Sermon Title: Off by Fifteen Kilometres

Epiphany Sunday

Isaiah 60:1-7, Matthew 1:1-12

(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg


Isaiah 60
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the arm.
5 Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.
7 All Kedar’s flocks will be gathered to you,
the rams of Nebaioth will serve you;
they will be accepted as offerings on my altar,
and I will adorn my glorious temple.

Matthew 2
  After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi (Wise Men) from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east (a star when it arose) and have come to worship him.”
  3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ (Messiah) was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 ”‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’ (Micah 5:2)

  7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.  He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
   9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east (seen when it arose) went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.  On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

The nations were and still are hungry for the revelation of God. Revelation, that is what Epiphany is all about. Today is the Sunday in which we celebrate that God has revealed to us our Savior. On this day we celebrate that God revealed his salvation to the nations in his Son Jesus Christ.

The nations that Israel despised were hungry for the revelation of God. Their hunger was demonstrated in these Babylonian Magi, who spent their lives studying esoteric Zoroastrian scripts and mysterious astrology. Their lives were dedicated to discovering something of God and somehow in all their studies, they came to the astrological realization that if a bright star appeared in the skies, it was a sign of a king who would come to rule, but more than a king, a king of renown, a king divinely appointed.

So their seeking led to a journey, from somewhere in Assyria over a distance of 1500 kilometres, that was to led by a star. It led to the nation of God under Roman rule - Israel - and assuming that the king would be born in the capital, they went to Jerusalem and started asking questions. “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

But they were off by 15 kilometres (9 Miles). They assumed the light would dawn in Jerusalem the capital. Yes, their Zoroastrian religion had given them insight but more than insight was needed. Yes their earnest seeking had led them down the right path, but more than just seeking was needed. Insight and seeking still left them 15 kilometres off their mark. What was needed was divinely spoken words, direction giving words, revelatory words from God. Words from the prophet Micah:

6 ”‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’

Bethlehem, a mere 15 kilometres south of Jerusalem, that is where the king would be born.
And it was these wise men from the east, off by just 15 kilometres that pressed their search, they asked and they found Jesus. They saw the revelation of the Savior, they had the privilege of worshiping before the footstool of the king, they had the joy of bringing their gifts - gold, incense and myrrh, gifts that would have certainly giving Joseph and Mary a financial boost for some years to come, at least the gifts would have helped in the expenses of their fleeing to Egypt to avoid the hand of Herod’s hatred.

Matthew has a clear intent and message for us in his recording of the epiphany of Christ to the nations as represented in the wise men. These Magi, to Israel were foreigners, people with a strange and perverted religion. They were involved in astrology along with other occult practices which were abhorrent to faithful Jews, strictly forbidden by God. They were the Shirley Macleans and Betty Eadies of that world. They were the Wicca's, the ones who practiced the magical arts, the New Agers who had no clue what they were into. They were the foreigners with their strange religions - Buddism, Hinduism, Islam.  Israel looked down their noses at them.

But Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit acknowledges the integrity of their search.  He honours people who are truly hungry for the revelation of God, so hungry that they are willing to go on a journey, a life long search at great personal expense just to find God. So hungry that they are willing to go into foreign territory, at personal risk, to ask questions, questions that upset kings and cities, just to find what their heart hungered for.

In the same way today, we have neighbours around us, with profoundly different religions and cultures, and this passage tells us that we dare not despise them or their religion, for their search for God may have far more integrity than our search for God, their hunger for his revelation may well exceed our hunger for God, and even though they might be off by 15 kilometres, God by his Spirit has led them a long way toward the truth.

Matthew is not only telling us to respect the religious journey of our neighbour, he is also telling us that the last 15 kilometres, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, from pride, fullness and entitlement to humility, the self emptying of God and the margins, comes by God’s revelation. Compared to Jerusalem, Bethlehem was nothing. Compared to Kings palaces, a home of a carpenter was nothing. Compared to power and prestige, that which these wise men and the world expect of God, this baby was nothing. The best of religions, the best of our searches, apart from the revelation of the Word of God, leads us to a place that is always off by 15 kilometres. What we all need is this word, this special revelation, itself absolutely necessary so that in our search we will find God.

But Matthew has a second very clear point. Receiving revelation without a search equally leaves us off by 15 kilometres.

Listen to the flow of this passage. The Magi come to Jerusalem asking questions: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

And all of Jerusalem, including Herod was shocked, disturbed. We can understand easily why Herod was upset, after all, the birth of a king meant competition, and of all the rulers of Israel, Herod was one who did not like competition. He already had a history of eliminating the competition.

But why would Jerusalem be upset. The picture of this passage is that Jerusalem was just as upset as Herod was. Why be upset about a king born to your nation? Especially when you have been ruled by foreign powers for centuries? Wouldn’t a birth of their own king be reason for great celebration?

Why was Jerusalem upset? A variety of answers can be proposed.

