Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sought and Found

Texts:  Isaiah 49:1-7; Matthew 2:1-12

THERE'S A HYMN IN THE 1933 Presbyterian hymnal that goes like this:

I sought the Lord, 
            and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, 
            seeking me;
It was not I that found, 
            O Saviour true;
No, I was found of Thee.

These words came to mind as I was studying our passage in Matthew chapter 2, and considering what the Holy Spirit wanted me to bring to you from it on this Feast of the Epiphany.

This story of the Wise Men visiting the Child Jesus is an old, familiar one, but the wonderful thing about God's holy Word is that He always has more to bring to us even out of the passages we know and love best.  We can see in these verses how Jesus is the high King of heaven whom the great ones of the earth worship and adore.  They show us how God begins to include the Gentiles in the kingdom of His Christ.  They move us to glory in the light of God's revelation, and to mourn over the blindness of His ancient covenant people, the Jews.  But this year I was struck by the theme of seeking and finding.

It runs all through our Matthew passage.  The strange men from the East come seeking the Child who is born King of the Jews.  Herod seeks to know where the Christ is to be born, and the priests and teachers of the Law find the answer in the book of the prophet Micah.  Herod seeks to know exactly when the star appeared, and commands the Magi to search carefully for the Child.  The Magi continue their search and at last find the Child Jesus and present Him with the gifts they have brought.  They then return to their own country by another route, leaving Herod without the information he wanted to find.

For the Wise Men in particular, the whole journey is an effort of seeking and finding. And we're used to regarding them in that way. Occasionally by the side of the road somebody will put up a signboard that says

                   Wise Men Still Seek Him

And everyone one knows exactly which wise men it's talking about, and Who it was they sought. But what I want us to ask ourselves today is, "Why?"  I mean, why did they go looking for Jesus?  How did they know they should?  Why on earth should a group of Gentile astrologers-- of all people!-- be interested in the infant King of the Jews?  Why should they be watching for His star-- and how is it possible they even knew this new heavenly body was His star?  And once they saw it, and why should they take the trouble to go hundreds of miles from what is now Iraq to pay Him homage?  Let's not take their journey for granted!  After all, what did the King of the Jews have to do with them?  There was no earthly reason these powerful and influential pagan men should have taken all that effort to seek and find the Messiah of Israel who was born in a barn, but they did.  Why?

We can find part of our answer in the course of human history.  Chaldea, where the order of the Magi flourished, was the heart of the old Babylonian empire, where the Jews had been taken in exile six hundred years before.  Even at the start of the 1st century Jews lived in those regions, and they had planted there a strong tradition of their Scriptures and of the knowledge of the God of Israel.  And so we see that these Wise Men, who were dedicated to seeking out ancient truth, came to know the tradition of the great King of the Jews who was to come.

But it didn't follow that this information would be personally  significant for them.  Humanly-speaking, there really was no reason why these Gentiles should search out the Child Jesus and be so full of joy when they found Him.  Let's understand this: It really wasn't their idea, it was God's.  It wasn't as if the Wise Men one day decided to go find the Incarnate God because it'd be the wise thing to do; they sought Him because God Himself in His purpose and wisdom from all eternity from had decided that's what they would do.  The Magi sought Christ because Christ, as the everlasting Son of God, first sought and found them.

Please keep in mind that we're speaking figuratively. The all-knowing, all wise God doesn't have to "seek" for any of us, because we're always present to Him and He knows exactly where we are at every moment.  But as He works in the hearts of His elect to bring us to Himself, the language of seeking and finding is a very appropriate.

