Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
January 5, 2014
2014 is not just a new calendar year, but opens a new era of mission for 1st Christian Church with a new pastor. That evangelism is top priority has been evident in the Board, among the Elders, for the Search and Call Committee and in Leadership Conversations. I tell you with absolute confidence the one thing that makes for effective evangelism that is at least tenfold more significant that any and everything about the new pastor. That the people of the church are excited enough about their church to invite their friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers to come to church with them.
Brian Stoffregen, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Yuma, AZ frames it with these questions. “Where are the unchurched at today? What signs will speak to them? Are our members willing and encouraged to invite [them] to this church? If not, why not?” (Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks.com)
When we do invite people to church or introduce them to Jesus, we will get a variety of reactions. Today, on the Sunday before Epiphany, the story of the Magi gives some insight into these varied reactions to Jesus.
Epiphany means revealing, uncovering or shining light. It is all about evangelism. The visit of the Magi to the child Jesus celebrates revealing the light of Christ to the Gentile world.
This fulfills what God promised to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 to bless all the families of the world through him.
As we will see the next couple of Sundays, Jesus baptism by John reveals Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The story of the Magi poses a host of fascinating puzzles for which there are no definitive answers, which we will not let distract us today. What was the star? How did it’s rising represent the King of the Jews? Matthew doesn’t say it guided the Magi across the desert, so how did it point out where Jesus was? Who were the Magi and where did they come from? Isaiah 60 mentions kings and camels, but Matthew does not. When did they come and how old was Jesus?
Matthew 2:1-12 shows how the reactions of Herod, the Chief Priests and Scribes, and the Magi to the revealing of the child Jesus prepare us for the responses we can expect when we introduce people to Jesus as Christ and Son of the living God.
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.
Matthew does not say that the Magi went to Herod. I suspect they were something of a spectacle in Jerusalem. Herod would have heard they were asking about a child king. He figured out this could be the promised Messiah, and he believed the Hebrew Prophets could tell him where the Messiah would be born. Instead of seeing the Messiah as hope for his troubles, he saw him as a threat and thought he could get the best of God and kill him.
The Chief Priests and the Scribes were theological combatants. The Priests generally thought the Messiah was a symbol of hope but did not expect one to be born. The Scribes believed a real Messiah would come someday but not any time soon. They must have heard the same Magi buzz as Herod and made the Messiah connection when Herod asked about Messiah’s birthplace. Having taught the Prophets all of their lives, they gave Herod the correct academic answer, but the showed no interest at all in checking out whether the Messiah had actually come.
The Magi were practitioners of astrology, which was roundly condemned in the Hebrew Scriptures. They may have come from Arabia or more likely Persia, traditional enemies of Israel. They were apparently ignorant of the Hebrew Scripture, which ultimately pointed them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. They had the spiritual perception to recognize the humble child Jesus as the King of the Jews they had been seeking. They were also able to perceive that the dream warning them not to return to Herod was legitimately from God. The language of the last sentence suggests that the Magi did not just take a different road but another way of life to their country.
My prediction for 2014 is that it will be an Epiphany year for 1st Christian Church. The process of seeking and welcoming a new pastor will reveal many new ways God sheds the light of Christ on people who do not yet know and trust Jesus.
In these coming Sundays after Epiphany, until we get to Lent, my preaching will focus on getting to know Jesus well enough that we can all become Epiphanies, revealing Jesus to the people God sends across our paths each day.
When we shine the light of Christ on people, we can expect the same kinds of reactions the child Jesus evoked when the Magi came to visit.
There will be the Herods who react with hostility. They will not be convinced by persuasive arguments. They focus on personal presuppositions and power.
There will be the indifferent Chief Priests and Scribes. They may be the most informed and religious, maybe even claiming to be spiritual. Their goal is to keep God at a safe arm’s length.
But there will be spiritually hungry and open Magi. They may be ignorant of the Bible, inexperienced in church, confused about theology. But they will recognize the light of Christ and pursue him.
Brian Stoffregen’s questions point us to the Magi God is sending us – the spiritually hungry people beyond the walls of the church. “Where are the unchurched at today? What signs will speak to them? Are our members willing and encouraged to invite [them] to this church? If not, why not?”
For 2014 to become an Epiphany year of evangelism with a new pastor for 1st Christian Church, we need to be dramatically shifting focus. Not what kind of pastor would I be comfortable with, but what kind of pastor can help us shed the light of Christ on outside folk? Not what kind of church am I comfortable with, but what kind of church can we become that will draw in people who don’t know Jesus? Not how can we recreate the good years of the past but how can we become the kind of church our grandchildren would want to participate in with enthusiasm?
In order to reach people who live beyond the church, connecting with their world is absolutely essential. Try making a list of the people you know who do not go to church. Where do your lives overlap? You might need your children or grandchildren to help you connect with people a generation younger than you are who do not do church. This doesn’t need to be a big group, just a few with whom you can have enough of a relationship to see through their eyes.
As people who have no (or limited or negative) experience with church make their first forays into what will be foreign territory to them, they will have no idea what to expect or what is expected of them. Their dress, their language, their manners, their opinions, their entertainment and more are all likely to be distinctly unchurchy. Trying to “correct” any of this to be church-appropriate is the fastest way to get them to leave. Evangelism requires cultivating patience and tolerance for misunderstanding.
Finally, and most important, keep the focus on Jesus! Don’t argue about the Bible, politics, denominations, religion. Instead talk about Jesus. Read a Gospel together. Any of the four will do, but I like to start with Mark because it is simplest. Luke may be the most accessible to contemporary secular people. A lot of people like John because it talks so much about belief, but it is the most intricate and inscrutable of the Gospels. Matthew depends on understanding some of the Old Testament. Listen to what people say and ask about Jesus. Talk about your relationship with Jesus. That will do more to stretch your own spiritual growth than any academic Bible study.