THE GIFT THAT FITS ALL
Dear Christian friends,
Travel at Christmas is typical. According to the American Automobile Association, 91.9 million Americans traveled from December 23, 2013 to January 2, 2014. They said this was the most holiday travel in a decade. The highest goes back to 2006 when 93.65 million people traveled. That was pre-recession.
Many in our congregation traveled. A few people traveled here. We met family members from our church we have never seen before. When I was a kid, December 24th after church meant going to my oldest brother’s house for Christmas Eve. On the 25th, my family traveled about 50 miles one way in the late afternoon for Christmas at my maternal grandparent’s house and all the aunts and uncles and cousins. On December 26th we packed up the car and went 50 miles one way to an uncle and aunt’s house on my father’s side and had Christmas there. My Dad’s parents died relatively young but there were eight brothers and sisters.
Travel is a big deal at Christmas; it was a big deal on the First Christmas. Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census. The shepherds traveled in from the fields to the manger in Bethlehem to worship Jesus. The Wise Men (the subject of this sermon today) traveled from lands far away to be part of the First Christmas celebration.
The journey of the Wise Men is what is commemorated on January 6th, the Epiphany of Jesus. Their journey was truly worth it. They found “The Gift That Fits All.” 1) He saves all; 2) He is worthy of the praise of all.
There are interesting people and places that are part of the Christmas story. Let’s start with the Magi. That word is somewhat indefinite in its meaning as you trace its etymology. It is fair to say they were wise and well educated. Many say they were astrologers. Astrology is based on the premise that there is a relationship between astronomical phenomena and events in the human world. That was the reason they were attracted to the star in the sky that singled out Jesus’ birth.
The Wise Men were anything but locals from the city of Jerusalem. They are called “Magi from the East.” The East has been identified as any country from Arabia to Media and Persia, but no further east than that. The beloved Christmas carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are” would place them far too east. We refer to China as the Orient or the Far East. They were not that far away.
Tradition says there were three. We don’t know that either. That’s probably because of the gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. In other words, one gift – one giver! Some earlier traditions intimate that there was a great caravan and number the Wise Men as many as twelve. Legend also supplies the names of Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. There are even legends that say they were sixty, forty, and twenty as well as representing three skin colors - white, yellow and black. But these names and traditions are found in the sixth century – too distant to consider them to be authentic.
The evidence points to a Babylonian or Persian origin. They were priests and sages who were specialists in medicine, religion, astronomy, astrology, divination.
Whatever their origin the visit from these Magi is of great significance, they were pagan. They were not Jews. They were Gentiles. They worshipped Jesus just like those shepherds did. They were the beginnings of outreach to the people of this world. Isaiah 60 says, “And Gentiles will come to see your light and kings the brightness of your rising.”
January 6th is considered the Epiphany. It is from the Greek word meaning ‘revelation’ or ‘manifestation.’ Jesus manifested himself to be the Savior of the world – not just the local Jews in Bethlehem or Judah or even for the Jewish people. He is the Savior of all. Epiphany is correctly dubbed the “Gentile Christmas.” Jesus is the gift that fits all.
He is therefore worthy to be praised by all. Let’s look at the star. It appeared in the skies to lead the Magi to the place where Jesus lay. People have tried to figure out what that was that appeared in the sky. Some have said that it was a planetary conjunction in which Saturn and Jupiter came very close together. Scientists say the timing is pretty close to right for that to happen. Others say it might have been a comet. Historians have said that there was a blood red comet that seems to have appeared around that time. Maybe it was simply a special star that the Almighty God provided to serve as a sign to mark the birth of the most important person who ever lived – the long expected Savior Jesus Christ.
The Hebrews should have expected a star as a sign of the Savior of all. Balak was the king who wanted to obliterate the Jews. He hired a prophet Balaam who was supposed to curse the Jews. The Lord would allow him. Instead he spoke blessings of them. One was a blessing about the Savior of all. “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”
There is another interesting character who was part of the Christmas story – King Herod. We spoke about him last week. He is really the villain – the monster of it all. He ruled Israel a long time. Some would say he ruled far too long. Psychologists would have field day trying to figure him out. He did some very selfless things for the Jews. He groomed the land. He liked to build things. He built aqueduct to provide water for Jerusalem. He was most famous for rebuilding the Great Temple in the city of Jerusalem even though he did not have any use for the religion that was practiced there.
