Sharers in the Promise, January 5, 2020

Sharers in the Promise

Isaiah 60:1-6, Ps. 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

The Rev. Richard E. Edwards, guest preacher

Catskill United Methodist Church; January 5, 2020

The visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus is quite the wonderful story. It's not just the colorful garb we envision, modeled at our annual pageants by our children and youth. It's not even just the costly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These Magi (that's the word Matthew uses), who come from Persia (today's Iran), are the ancient world's scientists. They studied the movements of the heavenly bodies to try to fathom the unfolding of events in their world. True, few of us buy their theories nowadays (astrology, basically). But they were highly regarded in the ancient world for their deep wisdom and extensive knowledge. And they discerned in a new star a world-changing event, prompting them to make a long and probably risky journey! Apparently the Magi were familiar with Judaism's expectation of an anointed savior who would make the world a better place, and recognized truth in that hope. At the same time, these important visitors to the Kingdom of Judaea were wise enough to recognize the limits of their understanding, and therefor consulted Jewish wisdom regarding the location of the expected holy birth. They also were capable of discovering wisdom in dreams. They wisely changed their return journey plans as wisdom dictated. They were joyous as they pay homage to the newborn king. Advised by an angel, they then steered clear of a second meeting with King Herod, taking a route home that bypassed Jerusalem, his royal seat.

We also want to notice that Matthew's birth story, like that of Luke, foreshadows later developments in the work of Jesus. Christ's advent is here announced by a light shining from the heavens. His resurrected ministry will proclaim the gospel to every nation. John says it is designed to draw the whole world to himself. Jesus' arrival on the scene threatens King Herod's hold on power. His ministry will threaten Herod's successors in power—kings worry about succession. So Herod threatens Jesus' life before it really gets started. Herod's successors will in fact take his life. But Christ's advent is marked by wise men of other lands. His resurrection ministry will inform the wise of the whole world. When the wise meet Jesus, they go home by different way. When those of future generations meet him in faith, they, too, will go home by a different way—the way of love and justice. Matthew's story (and Luke's) is code for all that will hear the good news and follow.

So we can understand why the Church has from the beginning celebrated the Epiphany as the revealing of Christ the Savior to the whole wide world, including gentiles like us, and also revealing the Church as his risen body continuing the same ministry to the whole wide world. It's not a ministry for anyone's private enjoyment. It's not a ministry to be contained and protected in a cozy little community. It's not a ministry for the illuminati, enlightened insiders. It's a ministry for everyone. It is to be shared and extended everywhere through the witness to the Light that has come into the world, just as his coming was seen by the Magi in the brightness of that new star. (If there was a new and bright star in the heavens when he was born, it was probably a supernova. These are the stellar explosions that produce the heavy elements that make life possible.) The coming to him of the Magi is not a simple act of reverence by three (or two or four) extraordinary human beings from a foreign land, but a symbol of the coming to him of peoples from every land—for his revelation to the Gentiles (a biblical word for the non-Jewish nations of the world). This revelation would not always be easy. Martyrs would die for bearing witness to Christ, just as the innocent children died in Bethlehem. They would die because Herod is not alone. Ruling power structures everywhere have found the teachings of Jesus Christ impossible to abide: valuing the least and the lost, turning the other cheek, giving assistance to those in need no matter what, staying the hand of the executioners, making a priority of healing and wholeness, and valuing the divine power of truth.

Paul in Ephesians asserts that his call is to proclaim the mystery of Christ to the Gentiles, to the nations, and that is what he did. He also underlines that it is the Church's responsibility to continue to proclaim Christ to all the world. The Church not only is to proclaim salvation from sin and death in Jesus, but also to continue his work of naming wrongs and promoting love through the structures of society. Revealing the mystery to the powers and principalities in heavenly places means challenging the ideologies and belief systems that dominate human life in society insofar as they go against Jesus' teachings. Reaching the whole world with the marvelous mystery of Jesus Christ and his love—that is the Church's challenge.

