Sunday, January 4, 2009

Epiphany

Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
January 4, 2009 (The Epiphany of our Lord)

When the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Troubled? Why would he be troubled? The Messiah for whom the world has waited for such a long time is here! That’s not news to be troubled about; it something to rejoice about! The temple courts should have been ringing with songs of praise to God that He has kept His Word and fulfilled His promises. One of our Lutheran hymn-writers has put it this way: “Let the earth now praise the Lord, who has truly kept His word and the sinners’ Help and Friend now at last to us doth send.” Another hymn-writer, not a Lutheran but very familiar to us nonetheless, put it this way: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare Him room and heaven and nature sing.” These are the kinds of things we sing when we celebrate His birth, so why wasn’t this also the reaction of Herod and the leaders of the Jews when they heard about it? Instead of being overjoyed and thankful that they were the ones who had the privilege of “being there” when the promises that filled the entire Old Testament were fulfilled, when the entire nation of Israel has its purpose accomplished, Herod and the other rich and powerful members of Jerusalem society were troubled, and disturbed, and dismayed that the Messiah had been born. Why?

The answer, of course, is that the old Adam doesn’t want Christ to come to us. By nature we would rather that the Son of God stay away from us, since we are sinners, and as far as our old Adam is concerned we’d rather stay that way. Especially in Herod’s case, since not only was he a sinner, he was a bloodthirsty and evil dictator. Any idea that there was a higher power in the universe to which he must answer—other than Rome, of course, since it was Rome that helped him get his throne in the first place—but any spiritual higher power that could possibly call him to account for his abuse of power and his flagrantly sinful lifestyle was a threat to him. And not only that, but the way the wise men had put it when they told him of the newborn King, it sounded to Herod like the Messiah was going to establish a political kingdom and overthrow him.


And so, instead of being joyful and thankful to God for finally sending His Messiah and fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies, the leaders of Judah were upset and agitated and angry that the Christ had been born. We might be tempted to think that we would have reacted differently to Christ’s birth if we had been living back then. Of course, some of the people at that time did react favorably to Christ’s birth. The shepherds who were visited by the angels the night He was born, the wise men who came in today’s Gospel, Simeon and Anna in the temple when He was presented to the Lord, and probably many other pious and faithful Old Testament Christians whose names aren’t recorded for us in the Scriptures, all of these did indeed give Christ the welcome that He deserved as the Savior of mankind from their sins. But if we had lived back then, would we have done so? Hindsight is 20/20, they say, and we like to think that we would have been among those who welcomed Him.


But we can’t be sure of that. It’s easy to welcome Him today, when being a Christian doesn’t cost you that much. Even though far fewer members of our society are active Christians now than in decades past, nevertheless we are still largely a society that is influenced and shaped by Christianity. The only thing you give up for being a Christian often seems to be an hour of your time every week and whatever you decide to give as an offering to support your Church. The rest of the week, many of us can get away with pretending to be just like everyone else in our society, and so it’s easy to become complacent and self-righteous. I’m a good person. I don’t steal or murder or commit adultery. I obey those who are in authority. I go to Church. I’m a good person. Of course, if Christ were born today, I’d be right there with those shepherds or those wise men. I wouldn’t be like Herod.


What we forget when we begin to think this way is that the sinfulness that Herod showed by his bloodthirsty rule and his immoral behavior is the same sinfulness that corrupts our hearts as well. We all have within us the old Adam that gets angry and upset at the coming of Christ among us. We all have within us that old sinful nature that would rather Christ stay safely away. We can talk about Him, we can say all kinds of pious things about Him, but we’d rather not have Him actually be present among us all that often. Christ abstractly “up there” in heaven is not a threat to us. Christ present on the altar and received in our mouths in, with, and under the bread and wine we eat and drink is much more real and personal, and for a sinner, threatening. His presence among us is a threat to our complacency. It is a threat to the idea that we are our own rulers, our own masters. Most of all, Christ’s presence among us is a threat to our illusions that we are “pretty good people.” His coming to us points out the fact that we are in fact sinners who are in need of His healing forgiveness and salvation. And so the fact that Christ has come to earth, and is present among us now, can be disturbing to us the way His presence as a small child in Bethlehem was disturbing to Herod.


But it is precisely because Christ is disturbing to us that we know that we need Him. The fact that we are disturbed by His presence shows that there is too much of Herod in us. It shows that we are in need of putting to death the old Adam and once again clothing ourselves with Christ’s righteousness. The fact that Christ makes us uncomfortable shows us that we are in need of being made uncomfortable. We are uncomfortable because when Christ comes He puts us to death so that He can raise us up again. The old Adam doesn’t want to die, and he fights it with everything he’s got. And that’s why Christ’s presence among us is not the most comfortable news in the world.


But Christ isn’t a bloodthirsty, murdering king like Herod. He doesn’t put us to death for sadistic or selfish reasons. Rather He kills only so that He can raise up from the dead. He drowns the old Adam in the baptismal font so that He can bring forth the new Christ in us to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever. And what He puts us through is nothing compared to what He suffered Himself. He suffered the pains of hell so that we don’t have to. He was stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted because, even though we deserved all that by our sins, He wanted to save us from that and instead took it all upon Himself. In fact, Christ was just the opposite of Herod. Herod put others to death in a vain attempt to save himself. Christ put Himself to death in a victorious attempt to save others.


And the “others” whom Christ came to save was not just the ancient people of Israel, either. They had been chosen to be the nation from whom the Messiah would come, but the Messiah’s purpose was not just to save Israel. It was to save all of humanity. Unfortunately, the people of Israel forgot that time and time again, and God sent prophets and even sometimes conquering nations to remind them of it. Even today their descendants try to claim some special favor with God on the basis of their ancestors despite the fact that they continue to reject the one who was promised to them as the Messiah. But the events of today’s text remind us that the Gentiles have just as much reason to rejoice at the birth of the Savior as the Jews do. In fact, the Jewish leadership had to find out from these pagan wise men that their own Messiah had been born! And we too, who are gentiles, have reason to rejoice today, as we are reminded that Christ came to save all sinners, especially those who have wandered far from God’s ways. We gentiles, we who examine ourselves and know ourselves to be sinners, can receive Christ’s epiphany among us with joy, since His coming among us is our salvation. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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