“God With Us”
(From Matthew 2: 1-12)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; or from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.” When 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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.
Today, we celebrate Epiphany, the visitation of the Wise Men, or Magi, from the East to pay homage the Christ-child, Jesus. Epiphany occurs on January 6, but is traditionally celebrated on the first Sunday of the New Year. Epiphany means “manifestation,” and the one who was made manifest to us was Emmanuel-God with us.
The Wise Men were noblemen from Eastern regions in Ancient Persia. They were Magi, priests believed to be of a religious sect known as Zoroastrians. This was a well-known ancient religious sect. They were highly regarded for their knowledge and study of the sciences astronomy and astrology, both in their own country as well as in other lands. These were people of wealth who followed the new star that arose at the time of Jesus birth. They knew of Jewish prophecy regarding the coming of a promised Messiah, and they traveled to Bethlehem with gifts to pay homage to the one born King of the Jews. Scripture does not reveal the actual number of Magi who traveled to visit Jesus, but our tradition numbers them at three, likely due to the three precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh they presented to him.
Celebrating Epiphany, the manifestation or incarnation of God the Son in human flesh, this year reminded me that the Wise Men were not, themselves, Jews. They were not among the tribes of ancient Hebrew people to whom the Messiah was promised. Yet they had a unique perspective about and understanding of who this child was born to be.
Seeing differing perspectives can be important to us. This week, Peter and I watched the movie Vantage Point. We enjoy the action and suspense genre in movies, and this one did not disappoint us. It is a movie about an assassination attempt made on the president of the United States, as seen through the viewpoint of several of the people attending the speaking event. Each of them had a unique “vantage point” from which they viewed the day’s events. Sigourney Weaver played the role of the media supervisor who oversaw the televised camera images the public was provided of the event. Dennis Quaid played a Secret Service man who was protecting the President at the engagement. Forrest Whitaker played a spectator with a phone camera who was photographing the crowd and surrounding area, as well as the stage where the speaking event took place. There were also several roles of co-conspirators who participated in the assassination attempt. Each of them had a unique perspective of the events surrounding the assassination attempt on the President that day, and the movie timeframe was reset to show the events from each of their various vantage points. I won’t spoil the movie outcome for those who have not seen it, but its action and intrigue continue until its conclusion.
As I was thinking about the vantage points of the characters in this movie, and their contribution to the plot, I was drawn to consider the many unique vantage points authors of the Bible share about Jesus. When we view them together as a corpus, a whole, we then see a bigger and truer picture of Jesus through all who knew of him and who interacted with him when he dwelt among us. For example, the prophecies of the authors of the Book of Isaiah share many messages about the coming of the promised Messiah and his fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation to a people much in need of good news. Isaiah includes prophetic messages spoken in the generations of the 8th-6th Centuries before Christ. These are the prophetic words that the Wise Men likely had heard, and whose messianic message they well understood. Isaiah 9: verses 2 and 6 share these prophetic words, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of great darkness-on them light has shined. For a child is born for us, a son given to us; authority rests on his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 60 verse 8 reveals, “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 proclaim the praise of the Lord.” So, the Wise Men observed the sign of the new star’s dawning in the heavens, and they came to Bethlehem to honor the one prophets foretold to be the King of the Jews.
Amazingly, many others who give us important perspectives about Jesus also were not Jews. The Syro-Phoenician woman who approached Jesus for a healing for her demon-possessed child is a prime example. The Gospels tell us that Jesus encountered her when traveling to minister in the regions of Tyre and Sidon. Matthew describes the woman as a Canaanite, and Mark as a Syro-Phoenician gentile-she was not one of the children of Israel. She was simply a desperate mother who saw Jesus heal others and came to him for help. Jesus challenged her unusual request, stating that he had come to the children of Israel. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs” Jesus said to her. “Yes, Lord,” she answered persistently, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” “Woman,” Jesus answered her, “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” This encounter reveals to us, as it did to his on-looking Disciples and followers, that Jesus’ mercy and grace, like God’s plan of salvation itself, are for all who believe in him. This same message comes through loud and clear for us in similar stories of Jesus’ encounters with the Samaritan woman of ill repute at the well, and with the Roman Century Guard whose servant was ill and in need of healing. Each of them, although not of Jewish decent, saw what Jesus was doing, and displayed a belief in Jesus that compelled him to meet them at their point of need. This foreshadows for us that Jesus’ coming into the world was what the Angel of the Lord had spoken to the shepherds on the night when Jesus was born, “good news of great joy for all people”.
Take heart, Church, there were also some faithful Jews who recognized who Jesus was. Nicodemus was a Jewish Pharisee, who, fearing retribution from the other Pharisees, came to see Jesus in secret at night. Nicodemus was familiar with both the times and the ancient prophecies about the Messiah. He determined that this Jesus who was preaching, making disciples and performing many signs among the people deserved some further time and attention. The knowledge and authority with which Jesus spoke truth about who he was to Nicodemus convinced him that Jesus was the one “sent from God.”
Finally, perhaps the greatest story of a faith conversion into belief in Jesus as the Son of God among us is that of the Pharisee Saul, whose humble commission to spread good news about Jesus we read from the Book of Ephesians today. Saul was also a Pharisee ruling over the Jewish people during the time of Jesus. He was a contemporary of Nicodemus, and one who did not see in Jesus the “one sent from God” that Nicodemus had seen. Instead, he persecuted all those who were followers of this new non-traditional “Way” of Jesus. He was struck blind on the road to Damascus, where he was traveling with letters to the Synagogues in order to persecute those accused of being Jesus’ followers. The risen Jesus spoke to him, while he was blinded on that road, convincing Saul that he had been wrong in not believing in Jesus as the promised Messiah for himself. Saul became the Apostle Paul, and he spent the rest of his life bringing good news and founding new churches of Jesus Christ throughout the Empire of his day. His prolific writing provides much of what we know about the early years and teachings of the Church.
From all of these differing vantage points, and from the many others who shared the faith and stories that form our Holy Scriptures, we see how Jesus profoundly changed human history—a change for believing Jews and Gentiles alike. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us and among us, healing us still. His work of building the kingdom of God continues on through us by the power of his Spirit living in us. That, dear church, makes all the difference in the world to us. Just as Jesus revealed to Nicodemus, we too have the assurance of this eternal truth, “For God so loved the world that [God] he gave [God’s] his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Emmanuel, Emmanuel, his name is called Emmanuel. God with us, revealed in us, his name is called Emmanuel. Amen, let it be so.