What could that mean for us? What part do we and might we play in reaching the whole world with this mystery? The Church has always done it, but hasn't always done a good job of it. We do lots of effective work supporting others:

We offer meeting space for recovery groups, Boy Scouts, a dance school, a Head Start program for families with young children. We offer stellar worship and amazing music. We feed people a tremendous amount of good food, at a very reasonable price. Cross-Stitchers make useful things for people who need them. We host the Red Cross blood drive several times a year. We fundraise to support missions and a local food pantry. We offer Treble Choraliers space for rehearsal and performances. We assemble clean-up kits UMCOR distributes where there's been a natural catastrophe.

Through our apportionments we support the work of the Church around our region, country, and world, sending missionaries, organizers, educators, doctors, nurses, and more. We help educate the U.S. Congress and government departments about needs and problems our missionaries encounter abroad.

Are we doing everything we could be doing? I doubt it. We're certainly doing everything we have learned how to do and want to keep doing. But the incredible scope of God's work in the world making known the mystery hidden for the ages but now revealed in Christ demands more from us, more of us. More of our heart and soul. What we can do with our giving is one thing. We could do more with our personal witness, through mission, through service, through prayer.

What else might we do? You've probably seen or heard the news circulating this weekend. A gathering of United Methodist leaders organized by the bishops has proposed a divorce of the United Methodist Church's traditionalist and moderate wings. We've been at loggerheads over human sexuality for too long. The divorce will allow both sides to focus on the work of proclaiming the good news rather than fighting with each other. And then, 30 or 50 years from now, once our disagreement becomes ancient history and the issues have settled down, we can unite again as we reunited in 1939 and 1968.

Is there even more we could do? I believe proclaiming to the nations the mystery of Christ means thinking globally, not just locally. Right here we could broaden our horizons by sending a group of our own on a mission trip. They would get to know other peoples and other churches, and learn from their wisdom as the Apostle Paul himself did. We could refuse to be caught up in a narrow nationalism that dismisses people from other lands and cultures, and embrace a faith that builds bridges over the deep chasm of difference. All peoples are worthy of our care and involvement, and real mission involvement grows churches. Is there more? Wouldn't it be appropriate for us to take seriously the proclamation of the heavenly host to the shepherds on the hills near Bethlehem: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all, toward whom God wills good.” We might look into the world United Methodist Church's involvement in peacemaking efforts and hook up with them, proclaiming by our actions that our faith is indeed invested in the Prince of Peace.

Friends, you and I all love Jesus. We've come to know him as our personal Savior and friend. We can rely on his help when we face sickness, death, and horrendous loss. We can look to him for encouragement in our relationships and our work. Truly he is with us all the day long, as the shadows lengthen and our day is done. We live placing our trust in him. But we are in danger of thinking him too small. Your God Is Too Small was the title of a book that made a big impact on the Church over half a century ago. Maybe our Jesus is too small. Have we locked him in the closet where we can go and be with him when we need him? Don't we need to throw open that door and let him out of the closet? Let's allow him to guide us in doing our part to recognize and extend the Kingdom of God that he inaugurated. He calls us to be transformed not just for ourselves, but so that the world might better reflect the grace and love of God for all peoples. John Wesley teaches us that our ministry is to spread scriptural holiness across the land—the holiness of the reign of God, of justice, peace, and reconciliation. This is our ministry, too, and the world is our parish. We have brought our gifts to the house in Bethlehem and paid homage to the newborn King. Now we need to go home by a new way, and not get caught in Herod's fear and self-protectiveness. That's what the angel is telling us in our dream. We are to go home by a better way, faithful to the mystery God has revealed to us. Amen.

 

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.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

1Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.

2May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.

3May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.

4May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

5May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.

6May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.

7In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more….

10May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.

11May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.

12For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.

13He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.

14From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.

Ephesians 3:1-12

3This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— 2for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, 3and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, 4a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. 5In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 6that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 7Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. 8Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

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.

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