Sermon Title: Off by Fifteen Kilometres
Isaiah 60:1-7, Matthew 1:1-12
(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg
”‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
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
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:
”‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Bethlehem, a mere 15 kilometres
south of Jerusalem, that is where the king would be born.
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
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.
(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.