(A sermon based on Matthew 2:1-12 & Ephesians 3:1-12 for Epiphany Sunday 2010)
I’d like to state my church credentials for you: I was born to Christian parents who went to church every time the doors were opened, I was taken to church for the first time when I was ten days old, I was baptized when I was seven, I was licensed to preach when I was fifteen, I was ordained to the ministry when I was seventeen, I have three degrees from two Baptist schools, I have pastored six Baptist churches, and I have taught full-time for one Baptist college and part-time for five Baptist colleges and one Catholic college.
So, with apologies to Paul, I think it’s fair to say that if you think you have reason to be confident in your “churchiness”—I have more! As Walter Brennan used to say on the television show The Guns of Will Sonnett, “No brag—just fact.”
Yes, when it comes to church, when it comes to the things of God, when it comes to knowing what it’s all about, I am the consummate insider. A lot of you have excellent credentials, too, so you are also insiders—you’ve been in it a long time and so you know what it’s about.
Here’s the thing, though: being an insider doesn’t mean that you will necessarily recognize what God is doing when God does it and, on the other hand, being an outsider doesn’t mean that you will necessarily fail to recognize what God is doing when God does it. We don’t want to miss the amazing things that God is doing, but if we are not careful we can let a sense of privilege and an attitude of smugness get in the way.
I have great concern for myself in this regard; let me share that concern with you through a lyric effort to summarize what happened when the Magi followed the star.
The Magi came to Jerusalem to worship the King
because they figured, naturally, that the capital was where the King would be.
There they found a king, one who called himself “great,”
but he was not the one they were looking for because, after all, he wasn’t a baby.
The great one deigned to help them out,
so he called for the theologians, the learned ones, the holy men, the ones who knew the Scripture.
“Bethlehem,” they said, “is the place to find the one you seek,”
“for it says so right there in the book of the prophet Micah.”
One of them pointed a long, trembling finger at the place in the scroll,
the line that he and they had studied so long and knew so well.
The Magi, being polished and refined and polite, thanked the scribes,
then collected their things and organized their caravan and set out.
They set out to find the baby, to find the king, so that they could worship him,
because that is what they had set out to do so many months and miles ago.
The scribes—the theologians, the learned ones, the holy men, the ones who knew the Scripture, did not go,
and I do not understand why they did not leave everything and run to him.
Were they so content with their knowledge, with their books, with their theories,
that they felt no need to go to him?
Did they really think that knowing what the Book said about him was enough,
that knowing him was not required?
Could they not come down from their place to kneel, could they not close their books to worship,
that they might move from theory to practice?
How might things have been different, how might they have been changed,
if they had accompanied the Magi, if they had seen the baby?
If they had gone to the baby and worshiped him, if they had seen his flesh and heard his cries,
would they have seen people differently—would they have seen him in them?
And then there is the thing that really troubles me, the dread that weighs on me—
I am a scribe.
It can be so dangerous to be on the inside, to be an expert, to be situated, to be settled, and to have such an investment in the way that things are and in the way that you think that things are supposed to be. Really, now, why did some of the scribes not go with the Magi to see the Child? They had studied the Scriptures and so they knew that the prophets looked forward to the coming of the Messiah—they even knew where he was to be born—and yet when these Magi show up to say that the Child has been born none of the scribes—not one of them, mind you—goes along with them, and Bethlehem was closer to Jerusalem than Ocilla is to Fitzgerald!
Is it possible that sometimes we are so busy and content with reading about Jesus and talking about Jesus and singing about Jesus that we miss Jesus?
We need to get our minds and our hearts and our lives around this most remarkable thing that God did in sending Jesus Christ into the world; God in Christ made salvation—participation in God’s people, citizenship in the Kingdom of God, living in eternal life—absolutely available to absolutely everyone on absolutely the same basis, namely, the grace of God. As Paul put it, “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:5-6). The Magi—Persian astronomers, most likely—foreigners, Gentiles, outsiders, certainly—were the firstfruits, the sign and seal, of that new reality of which we are still trying to get hold today.
After all, we still have “Gentiles” today—the outsiders who, it seems to us, have no claim on or chance at what we have in Christ. After all, how easily and lazily we come to depend on our “insider” status to label us as bona fide believers.
Let’s not try to fool ourselves, though—we who have it made are the most likely ones to make a mess of it when it comes to detecting and pursuing and embracing the still surprising comings of Christ into our world, into our neighborhood, and into our church. And those on the outside—those who ought not see and believe, those who don’t know what we know, those who have not been privileged as we have been privileged—may just be the most likely to detect and to pursue and to embrace.
What a vexation it must have been for the kings, that the scribes who gave them the news they wanted remained quiet in Jerusalem! We are being mocked, the kings might have thought. For indeed what an atrocious self-contradiction that the scribes should have the knowledge and yet remain still. This is as bad as if a person knows all about Christ and his teachings, and his own life expresses the opposite. We are tempted to suppose that such a person wishes to fool us, unless we admit that he is only fooling himself. [Soren Kierkegaard, “Only a Rumor,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), p. 289]
Who are you trying to fool?