“Epiphany” by Rev. Cody Sandahl – January 3, 2016

Introduction

This week we are finishing the Christmas story with the arrival of the three wise men from the East. Next week we are going to start a new sermon series that looks at the Hard Sayings of Jesus.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the three wise men. Probably the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are” has a problem in the title – they were probably not kings, but respected sages. Another misconception is that they arrived shortly after the shepherds found Mary and Joseph. Probably they were there about two years after Jesus was born. We know that because Herod in fear tried to kill all the boys two and under, and the text actually refers to Jesus as an infant or child, not a baby.

But misconceptions aside, this is a familiar and powerful story, because I believe it touches on some of our own deepest longings.

Matthew 2:1-12

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Following Yonder Star

In the ancient world, including Israel, it was generally accepted that the stars contained guidance for the present and the future. For instance, during the reign of Nero a comet appeared in the sky over Rome – that was usually interpreted as the impending death of a ruler. Now Nero, who was, to use a technical term, loco en la cabeza, took matters into his own hands and summarily executed a bunch of the nobles in Rome hoping to fulfill the comet’s prediction with their deaths rather than his own.

Now the greatest interpreters of dreams and visions and astrology were the Magi of Persia. And three of them noticed something new. They scoured their charts and discovered this meant a king was born in Judea. Fascinating. But a few days later, this new object wasn’t in the same place, it was moving west.

But being the space nerd that I am, this raises a big question for me: why did they care? The stars almost always move west. In any given night they move east to west, and over the course of the year, they move about one degree west each day as the earth rotates around the sun. It’s the eastward motion that stands out. Whenever earth overtakes one of the outer planets in its orbit (because we orbit faster than they do), those planets appear to move backwards – it’s called retrograde motion. Eastward motion is weird. Westward motion is normal. And yet something about this westward motion was noteworthy.

OK, so there’s a new object in the sky. It’s moving west, just like everything else. It means there’s a new king in Judea. Here’s where I’m struggling though. What about this analysis leads them to load up a caravan so large that in v3 it says all of Jerusalem (a major trade city) noticed their caravan? What about this analysis leads them to stack up some gold bullion, to bottle up some expensive perfume, and pack up some rare incense so they can give it away to this king? A foreign king, no less. Born in Roman territory, a dangerous potential enemy of their hometown Persian Empire. And these are the WISE men supposedly.

I have only one explanation: they were on a mission from God. There are only three things that generally cause men to do crazy things: love, money, and religion. Well, and the general presence of a Y chromosome. But these men weren’t in love. These men were giving away their money. That leaves religion. And their religion had no real reason for them to do this. They must’ve been sent on a mission from God.

Our Mission from God

At our December meeting of Session, the elected spiritual leaders of the church, I asked everyone what were their favorite and least favorite Christmas songs. My least favorite is Silent Night, because I can believe in the virgin birth, but a baby who’s quiet all night? Please!

My favorite Christmas song, though, is “We Three Kings.” And I love it because of this sense of purpose. This mission they’ve been given. This quest they’re going on. And then the tune kind of reminds me of Lord of the Rings, it reinforces that quest mentality.

And I love that, because it means we have a role to play. Sure, the main story is God coming to us in the flesh through Jesus, but people had a role to play. We aren’t just taking up space. We’re here for a reason.

Everyone here in this room can be used by God for some purpose, some mission. You, like the wise men, have a mission from God.

But do you know what it is? [LONG PAUSE]

I find it fascinating that the wise men didn’t even know their true mission. They felt an urge to go west. They felt an urge to bring lavish gifts that happen to be highly transportable. They were told in a dream to go back home the much, much longer way to avoid Jerusalem. They kept getting the next step in their journey. But in the big picture, God had something else in mind.

In the verses immediately following our text today, Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt just before Herod swoops in and kills all the children Jesus’ age. 2015 was the year of the refugee, so we’ve seen some of the horrible images that go with fleeing destruction. And you know what’s interesting? Those are the middle class people a lot of the time. It takes money to be a refugee, so the poorest people are just trapped in the war.