There was very little love between the people of Jerusalem and Herod. He had ten wives and all kinds of children. He murdered his sons because he was afraid that they would take his kingdom.
Yet look how close he was to Christ and still didn’t believe. There are people like that in the Bible. Think of Pharaoh who was a witness to all the miracles that God did for the people of Israel, but he still didn’t believe in the Lord. How about Judas? He was with Christ and saw the miracles. He was also sent out two by two and Jesus empowered him to do some himself. He even preached the Gospel. He had all kinds of opportunities and yet the last words about him in the Bible are these, “It would have been better if he had not been born.”
There are countless who have been raised in Christian families, children who have gone to Christian Day Schools, people who have made vows before the altar of the Lord to remain faithful to Jesus for the rest of their lives but are not any better than Herod or Pharaoh or Judas.
This past week my family attended the funeral of my brother. My brother was very active in the town and community and church where he lived. Hundreds and hundreds of people came to pay their respects. I saw lots of people I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager were there. Church was a big part of our lives. It was center in the community in which we lived. But when I started to ask questions about them and their lives, the Lord was missing from a lot of them. I had gone to Sunday School with them and was confirmed with them. The Lord is worthy of our worship all of our lives. We need to persevere. .
Yet all of us are potential candidates to be apostates. We are all candidates for dropping out and not making it to the finish line. The warning is clear. Don’t push the Lord out of your life. The Word and sacrament is how the Spirit keeps the fires of faith burning. Don’t quench the fires by apathy and indifference or by willful sins that callous hearts.
But why didn’t Herod believe? He had his own agenda. That agenda was very worldly. He didn’t want to hear talk about another king. In fact, he felt threatened. But what good did that do? Did he think that his will was going to win out over the will of God?
We often shake our fist at God when his agenda doesn’t fit ours. I remember hearing a lady say at a mine disaster that she would no longer believe in God any more. What good did that do? Is God supposed to think it all over and say he made a mistake? Rather, that’s the time to be saying, “Who has known the mind of God and who can act as his Counselor?”
The star was certainly majestic and glorious, and it guided the Wise Men to Jerusalem. But note carefully what comes next. Herod got all the religious experts together. They went to the Word to find out what that all meant. They read from the prophet Micah, “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'" The word revealed where the newborn king was to be born and what kind of king he would be. He would shepherd his people. He came to be the shepherd of a lot of lost sheep. For “we all like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” He came to rule like a gentle shepherd and take care of his sheep. That’s what kind of king he was.
They came to worship him. The word ‘worship’ is used three times in these verses. We use the word a lot. We have worship services. We advertise worship services. But I am not sure there are too many people who always know what it means. I like the meaning: Worship is when the people of God meet with God, but God also meets with his people. That was true there. Jesus came to this earth to meet with people – the Wise Men and others, but the Wise Men and others came to meet him too.
Notice the different aspects of their worship. Matthew says, “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” The original says “they rejoiced with extreme joy.” It is kind of like they rejoiced to the third power. They were happy? And why not? This was their Savior. Why not be joyful? Why not sing out “Joy to the World?” The Savior is born. He is real! He came to save. There has got to be joy!
There is another aspect of worship – sacrifice. Look how far these Wise Men came to worship. They came hundreds of miles to be with the Lord. The journey probably took a couple of months to complete. It really makes some of our reasons not to worship seem lame and silly, don’t they, when we have a few miles to come to church. There is another aspect of sacrifice. Notice the gifts that they brought. “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” While God doesn’t expect expensive gifts, he does deserve the best ones – ones that we are willing to sacrifice. They demonstrate how much we love him.
One last thought. Until the Wise Men, the story of Jesus was localized. The shepherds were local, the Wise men were not. The shepherds were Jewish, the Wise Men were not. The shepherds were the blood collar, the Wise men the blue bloods. The lesson is simple. God shows no favoritism. He wants all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. He is the gift that fits all.