Sunday, January 3, 2010

Distances Spanned, Walls Broken Down

Texts: Matthew 2:1-11; Ephesians 2:11-22

YOU’RE PROBABLY FAMILIAR WITH the Motown song, "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough." How does it go?

Ain’t no mountain high enough,
Ain’t no valley low enough,
Ain’t no river wide enough
To keep me from gettin’ to you, babe.

Maybe you’ve also heard the joke where the lover who’s sworn all this winds up by saying, "And I’ll be over tonight, baby, if there’s no game on TV."

You certainly can’t charge the Wise Men in our Matthew passage with insincerity. They didn’t let any mountain, valley, river, or desert keep them from getting to Bethlehem to worship at the feet of Jesus, the infant King of the Jews. Over a thousand miles over rough terrain they travelled, from the land of Persia which was outside the bounds of the Roman empire. Think of the trials and hardships of such a journey! Even if we assume that the Magi were pretty well off, there would have been great heat by day and frigid cold by night, with road conditions bad or uncertain. They would have been in constant danger from accidents or bandits. Then once they got to Judea, they had to trust themselves to the wicked King Herod to find out where the Christ Child could be found. Their pilgrimage to Bethlehem was no Caribbean cruise, but the Wise Men let nothing stop them from making it.

And think of the psychological barriers! There you are, one of the Magi of the East. You may not be a king yourself, but you certainly are the advisor to royalty. You’re most likely a follower of Zoroaster, you worship Ahura Mazda, the Uncreated Wisdom, and you search the stars for signs of your god’s working in the cosmos. You devote your life to wisdom and scholarship. And life is good. You’re respected, you’re honored, the people look up to you and kings compensate you well. It would take a lot for you to entertain the idea that the Divine Wisdom would speak in the sacred writings of a despised, broken, and exiled people like the Jews. It would be even more of a stretch to believe that the Uncreated One would send a special emissary from heaven to be born as one of that despised, broken, and occupied people and to understand that the new star you’ve seen heralds this very child. And how much bigger a barrier would it be for you to accept that you, yes, you, one of the noble Magi, should and must get together with some of your fellow-Magi friends and travel all those hundreds of miles to kneel and do homage before that newborn King of the Jews.

But the Wise Men did it, even though their god Ahura Mazda was only a smeared and indistinct picture of the God of Israel who alone made heaven and earth. They went, and we see that they were not only willing to go, they were eager to overcome the obstacles and make that journey. When they saw that the star had stopped over the place where Jesus was, Matthew tells us, they were overjoyed!

What the Wise Men accomplished is certainly impressive. They didn’t let anything keep them from getting to Jesus; and as a sign I pass on Route 68 on the way to Industry puts it, "Wise men still seek Him." It’d make sense for me to say, Be like the Wise Men and don’t let anything in this world get in the way of your coming to Jesus Christ and devoting your life to Him forever!

It would make sense, but I’m not going to do that. At least, not yet. I’m not going to cheerlead you into imitating the Wise Men, because it puts the picture totally the wrong way around. Yes, Someone did come a long way when the Wise Men brought their devotion and gifts to the infant Lord of lords, but He came an infinitely longer way and overcame unthinkably more barriers than the Magi did.

That Someone is Jesus Christ Himself, the Son of God. You think the Wise Men came a long distance? Jesus Christ came all the way from the bosom of God the Father Almighty! He was the eternal Son of God! He was the uncreated Word of infinite Wisdom! As the Apostle John writes, "The Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning." As we read in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, "By him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him." Think of how far He had to go, consider everything He had to give up to become flesh for our sakes, what it meant for Him to confine Himself in a human body that got cold and hungry and thirsty, to make Himself become a kicking, mewling, helpless infant totally dependent for His welfare on an inexperienced teenaged mother and a righteous but equally inexperienced young carpenter!

Then, consider the journey of our Lord’s life and ministry. Think of the inconceivable distance He spanned when He died on the Cross to reconcile sinners like you and me to His Father God! Would you make such a journey? Would I? Left to ourselves, we wouldn’t want to. And even if we could want to do it, we couldn’t. Only Jesus Christ the Son of God and Son of Man could span that terrible distance between sinful, rebellious humanity and the holy heart of God. Only He who came down from heaven and became incarnate of the Virgin Mary could overcome the barriers between us and our righteous Creator. And only He who was born to be the King of the Jews could break down the walls between us who were born Gentiles and His chosen people Israel.

And that’s what our Lord did. For long ages of history we non-Jews were, as the Apostle puts it in our Ephesians reading, "separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world." No purely human determination could overcome that hopeless gap. "But now--" says St. Paul-- "But now, in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ." Brought near! The far distance spanned! Not by human effort or good intentions or "following Jesus as my Good Example," but, "by the blood of Christ"!

