Matthew 2:1-12 – Epiphany of the Lord

Star of Bethlehem by German painter Waldemar Flaig (1892-1932)

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”

King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
    are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
    who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back, and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. (NLT)

The Three Kings, Ethiopian Orthodox Church

Each year on January 6 in the Church Calendar, after the twelve days of Christmas, is the celebration of Epiphany. Christ’s coming to this earth as a child and becoming like us is much more than a baby in a manger.  Epiphany helps to bring a vision and understanding of God’s glory to all kinds of people in the world.

Epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance.” The event which is associated with this season is the visit of the Magi to Jesus. Included in this time of the year between the seasons of Christmas and Lent is a special emphasis on the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus. The great celebration and focus of these weeks is that salvation is not limited to Israel but extends to the Gentiles, as well.

Every season in the Christian Year has its unique angle of grace. With Epiphany, we see that one of the most scandalous truths of Christianity is that God graces common ordinary people who seem far from God with the gift of Jesus. God grants repentance that leads to life for all kinds of people no matter their race, ethnicity, class, or background. It is a wondrous and astounding spiritual truth that God’s gracious concern is not limited to a certain type of person or a particular group of people.

Grace is and ought to be the guiding factor in how we interact with people. Losing sight of grace leads to being critical and defensive. Like King Herod of old, a graceless person becomes enamored with earthly power and control. But embracing grace leads to the humility of seeing the image of God in people quite different from ourselves. Like the Apostle Peter, who learned in a vision to bring the gospel to non-Jews, old legalisms begin to be worn away so that people from all walks of life can have access to Jesus and his gracious saving and healing ministry. (Acts 10-11:18)

Grace brings down barriers and does away with unnecessary distinctions between others. The appropriate response to mercy is to glorify God for such marvelous light and amazing work.

It is a merciful reality that the Magi, or Wise Men, pagan astrologers, were directed to the Messiah. A light was provided to lead them to Jesus. Apart from God’s care and intervention they would have remained in darkness.  And it is no less true for people today. This old broken world is wrapped in darkness. All kinds of people have no light at the end of the tunnel of their lives for hope and new life. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings that light to those walking around with no ability to see. Jesus, in his teaching ministry, exhorted his followers not to hide their light but to let it shine for all to see. (Matthew 5:14-16)

Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, the best way to bring resolution to our own troubles and problems is through helping others make sense of their lives through the gracious light of Christ so that they can see an appearance, an epiphany, of what their lives can be in the gracious rule of the kingdom of God. 

As we celebrate Epiphany and journey with Jesus through his earthly upbringing and into his gracious ministry to people, let us keep vigilance to not let our light grow dim. Instead, let us hunger and thirst after Christ’s righteousness so that our joy is full, and our light is bright.

God of mercy, Lord of all, you have gifted the Church through the goodness of your grace to be your hands and do your work, to be your voice and share your words, to bring healing to broken lives. You have graciously gifted your people with the blessings of your Spirit, the power to transform lives and make all things new. Now may our hearts receive, our mouths proclaim, our hands prepare for service so that the love that we have may overflow into the hearts of others, and receive your grace, your renewing Spirit, and your love, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Matthew 2:13-18 – Flight into Egypt

The Flight into Egypt by Marc Chagall, 1980

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So, he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.” (NIV)

It can be easy to be diverted either by all the shiny things about the holiday season, or by all the sorrows which are stirred up for us in this time of year. I invite you to the very mundane and simple manger; the dull and unattractive place where God is found. Because it is here, we find the hope of the nations, and the true desire of our hearts.

Almighty God preserved and protected the child Jesus. Christ’s early life retraced the life of ancient Israel. Like the Jewish patriarchs, Jesus went down to Egypt (and would eventually go down and face hell for us in his crucifixion); and, like the ancient Israelites, Jesus was brought up out of Egypt (and would rise from the dead bringing freedom from sin and death once for all) in a New Exodus. By these Old Testament references, Matthew’s Gospel means to say: “Look, here is the Messiah, the coming King, the promised One of Israel and of all the nations. Jesus is our salvation, the fulfillment of all that we hope for.”

