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First Reading – Isaiah 60:1-6
60Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 5Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Since we’re talking about the wise men and Epiphany today, I’ve had a few requests that I do the whole sermon in my Magi character from the children’s sermon a few weeks ago. But I just couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.
We heard in our first text the prophecy from hundreds of years ahead of time that gifts would be given to the Messiah from foreign places. And now we get to hear the familiar story of the three wise men from the East.
This is your annual public service announcement about the wise men. Were they present at Jesus’ birth? Say it with me now, “No!” They were there about two years later. So if you just have to include the wise men in your nativity scene, put them off to the side to show they’re still “on the way.” Otherwise, I’m swiping them when I come over to your house in December. I’ve got fast hands, deep pockets, and I’m sneaky. You’ve been warned.
Sermon Text – Matthew 2:1-12
2In 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.” 3When 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. 10When 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.
The Great Reveal
When I say the word, “king,” what comes to mind? Go ahead, form a picture in your head of a king. Maybe wearing a crown? The king probably has some fine garments or gilded armor. Unless it’s the emperor’s new clothes, then that’s a whole different mental picture. Let’s move on from that. Quickly.
Where does a king live? In a palace? A castle? A chateau? When Prince William was born in Britain in 1982, the papers ran a front page headline, “It’s a boy!” It was national news. Royal news even makes it across the pond to us because people care and they want to know what’s going on.
Now how well do you think 2-year-old Jesus matched up with your mental image of a king? Not in the same zip code! So can you imagine what the Magi felt when they finally found Jesus? They had all the same imaginations we do about what it means to be a king. I guarantee they weren’t picturing themselves walking across the desert for two years to deliver presents to peasants.
I mean, just look where they started their search. When they arrived in Israel, they went to the capital city and asked the current king about the birth of the new king. That makes sense, right? The new king is usually the child of the current king. But not this time.
So they had to keep searching. But they didn’t hesitate when the moment came. Even though they had to be confused as all get-out when they found Jesus, they knew he was the one. So they followed through with their gifts, with their honor, with their worship.
As I have shared before, I have a different take on the gifts they brought to Jesus. Some go into the symbolism and how these gifts foreshadow his death and resurrection and blah, blah, blah! Maybe that’s true, but that’s not what I see in these gifts. I see something more tangible.
To understand this, let’s talk maple syrup. The highest grade maple syrup is extremely expensive. Depending on the year, it can actually be pricier per ounce than gold. The Canadian government maintains a national strategic maple syrup reserve! The US has a strategic oil reserve, and our neighbors to the north have a strategic syrup reserve. I don’t know what that says or means, but it’s interesting all the same.
So super high grade maple syrup is super valuable per ounce. That’s great. But will the bank take your maple syrup deposit? I’ve yet to see a syrup slot on an ATM. But will the bank take your gold? You bet. If you had to flee the country as a refugee, would you take your maple syrup? Probably not. Unless you’re Canadian. Would you take your gold? You’d better! What about your antique china cabinet that’s worth thousands? Are you going to lug that around on your back? I don’t think you’ll make it very far if you do.
Here’s the point. Not everything that is valuable can actually be spent as currency. Not everything that is valuable is transportable. Gold is highly spendable and highly transportable. Frankincense and myrrh were also highly spendable and highly transportable.
So moments before Jesus’ family had to become sudden refugees and flee to Egypt with no notice to escape Herod’s wrath, God arranged for some highly spendable and highly transportable wealth to arrive. So I don’t see all that symbolism blah, blah, blah. I see God providing in a very tangible way for Jesus’ very poor family to be able to afford being refugees in Egypt for two years on a moment’s notice. That’s more interesting to me than the symbolism stuff. The Lord provided in a most unanticipated way, and he set it in motion two years ahead of time. I love that.
I also love the devotion we see from the Magi in this story. An act of devotion is how someone expresses their love. In this story, the Magi express their love, their devotion, by visiting in person and offering gifts. That’s how they expressed their devotion. That’s what made their soul sing!
How do you express your devotion to God? What makes your soul sing?
