Sunday, January 4, 2009

God's Ancient Promise, Ever New

Texts: Zechariah 8:12-23; Galatians 3:6-9, 15-22; Matthew 2:1-12

OUR GOSPEL READING FROM St. Matthew declares, "Magi [or wise men] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.'"

How many times have we heard them ask that question in this reading at this time of year? If we're long-time church-goers, probably every year of our lives. It's early January, it must be time for the Wise Men to show up looking for the infant King of the Jews! It doesn't surprise us, does it? I mean, we know who that King of the Jews was and is! He's Jesus the Christ, the Son of God! Of course any sensible person, any man-- or woman-- who claims to be wise would come to seek and worship Him!

But we've read the end of the story. We know Who the Babe of Bethlehem turned out to be. The Magi and Herod and the rest of them are still in the middle of Jesus' story; at its beginning, in fact. We can't assume they knew what we know about Him. They couldn't assume what we take for granted.

And maybe if we saw things from their point of view, we, too, would be filled with new wonder, eagerness, and fear, and come to worship our Lord Jesus with fresh hearts and open eyes.

So I ask you, why on earth would the Magi have come all that way, over a thousand miles, to seek and worship the newborn King of the Jews? Who were the Jews in the days of Caesar Augustus, anyway? They were a harried, scattered, barely-tolerated people. Their ancestral land was divided and occupied and ruled by Herod, a puppet king installed by Caesar in Rome. The last king of the royal line of David had died over 500 years before. The Hasmonean kings and queens, the ones descended from Judah the Maccabee and his brothers, that dynasty had lasted only a hundred years. And the last of them, Mariamne daughter of Alexandros, had married Herod himself and he'd had her executed twenty-five years before. Besides, the Maccabees were from the tribe of Levi, not the tribe of Judah like David. They really weren't qualified to sit on the throne of Israel according to God's promise to David. And Herod himself, he wasn't Jewish at all! His father was an Edomite and his mother was a Nabatean Arab. He professed the Jewish religion-- sort of-- but he was only "King of the Jews" because Caesar Augustus had declared him to be. He was king over the Jews, but he wasn't a king from or of the Jews! To talk of a true "king of the Jews" in those days was practically meaningless!

But there the Magi were in Jerusalem, asking after such a king. But they were supposed to be so wise! They were of the great tribe of the Magi! They were the hereditary priests and royal astrologers of the magnificent land of Persia! Actually, why would these Magi, these high officials, these esteemed advisors to kings and princes, bother with anything Jewish at all?

And why should they come now, for this birth? Some scholars believe that the Magi came according to the ordinary international custom of that time. They say that "to worship" only means "to do political homage." But that wouldn't make sense even from an earthly point of view! Kings and nobles paid worship only to rulers they acknowledged as their overlords. The Persians were a proud people who had repulsed the Roman army twice in the previous sixty years. Their nobles weren't about to bow down to the infant King of a miserable conquered people! And suppose they'd intended to do honor to an infant son of Herod, the "official" king of the Jews. Does that really make sense? Herod was always having children! History tells us he had many sons by many wives; yes, and he put many of them to death. If the Magi had wanted to come congratulate old Herod on his newborn offspring, they would've been travelling from Persia to Judea and back again over and over and over.

No, something else was happening here, something the Magi knew and that Herod refused to see. Clearly, back in Persia the wise men had come to know of a promised King of the Jews, who wouldn't be just another earthly king. This knowledge first came to their people when the Medes and the Persians conquered the Babylonian Empire in 538 BC. When they took over the Persians found this peculiar people the Jews living dispersed in the Babylonian lands. The Jews refused to assimilate and take up the gods and the practices of the peoples around them. They kept talking about how the Most High God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, had personally called their ancestor Abraham and promised to make him the progenitor of the greatest nation on earth. They claimed to be God's chosen people and that His eternal purposes would be worked out through them. The Jews clung to their holy writings, where it said that the Most High had promised that a King would come to sit on the throne of his father David, and his reign would have no end. These writings said that God would be especially active and present with this Davidic king, not the way kings and emperors always claimed to be sons of the gods, but truly and actually. And these scriptures said that this promised king would come as a blessing and light to the non-Jewish nations, to share the blessings of the Most High with them all, if they would come in humility and worship and willingness to serve Him according to His will.

The Wise Men weren't wise merely by training or by tribe. They were wise because they believed what had been revealed to them of God's promises to His people Israel. They were looking forward to the birth of this one, particular, special, promised King of the Jews. As it says in the book of the prophet Zechariah, they were ready day by day to come up to Jerusalem to take firm hold of that One Jew by the hem of His swaddling bands and go with Him to entreat and seek the Lord Almighty, for they knew that God would be with Him indeed. So when they saw the star of our Lord Jesus Christ at its rising, they rejoiced, packed up their gifts, saddled their camels, and quickly as they could, they came.