Jesus is the New Exodus

In the second of three dreams, Joseph is told to take Jesus to Egypt. Joseph obeyed the Lord and took the role of protecting Jesus, as contrasted with Herod’s role in attempting to murder Jesus.Yet, there is more to this story than Christ’s protection; this is the fulfillment of a biblical pattern, an identification of Jesus with the people of God. Matthew pulled forward the prophet Hosea to say that just as God brought the Israelites out of Egypt through a great deliverance, God brought up Jesus, the Great Deliverer, out of Egypt as the unique Son of God.  Jesus is God’s divine Son, and so is the rightful Ruler in God’s kingdom.

Just as God preserved Israel from Pharaoh’s wrath, the Lord protected Jesus from Herod’s wrath. God’s kindness and loyalty extends to us as covenant people and preserves us from the wrath of the devil who seeks to keep as many people as possible in the realm of darkness. Our hope is in the Lord Jesus who has conquered the devil by establishing a beachhead on this earth through incarnation as the Son of God.

Flight into Egypt by He Qi

Jesus Brought Us Out of Exile

The scoundrel King Herod massacred innocent toddlers to ensure the destruction of Jesus. Behind his atrocity was the devil himself who knew Jesus was the coming King who would one day bring salvation. Reflecting on a vision of Christ’s birth, the Apostle John identified the sinister plan and the divine deliverance:

The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth so that when she gave birth, he might devour her child. She gave birth to a son, a male child who is to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was snatched up to God and his throne. (Revelation 12:4-5, CEB)

Satan wars against God’s Son and God’s people, whose roots go all the way back to the first prophecy of Christ after the Fall of humanity. God declared to Satan:

“And I will cause hostility between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring.
He will strike your head,
    and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15, NLT)

There has been continual enmity ever since the Fall between the serpent and the seed of the woman, with the Israelites constantly being threatened with extermination and tempted to conform to pagan ways. King Herod was just another in a long line of demonically animated men trying to perpetuate the kingdom of darkness. We must take this threat seriously because the devil knows that his time is short. A second Advent is coming which will be the final judgment.

Satan’s most powerful weapon, death, has lost its sting because of Jesus. Christmas is a hard time of year for many people, filled with depression instead of joy, grieving over lost loved ones for whom we will not spend another Christmas with. Yet there is a reunion coming, the hope of a bodily resurrection in which we will be with Jesus and God’s people forever.  Be encouraged that there is no time in heaven; it will be only a moment and the people who have gone before us will turn around and see us; we will one day join them.

Matthew also used the prophet Jeremiah to communicate hope. Jeremiah’s prophecy dealt with children who were lost in war to the invading Babylonians.  The prophecy is a lament with the hope that captivity will not be forever. Matthew wanted us to see that the exile is over for us; Jesus has arrived, and the tears which were shed will shortly dry up. There may be a time of suffering which we must endure, yet there will be glory. Jesus is the Great Deliverer who brings us out of sin’s captivity and into the promises of God. He is our hope.

Jesus is the promised One who will deliver us from the tyranny of the devil. Christ is the hope of the nations, the Savior of the world. So, let us come back to the first Christmas which was the beginning of the end for evil on the earth. Believers in Jesus are part of God’s victory and overcome the evil one by the blood of the lamb, acknowledging that Christ’s incarnation was essential for us. 

Just as Jesus made a radical break with his former life in heaven through the incarnation, we, too, must break with our old way of life. God will save his people through this child Jesus. The greatest gift we can give in this season and throughout the year is the gift of grace, the presentation of the Christ child.

