by Chad Sanner
Now, I have not been a liturgical Christian for all that long, but one of my favorite parts of the liturgy, after having had the privilege of participating in it for so long, has come to be the procession. The reason for this is that the reality that this act gives flesh to is truly profound. As the cross makes its way to the altar, we see that Jesus Christ is entering into our midst. Even more powerful is when we realize that this is not just some fanciful symbol of what we hope is the case; rather we realize something very important every time that the cross enters this sanctuary, and that is that Jesus Christ is entering into our midst. Given that, tomorrow is the beginning of Epiphany this act is especially important because in Epiphany we learn that Jesus Christ truly is God incarnate, or God in our midst. In our gospel passage today, The Magi aren’t just showing up for someone who will hopefully be a king or some possibly important political figure. Rather, they come and prostrate themselves before the Son of God, the King of Kings, the God of the whole universe. And, brothers and sisters, so do we. Every Sunday, just like today, every time that cross makes its way down this aisle, we recognize that Jesus Christ, the one by whom all of heaven and earth are held together, who holds our very lives in his hands, this person, has entered into our midst. What a privilege. And I pray that we never take it for granted, as some in our passage from Matthew did. You see, Matthew doesn’t just focus on the Magi here; he also wants us to see the reaction of Herod and the powerful Jews of their day in order to get a sense of their reaction to this news of God dwelling in human flesh among us. But even as the Magi respond with a pilgrimage towards him, and worship and offers once they arrive, Herod and the Jews react much differently.
Herod is seen to be plotting this new king’s demise, and the Jews, who should be rejoicing in the news of a coming King who will be the fulfillment of all of their long-awaited expectations for a Messiah, these Jews seem utterly indifferent towards this news. There is something odd going on. Now, you might be thinking, “wait a minute, something seems wrong. Shouldn’t the Jews be the ones excited about Jesus’ birth? And why would the Magi even care about a new King of the Jews? They’re not even Jewish!” If you are, then you are on to something. This story is totally backward. But this is just the point that Matthew is trying to make. So, order to get at what he is trying to say, I want to look more in-depth at these three groups, and how they respond to the message that Jesus, Son of Mary, Son of God, God in flesh, has been born in Bethlehem, and propose how our lives might be characterized by the selfish, self-concerned reaction of Herod or the indifferent, careless response of the Jewish leaders. Furthermore, I hope that we can glean from the example of the Magi how we might correct these tendencies and learn what it means to be a Christian approaching the news that God is among us. So let’s dive in.
We will begin with Herod. In many ways, Herod’s response is the least surprising of any in this account. You see, Herod was not a Jew, but a Roman appointee to rule over Judea and Samaria at that time. Naturally, he would have no allegiance to the Jewish state, or really any concern with it whatsoever, so long as it did not interfere with his own political agendas. However, this particular instance of divine action seemed to be poised to do just that. In Vv. 3-4 we read: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” Herod hears the good news that a new King of the Jews has been born. Naturally, when a King hears of another king on his turf, he is going to get a bit defensive. That would be like if I walked up to Fr. Brian and said: “Hey, just so you know, there is another Anglican priest in town, and he is going to show up to St. John’s next Sunday and start calling all of the shots.” I hope that this news would trouble him. So it was with King Herod; he believes that he now has a challenger to his authority, and all of this seems rather understandable until we realize in v. 8 that Herod knows who this child is, and who the Jews claim he will be. Herod knows that this Child is worthy of worship, and yet, this reality is entirely in the way of his own plans. How is Herod supposed to maintain power if he forfeits it to this “new king”? How is he supposed to continue his rule and maintain his honor while a rival king seeking to take it from him is born and raised in his midst. No matter that this Child is God himself, Herod has his own plans to worry about, and he won’t let God stand in his way.
