Sermon for the Epiphany of our Lord

Text: Matthew 2:1-3
Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the time when Herod was king. Soon afterward, 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.

Guided by the Light

The gospel writer, Matthew, tells of the birth of Jesus in just 10 words in English, ‘Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea’. With this sentence he includes all that we read in Luke’s Gospel about
the census ordered by Caesar Augustus,
the trip of the heavily pregnant Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem,
the lack of accommodation in Bethlehem,
the birth of Jesus and being wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a manger,
the events that took place in the fields near Bethlehem,
the angels and their message that the Saviour had been born,
the shepherds who visited the new born child
and the joy that filled their hearts as they returned to their flocks.
I’m sure Matthew would have been aware of all of these details but he summarises them all in just a few words, ‘Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea’. It’s as if Matthew skips across the joy that the birth of this baby creates in heaven and on earth deliberately because he has something else on his mind. His very next words give us a hint. He tells us the birth of Jesus took place ‘
during the time when Herod was king’.

Immediately Matthew’s readers 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. And Herod, well, he was suspicious of everyone.

So you see when Matthew mentions the name of Herod at the beginning of his retelling of the Christmas story, he is suggesting something about how the story might unfold. The first readers must have gasped when they heard that the wisemen from the East went to Jerusalem and consulted horrible Herod about where they might find the newborn king. They knew that Herod wouldn’t greet this kind of news with any joy. He was always fearful that he would lose his position and authority over Judea and so would allow no-one to challenge his position – especially not a newborn prince who was fully Jewish and his kingship foretold in ancient Scriptures.

We know what Herod did when the wisemen didn’t return to Jerusalem. He sent his soldiers to Bethlehem and the surrounding district and had every baby boy 2 years of age and under killed. He had killed all opponents to get his throne and had no reservation in killing babies to keep it.

Fear, anger, jealousy, threats, violence, murder, and grieving parents seem to dominate the Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel. This is such a contrast to the story that Luke tells when there is such obvious joy, hope, and praise to God for the exciting news that a Saviour has been born. Of course there is joy in Matthew’s story as the wisemen kneel before the Christ-child but it is set against the hatred and violence of Herod. Why would Matthew want to highlight so much evil on the occasion when so much good comes into the world?

Just as Luke tells us the poor conditions in which Jesus was born – the highly unsuitable delivery room, the manger bed, the swaddling cloths – Matthew tells us something about the world in which Jesus was born. He wasn’t born when everything was sweet and cosy. Even at this early point in his life he was under threat and had to escape under the cover of night before Herod’s soldiers arrived in Bethlehem. Matthew is emphasizing the theme that is foretold in the ancient Scriptures – that the world was a dark place and that a light was coming. John’s Gospel picks up this theme of light and darkness when speaking of the coming of God in the flesh. He says, ‘The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world’ (1:9).

This theme of light driving away darkness is heralded by the star that shone brightly in the dark night sky as it led the wisemen from the East and eventually stopped over the place where Mary & Joseph and Jesus were staying. This bright light in the night sky hailed the birth of the Light of the world.

Jesus said 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. Jesus was born into our world to bring hope, forgiveness and peace, to drive out 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 – the darkness of sin - but for each of us the darkness in our lives is different. Only you can say in what way the darkness of sin and evil affect your life.
The darkness may be the wrong that you have done and cannot accept that God has forgiven you – maybe you aren’t able to forgive yourself.
The darkness may be the coldness and the uncomfortable feeling that a breakdown in a relationship brings.
The darkness in your life may be fear of what the future may bring because of illness, the loss of someone close, our own dying.
Darkness is caused by 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.

The darkness in Herod’s life had completely overwhelmed him. He could not see Jesus as the wisemen did. In fact he was so filled with evil that he feared the light, in fact, saw the light as darkness – as a threat to his security and comfort. John comments on this when he says, ‘People who do evil hate the light and won't come to the light, because it clearly shows what they have done’ (3:20).  

What a contrast this is to the wisemen. They followed a star and what did they find - a little boy. Looked like the son of a carpenter and a peasant girl! But they knelt before him, gave him precious gifts and worshipped this little boy, this child, this light for our lives, this light for all people in the world.

This is the first Sunday in 2007. 2006 is now part of history. The things that happened last year can’t be changed. There are events that we wish would have turned out differently. There were times when our behaviour left much to be desired. Things happened that we could not have predicted. Things happened in our personal lives that we would never have guessed would happen at the beginning of last year.

So we look at this year and the same holds true. But whatever this year brings, the challenge for us is to look for the light of Christ shining in our lives. And that’s hardest to see when things don’t seem to be working out.

Look for the light of Christ, recognise it and be guided by it. Be prepared, like these Wisemen, to give gifts of worship.

At the end of a nativity play at a Christmas service, speakers reflected on what kind of gifts they can give to the Christ-child.

The first speaker reflecting on the gift of gold says:
‘What can I give to celebrate my Saviour’s birthday – I’ll give him first-place. Of all the things which occupy my life, take up my time, use up my energy, I want Jesus to be the centre-piece. I want to let him make a difference to the way I think, the way I speak and the way I act. The one Wiseman brought a gift of gold – this is the gold I bring’.

The second speaker says:
‘I can make a difference. I can be like a sweet-smelling aroma, which takes the sharpness off the stench around me. I can be the perfume that refreshes and brings pleasantness to those around me: to my family, my friends, those with whom I work or whom I see and interact with each day. I can bring that gift and take that gift to the lives of others. The one Wiseman brought the gift of frankincense, symbolic of the pureness and sweetness of God, the love that he shows to each of us’.

And the third speaker says:
‘As the star acted as a pointer to the Wisemen and they followed that star, so I can offer myself as a pointer for others looking for Jesus. And I can remind others that one day Jesus will come again and it too will be a day of celebration. On that day everyone will know that he is the King of all kings, not like when he was born. That can be my gift: to point ahead to Jesus. The third Wiseman brought myrrh: a gift signalling this child’s destiny – myrrh was used for embalming. This child will die as we all die but he will die for the world. This is the Saviour-child.

Matthew’s story of the wisemen 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 has come to chase away the darkness.

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. Let the light of Christ shine through us so that the darkness of evil might be dispelled.

There is only one cure for the darkness of sin and unhappiness and that is the Light – Jesus. Let him be your guiding light in 2007.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
7th January 2007

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