January 6 is a lesser-known Christian holiday known as Epiphany.
I usually enjoy preaching the epiphany sermon, but this year I am on vacation during that time. Still, I have been thinking over the words of Matthew 2. They’re powerful, challenging, and filled with insights into the nature and character of God. These words pose powerful challenges to all of western Christianity, which I think are worth exploring as we open 2019.
Matthew 2 opens with a question: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” I suppose it is a question we should ask ourselves. Who does Jesus appear to today? To whom does Jesus bring peace, comfort, and hope? Because this question was asked by Jesus-seekers, but the Jesus-seekers who asked it are not anything like what we might think about today.
They were pagans. Star-gazers. The Magi were outsiders to the tradition Jesus was born into. But they were seekers of truth. They were devoted to searching the stars for signs. And the God of truth, who desires to be known in his creation, spoke their language. He provided a sign that no “insider” was looking for – a star in the sky – which (literally) shone a path to Jesus to foreign outsiders.
Think of who the Magi are today. Who are the worshippers who worship in perhaps the wrong ways, but have a desire for truth and are orienting their lives in devotion to it? Perhaps they are misled in some ways (perhaps we are too), but they nevertheless have a desire to worship in truth. Who are these worshippers in 2019?
The reason I ask this question is
And if it’s not, perhaps we just need the reminder that the harsh way we often approach people of different faiths looks nothing like the Jesus we follow.
Before the Magi find Jesus, they find Herod. When Herod discovers that a star is leading these men from the east to an infant king, he is disturbed. He attempts to trick the Magi, telling them that he wishes to worship the newborn king, too. But the Magi do not return to Herod to inform him of the location of Jesus, and Herod blows a gasket. He calls for the death of every male child under two years of age.
In a story of salvation for Jews and Gentiles alike, I hurt for Herod. Everything Herod values is preventing him from receiving salvation, and salvation in Christ is the very thing that would save him from everything he values.
When Herod hears of the Magi’s quest to locate the child king, he feels threatened. To Herod, power is valued. A threat to his power is a threat the very thing which validates his existence. Jesus, who cannot at this time form a sentence, has posed a serious threat for Herod. And what pains me as I read this passage is that Jesus came to save Herod from the lie that his value is determined by the power he wields. Salvation, for Herod, has quite a lot to do with embracing a new set of values, because the values he holds are leading to his own destruction.
Thinking of salvation in terms of our values can be helpful for us today. What are your values? Are they aligned with the values of Jesus?
Think about these questions:
1. How do you spend your free time?
2. What debated topic gets you most worked up?
I ask these questions specifically because they reveal something about our values. How we spend our free time is especially revealing. Most people spend it in front of the television. In most cases, this reveals that we value comfort and entertainment, which reveals that a primary value is ourselves.
What topic will get you worked up? For many people, it is politics. American politics are easy to navigate: one side is exclusively right, and the other side is exclusively wrong. The right side is whatever side you’re on, and the wrong side is always the other side. What the other side is doing is always repulsive and shocking, but what your side is doing is always righteous and necessary. It may seem that I have oversimplified, and in theory I certainly have. However, in practice, this is how it tends to work.
What this reveals about our values can be complex, but we can make a few simple observations. We value being right. We value winning. We value power. Especially power. Just like Herod.
Some of our values seem noble. A universal American value is freedom. We value being free. I wonder, though, how often the concept of freedom becomes an ideal that enslaves, as we pursue it bitterly at the expense of healthy relationships with “the other side,” who, by the way, is always wrong.
If another nation attacks the United States, the media always portrays it as an attack against freedom. We often erroneously pit “personal freedom” against “religious freedom” (which is frankly quite odd).
And all the while, the freedom we’re talking about is far short of the freedom that we discover in Christ, as he transforms our values and turns them upside down.
The reason I love epiphany is because God reaches out to people who otherwise have no chance of knowing him and makes himself known. It causes us to think about God’s values. Is he threatened by the outsider in the same way we often are? Or does his love extend to them as well? (The star answers those questions!).
And when we realize that the salvation Jesus came to offer extends to Herod, too, it causes us to ask what salvation looks like for Herod, and what it might look like for us. And I am convinced that sometimes the things that we (you and I, not “other people” or “outsiders” or “those people”) value fall far short of the values of Jesus, and indeed lead us away from the values of Jesus.
By the end of Matthew 2, the Magi have worshipped the king and declined to return to Herod (revealing their values), Herod’s values have led him to take action against the one the Magi called “the king of the Jews,” and Mary, Joseph and Jesus are refugees in Egypt.
By the way, what does characterizing Jesus as a “refugee” – a word which often triggers a multitude of impassioned political opinions – reveal to you about your values? What emotions are evoked by that characterization?
This is a passage about salvation. It is about salvation for the Magi, for Herod, and for us. It is a passage which causes us to ask, “who does God extend salvation to, and how far is he willing to go with the good news?” Might he go farther than we have imagined? Might the good news be extended to people who we are inclined to count out?
It causes us to ask “what do I need to be saved from, and what am I being saved to?”
It causes us to ask “do my values align with the values of Jesus?”
And then it causes us to ask, “am I sure about that?” (I’ll give you a hint: If your motivations in life are ever short of growing in the love of Christ and serving the Kingdom of God, your values do not perfectly align with the values of Jesus. Lord, have mercy on all of us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.)
But mostly, what this passage should cause us to do is recognize that God’s love stretches farther than we have imagined. It is greater than we have yet conceived. It offers more transformation than we have experienced. The salvation found therein is from more than we have recognized, and to something greater than we have yet known. It should cause us to see that the world is broken, and the only solution is Christ, and that Christ is the solution for all. And it should remind us that the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus truly is good news for all.