And notice that verb "brought." We’d like to think we could get to God ourselves if only someone would show us the way. But no. God Himself had to come to us in Jesus Christ and bring us.

And when He did, He became our Peace.

To make war you need at least two sides coming against each other, and here in Ephesians 2 those two sides are the Jews vs. everyone else. Israel was chosen by God for a special relationship with Him; everyone else was not. Israel had received God’s covenant promises of a victorious redeeming Messiah; everyone else had not. Israel had been privileged to hear the sure word of the Lord in Moses and the Prophets; everyone else had not. No wonder the Jews became proud and hostile against "those Gentile nations." No wonder they put up barriers against Gentile inclusion.

And let’s face it: We read in the Scriptures that sometimes it was God’s own will that the Jews should keep themselves walled off, as it were, from the Gentiles. In fact, when Israel and Judah got too friendly with the nations, that was when the Lord had to punish them with famine, sword, and exile. There certainly was a wall of separation between Jew and Gentile and for a long time it was entirely necessary. The wall that God erected was the Law, by which we mean the Ten Commandments and all the rules and ordinances given to show God’s people how to obey them and what sacrifices to offer when they could not obey. The sign of circumcision was given to the Jews to show that they possessed this great gift and responsibility, that they were distinct from all the other nations who hadn’t received their covenant and their call.

But then Jesus Christ came all that way from heaven and was born as a human being, like one of us yet without sin. Verse 5 says He abolished in His flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. Not by throwing the law out and declaring that God doesn’t care what we do or what sort of beings we are. No, Jesus abolished the barrier of the law by keeping it perfectly Himself, in unbroken obedience to God. In His supreme act of obedience, our Saviour died on the cross to bridge the gulf of separation between God and man. And when He did, the barrier came down! The Jews had the Law, but couldn’t keep it. We Gentiles didn’t have the Law of Moses, we didn’t have the covenant relationship with God that came with it, but we couldn’t even keep the law God wrote on our hearts as human beings made in His image. But now in Christ God is satisfied, the barrier is down and both groups, Jew and Gentile, are reconciled to God through the cross. Peace, Christ preaches: "Peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near." Peace with one another, yes, but primarily, peace with our formerly-distant God. "For through [Christ]," Paul writes, "we both have access to the Father by one Spirit."

In other words, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit we can come to the One who has first come to us. The Wise Men who traversed field and fountain, moor and mountain could come worship the infant Lord because God Almighty first approached them and brought them to acknowledge the kingship of His Son. They are a kind of first fruits of the Gentiles. They showed the people of their day that the blessings of God were not restricted to Israel, and those blessings aren’t restricted today.

The irony, of course, is that it’s now the Jews who are alienated and outside. Now it’s we Gentile believers who are tempted to be proud and think there’s something special about us that caused God to come to us in Jesus Christ and make us His own. If that’s what we believe, we’re still far off indeed. We are brought near not by anything we merited, but by the blood of Christ alone. Tragically, it is that very blood of His death that builds a wall our Jewish neighbors can’t get over and spread a gap they can’t transcend. It is offensive to them that the Messiah should die.

But remember, until God Almighty spans the distance and tears down the wall, none of us want a suffering Savior. None of us want to accept that it took the blood of the sinless Son of God to pay the terrible debt for our sin and turn aside the wrath of God that we deserved. But in His love and mercy, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ sends His grace to open the way for us to come to Him. He came in His grace to you, Christian man, Christian woman, to shine the light of the Gospel in your heart and bring you the joy of your salvation. He continues to come to you, overcoming your fears, reassuring you of His love, and bringing you more and more to be like His beloved Son Jesus.

This good news is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. Let us plead the Holy Spirit to come upon all who don’t yet believe, that He might bring them to Jesus Christ. Let us serve Him as ministers of reconciliation, speaking gladly of our Lord who has put to death the hostility between Jew and Gentile and between all of us and God.

On the high mountain of Calvary Jesus demonstrated His love for us; through the lowness of the valley of the shadow of death He passed for our sakes; in the wide river of His blood He plunges us in baptism so we can live. Nothing can keep Christ the Word made flesh from getting to us whom He has chosen. The Wise Men are proof of His power, and here, set before us on this Table, is proof that is more powerful still. By the signs and under the seals of bread and wine, Jesus gives us His body and blood. His holy sacrifice broke down the barriers, bridged the gulp between us and God, and purchased our peace. Come near in faith; take, eat, and receive His blessings, for by His Spirit in this Supper, Jesus Christ has already come near to you.