Maybe it was the powers that be in Jerusalem, those who had politically and religiously comfortable seats of power, who like Herod were afraid of losing their power because of a coming Messiah King.

Maybe it was that they were off by 15 kilometres. Israel was willing to welcome a mighty majesty who would lead them to political and military success. They would know when that king, that Messiah, would be born. And so in Jerusalem, they waited for his arrival. As you read this passage, though they knew the scripture and the prophesy of Micah, the revelation was not accompanied by a search. They ignored their own message, the message of God through Micah. Their perception of the King to come was no different than the religions of the world that they despised. They were off by 15 kilometres. Jerusalem had its inflated pretensions, its self sufficiency, its intellectual strength, its power, its political connectedness, its hope in relationships with foreign powers. It was the center of their world, where success was not only the norm, it was expected. Material wealth was there. Herod’s glorious temple with its gate called “Beautiful” was there, a fitting place for offerings to be given, for God to adorn his temple. And of course, they had “the revelation.” As children of Abraham, they had their "in" with God. Their light had come. It was just a matter of time before the nations brought to Jerusalem their gifts. Jerusalem had a political interpretation of Isaiah 60. For years they had paid taxes to invading nations. Isaiah 60 for them was a promise that the nations would pay taxes to them once a political Messiah came around. They would be the conquerors who taxed the nations. The wealth of the seas would be brought to them, the riches of the nations would come to them. No search was necessary. No hunger was required.

But it was all off by 15 kilometres.

You see, wealth does not bring salvation. Power does not give hope. Political arrangements do not guarantee peace. Rituals of supposed worship in a glorious temple do not guarantee God’s favour. That was all 15 kilometres off.

Those who lose their life, they will find it. Those who lead will lead by being followers and servants. Before glory comes humility, the Kingdom is for the meek. Before fullness comes emptiness. A seed must die before it springs to life, so death precedes life. The good news is for sinners whom God befriends. Those who are out will be in, the first will be last, the last first, the least the greatest. God reveals the saving foolishness of the gospel, not to the wise but to the childlike. Foreigners are welcome. Eternal life is not by goodness, it is by gift, not by giving but by receiving. God comes as a baby.

That’s Bethlehem, on the margins, despised, ridiculed as nothing, insignificant. Its 15 kilometres from Jerusalem. But 15 kilometres is the distance between death and eternal life. And though they, we have received revelation, if we fail to search into it, if we fail to seek God with all our heart, we will remain off by 15 kilometres.

And so we come to the key question of this Epiphany Sunday - and the question is this: Have you seen Jesus, has he been revealed to you? Are you a seeker, who seeks with all your heart? The promise of scripture is that you will find him. Have you found him?  Continue seeking, looking into the mysteries of his riches, seek his kingdom first, his righteousness first - all these other things that Jerusalem worries about, don’t worry about them, it is your fathers pleasure to give you the kingdom.

I will never forget Max and Betty (their names changed). For years they belonged to a large and powerful church.  They fit in quite well, involved with their family in many activities. But then things went wrong. First the child got involved in activities that humiliated the family. Then their business, through deceptive partnerships had to go into receivership. Suddenly they were the poor in the church, and they discovered how quickly someone can become marginalized if success is lost, dependence on the deacons is required and the family is shamed. I served a little church called Bethlehem Christian Reformed Church. A little church, in what most of the world calls the middle of nowhere. Through circumstances, Max and Betty moved some 1500 kilometres to Thunder Bay. When I first met them, fear was visible in their eyes, fear of powerful people who can destroy you with a few words. Fear of powerful churches that practice the principles of Jerusalem. But they were hungry, hungry for God and the safety of worshiping in the shadows of his wings. Their hungry search led them to Bethlehem, a small church at the edge of nowhere. They were still poor, but there they found safety, and blessings, on the margins. In a place of humility, in a place of poverty, in a place of dependence, they found grace and blessing.  Their story is an allegory.

This morning we celebrate communion together. Notice that this is not a feast for princes with delicacies, it is simple, a meal for the poor and hungry, just bread and juice. But those who come discover here the satisfying truth that it is not in the riches of the meal that we are satisfied, we are satisfied rather by what the poverty of the meal symbolizes - a Savior, who emptied himself, revealed himself as a baby born in an insignificant city, a Savior who journeyed in his life to a cross as a servant, death in our place, his blood poured out, his body, like bread, given to us to feed us on our journey, on our search. This meal is not Jerusalem, its 15 kilometres to the south, its Bethlehem, the place of the humble where we come, not with anything to boast, only in our need, for grace and we humbly bow in worship.

This morning, come to the table, here sinners are welcome, broken people are welcome, those who mourn are welcome, those who have no pride left are welcome, those who cannot compete in the race are welcome, those who have nothing to give are welcome, those who are the least are welcome, those who in their search are willing to journey, all the way to Bethlehem, are welcome. It is here, in the simplicity of the bread and juice, that we see Jesus, as real, sacrificed for us. So I invite you. Come.

(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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