Learning from the pagans

Isaiah 60:1-6 New International Version (NIV)

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 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 (NIV)

2 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.

Mark Twain is often given credit for saying something like, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

The thing that I respect about that quote isn’t the fact that I can relate, though I can. I just called my father last week to ask him a question about wiring a GFCI outlet in my bathroom. I think that the reason that I like this quote from Twain so much is because I realize that as I get older and hopefully wiser, I feel like I know less and less. The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know. Know what I mean? My world has grown so much in the second half of my life that even though I possess more knowledge, I realize how much is still out there that I don’t know.

This is just as true when I consider theology. When I was a little guy growing up I simply thought that Jesus wanted me to listen to my parents and not fight with my brothers. That was what it meant to be a Christian for the first ten years of my life. Then after I went through my teenage years, I found a different Jesus. I found the Jesus of grace, love and forgiveness. This was the Jesus that led me into ministry and eventually to seminary. But while in seminary, I found yet another Jesus. I found the Jesus who cared about the poor, the weak, the sick and the oppressed. I found the Jesus who calls us to live as a part of a different kingdom, the Kingdom of God.

Now here’s the thing: I still believe in the same Jesus I believed in when I was 6 years old. I still believe Jesus wants us to listen to our parents and get along with our brothers and sisters. I still believe in the Jesus of my young-adult life, the Jesus of grace, love and forgiveness. And I still believe in the Jesus who calls us to care for the “least of these” while living out our convictions as citizens of his kingdom.

As I look back at my faith journey, my view of Jesus has grown. Jesus is not less to me today than he was when I was a little boy. He is more. For the most part I would say that my faith journey has been additive, not subtractive. Sure, there have been some ideas that I have had to abandon or reject along the way. But for the most part, Jesus is getting bigger. I want us to keep this big Jesus and our limited understanding of him in mind today as we look to learn from a group of pagan astrologers from the east.

Our passage from Isaiah comes to us from the post-exilic part of this book. The Babylonians have come into Jerusalem, carried the people off, and they have been permitted to return to their ancestral land, the homes of their parents, grandparents, and their parents before them. But the Promised Land was not at all like they had been anticipating. 70 years of warfare will do that to a place. The walls have been torn down, the houses have deteriorated, even the temple has been destroyed. Surely they were thinking, “This is what we have been hoping for?”

But our text for this morning reveals a shift. Isaiah says that in the midst of all of this darkness, the light is going to shine. In fact, the light has already arrived. That light is the glory of God, shining through the darkness. He writes in verse 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.”

Isaiah isn’t trying to discredit the disappointment that he sees in the faces of the former exiles. Darkness is over this place and it isn’t what they had been expecting. But look closer. How dark can this place really be, because God’s glory is here.

Isaiah then makes an interesting turn in verse 3, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Not God’s light, but your light. The light that God uses to cut through all of this darkness then becomes your light. And all nations will be drawn to your light, which is God’s light shining through you. Kings and queens, neighbors and people from far away will come. And they don’t come because of some temple or some walls or fancy homes. These people come because God’s holy radiance shines through his followers. And these people will bring great treasures with them; treasures like gold and incense.

We jump ahead to our New Testament passage from Matthew and…let’s be honest. We know this one. It’s the Wise Men, the Three Kings! What else could there possibly be to learn from this passage?

We commonly call today “Epiphany Sunday.” We hear the word epiphany from time to time in our society. Some people claim to have an “epiphany” every time they have a good idea. This word literally means an “appearance” or a “manifestation.” The Greek word we translate as epiphany is used in the New Testament to describe the appearance of Jesus after his resurrection, the appearance of Jesus at the second coming, and it is used to describe the appearance of Jesus at his birth. But what epiphanies can we find in this text? What will appear in our minds and our hearts?

The Magi come to Jerusalem from some unnamed place to the east. They have been traveling, following a star which they believed would lead them to the newborn king of the Jews. How they knew this, I have no clue. But they studied the stars. They are astrologers. And they go to Jerusalem because it is the center of Judaism. All things Jewish are going to take place there.

The presence of the Magi in Jerusalem is brought to the attention of King Herod, and Herod requests a private meeting with these travelers. Herod lets them know of the prophesies that tell of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem and sends them there with one request: If you find this king, come back and tell me where so I too can worship him.

We are told that Herod never really wanted to worship Jesus. In fact, Herod took drastic measures to make sure that nobody would ever have the opportunity to call the one born in the manger “king.” Herod sent out the order for all children under the age of two to be put to death in the city of Bethlehem.

It seems like Herod and his family are always seeking to bring Jesus and his followers under their power. Did you know that there are five different Herods in the New Testament? The one listed in our text this morning is often called Herod the Great (I assume he gave himself that name). Herod the Great was given the title “King of the Jews” in the year 40 BC and he was so insecure that he was willing to murder innocent children to make sure that he kept his title.

Herod the Great’s son, Herod Archelaus then ruled for about 10 years after the death of his father before he lost the throne, though I don’t know for sure why he or how he was dethroned.