Loving God help us remember the birth of Jesus so that we may share in the song of the angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the wisdom of the wise men. Close the door of hate and open the door of love across the world. Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting. Deliver us from evil through the blessing of the Christ child. Teach us to be happy with pure hearts. Grant us grateful thoughts, devoted hearts, and gracious hands, through Jesus our Savior in the might of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 21:28-32 – The Parable of the Two Sons

The Lord of the Parables by Argentine artist Jorge Cocco Santangelo

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (NIV)

I once cheated on a college exam. It was a required class for which I was not much interested, so my grade was rather tenuous going into the final exam of the semester. When the professor stepped out of the classroom for a few minutes during the final, my fellow students began sharing answers. I gave in and went with the others.

I got an “A” on the exam and passed the class easily. However, I royally flunked God’s test. After a few days of misery, I went to the professor’s office and confessed what I had done. I was prepared to take a failing grade for both the exam and the class, yet I think the professor was so shocked that I would come and admit such a thing that he worked up my grade right there in front of me… I passed, but just barely.

I originally said “no” to what was right, but then said “yes” and made it right.  For those who practice repentance, there is a God of grace waiting for them. God also has no tolerance for those who profess truth with a big “yes” on the outside but are passive-aggressive on the inside and say “no,” undermining the truth by how they live. 

Today’s Gospel lesson highlights entrance into the kingdom of God – and the people entering might surprise us. Turns out, there are spiritual insiders on the outside of the kingdom, and spiritual outsiders end up as the ones who really inherit the kingdom.

Christ’s parable is a warning to all the spiritually serious: Beware, lest our insider energies be spent in correctness, conformity of belief, and cockiness rather than following Jesus.  At the same time, the parable encourages outsiders with the wonderful possibilities of a changed life. 

Christ was warning those who arrogantly assume they have the inside track by what they believe, and not by doing God’s will. It may be challenging for us to imagine how truly offensive this story was to the original hearers of the parable, so I restate it in a more contemporary form:

There was a man who was well respected in the community and had two sons. One son grew up and became a respectable member of the community, too. He was a successful businessman and gave lots of money to causes in his community, including new lights for the school football field – which was no small cost.  He only asked that appropriate and prominent recognition be given him with a plaque bearing his name on each of the light poles. 

The other son was not so successful.  He was the one in school who the teachers said, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”  There was nothing spectacular about this son.  In fact, he lived an ‘alternate lifestyle’ and people murmured behind his back. 

One day the father said to this son: “Son, go and work at my place of business today; I am going away and need you to do some of the tedious paperwork I have gotten behind on.” “No way!” he answered, but later felt heartsick about the way he spoke to his father and decided to go and do all the grunt work his father needed done.

The father went to the well-respected son and said the same thing about needing him to do all the thankless paperwork that was piled up. That son answered, “Yes, sir, I will; anything you need I will do.”  But that son did not go. Instead, he chose to go golfing with some people whom he was trying to coy favor with.

After telling the story, Jesus asked all the upstanding faith leaders and the people listening: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, folks with different sexual orientations, unemployed persons on the low rung of society, and the religiously different with esoteric beliefs are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For you have had heard thousands of sermons about grace and the way of righteousness, yet you did not believe by putting God’s Word into practice; but the others did.  And even after you saw how God can change a person’s life from the inside-out, you yourselves did not repent and believe.

For Jesus to tell such a story was so incredibly scandalous that, frankly, it got him killed. Specifically, the scandal is this: Merely believing rightly and living as an upstanding citizen is not the way of salvation. Tax collectors and prostitutes were some of the most despised people in Christ’s time.  It was assumed they were outside of God.

Affirmation of Faith by Indian painter Jyoti Sahi, 1986

However, the proof of genuine belief is not lip service but actively obeying God when no one is looking:

My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you? If you know someone who doesn’t have any clothes or food, you shouldn’t just say, “I hope all goes well for you. I hope you will be warm and have plenty to eat.” What good is it to say this, unless you do something to help? Faith that doesn’t lead us to do good deeds is all alone and dead! Suppose someone disagrees and says, “It is possible to have faith without doing kind deeds.” I would answer, “Prove that you have faith without doing kind deeds, and I will prove that I have faith by doing them.” You surely believe there is only one God. That’s fine. Even demons believe this, and it makes them shake with fear. (James 2:14-19, CEV)

The Christian life comes down to obedience, not cheap talk. Jesus wants to bless a lost world in need of God’s love and grace.