Joseph and Mary are poor. They can’t afford to flee to Egypt, let alone live there for a few years. But you know what would be really useful? Some very valuable, highly transportable wealth. Like gold. Like frankincense. Like myrrh. These gifts, unbeknownst to the wise men, were how Mary and Joseph and Jesus could afford to escape Herod. The wise men had a mission from God to bring particular gifts to a particular king. But God used that mission in a totally unexpected way.

On May 7, 2011, a South African carpenter by the name of Richard Van As had an unfortunate work accident that claimed four fingers on his right hand. Rather than losing hope, however, he decided to use his skills to try to make his own prosthetic that would help him keep working. He saw a video of a 3d printed mechanical hand for a Halloween costume posted by a quirky professor in the US named Ivan Owen, and they started working together to make something for Richard. Back in South Africa, a boy named Liam was born with no fingers, and his mom heard about this super cheap, customizable mechanical hand. Ten months later, Richard and Ivan got to see Liam light up with joy as he picked up a cup for the first time with his mechanical hand. One man had a mission to be creative and share his Halloween creation with the world. Another man had a mission to restore his ability to work. Together they created hope for children around the world who can’t afford prosthetics. That story is what got me into 3D printing.

What I take away from this is that your mission from God doesn’t have to be this super religious thing. It doesn’t have to be a two month pilgrimage. It doesn’t have to be a mission trip to foreign lands. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or epic in scope.

Your mission from God might spring out of who you are, as it did for Ivan and his Halloween costume. Your mission from God might spring out of something that you experience – good or bad – as it did for Richard and his need for a prosthetic. Your mission from God might be something internal – growing into a man or woman after God’s own heart. Your mission from God might be very nearby – raising your children in a Christian home. Making quilts for babies on Monday morning.

Everyone here in this room can be used by God for some purpose, some mission. You, like the wise men, have a mission from God.

But do you know what it is? [LONG PAUSE]

FPCL’s Mission

A couple of months ago I shared some possibilities as we consider, as a whole church, what is our mission from God in 2016. And after some deliberation, we started circling around many of the same things. Our energy level started rising. So here it is, what your elected spiritual leaders believe is our mission from God in 2016.

Three things. First off, our mission from God is for everyone in this church to grow closer to Christ spiritually. My second Sunday here I preached about the spiritual growth tree as a way to think about your spiritual growth. The soil is worship. The seed is commitment to Jesus Christ. The roots are deep relationships. The trunk of the tree is spiritual practices like reflecting on Scripture and praying for guidance. From there we branch out into service in the church and in our community. And finally we bear fruit by sharing Christ with others.

Our first mission from God is for everyone, EVERYONE to grow in at least one part of your spiritual tree in 2016. We’re going to offer ways to do that for each part of the tree. The first one you’ll hear about is doing a prayer walk around our church one Sunday in Lent, and we’re going to have another local church join us in that, too.

Our second mission from God is to have a greater positive impact on our community in Christ’s name. This church has supported many worthwhile ministries in our community with our financial resources. We are feeling an urge to roll up our sleeves and do more hands-on. So over the course of the year, you’ll hear about new ways, not just to give, but to volunteer and get involved personally.

Our third mission from God in 2016 is to share the story. To let people know that God is at work in our midst. To let people know that God has a vision for our city, and we’re along for the ride. We’ll be sharing stories online, in print, and encouraging you to share how you made a difference in your community when you’re chatting with your neighbors. When I told some of my neighbors that Charlie and I helped deliver a Thanksgiving meal from our church to the community, they said, “We might want to help out next year!” Let’s share the story.

Summary

Sisters and brothers, God sent the wise men on a mission. It didn’t really make sense. But they went west, carrying a bunch of transportable wealth, to give to a foreign king, who they found in a poor village, and then they went the really, really, long way home to avoid a vindictive ruler. But that wasn’t even how God used them! He used them to enable Joseph and Mary and Jesus to flee to Egypt with the resources they would need.

Everyone here in this room can be used by God for some purpose, some mission. You, like the wise men, have a mission from God.

But do you know what it is? [LONG PAUSE] Amen.