Archelaus’ younger brother takes the throne later, and he is commonly known as Herod the Tetrarch, meaning he was one of four joint rulers. Herod the Tetrarch is the king who had John the Baptist beheaded because John called him out for some immoral activities. Herod the Tetrarch is also the Herod that we see at Jesus’ trial during Holy Week.

We then find the grandson of Herod the Great taking the throne. His name is Herod Agrippa. We find Agrippa in Acts 12 where he kills James and tries to kill Peter. Finally, we find Agrippa’s son, also called Herod Agrippa, in Acts 25 interacting with a missionary by the name of Paul.

That’s five Herods spanning four generation in the New Testament. And they share more than just a name, a title, a position, and genetics. They share a common goal of forcing Jesus and his followers to submit to their authority and their power. The Herods were the real kings of the Jews. No commoner was going to come in and take that title away.

This is where I see the greatest contrast between Herod and the Magi. Herod is an earthly king of Jewish decent looking to maintain his own power and authority. The Magi, we sometimes call them “kings” as well, came to Jesus to worship him. It was a group of outsiders, pagans, gentiles, sinners who showed us who the real king is.

Let’s jump back to our passage from Isaiah 60 and look again at verse 3, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Nations will come to your light. The Hebrew word translated as nations is “goyim” and is also commonly translated as Gentiles. A Jewish person today would refer to any non-Jewish person as a goy or goyim for the plural. The goyim are any person or group of people outside of the Jewish tradition. And Isaiah is saying that these goyim will be coming to the light. We see this happening when these pagan Magi come from the east to worship the Christ child. And the thing I find interesting is that throughout the New Testament, the Jewish kings named Herod reject the one born king of the Jews. Sometimes it is those on the outside that seem to really get it while those on the inside miss the point entirely.

To illustrate this I believe that it would be helpful to jump from Jesus’ birth to the last week of his life. Jesus has come into Jerusalem on the back of donkey as he was received by many as the Messiah and immediately he gets some pushback from the religious leaders. The Pharisees, the scribes, the elders and the High Priest aren’t buying what this guy is selling. So one after another they approach Jesus and try to test him. And in Matthew 21:31 we find a very pointed response by Jesus, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

I think that what Jesus is getting at is that sometimes it is those of us who have been doing this Christian thing the longest that miss what he is doing. We come with our pre-conceived notions of who Jesus is, and we fail to see him at work and allow him to work through us. The point that Jesus is making isn’t that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are worthy of the love and forgiveness he has to offer and the religious leaders aren’t. The point is that none of us are worthy, but only the tax collectors and prostitutes seem to realize this. Regardless of how perfect you look, regardless of how well you might have it together by all outside observations, you are not good enough to hang with Jesus. None of us are. Yet Jesus reaches his arms out and says “I love you and want to spend eternity with you.”

I had a chance to watch a YouTube sermon this week from the sometimes controversial, yet always inspiring Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber. The sermon was from this past summer’s ELCA youth gathering in New Orleans, where Bolz-Weber was invited to speak to thousands of impressionable youth. Nadia is a person with a past: drugs, alcohol, sexual promiscuity, and atheism. All of these things have shaped her into the person that she is today.

Nadia begins her sermon by noting that she is not what most people expect when they hear the word “Lutheran.” She says that when she meets people they usually assume that she is joking when she tells them what she does for a living. She has tattoos up and down both arms and across her neckline. Her years of being surrounded by non-churched folks have also led to a certain style of communication that most of us might not expect in a church, that is, she cusses like a sailor.

As she shared with the youth at this gathering, Nadia just laid it all out there in a very appropriate manner. She spoke of her past, she spoke of how she found God through the man who would become her husband and the church that he would introduce her to. And she spoke about how God was using her, not only in spite of her past, but in spite of who she still is today: a fallen, struggling person still seeking to escape the darkness that she feels in her heart.

I wish I had a transcript of her words to read to you all from the last four minutes of this sermon (which can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=kM9Y5S3UYi8#!). She says something like:

Some of your parents and some of your pastors were really upset that I was your speaker tonight. They thought that I was someone who should not be allowed to talk to 10’s of thousands of teenagers. And do you know what I have to say to that? They are absolutely right. Someone with my past of alcohol and drug abuse and promiscuity and lying and stealing should not be allowed to talk to you. But someone who is like me presently shouldn’t be allowed to talk to you. I am sarcastic, heavily tattooed, I swear like a truck driver—they’re praying back there, “Please help her not swear.” I am a flawed person. I should not be allowed to be here talking to you. But do you know what? That’s the God we’re dealing with, people.

 

As we look at these stories of coming to the light and being the light, I think that we need to remember that there is still darkness. Darkness within us and darkness all around us. We are still flawed people. Like the Herods of the New Testament. Like the Pharisees. Like the scribes. Like the High Priest. Whether you came to the light 80 years ago or 8 minutes ago, you still need grace. It was the Magi, the pagan astrologers, who recognized that Jesus was Lord while the Jewish Herod tried to hold on to his own power and authority.

I have come to appreciate a bigger Jesus over my lifetime. It is my prayer that we will be open and receptive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives as God seeks to use us for his kingdom. It is my prayer that we will be teachable, malleable like clay. It is my prayer that we may be like the pagan astrologers who bowed before our Lord on that first Epiphany day.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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