If we have ears to listen, we can hear numerous lost souls crying in the dark. If we have eyes to see, there are people caught in addictions standing in front of us. If we have hands willing to labor, needy folks surround us who can neither help themselves nor ask for it.

Honestly, I am heartsick over the grinding loneliness of so many people; the boatloads of shame which thousands secretly carry; and the silent pain experienced by individuals everywhere. I feel this way because I genuinely believe my Lord feels the same. Jesus is looking to activate grace through his people to a world sinking in the depths of incredible human need.

Christ’s parable, however, is more than a warning; it is a story that opens the door of mercy for unlikely people seemingly far from God – people who ruined their lives by saying “no” to God. The parable is an invitation for all the screw-ups and those with little faith to come to Jesus.

There is a rather obscure Scripture reference, tucked away in the Old Testament. David was on the outside looking in. King Saul was on the inside trying to capture and kill him, even though David had done nothing wrong. Here is what happened:

David got away and escaped to the Cave of Adullam. When his brothers and others associated with his family heard where he was, they came down and joined him. Not only that, but all who were down on their luck came around—losers and vagrants and misfits of all sorts. David became their leader. There were about four hundred in all. (1 Samuel 22:1-2, MSG)

This rag-tag group of outsiders in Israel became Israel’s insiders as David eventually became king and these were the “mighty men,” the ones who helped bring Israel into prominence. 

Jesus Christ came into this world and identified himself as the Savior to the outsider when he quoted the prophet Isaiah:

Jesus went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21, NRSV)

In Christ, there are no lost causes and no persons too far on the outside to be redeemed. Therefore, now is the time to act on what we believe – to not only affirm right doctrine, but to live out that doctrine in obedience to God’s call.

Matthew 24:15-31 – Being Prepared

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.

“If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time.

“So, if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

“Immediately after the distress of those days, the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.

“Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (NIV)

I live in the upper Midwest of the United States. The summers can be brutally hot and humid. The winters can be incredibly frigid and full of snow. Having lived in various university towns and worked with many college students, every Fall there is always at least one international student, or a student from the American Deep South, that has never experienced a Midwest winter and snow. I could tell them repeatedly of the need for a sturdy winter coat before the snow flies. Yet, having never known sub-freezing, let alone sub-zero, temperatures it is difficult to imagine such cold when the weather is warm. At the coming of winter, I, or someone else, had to help ensure they had a suitable coat.  Even then, they usually shake all winter and never take their scarves off.

It might be difficult to imagine, because none of us have yet experienced it, that someday Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. Therefore, Jesus told his disciples about using discernment concerning a change of environment around them. Although it may seem improbable now, a time is coming which will be loaded with cosmic and cataclysmic changes. Sometimes, even for myself who has lived through many hard winters, it is incredible to know that the landscape as it is right now will be completely different.

The sky and the earth as we know it now will pass away; yet Christ’s words will endure for all time. If we are attentive and alert, we will be ready. We will have a warm winter parka on hand. And, for now, it means taking off the old clothes of fear, insecurity, hopelessness, and hate, and putting on the new clothes of righteousness, peace, and love in the Holy Spirit. Winter is nearly here. There is a chill in the air.

God Almighty, we long for the coming of your kingdom in Jesus Christ our Lord. We lament before you the signs that your kingdom has not yet come in its fullness. The signs of brokenness and divisions, oppression and abuse, poverty and loneliness, are everywhere present in the world. So, we cry out from the depths of our being, “O come, O come, Immanuel. Bring us comfort. Dispel the shadows of the night and turn our darkness into light.” Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.