January 1, 2017

And They Knelt Down and Paid Him Homage

Passage: Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
Service Type:

On 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Most of us have heard “insanity” defined as “to keep on doing the same things while expecting different results.” We stand at the threshold of a new year when perhaps our expectations and high hopes shape a story forming in our minds of what we long to unfold for us in 2017. Maybe we long for a relationship to be restored or begin and hope this is the year. Perhaps it is our employment situation we hope will change. Is it time to retire or to sell the home and move—will this be the right year to act? Some are hoping that upheaval from health problems will dissipate and come to a more manageable level. The leadership gurus all assure us that for things to be different we need to do things differently. But what is that “different” thing that will cause the dream to unfold?

1. I invite you to reflect with me on the story of the Magi who come to pay homage to the child born king of the Jews. Take note of the last sentence. “They left for their own country by another road.” What changed for them so that they have taken another road? To be sure Herod has become a threat to them necessitating another route; but Herod becomes a threat because the Magi come and pay homage to child born king of the Jews. The change for these Magi is the one to whom they now give their allegiance. For Matthew an adequate response to Jesus will finally involve worship of him.

I am not meaning to imply that worship is like a princesses’ magic wand that makes all your dreams come true. At the same time worship of God changes everything. It shapes our minds and imaginations by him who is light and life and is so eternally. While we can never make God serve our agenda we do find in him that his vision for human life is beyond anything we could imagine. Worship of our Lord holds us in the dark moments; keeps us pointed in the direction of the one whose love is fathomless. In worship we find ourselves strengthened by the one who endured the cross and is now enthroned ruling all things.

It is fitting that we are at worship on this the first day of the year. It is to get the year started on the right foot. In our worship we come confessing that Jesus would be our difference. We take joy that he is present in the decisions that are before us and the direction that needs to be discerned. Our Lord has already promised us a future of unimagined blessing that spills over onto us even now. In the journey of the Magi worship changes everything.

2. Another feature of this journey of the Magi I invite you to reflect upon is their eager embrace of the signs that pointed to Jesus. Speaking frankly, it is a wonder that they found Jesus at all given the scarceness of signs. They saw a star and somehow had enough other information to connect the star to a child born king of the Jews. When I think about all the resources available to me in my life that pointed me to Jesus—it seems by comparison these Magi had a few scraps. And yet they came and at great effort and cost.

The Magi point us in the direction of eagerly engaging these resources that bring us to Jesus. The scripture that bears witness to Jesus Christ with much greater clarity that any star could muster at its brightest is within reach every day. The weekly worship service at which our Lord promises his presence as we gather in his name. The presence of believers in our lives who will walk this journey with us joining in the conversation of God at work in our lives. These and many other means provided by God guide us in life to our Lord and his great love for us. May we embrace these means given by God with the eagerness of the Magi.

Jacques Ellul was a twentieth-century French philosopher, professor and theologian. A prolific writer, he authored 58 books and more than a thousand articles in his lifetime. He was a leader in the French resistance during the Second World War; in 2001 he was posthumously awarded the title Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem for his efforts to save Jewish people. In his book The Humiliation of the Word Ellul begins with this frank admission: “I try to do here the same thing I do in all my books: face, alone, this world I live in, try to understand it, and confront it with another reality I live in, but which is utterly unverifiable.” Ellul was convinced of the biblical cosmology that heaven and earth are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. Indeed heaven is not verifiable with earthly measures. But this does not negate its reality. These two dimensions, heaven and earth, overlap; the Christian lives with a foot in each world, so to speak.

I come again to, what seems to me, the scant resources at the Magi’s disposal that point them to Jesus. A star and perhaps access to prophetic writings. What would cause them to make this journey? Were they in the habit of travelling to neighbouring nations to pay their respects when an heir to the throne was born; as rabid baseball fans might do in having a bucket list that includes taking in a baseball game at each major league park? Is this our Magi—making their next stop on some “heir to the throne” tour?

No. The effort for this journey is too massive and too particular. They do not ask to see any of Herod’s children. They are looking for a particular child. The one the Jewish people anticipate as the long promised messiah. It tells me that these Magi were convinced as was Jacques Ellul—there is another reality. This tells me that the reason they come is that God is at work calling them. That God has made himself heard through this scant amount of information, these few signs and is pointing them to Jesus. God is not limited in how God can make Godself known to people; in Jesus Christ God can be known for sure.

