January 1, 2017
Sermon: “Room for All”—Rev. Steve Anderson
Matthew 2:1-12 & Ephesians 3:1-12
By now, most people have moved past the Christ-mas celebrations. Employees have returned to work, children have returned to school, and stores are beginning to set out valentines and summer merchandise. The church, on the other hand, continues celebrating a full 12 days after Christmas as we remember the visit of the wise men to the young Jesus. The response of these non-Jews prepared the way for gentiles (non-Jews) to also follow Jesus. This is significant since up to this point the Jews believed that God would send a savior for them and only them.
Now, for the first time, we have the concept that a relationship with God through Jesus is available to all people. While Christian tradition holds that the magi were kings—which are an interesting contrast between these gentile kings response to Jesus’s birth and the way Herod, the Roman leader who ruled over God’s people, responded as well as the indifference of the Jewish religious leaders. A more precise description might be that the magi belonged to a priestly group which paid particular attention to the stars.
This priestly caste gained an international reputation for astrology, which at the time was a highly regarded science. Thus, God announces the birth of the savior of our world to the shepherds and the wise astrologers through a star and to God’s own people in Jerusalem through visitors from the east. Already God’s reach, God’s embrace in Christ Jesus, is getting bigger and bigger, until the cross of Jesus embraces all people.
We remember the story of these Magi who followed the star to the Christ child, though they themselves were not Jewish, offering him gold, frankincense and myrrh, gifts representing every aspect of our lives: finances, worship and death. We offer what is not just left over or some symbol of who we are, but we offer our whole self.
It was a long, dangerous trip. The Magi traveled 1000’s of miles over an 18 month period which means that they probably did not really come to the cave where Jesus was born, but to a home where Jesus was a toddler. On the way, they dropped by to let Herod know they were on his turf, which was the protocol. In doing so, they tipped off Herod that a successor was in the wings. They should have known that this was like throwing fuel onto a fire. What ruler would be happy to hear that they might be replaced in a few years? Especially a ruler who was as hateful and filled with suspicion and mistrust as Herod was.
The Magi recognized that Jesus was the savior of the world even when many of the people of Israel, especially the religious leader did not. And so they responded with gifts and worshiped with joy. Today, people expect God to come to us, explain himself, prove himself and give US gifts. But those who are wise still seek and worship Jesus today, not for what they can get but because of who he is.
How are our gifts like gold, frankincense and myrrh? Do they represent all aspects of our lives? These wise men from the east were also scientists who practiced other religions, but God used their desire for God to bring them to himself through Jesus. Even though their lives were full and busy, the Magi were seeking something great and so they went searching. For what are we searching? Where are we looking? How diligent is our search? How successful are we? What are we looking for: wisdom, meaning and purpose, hope, peace, joy?
Even in the first century church, the concept of a relationship with God through Jesus being available to non-Jews was still not understood or accepted. So much so that the apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus (Ephesians 3:6) asserts the reality that in Christ, those who were once not God’s people have been grafted in and have become children of the promise. Paul says this not begrudgingly, but gratefully. Paul speaks of the inclusion of all people as being a mystery. A mystery is something beyond our comprehension. For Paul, this meant that the meaning had been hidden, but was now revealed by God. A mystery is not a problem to be solved or a puzzle to be put together; it is a new story-line that we will not know without God’s revelation.
As an adult, Jesus sat with outcasts and sinners. He touched people that were sick and people with disabilities. Jesus even called the dead back to life. Ultimately, Jesus drew all people to him as he was lifted up on the cross. In Christ Jesus, no one was outside of God’s embrace.
One of my favorite books is entitled The Five Practices of Fruitful Living. One of the practices, which helps us follow Christ and invite people to engage with God is Radical Hospitality. This comes about when we consider all people to be equal in God’s sight. In the visit of the magi, God reaches beyond shepherds at the bottom of the barrel, to the wise and powerful at the other end of life. Radical Hospitality is aware that God grants access to everyone, and that can be frightening.
So who would today’s Magi be? Who are out there proclaiming that the kingdom of God is open to everyone? More importantly, are we among the group or are we trying to keep Jesus to ourselves? The Magi left everything to follow a star. When have we left something searching for Jesus? When have we thrown our hats over the walls and abandoned our prejudices and fears and taken a chance without assurance of success?
During this season of Epiphany, when leaves do not yet hang from our trees and our yards and fields are a combination of brown and lifeless or covered with snow, we look to God for the spring to come, for a new day when we will have abundant life. We are not proclaimers of death or condemnation, and we do not dwell in oblivion in our fortress churches. We go out into the world and seek to be the body of Christ, to be Jesus out in the world, the Jesus who was the king that was anticipated for many centuries.
The Psalm that we use in our call to worship spoke of justice which is not just fairness or good being rewarded and wicked punished. Rather justice is the Bible’s subversive term for God’s desired state of affairs where the poorest are cared for: a society is just to the degree that every person has enough. A king is to be measured, not by the hordes of chariots or the gold in the treasury, but whether the cause of the poor is defended, whether the needy are delivered. Also, righteousness is not smug goodness, but being in sync with God’s ways, embodying God’s will.
Having the magi open the kingdom to everyone says that all can come through Jesus, not just those who meet certain standards. God sends us into the world to tell everyone that God invites a mishmash of people to love him. The Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterian and those Christians in China, Egypt and Syria who worship underground. God especially calls those children who want to love him, but not in some of the traditional ways. God wants to bring all of us from darkness into light as we point others toward the light.
You know the great news—there’s room for all of us, no matter whom we are or what we do or don’t do. All we have to do is give Jesus our gifts which represent our lives and allow ourselves to be changed forever. There’s room for all!