Sunday, January 8, 2012

Epiphany, Series B

Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 8, 2012 (The Epiphany of our Lord – transferred, Series B)

As we heard on Christmas Day, the message of the Savior’s birth was announced first, not to Herod or Caesar or the high priests, but to lowly shepherds out in their fields that night keeping watch over their sheep.  Now finally Herod and the high priests do find out about it, but not directly from God or from His angels; they find out from Gentile scholars from the east who saw a star in the heavens.  Herod, of course, was not exactly a pious Jew and so he couldn’t care less that it was these Gentiles to whom God had announced the Savior’s birth.  All he knew was that a rival to his power had been born and needed to be eliminated as soon as possible.  But the chief priests and the scribes of Jerusalem were probably very upset.  How dare these Gentiles, these pagans, have the privilege of worshiping the Messiah, when we Jews didn’t even know He had come?  We can imagine that if they had heard about the shepherds worshiping Him on the night of His birth these chief priests and scribes would have been even more upset.

So why did God do this?  Why did He send the angels to common ordinary shepherds and not to the religious or political leaders of the day?  Why did he allow these Gentiles, who lived halfway across the known world at that time, to find out about Jesus’ birth and not the Jewish religious leadership?  After all, the Gentiles were not those to whom the promise of a Savior had been given.  They were not God’s holy people.  They were unclean, foreigners, who did not know how to keep the Law God had given His people.  Why should they hear about the Savior before the Jewish leadership did?  It just doesn’t seem right.

But God did this for a very good reason.  Those who first learned about the birth of the Savior were those who were ready to hear about Him.  Herod didn’t want another king to be born.  History shows that he had several of his own sons killed so that they wouldn’t rise up against him and take the throne from him.  The murder of the Holy Innocents, which takes place only a few verses after today’s Gospel lesson, is also completely in character for Herod.  In fact, Herod’s reign was so bloody that most secular historians back then didn’t think that the murder of all the babies in the Bethlehem area was even noteworthy enough to write about.  The Jewish leaders were convinced of their own righteousness as Jews and didn’t particularly think they needed a savior from sin (though a political savior, to get Rome off their backs, might be nice).  It was the people you wouldn’t expect, common people like Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds, as well as these learned foreigners from the east, who were best able to receive the Christ, because they knew that any standing they had before God was not because what they could do or who they were, but solely by a gift of God.  And the infant Jesus Christ is that gift.

What happens in today’s Gospel lesson is foreshadows what will happen to Christ throughout His life.  He will be rejected by the Jewish nation as a whole, though many individuals will believe in Him, and eventually His message will go to the Gentiles.  Jesus ordered His disciples to preach first in Jerusalem, Judea, and then Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.  Paul, even though he is known as the apostle to the Gentiles, always starts from the local Jewish synagogue when he goes into a town, as we read in the book of Acts.  The Jews were always the first to receive the message of Christ, since it was to them that the promises of Christ’s coming were entrusted.  But so often they rejected the message of Christ, while the foreigners, the pagans, accepted it with joy.  This pattern is first seen here with the visit of the Gentile scholars from the east who humbly worship Christ while the Jewish leaders are upset by His coming.  The Jews tended to think of the Lord as their own private national God, and forgot that He is the Lord of all the earth and the creator of all people.  They forgot that even though it was to Israel that the promise of a Savior had been given, that Savior was for all nations.  His sacrifice would be for the sins of the whole world.

You and I, of course, have benefitted from this fact.  The Gentile court scholars from the east who came to worship the child Jesus and give Him expensive gifts are our predecessors.  If it had not been for the fact that the message about Christ is for all nations, you and I would not be here today.  After all, we are not descended from the Israelites.  We are Gentiles.  It is only because the message about Christ was sent also to the Gentiles that we have come to know Him and have come to receive His gifts and offer our sacrifice of thanksgiving today.  The visit of the magi is the first time that Gentiles came to worship Christ in the flesh.  They are the first of a long, long line of Gentiles who have been grafted into the tree of God’s people, a line which now includes us today.

But in another sense, we need to examine ourselves to be sure that we do not bear more resemblance to the Jewish scribes and chief priests.  Even though none of us has Israelite blood, we are similar in some ways to the people of Judah and Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth.  Many of us have had the Holy Scriptures, and the promises of God’s salvation, since childhood.  Even though our nation’s culture is rapidly degenerating, there are still many elements of our national character that come from the fact that Christianity is still the most dominant of any one religion among our people, and that even the large numbers of unchurched people are more likely to be lapsed Christians who are at least aware of some elements of Christian teaching, than former members of any other religion.  We have advantages in our relationship to our God that the Gentiles of those times did not have, although the Jews did.  It is tempting for this reason to regard ourselves as somehow special in our own right, because of the fact that we come from a largely Christian nation, and have been associated with the Church for a long time, just as the Jews tended to think that it was their status as God’s people, in and of itself, which would save them.

Unfortunately when we begin to think this way we are as wrong as those Jews were.  It is good that we have been granted free and ready access to the Holy Scriptures in our nation; people in some other nations cannot get the Scriptures very easily.  It is good that we have the right to assemble openly as Christians to receive God’s gifts, which is also something that is forbidden in many other places around the world.  But the temptation is there to think that because of our outward association with the Church and being part of an allegedly Christian-dominated nation that we have some special standing before God.  The truth is that our salvation which is given to us in Word and Sacrament is a gift, not something we have earned by our outward association with God’s people.  Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us of this as well, as it was to these sages from the east that the message of Christ was given through the star, and not to the chief priests and the scribes.

Salvation is a free gift from God, and not due to any good works on our part.  This also means that salvation doesn’t come to us as a reward for our association with Christianity.  Salvation comes through God’s Word and Sacraments preached and administered by those He has sent to do so.  This means also that those who have never encountered the Gospel before, those whose nations are still covered completely or mostly in the darkness of paganism, are just as ready to hear the Gospel as we are, and God will save them through it just as readily as He does us.  This is why the Church through the centuries has continuously reached out to those who do not know Christ in order to bring them to the Word and Sacraments through which the Holy Spirit works salvation.  By God’s grace we are involved in this outreach as well through our Synod as well as through our own personal sharing of the Gospel with our friends and neighbors.  Through our efforts and the efforts of many other Christians throughout the world, those who had no previous contact with the Gospel are being incorporated into the Church.  They are receiving the salvation which Christ won by His innocent death and glorious resurrection.  They are receiving Christ Himself through His Word and His body and blood, the same body and blood which Mary cradled and in which the eastern magi worshiped the King of kings.  This same King is present for our salvation too, here, today.  Come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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