Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus. Amen. Dear friends in Christ:
When Jesus was born, the message of his birth was first announced to shepherds. We heard about it on Christmas Eve. The announcement was given by angels, who appeared in the heavens… first one, and then a whole company of the heavenly host, praising God and singing. What a site! What an announcement!
Angels singing to shepherds may seem like a strange and unique way to announce a birth. It’s certainly more elaborate than a card in the mail or a Facebook post. But this child was the promised Messiah. Angels and shepherds were actually kind of fitting. After all, angels had always been the messengers of God’s announcements to His people. And shepherds had always played important roles among God’s people too.
Today, on Epiphany Sunday, we think about the second announcement of Jesus’ birth—one that God gave sometime later. This announcement was done in a much more subtle and surprising way. Instead of angels singing in the sky there is a star making a brief appearance. Instead of shepherds in a field keeping watch over their flocks by night there are wise men, Magi from the East, watching the heavens for signs.
I described this announcement as more subtle and surprising than the first, and in a way, that is true. Yet that’s really only a matter of perspective. Israel may not have been looking for an astrological sign, but many others were. It’s actually not so surprising that God used something that spoke to the curiosity and beliefs of these seekers to make His announcement of divine action. In the same way, Israel may not have expected foreigners to be a part of its salvation story, since their prophets had so often emphasized their need for separation from all that was foreign. But now God was doing a new thing.
God’s new thing was to come to earth as the promised Messiah, to be a king for all people, and to establish a kingdom, not of this world, but for the life of the world.
This new thing, surprising as it was, should not actually have been that surprising, for it, too, was prophesied in the scriptures. We read one of those scriptures as our Old Testament reading today, from Isaiah chapter 60: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you.”
When God led the wise men to visit the baby Jesus, He was declaring that this prophecy was now coming true. The nations were coming to Israel—to its king, who had come for all people.
We need to understand how big a change this is. People aren’t coming to Israel’s light just to visit because they are curious. They are coming to worship. The picture here is of acceptance and conversion; of integration and joining together. Isaiah says in his prophecy: “Your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.” These people coming from afar are family—sons and daughters, born of a new reality.
The call of God’s people, now that Messiah is here, is not to wall off the world but to welcome the world, and to change the world.
This teaching becomes evident as the life of Jesus the Messiah unfolds. Yes, he first establishes himself by ministering primarily to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But his eye is always on the nations. Jesus will make this clear in his commission—his last words to his disciples. “Go and make disciples of all nations… baptizing them in the Triune Name and teaching them to obey all that is commanded.” When Messiah comes, the age of mission is upon us.
Sadly, when the wise foreigners came to King Herod and told him of the newborn king, he did not rejoice but was greatly troubled.
Herod didn’t want a new king to be born. He was the king. It’s good to be the king! He saw king Jesus as a threat, not a help.
Which should lead us to ask… what about us? Do we see king Jesus as a threat instead of a help?
Herod was “troubled,” says the text. It seems to me that we are sometimes troubled by King Jesus as well. Like Herod, we all have a desire to be sovereign over what we perceive to be ours—our earnings, our bodies, our choices. We want to be a king. We want to have the last say about what is right and wrong, not listen to King Jesus. We want to do what is best for ourselves alone, not conform to the will of King Jesus.
The text tells us that it wasn’t just King Herod who was troubled by news of the new king. “All Jerusalem” was as well. This is a curious statement because in many ways Jerusalem would have welcomed a new king. The chief priests and the scribes knew about the prophecies which spoke of the coming king, so they should be excited about that, right? And as much as King Herod had done for the people—building the Temple and other great public works—Herod had done these things by selling out to Rome and ruthlessly guarding his own personal power by killing any who were a threat to him. What’s more, Herod was not even an ethnic Jew. His father was an Edomite. His rule was very troubling to many.
Some see the reference to “all Jerusalem being troubled” as simply a way of referring to the chaos to be caused by the troubled king. When the troubled King starts swinging, others will get hurt, right? That’s probably true. But I see the “all Jerusalem” reference as saying more than this. I see it as indicating a city that has made peace with the ways of the world. Herod may be awful, but he’s done some good things for us. Herod’s rule may not conform to the teachings of the scriptures but he got me a job.
Herod’s kingship was based on the principle: “the end justifies the means.” He was a king who embodied the saying: “I did it my way.” Israel seemed to think this was “as good as it gets.” How sad when people settle for a kingdom like this. But that’s what happens in the world.
My brothers and sisters, we must not make our peace with the way of the world. Life this way is not fair for all and it’s not Godly. There is a better way—the Kingdom of Jesus. When Jesus is King in your life, you look past the comfort and security of “all Jerusalem” and open yourself instead to the things God is doing to care for everyone. Jesus is a King for all people. Jesus is a king who brings benefit to all. Let us not be troubled by this king but embrace him.
Jesus the King – to use the words of Isaiah—brings light into our dark world. “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” said the prophet. “Behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light; kings to the brightness of your rising.”
When we say that Jesus is a king for all people, I realize that some people will get the wrong idea. They will see this as primarily a message to benefit the messengers. They think the people preaching it are doing so in order to control, rule and dominate others—as an earthly king and his kingdom might do. But this is not what our mission is all about. The kingdom of Jesus is different. Again, we turn to the words of the prophet Isaiah, who says: “The Lord will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you.” The kingdom of Jesus, you see, is where God’s glory is seen upon the redeemed.
God’s glory, as seen in King Jesus, is the glory of the cross. It is the glory of sacrifice, of suffering, of caring for the needs of others. It is the glory that redeems. Christ Jesus has redeemed us by dying on the cross for our sins. We who have been redeemed are now empowered to show forth Christ’s glory. We have been shown mercy, so we are merciful. We have been loved, so we love. We have been forgiven, so we forgive. God’s glory will be seen upon the redeemed. That is the kingdom of Jesus.
The kingdom of Jesus is also one where gifts will be given and shared. Isaiah prophecies this when he says: “The abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A 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 bring good news, the praises of the Lord.”
In the kingdom of Jesus, we bring gifts to God, and God in turn blesses and distributes these gifts in ways that transforms hearts. These gifts help people to arise and shine when things look dark. These gifts tell people of their redemption when they are troubled by their sin. These gifts remind us all that King Jesus is ruling our world. The Herods of the world will lie, steal and wreak havoc for a time, but God will save those who turn to Him.
What great joy there is when the nations of the world see God’s light and come together to give and share gifts. The wise men from the east did this for the newborn Christ-child. We today do it as we worship, praise and make peace with one another through the power of Christ.
The hymn we are about to sing reminds us that “He who offers heavenly birth seeks not the kingdoms of the earth.” Jesus seeks people. That He may guide us, teach us, encourage us, empower us… and save us. As the wise men did so many years ago, let us offer him our gifts, and fall down to worship him. Amen.