Sermon for the Epiphany of our Lord

Text: Matthew 2:2-3a,7,9-12

Some men who studied the stars came from the East to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the baby born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star when it came up in the east, and we have come to worship him."
When King Herod heard about this, he was very upset, and so was everyone else in Jerusalem.

So Herod called the visitors from the East to a secret meeting and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem with these instructions: "Go and make a careful search for the child; and when you find him, let me know, so that I too may go and worship him."

And so they left, and on their way they saw the same star they had seen in the East. When they saw it, how happy they were, what joy was theirs! It went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him. Then they returned to their country by another road, since God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod.

Born into a violent world

What a contrast! The picture that St Luke gives in his account of the birth of Jesus is one that is peaceful and calm. The only negative element in Luke’s Christmas story is the fact that there was no room for the heavily pregnant Mary and her husband in the inn.
Luke gives us a Christmas card picture of a tiny newborn child who was wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a manger.
He tells us about angels visiting shepherds out in the fields with the joyful news and then the shepherds visiting the Christ-child.
He gives us a picture of the shepherds joyfully singing all the way back to their sheep and telling everyone they came across what they had seen and heard.

Matthew, on the hand, sets the birth of Jesus on a background of violence. Let’s look at Matthew’s version of the Christmas story.

Firstly, we are told that Jesus was born "during the time when Herod was king (Matt 2:1). Immediately Matthew’s reader heard this, they realised that Jesus was born during the reign of one of Judea’s blackest kings. History tells us that Herod the Great, as he is known, was a ruthless and evil king. He was appointed "king of Judea" by the Romans. The Jews didn't think much of him because he was only partly Jewish. The Romans, on the other hand, were suspicious of him because he was partly Jewish.

A tough position to be in. To maintain his position he was a tough ruler. He instilled fear into his people so that they would offer him allegiance. He had to maintain order in the nation of the Jews. If he didn't, Rome would send in its armies, and remove him from the throne. He was always fearful that someone would take away his privileged position. He had 3 of his sons tried and executed for treason, his wife Mariamne, as well as numerous other relatives.

So you see when Matthew mentions the name of Herod at the beginning of his story of wise men visiting the young Jesus, this already said something about how the story might unfold.

We can picture the wise men travelling on a star lit night, one star dominating the sky. They have come a long way. They had first seen the star somewhere in east, we don’t know exactly where. And they have followed that star even though danger was never too far away as they travelled across deserts and through places where robbers lurked. They followed that special star because they believed that such an incredible star hailed the birth of someone important, a leader, a king. The place to find a king would be in the capital city, Jerusalem. They ask King Herod where they might be able to find the "king of the Jews" whose birth has been heralded by an extraordinary star. Herod in turn consults the chief priests and teachers of the Law who look up the prophet Micah in the Old Testament. They report that the Messiah was born in the town of Bethlehem.

Herod called the wise men; he sent them off in the direction of Bethlehem, saying, "You must find him and let me know so that I too may come and worship him."

Has Herod had a change of heart? No way! He was filled with murderous intentions. We are told Herod was "terrified" when he heard about the birth of this king. Not this child, not even God himself would stand in the way of his rule. "So the Messiah has been born? Then I must get rid of him!" And Matthew records the murderous action of Herod in having all the baby boys of Bethlehem and the district around, who were two and younger, slaughtered by his soldiers. It is always a low point in human history when the powerful stoop to killing the innocent and the helpless, especially children and babies. Can you imagine the grief of the parents whose child was mercilessly killed for no obvious reason?

But Herod was too late. Joseph had been warned in a dream to take Mary and Jesus to the safety of Egypt and they stayed there until Herod died. (Herod continued his murderous streak until he died. Just before he died, he ordered some of Jerusalem’s prominent citizens to be arrested and executed the moment he died. Herod knew people would cheer when they heard about his death so he wanted to make sure they mourned on the day he died.)