We read today from the prophet Isaiah a text that has been connected to this event of the Magi’s visit to the Christ child. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:1-4) In Jesus Christ light has come; the Light of God. Jesus said “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) The Apostle John wrote “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) “For with you is the fountain of life;” declares the Psalmist, “in your light we see light.” (Psalm 36:9)

Apostle and Magi witness the fulfilment of God’s promised spoken through the prophet Isaiah; “your light has come.” As we look forward in the year that is before us with hopes and dreams, uneasiness and worry, God wants us to be assured that light has come—his light, the true light. Worship is, in one way of thinking about it, to gather around this point of light. We come to it with the joys and sorrows typical of humanity and are promised by God that in this light we will see light. Oh, that God’s people were convinced that in Jesus we see light. I can think of no better way to start a year than to gather around this light as we do this morning.

Christians know that these two dimensions of God’s creation intersect here at worship. It is here that the other reality, in Ellul’s words, casts its light on the world of sight and sound. Yes, God’s presence goes with us wherever we are; God is not limited by building or sanctuary. However, as we gather in the name of our Lord Jesus in worship we are promised his presence in a particular way—he comes to meet us for sure. We are told that when the Magi got to the house it was there that they saw the child and paid him homage. To be sure, Jesus is not limited to that house in Israel where the Magi gathered, but he is “in the house” when we gather in his name.

3. Another feature of this journey of the Magi I invite you to reflect on is the witness of their worship. Still today the story of the Magi coming and paying homage to Jesus is bearing fruit in the world. It guides the church to welcome, invite, even look for any who come seeking. Their witness sustains believer’s in encouraging our faith—our homage and presentation of treasures for making our Lord’s name known will bear fruit. Their witness inspires us to Christ who is worthy of the cost of this great journey to find him. We are again assured that in this light we see light.

Your worship today, as Magi’s long ago, is a witness in our world. We read today from the Apostle Paul’s Ephesian letter about his apostleship to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Just as the Magi witness that Jesus came for the world; Jesus was certainly a son of Israel and their Messiah yet this was for the world. Speaking of his commission to the Gentiles Paul wrote, “this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ…; so 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.”

Theologian N.T. Wright offers some helpful background on this text. “There is a book called ‘The Wisdom of Solomon,’ probably written about the time of Jesus. It’s in the ‘apocrypha’ (Jewish books which were valued by Jews of the time, and by the early church, but not considered part of the Old Testament). One of the main themes of this book is a message to pagan rulers: what you need is wisdom! And the place to get wisdom, according to the book, is in respecting the one true God and the people who honour him—in other words, Israel’s God, and the true Israelites.

This can, of course, be turned around as a message to Israel itself. Your task, this message says, is to worship and honour the living God, whatever pagan nations may do to you. Eventually they will realize that true wisdom consists in respecting and honouring this God, and you are to be the sign to them that this is so.

There are several passages in Paul’s writings where he seems to show knowledge of ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’, and this is one of them. (Ephesians 3:8-10) The heart of the present passage is verse 10, which is one or the New Testament’s most powerful statements as the reason for the church’s existence; the rulers and authorities must be confronted with God’s wisdom, in all its rich variety, and this is to happen through the church! Not, we should quickly add, through what the church says, though that is vital as well. Rather, through what the church is, namely, the community in which men, women, and children of every race, colour, social and cultural background come together in glad worship of the one true God.”

Paul speaks of this treasure of wisdom as “the news of the boundless riches of Christ.” “What can appear from the outside as a tedious or humdrum religious existence—all that going to church, people say, all that saying of prayers and trying to be holy!—is in fact meant to be a delighted exploration of untold and inexhaustible riches. Being a Christian is meant to consist of going from room to room in the king’s palace, relishing the beauty and splendour of it all.”

I love Wright’s description of the church’s worship—“going from room to room in the king’s palace, relishing the beauty and splendour of it all.” Our worship witnesses to a world that considers life to one-dimensional of the here and now that there is another reality intersecting ours and that in this light, true light can be seen.

Did you know that Australia is moving? This isn't so surprising—all the continents are on the move, and Australia drifts 70 millimeters to the northeast every year. Geologists tell us that Australia was once connected to both India and Antarctica a long time ago. The continent still drifts away at a rate far too slow for humans to notice. But that journey is now starting to mess with systems that rely on pinpoint accuracy, specifically GPS.

Australian GPS was last updated in 1994, and the entire country has moved a little more than five feet since then. Much of our current technology relies on accurate GPS coordinates. For instance, driverless tractors that help with farm work will start having problems because the information about the farm won't line up with the co-ordinates coming out of the navigation system there will be problems.

Friends there is a light that you can always count on to lead you home even if the world is shifting all around you. “On 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.”
Arise, shine; for your light has come. Happy New Year.