have to be looking for him and not be preoccupied with looking for something that covers him up and hides him.
C. So are you looking for Jesus in 2012 or are you looking for something else? I can tell you that no matter who you want to vote for or who is elected in 2012, you will be disappointed. No matter how prosperous and healthy you and your family are in 2012, you will still face limits. No matter who your new pastor is, you will find strengths and weaknesses. But if you are looking for Jesus in 2012, just when you least expect it, God will surprise you and you’ll exclaim, “That was Jesus!”