The Wise Men needed God to seek them out before they could seek Him.  And the same goes for every last one of us.  Why?  Because naturally we are lost, wandering, and alone, without God and without hope in the world.  Because as Isaiah says in chapter 9, naturally we are people walking in darkness.  Because as St. Paul says in Ephesians, naturally we are dead in trespasses and sins.  We need God to seek us out by His grace, to find us, enlighten us, and make us alive.  We talk about "making a decision for Christ," and it feels like that's what we do.  But none of us can do any such thing unless God first has made a decision for us.  Look at the chief priests and the teachers of the law in our Matthew reading.  They knew God's Word backwards and forwards.  They didn't have to do any special research to tell Herod where the Christ Child was to be born-- they could quote Micah 5:2 from memory.  But their minds were darkened.  It meant nothing to them that this prophecy was possibly being fulfilled right then, five miles down the road in Bethlehem.  Why did God not choose to break through their darkness and unbelief?  It hasn't been given to us to know that.  But it is given to us, to you and to me, to know that the fact that you and I can be here worshipping our Lord Jesus Christ is a wonderful gift we could never deserve, a gift of pure grace.  God our Creator and Redeemer has sought us and found us, and He will never lose us from this day.

How do we know this?  How can we trust that God's grace will always find what it seeks?  Turn to our reading in Isaiah 49.  Here we see the Servant of the Lord taking up His commission.  He somehow is identified with God's people Israel, but He isn't the nation, because part of His task will be to redeem and restore the tribes of Jacob.  This Servant is the Israel that Israel could never be, the Messiah, the perfect and holy Son of God.  He is, as verse 3 puts it, God's servant Israel, in whom the Lord will display His splendor.  And though it seems as if the task He is given is impossible (for the sinful human heart is harder than any rock), still what is due Him for all His labor "is in the Lord's hand, and [His] reward is with [His] God."  Do you know what that reward is?  It's you who believe in Him and all His faithful saints, whom the Father has given the Son.  The success of Christ in saving us is certain, for God the Father Himself has promised to reward His Son by giving Him all those He has chosen for salvation.

God prepared His Son perfectly for His mission of salvation-- He was like a polished arrow in the quiver of God, and once He was set to the bowstring He would never fail to hit the mark God intended.  Verse 2 says the Lord "concealed me in his quiver," and for long centuries God's plan for salvation was hidden from human knowledge.  Who would have thought that the Saviour would be God Himself come to earth as a helpless Child?  Who could have conceived that the Lord of life would die on a cross to atone our sins?  But that's exactly what He did, and we could never see it or look for it or accept it if God did not reveal it to us.  His grace had to seek us out, so we could believe the good news of Jesus Christ and seek the One who had already found us.

It would have made sense if this wonderful salvation had only applied to the Jews.  Truly, when God sent His Servant the Messiah, it was first and foremost His purpose to redeem the chosen remnant of His ancient people.  Jesus was "formed in the womb," verse 5 says, "to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to Himself."  As Christ said during His ministry, He was sent to seek out the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  But hear what the Lord says to my Lord:

"It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
    to restore the tribes of Jacob
    and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
    that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth."

A light to the Gentiles, the Christ would be!  And even as a tiny Child our Lord Jesus was fulfilling that prophecy, as His Holy Spirit sought out those Gentiles from the East, Wise Men, nobles, princes of their people.  God found them and enlightened them and drew them to His Son.  And so these words of the prophet began to be fulfilled:

"Kings will see you and rise up,
    princes will see and bow down,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."

And the Magi were only the beginning.  We sitting here are Gentiles who have been given the light of Christ, because of the faithfulness of the Lord.  We are chosen in Him, God's beloved Son, Child of Mary, the true Israel and God's holy Servant, in whom the Lord displays His splendor.  In Christ the light of God is revealed to those who were in darkness.  In Christ the grace of God seeks and finds those who would never think of looking for Him.

And He invites us to His Table.  As we eat the bread and drink the cup we do so in remembrance of Jesus Christ who for us died and rose again.  But remember that in this sacrament God Himself does something for us.  Here at this Table God seeks to give us Christ and all His benefits: His love, His mercy, His forgiveness, His assurance, His grace-- all the overwhelming riches of Jesus our Lord, more precious than any gold, frankincense, or myrrh.  Receive Him here by faith. Like the Magi, bow before Him with gratitude and great joy. What you seek is here, for God Himself has first sought you, and what He seeks, He finds.