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Sermon: What Took Them So Long? January 6, 2017

January 6, 2017

This sermon was preached at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL, on Epiphany.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus Christ, born in the city of David, our Savior, Messiah, and Lord.

  1. This year, I thought I’d start a new family tradition. I recently took Greta out to do some shopping for Epiphany gifts for the kids. Since Greta was with me, I let her serve as a consultant for her own gift, which ended up being a magic eight ball (and honestly, this would have come in handy for the wise men; “Should we go and see Herod? Outlook not so good”). But I knew what I would buy the boys; they would each be the recipient of a Transformers toy, because I knew they enjoy playing with them. Or, at any rate, I knew that my sons’ father would enjoy playing with them! On the way to the store, Greta asked, “What’s Epiphany?” Rather than slogging my way through etymology or offering up an overly complex theological answer, I told her that Epiphany is the day that the wise men arrived to see Jesus and give him gifts. This was met with silence, until I heard her mutter under her breath, “Geez, what took them so long?!”
  1. A fine question, indeed. What took them so long? Well, they’d had a long way to go, for one thing. And they were delayed in their quest by their need to consult with the authorities in Jerusalem. They did make it, although it’s historically debatable whether they arrived on the twelfth day after Christmas or much, much later. But in spite of my desire to avoid a complex theological question, my daughter’s muttered response was deeply theological. For the coming of the magi from the East is not simply a tale of wise men coming to bring presents to a newborn king. It is the enactment of one of the great themes of Matthew’s telling of the gospel story: the return of the Gentiles to God through a Messiah born not simply for the Chosen People, the Jews, but the story of a Messiah from the Jews born to make all people, all nations, chosen people. While the people of Israel lived in relationship with God, awaiting the promised Messiah, the Gentiles had long since willfully turned their backs on the Creator. What took them so long to come back? Their own sin, their own quest for other gods, their own ignorance despite God’s created, revealed goodness, their own desire, like Herod’s, to keep other people from learning the truth that would be the undoing of their falsely held, tyrannical power.
  1. While the world and its people slogged through the darkness, taking their sweet time to even think about returning to their Creator, God, in the fullness of time, shone a light that the world began to see. Isaiah foretold the coming of this light, and the magi beheld this star of light at its rising. And finally, finally they saw what they didn’t even remember they were looking for. Compelled, they make haste, waiting no longer, to go and find this newborn king. Finding Jesus, they kneel down and offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, a gift fit for a king; incense, a gift worthy of the divine; myrrh, a gift of spices perfect for preparing a body for burial. In their gifts, the magi perfectly capture the identity of this baby Jesus, a kingly God who has come to die for his people and for their salvation. There is a greater gift they give, however, more important that what they unpack from their treasure chests. For the purpose of their visit, a purpose repeated three times in our reading tonight, is to give Jesus the gift of homage, of worship and reverence as they kneel down. They worship, for they are waiting no longer. Their king, the true king, has been born to bring light to the world.
  1. The people of this world continue to take their time, looking elsewhere or simply not bothering to look at all for God in our midst. Our world continues to seek answers in the darkness rather than open its eyes to the light. Our world continues to be held in thrall by petty Herods, too enmeshed in their own quest for power to understand that true power looks more like love and sacrifice than strong-armed might and oppression. And yet the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, will not, overcome it. Jesus our king, Jesus our God, Jesus the crucified and risen, is here. We live in an ongoing epiphany, as God in Christ shows forth and shines forth the light of the heaven into our earth. Will we come to pay Jesus homage in our living?
  1. It is tempting to continue to ask, “What are people waiting for? Why do they fail to see what we see?” Perhaps they are waiting for us. After all, while God may yet put signs of light in the night sky, we cannot depend upon it. Jesus, in John’s Gospel declares, “I am the Light of the world.” But in Matthew’s telling of the story, Jesus turns to the crowds on the mountainside in his great sermon and says, “You are the light of the world.” We, my friends, are the stars placed in the night sky; we are the lamps that are not to be hidden under bushel baskets; we are the city on a hill, shining bright for the world to see. We are the ones who are not to wait, but to shine brightly light to all nations, witnessing to the love that triumphs over any King Herod that might emerge in this or any other day.
  1. We have gathered this night in the darkness to worship Jesus. This night marks a transition that is more than a simple function of the calendar; it is the night when we let go of the Christmas season and hear God’s call to worship Jesus, both by kneeling at his presence to pay homage and by returning home to let the light of Christ shine brightly in our lives for all to see. It’s hard to say what’s taking others so long; let it not take us too long to shine the light and the life of Christ into this darkened world that so desperately needs the crucified God who is King over all creation. We don’t need a magic eight ball to tell us what to do, and Jesus has already transformed us. So arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Amen.

And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, today and forever. Amen.

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