Isaiah 60:1-6 (New International Version, ©2010)
1 “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 hip.
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.
Matthew 2:1-12 (New International Version, ©2010)
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose 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 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 shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully 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 when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 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, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Sometimes we hear people talk about the post-Christmas blues. The post-Christmas blues is that feeling of emptiness and slowness that comes after a busy holiday season. For the last month or so we have been running around like chickens with our heads cut off. We have been to plays and concerts, shopping and caroling, parties and reunions. All of these things are great, but now they are over. The presents have been opened, the Christmas trees are on the curb for recycling and many people feel a little blue because all of that excitement is over. And perhaps nobody is set up for a greater letdown than me.
I had a very exciting and busy last couple of weeks. I spent about five days in Sterling, Ohio over Christmas before zipping half-way across the nation to Shickely, Nebraska. These booming metropolises can both boast that they are home to more cows than people. And I checked the weather back in Staunton on Friday to find that you all were enjoying 60 degree temperatures. Do you know what the high temperature was in Shickley? 12. That’s right, it hadn’t even made it to the teens.
Now I want to ask you a question. How many of you are a little bit jealous of me because I have had the chance to travel to such exciting places as Sterling, Ohio and Shickley, Nebraska? I am guessing that not a single one of you was thinking, “That is one lucky dude. Sterling and Shickley all in a period of two weeks. He is surely going to be a little blue after all of that.” But I probably will miss it.
So why spend so much time and money to travel to a place where the temperature is not above freezing and there are not mountains to ski down? The answer is simple: It is because of the people. It is always about the people. It is the people of these rural towns that keep drawing us back to them again and again. It is the people that we cannot forget about and leave behind. We are continually drawn to these people because we love them and they love us in return.
In our first scripture reading for this morning, we find the prophet Isaiah addressing the Jews after they have returned from their 70 year period of exile in Babylon, having been released by the king of Persia after Persia defeated Babylon. Isaiah is telling these Jews, now back in Jerusalem, that they are receiving the light and that the rest of the world is in darkness. And like a moth is drawn to a flame, the kings and rulers of the nations of the world will be drawn to them because they possess the light that God has chosen to bless them with.
From the beginning of this distinct people, the Jews (known as Hebrews at the time) were meant to be a blessing to the rest of the world. God told Abram when he called him to leave his land and his people and go to a land that God would show him. And Abram, now called Abraham, would be blessed so that he could be a blessing to all of the world. And through Abraham’s offspring, all of the world was to come to know the power, mercy, and love of the creator God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God’s chosen people were chosen for a purpose. They were to be the conduit through which God would enact his plan for the reconciliation of all things.
If we jump ahead about five hundred years we come to our New Testament scripture. Matthew tells us that after Jesus was born, Magi from the East observed some type of phenomenon in the sky that they understood to be a sign that the king of the Jews had been born. So where do you go to find the king of the Jews? To Jerusalem, of course. The Magi were drawn to Jerusalem, a place that they assumed would be the birth place of the king. Jerusalem would have had a population of between 50 and 80,000 people. It was the exciting metropolis of its day. The temple was in Jerusalem with all of its fancy walls and adornments, big rocks and gold vestments. It was the epicenter of 1st century Judaism. If something was going to happen, it was going to happen in Jerusalem. That is why the Magi went to Jerusalem. The problem is that they went to the wrong place.
So the Magi naturally go the current king of the Jews, but he doesn’t seem to be able to tell them much and instead goes to the scholars of his day to find out where the Messiah is to be born. And they tell him that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem. Oh little town of Bethlehem. Why would anybody go to Bethlehem? Bethlehem was about five miles south of Jerusalem. Bethlehem had a population of about 1,000 people. Bethlehem could boast for itself that it was the birthplace of King David, but not much else. But it wasn’t the city that the Magi had made the trip to see. Like my trips to Ohio and Nebraska, their trip was made to see a person. They made that long trip to find a baby; the one born king of the Jews. It was Jesus that drew the Magi to Bethlehem. And when they find the baby Jesus, they worship him.
So what do we know about these Magi? Secondary sources tell us that they were likely from Persia and that they were not Jews. They would have been involved in some kind of pagan worship of stars. They would have been what we might call astrologers.