They didn't expect to find Christ the newborn king in Herod's palace in Jerusalem-- you'll notice in the gospel text, Matthew doesn't say they asked Herod first off; no, it was Herod who called the Magi to come to him. They came to Jerusalem for information and directions only. If the Magi failed in wisdom at any one point, it's that plainly they thought that Herod and his court and all Jerusalem would be as glad as they were to hear that God's King of kings had been born! For if they as Gentiles were overjoyed, how much more should God's people Israel have rejoiced!

But they arrived, and nobody in Jerusalem had heard of the birth of the promised King. They weren't even expecting Him. Herod had to convene a special council of the chief priests and teachers of the law to tell him where the prophets said the Christ was to be born. And in the end, Herod didn't care about God's ancient promises. He only cared about his own present kingdom and power.

We know how the story unfolds. The Magi find the Christ child at the house in Bethlehem where He is now living with Mary His mother and Joseph His foster-father. They bow down to Him and give Him gifts, and receive the blessing of God's promises fulfilled. They are not fooled by Jesus' humble circumstances, for just as Simeon had told Mary in the temple, the Magi recognise that this Child is indeed the promised One, the One born to be "a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of God's people Israel."

And we know how Herod tried to trick the Magi into operating as his spies to reveal exactly where the newborn King could be found. John Calvin suggests that the Holy Spirit darkened Herod's mind, so he wouldn't think of sending one of his own men to Bethlehem with the Magi to come back with the information he wanted. Perhaps. Or maybe Herod was afraid that anyone he sent would betray him and pledge loyalty to this newborn King! However it was, God warned the Magi in a dream not to return to Herod and they went back to their eastern land another way.

Matthew doesn't tell us what they said or did when they arrived back home. But by the Holy Spirit the Evangelist tells us what we need to know, that God keeps His ancient promises. Thousands of years before, God called Abraham and promised that all nations would be blessed through him. And in the visit and worship and joy of the Magi, we see the firstfruits of God's fulfilment of His promise. Jesus Christ the King of the Jews was born for them, as much as He was born for His people Israel.

And Jesus Christ was born for us, for you and me. He was and is the glorious fulfilment of all God's promises to father Abraham. The Apostle Paul wants us particularly to be aware of how that fulfillment comes. Many early Jewish Christians, many early Gentile Christians, even, like the members of the church in Galatia, thought the Gentiles laid hold of the promised blessings by becoming Jews. They thought that in order for Christ to be our King, we all had to bind ourselves first by the Law of Moses and keep it perfectly!

We're rather the opposite. Our culture tells us that God will bless us if we're pretty nice and think the baby Jesus in the manger is really, really, adorable.

But no! No to both those false ideas! As Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians, God gave the promise of universal blessing to Abraham, and Abraham "Believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." Righteousness is necessary to please God. And that righteousness comes not by obedience to the Law of Moses or to the law of niceness, but by faith. And this faith is not a mere feeling, it is a God-given trust in our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Jews. This is how God always intended to justify everyone, Jew and Gentile alike: the Wise Men from the east and you and me besides.

God's promise to Abraham was, "All nations will be blessed through you." He gave it to "Abraham and his seed." St. Paul is urgent to make us understand the implications of that. In Galatians 3:16 he says, "The Scripture does not say, ‘and to seeds,' meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,' meaning one person, who is Christ."

So ultimately, the promise of being a blessing to all nations is made to Jesus Christ. And the benefits of this promise come to us through Jesus Christ! He and He alone is the bringer of the blessing of God to all nations, including you and me and everyone who believes. Jesus has blessed us by His perfect obedient life and His faithful death on the cross. He fulfilled the Law of Moses for us, so that no longer are we prisoners of sin, locked away from the eternal life and love and acceptance of Almighty God. If through faith we have bowed before Jesus Christ, He is our Lord and King and He shares with us all the glorious inheritance that is His as the Son of God.

This was God's intention from of old. It was His intention when He made His promises to Abraham, it was His intention when He inspired the prophecies of Zechariah, it was His intention when by the rising of a star He drew the Wise Men from the east, to seek and worship the infant King of the Jews.

It was the wisest thing the Magi ever did, travelling all that way to worship the infant King of the Jews. And if we are wise we won't let anything stop us from bowing down and worshipping Him, too. That Child grew up to be our crucified and risen Savior Jesus Christ. He is our King, sitting in power at the right hand of the Father. And He calls you and me and all people of all nations to know Him by faith and receive the peace and eternal life with God that He alone can give. This is God's ancient promise of blessing. It is good even to this present day, it will be good forever. Accept it and be joyful, for the promise is for you.