Rev. Sammie Maxwell
COTC “FOR ALL the World”
My OT professor use to say “In order to be a good Christian, we must first be a good Jew.” He meant that in order to truly grasp/understand the NT, its stories and theology, we must first know, at least, a few things about the OT stories and theology; something about Judaism.
I hope that you could hear in the OT reading from Isaiah 60 some things that made you think about the church season we are celebrating the beginning of today on this Epiphany Sunday. Although the actual date of Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, was this past Friday, the season of Epiphany will last until Transfiguration Sunday, which is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, followed by five Sundays of Lent, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and then Easter Sunday. I also hope that the Isaiah passage made you think about the wise men from Matthew 2. Some scholars say that Matthew gets the story line and plot from Isaiah 60. So today, we need to be good OT scholars, in other words, good Jews like my OT teacher suggested, in order to understand Matthew 2, our NT lesson.
Isaiah 60 is a very old poem recited/taught over and over to Jews in Jerusalem about 600 years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king. Sometime around 580 BCE, the Jews were sent away from Jerusalem into exile for generations. When they returned to Jerusalem, things were a mess. We can only imagine what it would be like to be taken away from the land we love. On the nightly news when I see pictures of Ukraine, it makes me think that must have been what Jerusalem looked like when the Jewish people returned from exile.
But this amazing poet wrote in Isaiah 60 of a vision for the depressed, discouraged contemporaries to give hope. Hear his words: “Arise, shine—for your light has come and the glory will appear over you.” The poet preached of a proposed future for Jerusalem. “Nations shall come to your light.” Specifically, the poet imagined great travelers flowing to Jerusalem: “Nations shall come to your light. “And that is where Matthew gets the idea of “three orientals on camels bringing exotic goods, especially rare spices, gold, and frankincense, proclaiming and praising God.” It is this story of the wise men and their journey that underlines that Jesus is God’s revelation to all the whole world. Jesus is God’s revelation for all the world.
But maybe you’re not interested in being a good Jew or a good Christian; maybe you just have some questions you’d like answered. After all, Matthew is the only one of the four gospel writers who records these guys’ journey. How sure can we be that it actually took place? My caution is that the value of the story hardly depends on its historical accuracy. Coffin says “THE STORY DOESN’T SO MUCH ENTHRONE THE CHRIST CHILD AS THE CHILD ENTHRONES THE STORY.” It is not that the facts don’t matter. It is just that they don’t matter as much as the stories do. Stories can make a point or teach a truth whether they happen or not. Our job is to listen to the story. To let it come to life inside of us, and then decide on the basis of our own tears or laughter whether the story is true or can have meaning and value for us. If you still have doubts, it is a good idea to watch other people who have listened to the story and see how it affects them. Does it open them up or shut them down? Does it increase their capacity for joy and love? Does it increase their capacity for gift giving? Giving of kindness and/or money?
The point was, something beyond these men was calling them, and it was a tug they had been waiting for all their lives. Just as a poet wrote Isiah 60, I see Matthew 2 not as a work of art but rather the work of a great preacher. Ponder the truths that Matthew manages to express in 12 short verses. 1) the truth that people come from far and wide and by many different ways to see the babe and worship the Christ child. Remember, Isaiah 60 says “Nations shall come to your light.” 2) The truth that no place is too lowly or too awful for the worship of God. Elie Wiesel tells the story of suffering in the death camp and hearing people pray and sing. 3)As knowledge grows so does love grow. As we learn more and more (I hope each Sunday) our love for Christ grows.
And then there is that whole thing about the star—God’s sign high in the night sky over Bethlehem calling to our deepest longing to find our own way. The star is for Matthew a miracle, directed behind the scene by God. A longing so deep it can only be answered from beyond earth. A star sign that begs us not to travel just for the sake of travel, but to be on the journey for the sake of the destination God has set for us as surely as the wise guys. Don’t be like the Jerusalemites who never even looked up to see the star until strangers from a distant land pointed it out to them.
And after the arrival in Jerusalem King Herod questioned them about where this King of the Jews is located. And he called the Chief priest and scribes also and asked them the same question. Then there is the apparent indifference of the chief priest and scribes—the so-called religious leaders of the day. You would have thought they would have been excited about the fulfillment of prophecy; you’d think they would have wanted to join the wise men on the last leg of the journey all of 6 miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but that was not the case. After meeting with Herod, the star that had patiently waited for them led them to Bethlehem. So that is where they went. And after giving their gifts, they fell down and worshipped him. Because they know he had come for all the world.
These wise men would not be going home through Jerusalem, the way King Herod had told them to do; they would go home by another way and do what we are asked to do—share with all the world what they had learned and experienced in their journey. And so they did! And just as their story goes on bringing hope to all the world, so when we share our stories and our understanding of the stories, we bring hope. Thanks to an old poet from Israel and a tax collector named Matthew. Amen.