Is it reverberating organ music or a choir or hand bells in worship?
Is it a Sunday school class or Bible study group?
Is it taking up a cause or serving sacrificially?
Is it caring for those in need?
Is it silent reflection or walking in nature?
Is it fasting or solitude?
Those are all different forms of spiritual devotion. And everyone’s soul sings in slightly different ways. I was talking with a couple in the church a few weeks ago, and the wife said she connects best with women’s groups like Shabby Sheep and the women’s Circles. The husband said he is more introspective and has been seeing God at work throughout his life as he examines it prayerfully. One talks in a group. The other thinks alone. Very different spiritual designs, but both are equally valid ways to show your devotion to Jesus.
What makes your soul sing? How do you show your love, your devotion to Jesus? If it’s taking a pile of gold across a desert for two years like the Magi, you might wanna tell your spouse first, though. And in-person, not by text. Pro tip right there.
If you don’t know where to start, try one of our groups. I lead adult Sunday school at 9am downstairs. We have women’s Shabby Sheep and Circle groups. We have men’s groups Monday mornings and evenings.
What makes your soul sing? How can you show your love, your devotion to Jesus? That’s what the Magi did in spades.
Missing the Locals
But have you ever noticed that there are some missing characters in this story? And no, I’m not talking about the 75 different kinds of collectible animals that your nativity scene set comes with as long as you upgrade for a special one-time low, low price. The missing characters in this story are the locals. Where are the Jewish leaders? Where are the Jewish wise men who surely noticed that same new star in the sky? Where are the Jewish scholars who told the Magi what town to look in? Where are the locals? They’re missing! No one even came out of curiosity!
That has always shocked me. The Magi were devoted enough to cross a desert with gifts on the chance that they could meet this special baby. The locals couldn’t even be troubled to walk a few miles out of Jerusalem with the Magi to see if they happened to be right. Shocking! The locals are completely absent!
For us, I think an analogy would be a person who is really involved in mission projects overseas but never lifts a finger for the people in their own city. May that not be true of us. May we not be the missing locals.
Because some people show their devotion to Jesus through their service. And everyone’s efforts together make up the ministry of this church.
One way to serve is inside the church. We have a Christian Education committee who oversee children’s ministry, youth ministry, and adult education. We have committees that oversee finances or run the stewardship campaign each year to fuel our church’s ministry. We have pastoral care teams to visit hospitals, to deliver communion, to check in on people around them.
We will be restarting the renovation committee in the next few months to prioritize and help plan renovation projects like replacing the carpet in here, or fixing up the music room with its falling ceiling tiles. Or getting me that zipline from the balcony to the pulpit I’ve always been asking for…just kidding! But seriously, zipline! Think about it!
Others might want to serve in the ways that impact our surrounding community. We have a mission committee that oversees local mission projects like the giving tree, back to school backpacks, the children’s Christmas boxes, and they also invest our resources in our mission partners around the world. The monthly Community Dinner will be restarting at some point this year, and there are tons of ways to contribute for all different kinds of people. We’re continuing to explore ministry with Afghan refugees. We recently learned there will be at least one family resettled very near us, which raises a lot more opportunities than with those being resettled 20 and 30 minutes away. We have a prayer team. We have people who work to support others in their extended neighborhood.
In the first quarter last year we had an online prayer team who recorded audio of themselves praying for people in the community who message our church on Facebook. That connected us personally with so many people in our community, many of whom came on Sunday later on. We need to start that back up if we want to connect with our community. Can you pray for people if I train you how to use the app? That’s an act of devotion, an act of love toward Jesus and toward the people who are hurting in our community.
I don’t want to be the missing locals. I don’t want us to be absent. I want us to show our love, our devotion to Christ by our presence in the community. I want us to matter. Do you? Where can you serve out of devotion to Christ? Because you are the ministry of this church! Contact someone on staff if you want to get involved in one of these ways.
Sisters and brothers, the Magi showed incredible awareness and they also showed incredible devotion to Jesus. It made their soul sing to travel to see Jesus in person and bring their gifts.
That was their devotion to Jesus. What’s yours? Amen.