The differences between astronomy and astrology are pretty significant. Astronomy is the study of the stars and planets in order to better understand how the world works. We see planetariums set up around the world for this purpose. It is the astronomers of the world that were able to know in advance that there was going to be a lunar eclipse a few weeks ago. An astrologer is someone that looks to the stars and planets to predict what is going to happen and astrology is prohibited by the Bible. Some believe that the Magi were even worshippers of the stars, believing them to be divine.
This is significant. The Magi traveled many miles in order to worship the king of the Jews, and they were in no way followers of the Jewish God. So what was it that drew them to this little, Podunk town of Bethlehem to worship the new born king? They were drawn to Jesus.
I believe that when Isaiah talks about all nations being drawn to Jerusalem, he is talking about this event. I believe that he is speaking about the Magi coming from the east to bow down and worship the king of the Jews, the one through whom all of the world would be blessed.
But just because this event fulfilled the prophesy of Isaiah and the promise given to Abraham doesn’t mean that it concluded the prophesy. I see this as an on-going prophesy. All nations should be drawn to Jesus through us.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to know Jesus and to follow him daily in our lives. We call that discipleship. Discipleship is more than just believing in Jesus, it is dedicating your life to living as Jesus has called us to live. And as disciples of Jesus we are called to make other disciples, other people that seek to follow him with their lives. We are to be disciples who make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples. Another way to say this is to say that we are called to be kingdom people and we are called to invite other people to be a part of this countercultural kingdom as well.
I like a good debate. I think that if my high school would have had a debate team, that I would have been on it. I like to do research and study things so that I can have intelligent conversations about important issues. But I have rarely, if ever, heard of someone that has changed their worldview based on an argument or a well packaged defense for why Christianity is the best way of life.
I remember in college when a “religious leader” of a campus organization was challenged by an atheist to a debate on the existence of God. This religious leader actually deferred to a friend of his who was very intelligent and educated with a PhD in something. And I guess that most people who witnessed this debate said that the religious man just whipped the floor with the atheist. He was prepared for all of the hard questions that he assumed that the atheist was going to ask and he had a few difficult questions to ask him right back. And some of my friends who witnessed this shellacking just thought that it was the funniest thing ever. But I asked my friends, “Did that man become a Christian?”
We have probably all heard the saying “You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.” I have never really wanted to catch flies, but I guess that saying makes sense. Flies are attracted to things that are sweet. So if you wanted to capture a fly, you would leave some honey out to bait them.
We Christians are not trying to “catch” people like flies, though I guess that Jesus does call his disciples to be fishers of people. Regardless, the point is that if you want to draw something or someone in, you need to be attractive to them. And there is perhaps nothing that I have ever seen that is more beautiful than a life spent living in and sharing the love of Christ.
All of the head knowledge in the world will say a lot less about our faith than how we live our daily lives. It is the things that our co-workers, our children, our neighbors see us doing that will lead them to ask questions about why we do the things that we do. Then is when the head knowledge becomes important. But it is a lot easier to convince others that a life of discipleship is the best way of life when we actually choose to follow Jesus ourselves.
As I spent some time with my mother-in-law this past week, I heard her say that people ask her all of the time why she is doing what she is doing with her life. My in-laws are taking three years and volunteering at an organization that helps with poverty reduction in rural Colorado. They ask her why she has given up her teaching job to spend long hours working with people that don’t always appreciate the things that she does for them. Her answer is simple, God calls us to serve others. We are called to follow Jesus, who taught us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and offer a cup of cold water. She explains how she is living out her faith by serving other people.
Verse three of our scripture from Isaiah tells us that “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” It doesn’t say that the nations will come to God’s light. The nations will come to your light. Our job is to be so filled with the light of God, that our life shines. In doing so we become that city on a hill that cannot be hid.
I know that different people come to follow Jesus through different ways. I have heard great stories about people sitting alone in a hotel room with a Gideon’s Bible and how they chose to become a disciple of Christ right then and there. But I know very few if any people that have made that decision after first having some contact with a person who is following Jesus.
Why did the Magi travel to Bethlehem? It was for the same reason that I went to Sterling, Ohio and Shickley, Nebraska. It was because of the people. Let us be a light unto the Lord, so that others might be drawn to Him like a moth to a flame, so that they too can know the transforming power of God’s love and grace. Why would anyone choose to be a disciple of Jesus? It is because of the people.