Now if this pattern of behavior sounds familiar, that is because it is. The sin with which Herod battles is the sin with which humanity has been battling since the fall: the sin of autonomy. This sin says: I am my own god, I make my own plans, I seek after my own ends, and I will let nothing and no one, not even God, get in my way. This sin seized Adam and Eve in the garden, it propelled Saul into a jealous rage over his own kingship, it caused David to stumble when he saw Bathsheba, and is utterly RIFE throughout the scriptures. No human has ever escaped it, not even us. How many times throughout the course of our days are we tempted to sin? To gossip about our coworkers, to complain about our spouse, to hate our neighbor, to get revenge, to spin the story in our favor? And how many times do we choose to engage in sin, to forge our own path, to choose our own way, rather than the way of Jesus Christ? How many times have we done it since we have come in this morning? If we are not careful, even with Jesus’ presence in our midst, Herod’s sin can become our sin.
But Herod’s error is not the only one we need to beware of in this story. What do you make of the response of the Jews here? I mentioned earlier that Herod’s response was no surprise to me, but I am truly astonished at the way that the Jewish leaders respond to the news of the Magi. They respond willingly to Herod’s request to know where this infant was born, but do they lift so much as a sandal to go see this child? No chance. One would think that the Jews would be ecstatic about this news. “What!? A new king!? Where!? We have to see him! God has sent us his salvation! Our Messiah is here!” This, it seems, would be an appropriate response. But no such reaction comes. They are indifferent. They see no reason to get riled up about this new king. The text doesn’t offer us much to speculate on as to why this is the case. Perhaps they have been jaded by all of the other would-be revolutionary messiah figures that had arisen and fallen in their recent history in that period, or maybe they were also eager to maintain their power that could be challenged by this new king. What we do know, however, is that their only role here was to aid the man who was seeking to destroy this king. Only a hardened heart could slough off God’s work in history like this. Very clearly, the Jewish leaders’ response is lackluster given the reality of what was happening. But before we go on looking down our noses at them, we must first examine whether or not we are guilty of the same crime.
I mentioned in my introduction that the procession is supposed to remind us that Christ himself, God incarnate, is entering into our midst, and I will be the first to admit that I do not always take this reality as seriously as I ought. But consider this with me: if you had someone offer you five million dollars to come to church each Sunday and really give it your all, to sing loud, to participate and listen attentively, and more than that, to carefully and intentionally posture your heart towards God each Sunday. Would this change your tendencies when coming to worship? Well, how much more valuable is the God who condescended into humanity to save you? This is the God whose presence comes to meet us on Sunday morning in his word and at his table. An indifferent response simply cannot be reconciled with the reality of what is going on in worship each Sunday. We must not take for granted what it is to worship God together as a body. This is one reason for which I am eternally grateful for what God is doing at St. John’s, because we have an atmosphere so dense with the love of Christ that there is no doubt in my mind that Christ is among us. But we must not let our worship become simply normal, or mundane. We must not treat our worship services together as anything other than the divine breaking through into our lives. This is truly an amazing and awe-inspiring reality, and fortunately, for all of the negative examples I have given, our gospel today focuses us in on the people in the story who worship rightly: the Magi.
There is a great deal of mystery surrounding the Magi. Lots of questions could be asked: what are magi? Were they kings or wise men? Where exactly did they come from? Why would any sane group of adults, in any age, all of the sudden decide to follow after a star? And I am sure that many of you have asked further questions about who these men are and why we receive an account of their story in scripture. In all honesty, the jury is still out as to who these men actually are. From what we can glean from Matthew’s accounting of things, they are shrouded in mystery. But the details Matthew has given us are very important. Firstly, we know that these Magi are likely sorcerers of some kind; this type of work was heavily bound up in astrology at the time so this helps us to make sense of why they would follow the star as they did. Further, and more importantly, these men are Gentiles. This means, in biblical terms, that they are not God’s chosen people like Israel is. This makes it all the more confusing that the Magi should be presented as the protagonists in our story. Why on earth would God choose to use three Gentile sorcerers to bear witness to the coming of God to earth in Jesus Christ? Well, as we have already seen, the rich and powerful Herod and the Jewish leaders who were supposedly God’s people, have declined the task. They have refused the invitation to be in on what God is doing in the world, so God goes to the east, to a land and a people considered not his own to proclaim his work in creation. Truly, no one is outside of God’s reach.