Herod’s violence and rejection of the Christ-child is a stark contrast to the humble and adoring worship of the wise men when they finally found Jesus. We are told, "When they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him" (Matt 2:11). The worship of these foreigners, these Gentiles, is a stark contrast to rejection of the chief priests and teachers; they did nothing when they heard the news that the Messiah had been born.

I have spent some time pointing out that along with the wonder of a newborn child, the angels and the adoring and worshipping shepherds and wise men, there is a background of violence and evil to this whole event.
Why has Matthew presented his version of the Christmas story in such a way?
Why couldn’t he have written about the visit of the wise men without all the evil and violence?

In the Old Testament we find references to the coming of the Messiah as a time when light will chase away all darkness. Isaiah says this,

Arise, Jerusalem, and shine like the sun;
The glory of the Lord is shining on you!
Other nations will be covered by darkness,
But on you the light of the Lord will shine;
The brightness of his presence will be with you. (60:1-2)

Matthew records that the extraordinarily bright light of a star hailed the birth of the Son of God, the Light of the world. Jesus says this about himself, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness" (John 8:12). Just as turning on a light in a dark room chases away all signs of darkness, Jesus is the light who has come into our world darkened by sin, evil, violence, hatred, cruelty and lovelessness of every kind. Jesus was born into our world to bring hope, forgiveness and peace, to dispel from our lives all hopelessness and fear.

The Light of Christ shines into the darkness of our lives. There is darkness in each of our lives and it depends on who the listener is, what that darkness is for him or her. Only you can say what the darkness is.
The darkness may be a sin that you have never been able to feel that God has forgiven you.
The darkness may be a breakdown in the relationship between you and other person.
The darkness in your life may be some kind of addiction.
Darkness is a lack of light – there may be a lack of love, generosity, a forgiving spirit;
a lack of tolerance, a willingness to co-operate or to give of your time to others.
Satan, the prince of darkness, brings all these things into our lives. Make no mistake there is darkness of some kind inside us. It is the darkness of sin. The difficulty sometimes is recognising that the darkness is something evil and that it is best to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Herod could not see Jesus as the wisemen did. In fact because he was so evil he feared the light.

There is darkness in our world.
The darkness of poverty;
the darkness of war, the plundering, raping, killing and destruction that war brings.
The darkness of hunger and homelessness.
The darkness of oppression, the sexual abuse of children, the waste of human life.
The darkness of the destruction and pollution of our planet.
You get the picture I’m sure.

Matthew’s story of the wise men visiting the Christ-child tell us that Jesus wasn’t born into a vacuum or a world where everything is sweet and nice, he was born into world of violence and wicked people. He is the light that the Old Testament talks about – the light that has come to chase away the darkness.

We know that Jesus tackled the darkness head on. In fact, what happened at the time of his birth was just a prelude to the evil that he would come up against during his life. Some of our Christmas carols reflect just this. In the carol: "We Three Kings of Orient Are" the last verse injects a note of gloom: "Myrrh is mine its bitter perfume, Breathes a life of gathering gloom: sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone cold tomb." It is significant that the only other time myrrh is mentioned is when Nicodemus prepares Jesus' body for burial. This myrrh at Jesus' birth foreshadows Jesus' bitter struggle with evil - his cruel death and burial in a "stone cold tomb".

Jesus brings hope and forgiveness into our world. In his light, we find the strength to carry on amid our moral and spiritual crises. He is the light that encourages us when darkness overwhelms us. Wherever there is darkness in our family, in our friendships, in our community, Christ has come to shed light on all those areas of our lives to restore peace and harmony and joy. Wherever there is darkness in our nation or in the world at large, Christ has commanded us to let our light shine before others, to use whatever means we have at our disposal to relieve the suffering of others and drive out the darkness that shrouds the lives of so many. We are to let the light of Christ shine through us so that the darkness of evil might be dispelled.

There is only one cure for darkness – and that is light. There is only cure for the darkness of sin and unhappiness and that is the Light – Jesus. That’s why Jesus was born into a violent world – to be light for you and me. Isaiah says this,
"On you the light of the Lord will shine;
The brightness of his presence will be with you."

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
7th January, 2001
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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