Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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For All People

Ephesians 3:1-12 and Matthew 2:1-12

The Gospel of Matthew relates nine events which are not recorded in any of the other Gospels. The reason they are here is because they were important to Matthew’s original audience, which was his Jewish people. He’s trying to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah, the one they were looking for, and to receive him as their Lord and Savior. So he relates events that showed Jesus to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, as well as particular warnings and encouragements for his Jewish audience. This is one of those nine events, the visit of the Magi.

He reminds us of the historical setting for this event, the reign of Herod the Great, the king of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod died in 4 BC, so one of the things we know is that our calendar is a couple years off. Herod gained the throne of Judea through his allegiance to Rome and his political maneuvering at a time of internal strife in the nation. Herod was not Jewish, he was from Idumea, Judea’s neighbor to the south, and so there would always be some who would regard him as an illegitimate king. But Herod was also ruthless and brutal. He killed some who opposed him and intimidated other influential people into going along with his plans.

The magi were astrologers, men who spent their lives studying the heavens believing they revealed and influenced events on earth. As such, they almost certainly came from Babylon, a place renowned for its astrologers. In the first century, Babylon was part of the Parthian Empire, which was Rome’s biggest rival on their eastern frontier. Babylon was also the place of the Jewish people’s exile, and there was still a large Jewish population there, so these magi would have known about the prophecies of a coming Messiah.

They ask Herod, “Where is the newborn king,” which he didn’t appreciate hearing about. The last thing he wanted was a rival claim to the throne. He knew many people would latch onto the idea of a Jewish child, born to be king.

“We have seen his star.” People have wondered for centuries what this “star” was. Some have suggested a comet, but comets were generally seen as signs of doom and the death of a prominent person. So it’s unlikely a comet would be seen in a positive way. Others have suggested it was an alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn which happened in 6 BC, which was quite possibly the year of Jesus’ birth. We know Herod died in 4 BC. We know he ordered that male children two and under be killed. We know he became increasingly brutal and paranoid at the end of his life. So it all makes sense that this was probably the “sign in the heavens.” And of course, we just

had an enormous about the “Christmas Star,” the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn. It all fits.

There are other possibilities. Still others have suggested a supernova. Perhaps it was just a miraculous event outside of our normal knowledge of the night sky. We don’t know. In any case, the magi following a “heavenly fire” has a certain reminiscence of the people of Israel following a fire through the wilderness, and maybe that’s why Matthew found it significant. He loves to show Old Testament events pointing to Jesus

Herod questions the religious elites and is told the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. They answer the question, but they themselves do not act on it. They don’t go to Bethlehem. Why not? Well, it seems to me there are three possibilities. One is that they don’t believe God would reveal something to pagan astrologers and not reveal it to them. The second is they’re too afraid of Herod to do anything about it. And the third is that they are just not interested. That last one seems odd, so I’m guessing maybe one of the first two, but I don’t know.

So the Magi go while Herod plots. They present their gifts to him, gifts that are expressive of his identity and purpose. Gold was a gift fit for a king. Frankincense was used in the worship of God. And myrrh was used to embalm the dead. Together they represent a divine king who will die.

Why does Matthew include this story? I think there are two reasons.

One is that I think it’s a warning of sorts. The religious elites fail to receive the Messiah when he comes. And so they have no share in the Kingdom of God. I think it’s a warning to complacent Jewish people that if they do not receive the Messiah, they won’t have a share in his Kingdom either. That a major part of the message of Matthew’s Gospel.

But the second reason is that Matthew is reminding his Jewish audience that God’s work of salvation is for all people. Now there are hints of that all through the Old Testament. When God calls Abraham, he tells him, “All the nations will be blessed through you.” The Messianic prophecies in Isaiah say, “I will make you a light to the Gentiles. You will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” But many Jewish people thought that even if some righteous Gentiles had a small share in the New Creation, then it would only be as slaves to the children of Abraham. Most had no concept of Gentiles having an equal place and an equal share in God’s salvation.

In Ephesians, Paul calls this a “mystery.” The word mystery was used to talk about God’s plan for history which is contained in Scripture, but only revealed to those who are enlightened by the Spirit. It was there all along, but most missed it.

I think the real value of Ephesians is what it offers us as a vision. There is a vision of a people who are of equal value and have an equal share in God’s blessings. A vision of true equality is rare in the world.

In Ephesians 2:14, Paul says that Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility. There’s plenty of hostility in the world. Plenty of thinking that “my people are of more worth and value than those people.” There is too much prejudice, hatred, and divisiveness in the world. The world needs to hear a vision like we have. The world needs to hear it from us, that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, rich or poor, male or female, black or white, but Christ is all, and is in all.

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