Even more stunning than God’s choice of people here, however, is their response. We read their question in v.2: “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.” The Magi, even though they are not God’s people, are not Jews, know what is going on. Quite literally, the stars have aligned, and they can see the writing on the walls. A new king has come to earth to redeem and transform humanity from its fallenness. This king can be none other than God himself! Therefore, the appropriate response would be to bow down and worship him. And this is just what they do, isn’t it? Verse 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.” In those days, no one prostrated themselves in worship before someone or something they did not believe to be divine. Their bowing down before the infant Jesus in the manger is Matthew’s way of making a bold statement about the divinity of Christ. Not only is Jesus Christ King, but he is God himself. Also noteworthy for the statement they make are the gifts they brought as an offering. Gold is an offering befitting a king, frankincense (a type of incense used by priests in worship) is a gift befitting a priest who has come to atone for our sins. Finally, the myrrh, a preservative for deceased bodies prefigures the death Christ was born to die for the sins of the world. We get, even simply in the gifts of the Magi, a microcosm or a mini-foretelling of the life that this king will lead on this earth. It will be one of death that will be a priestly sacrifice for sins, that will ultimately lead to his exaltation as king at the right hand of the Father. The fact that the Magi all realized that this was happening and was able to respond in praise and adoration and offering in the way that they did makes it all the more amazing that God’s very own people did not see what was happening right before their eyes.
In fairness to Herod and to the Jews, we must recognize how unlikely this situation would have seemed on the surface. An infant, born in a humble manger in a small, insignificant town like Bethlehem to what seemed to be a maritally impure young woman. For being the God of all of creation, his entrance certainly does seem underwhelming, or even just flat out unlikely. And yet the Magi open their hearts and journey to meet their God in humility and reverence, an offering of themselves to this unlikely king, even before he could speak. (PAUSE) This image is breathtaking, and it offers to us a picture of what our worship should look like when we gather together. We have been worshipping together for almost three years now, I believe, and we have never really outwardly looked like a quote-unquote “church”
In fact, I have felt more like a wandering Israelite: moving locations, packing up everything and setting it back up in the next place, not having a property of that we own, and so on. And even in the beginning, we had to start small with worship. We did not always have a permanent altar, or a processional cross, or an altar rail. But I would confidently say that no matter our humble circumstances, God has always met us. We have heard his word, we have supped at his table. I believe that St. John’s has been a place, and will continue to be a place where people can worship and offer their lives to God in a way that is meaningful and serious and deep, and all of this despite whatever humble circumstances we have been in. But why is this? I believe that this is so because we, as a body, have seen with the eyes of faith what the Magi saw in the humble Jesus Christ in that manger. We know that the reality of what is going on before our eyes and ears on a typical Sunday is much more significant than what it appears. We know that Jesus Christ himself has come into our midst, even when what we see may seem purely ordinary to us on the surface. If we are honest, however, none of us escapes the tendency to fall into the error of Herod or the Jews.
We all have our days where getting up on a Sunday morning is tough, wrangling up the kids, putting on a happy face when things are going really badly for us, trying to pay attention to a sermon after a long, exhausting week of work. We can easily grow to be indifferent. It can also be easy to write off worship as inconvenient or meddling, whether on Sunday or in your daily prayer time. Sundays are golf days, there’s just not a good time for me to commit to praying the daily office, my kids just need my undivided attention right now, and the list could go on and on and on. This tendency leads us towards the error of Herod, to refuse worship because it would meddle or interfere with our own personal goals; it would restrict our own personal autonomy which we so cherish. But the reality is, and the one that the Magi saw with the eyes of faith, is that if we understand what worship is, and what is truly going on before us when we worship, we would pay any amount of money, give up anything, and journey any distance just to participate.
Worshiping God does require something of us. It requires our time, it requires our attention, and most importantly, it requires our hearts. St. John’s let this congregation continually be one that offers these things to God, both personally and corporately. If we do this, I promise you that the mundane, ordinary rhythms of worship will become infused with life, and the magnitude of the reality of Epiphany, of God with us, will be set before you continually for you to feast on in faith. Brothers and sisters, God has come into our midst! His presence is before us at this very moment. Let us give to him the worship due to his name, and offer up our lives, our attention, our time, and our hearts, as a sacrifice of praise before our king. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.