Epiphany Message 2008
The Hopes and Fears of all the Years
From Pastor Baker
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him - when [the Magi] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy."
Matthew 2: 3,10

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Epiphany. We love to love Epiphany, or at least I do - and my guess is you do too. The Magi we read about today only journeyed from the East once, but many of us probably feel like this is a well-worn path that the church travels every Christmas. We have been here before. We have looked under every rock, peered around every corner, and explored the nuances of this story so many times that perhaps we are tempted to put our worship, our Bible readings, our carols, and our Epiphany celebrations on auto-pilot and casually allow ourselves to bask in the familiar light of the star of Bethlehem and the visitors it draws from afar.

Yes it is too true - the story of the Magi's journey is well known. Most of us can stand up and say "been there, done that" today. Epiphany, Journey of the Wise Men, Three Kings Day - though most of us have probably heard the sermon that they were likely not kings. Wise-men, sages, astrologers - yes; and didn't we debate the number of Magi in recent years; whether there were three Magi simply because we know there were three gifts?

Ahh - and the gifts themselves - fun topic for preaching and Sunday School classes. Three gifts, like late Christmas gifts that we get to open today so that we can discuss and analyze them for their symbolism. Why gold? Because Jesus is King? Why frankincense? Because it was used in worship and points to Jesus' divinity? Why myrrh? Because it was used in embalming and it anticipates Jesus' death? Ahh - the wonder of Epiphany - the adventure of the star-gazers from the East - the picturesque snapshot of a bright star leading the way - the image of people bending the knee in worship and homage.

We love to love Epiphany; but perhaps this year we should be careful not to let our familiarity distance us too far from this text's warning and terror. Let's not forget that the journey of the Magi set off a chain of events that led to the horrific massacre of children in and around the town of Bethlehem. Let's not forget that though angels sang, shepherds worshipped, and Magi journeyed - Herod plotted and schemed and all of Jerusalem was frightened and panicked.

If this story teaches us anything, it teaches us that Jesus stirs things up - even as a baby - before he ever muttered an intelligible word, before he had preached his first sermon, before he had broken his first Sabbath observance, before he has challenged social customs, violated Jewish protocol, or turned over tables in the temple. Jesus' presence alone challenged the status quo, stirred up political unrest, caused people to leave their jobs, and prompted others to pack up and things and head to unknown destinations.

That is the Jesus I want to know. That is the Jesus I want to worship today. Not the one who can be reduced to a bumper sticker slogan; not the one who TV preachers promise will pad my pockets if I will pack their pews; not the one who affirms me, conforms to my way of thinking, agrees with my politics, and assures me that everything will be OK if I will just do the right thing. I am not interested in that Jesus. I hope you aren't either - because that Jesus is the false Jesus.

I want the Jesus' of Matthew' gospel today. I want to bow down and worship the God who broke into this world and turned it upside down. I want to journey with the Jesus who is not content to leave me as I am; who challenges the sins I have come to love; who takes issue with my petty prejudices and shortcomings; who illuminates my darkness and reveals me as the fallen sinner that I am. I want to listen to the Jesus who says that following him might be dangerous, it might cost me something - the Jesus who says "follow me and your just as likely to end up a refugee in Egypt with little to your name as you are to end up in a home with the ability to make ends meet.

Phillips Brooks touched on this real Jesus in his carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem": the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. Fear. It was all over the place that first Christmas. Herod's fear, which represents all those who greet Jesus coming with growing anxiety that this coming kingdom might clash with our way of doing things, our claim to be the final authority of our own lives and author's of our own destiny; the fear that Herod and all Jerusalem shared with him - that this Jesus might just turn their world upside down, challenge their gods, uproot their lives, expose their insecurities, and remind them of their mortality, their dependency, and their fragile claims to power and authority.

Fear. It was all over the place that first Christmas. Fear that God was doing a new thing, which would be bad news to people who liked things the old way. Fear that God was coming to support change rather than be allied with the status quo. Fear that Light coming into the world meant that the false security and safety of darkness was on its last legs. For many, Jesus was the sum total of everything they feared about God, about religion, and about life.

But, as Brooks points out - hope was also all over the place that first Christmas. The hope of spiritual seekers - people without Torah, without circumcision, without covenant promises that search for truth among the stars and are still led to the universal truth of Jesus Christ for the whole world. The hope of Israel - that in Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham, David, and the prophets. The hope of all humanity that secretly longs for salvation, for purpose, for meaning, joy, and for true happiness.

That is the Jesus we discover in Matthew's gospel today - the Jesus of God - the Light that came to vanquish darkness - the One who was fully God and fully Man at once - the One who came to change the world and who desires to start by changing you and me. The One who, when received and welcomed in faith leaves the seeker "overwhelmed with joy." The One in whom the "hopes and fears are met - and where meek souls will receive him still - the dear Christ will enter in."

Let us pray:

O, holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray;

Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell;

O, come to us abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.