Monday, January 10, 2011

Brought from Afar

Texts: Ephesians 2:11-18; Matthew 2:1-12

THE CHRISTMAS SEASON ISN'T COMPLETE, is it, without the Three Kings finding their way to worship the Baby of Bethlehem. We read in Matthew chapter 2 how the Gentile wise men arrived to worship the newborn King of the Jews. How they came from the east-- probably Persia, 800 to 900 miles away, how they followed the star, how they caused a great hubhub in King Herod's court with their request for directions, and how they hurried on to Bethlehem. We read of their great joy in seeing the star rest over the house where Jesus was now living with Mary His mother and Joseph His foster father. In our mind's eye we watched as they bowed down and paid Him homage as Lord and King and presented Him their gifts. We sighed with approval and gratitude when they heeded the warning of the dream and did not go back to report to Herod, but returned to their own country another way.

It's impressive what the Wise Men did. It took a lot of work and they overcame a lot of obstacles. In sermons in pulpits all over the world we're exhorted to be like them. "Wise men [and women] still seek Him," we're told, and we should go to any lengths to seek out Jesus, too.

Humanly-speaking, that's true . . . but it leaves out whose really doing the impressive work in our Matthew 2 passage. That is, it leaves out the role of God. Without the work and will of the Lord Most High, the Wise Men would have remained in Persia and never offered their allegiance and honor to Jesus, the King of the Jews. It is God who revealed to them that a great King of the Jews would be born. It was God who impressed on them that that birth would have worldwide consequences. It was God who hung the miraculous star in the heavens to guide them, and God who directed them to follow it. It was God who gave the prophecies in His word so the Wise Men could be directed to Bethlehem, and it was God who caused these great men to bow the knee to a peasant Child in a humble dwelling. Without the work of God, none of this would have happened. It was the work and will of God that brought the Magi from afar. It was the work and will of God that included the alien and alienated Gentiles in the kingdom of the Messiah of Israel. And it is the work and will of God that brings us from afar and includes us in the kingdom of Christ as well.

For what does Paul the Apostle say in Ephesians, chapter 2? By the Holy Spirit he writes:

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth . . . remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

Brothers and sisters, this is talking about us! True, most of us were born into families who have been Christians for years. But most of us, I reckon, were not born of families with Jewish blood. Remember, there was a time when God's covenant promises were only for Israel. Only the Jews received the blessings of being His people. That excluded us who were of Gentile heritage. God Himself set the boundary of the ceremonial law between Jew and Gentile, to preserve His chosen people until Jesus the Messiah would appear. There couldn't help but be a dividing wall of hostility between us. The Jews hated the Gentiles because they were unclean and did not know the Lord. The Gentiles hated the Jews because they considered Jews to be strange and narrowminded and just plain weird for rejecting idols and worshipping an invisible God.

But now Jesus Christ has appeared in the world, and it is not our doing, it is the work of God. We Gentiles have been granted the epiphany that Israel's God is our God, as He is God over all the earth. The Jews have been granted the epiphany that the covenants of promise are now open to the uncircumcised. God accomplished this by the shed blood of His Son Jesus Christ. In Christ the dividing wall is broken down and we are one in Him, and one with His church in all times and places. In Jesus we Christians are one new humanity. He has brought us from afar and become our peace.

But it wasn't just Jews and Gentiles that were far from one another in the sight of God. We were also far from God. See what Paul says in verse 16. Both groups needed to be reconciled to God. Israel belonged to God but too often were far from Him in their hearts. Our Gentile ancestors did not know God and were far from Him in both heart and physical distance.

Note this: God did not need to be reconciled to us! God has never offended against us, but we by our sin repeatedly have offended against Him. And then we blame God for the consequences of our own sin and the consequences of the sins of others, starting with Adam and Eve and their disobedience in the garden. Our rebellion alienated us from God and put us far away from Him. As Ephesians 1:5 says, we were dead in our trespasses. Even those of us who were raised in families with godly parents were born into this deadly condition. All of us-- all of us-- deserve nothing but God's wrath until God has mercy on us and sends Jesus Christ to find us and reconcile us to Himself. Israel was helpless and enslaved until God called them out of Egypt and brought them nearer. This was part of God's great plan of salvation, so at the right time the Christ might be revealed. And now Jesus has come and shed His blood for our sins, so we aren't at war with God any more. As it says in verse 17, Jesus has come and proclaimed peace with God to us Gentile-born who were far off, and peace to His Jewish children who were near.

Think of it-- together in Christ we all have access to the Father in heaven-- the great Creator God who made us and loves us--though the one Spirit He has put in our hearts! No longer are we strangers and aliens, but together with the Wise Men, God has brought us from afar. He Himself has made us fellow-citizens with the saints, and members of His own household. If you make and keep one resolution for this new year, promise that you will study to know and appreciate how amazing that is! And what a wonderful gift God has given you! You are a citizen of His divine kingdom! You are a temple for His worship, His very dwelling place! You have been brought from afar and made a child of the only, true, and living God!

And please, make another promise to God and yourself: That you will remember how far away you used to be and in His power be His instrument to bring others near as well.

Because it's a sad thing: Even though Jesus two thousand years ago died on the cross to break down barriers and wipe out distances, we in His churches too often erect new barriers and imagine new distances to keep ourselves separate from people who are different from us. I've noticed there isn't a problem, usually, with sending missionaries to evangelize people "over there" in Africa or the Far East or other places far away. The problem is the barriers we erect between our congregations and those who are physically close to us, who are our neighbors and even our friends, but who are distant culturally or economically or religiously. What I mean is this: Suppose you're talking to someone, either a chance stranger or someone you know, and this church and its ministry come up. And you learn that they don't attend church anywhere. And it crosses your mind to ask him or her to come here the following Sunday. But you look at the person's clothes and think, "No, they're too shabby or too well-dressed to fit in here." Or you think, "They're Jewish-- or Muslim-- or Mormon-- or totally secular-- or whatever-- They're got their own thing going, they wouldn't be comfortable with us and we wouldn't be comfortable with them." So you don't give the invitation. Believe me, I know. I've been guilty of the same. The only thing that should stop us from inviting someone who needs Christ to worship with us is the certainty that he will not hear the Gospel preached from this pulpit. We should never keep silent out of discomfort and fear. Jesus Christ has broken down the barriers between one human being and another. No, not so we can run around celebrating our "diversity" as if being different were a virtue in itself. But so He could make us one in Him. And it is the privilege and glory of us who are already in His Church that He uses us-- our words, our service, our loving extended hand-- to bring the alienated and the lost from afar to enjoy His peace. Even if that alienated and lost one dwells in your very household.

The habits and ways of this fallen world put obstacle after obstacle in the way of the Wise Men as they came from the East to worship the Christ Child. The habits and ways of this fallen world put obstacles in our way before we came to Him. But God had mercy on us, as He had mercy on the Wise Men. He sent His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ into the world to die and rise again for our sakes. He sent His Holy Spirit into our hearts to convince us that this is true. Jesus came to us when we could never come to Him and He has brought us near by the shedding of His blood; He has made people of every race, tribe, language, and culture one body in His flesh.

This morning, the Lord's Table is spread before us. Here is Christ's epiphany to us, our God appearing to us through the elements of bread and wine. As you partake of this holy sacrament, receive the peace and reconciliation of Jesus in your hearts, as surely as you receive the elements in your mouth. Be reconciled to one another, as surely as God has reconciled you to Himself. Draw near to Him in gratitude and joy. Jesus your Lord has brought you from afar: this is His glorious work and His gracious will. Amen.

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