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Sunday, January 4, 2015

For ALL People

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The day after Christmas, we went to Dallas for some much needed relaxation and entertainment.  We began making our way back after nightfall, and being the inexperienced Texans we are, we missed our exit and wound up driving down the lonely Jacksboro Highway.  A curtain of clouds held back the moon, preventing it from shinning any light on our surroundings.  Needless to say, it was dark.  The darkness consumed everything.  The only relief we had were our headlights as they fought back the encroaching darkness.  I kept thinking about how awful it would have been if something happened and we were trapped out there.  I would have been terrified stuck out in that overwhelming darkness with no hope of rescue.  The only comfort was the trust I had that my car lights wouldn't go out.
I am sure you can all relate.  There is just something terrifying about the dark, for darkness is something that is unknown to us.  In darkness our imaginations run wild.  We imagine all kinds of creatures running about with ill intent wishing us harm.  We envision boogie men stalking us, vampires chasing us, ghosts haunting us, and on and on.  Many stories and legends live on about creatures of the night, and cautionary tales have made their way into our folklore about the dangers of the dark.  This isn’t just a coincidence.  Even Scripture itself speaks about the evils of darkness.  Paul declared to the Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
This present darkness is the same darkness that Isaiah disclosed, the darkness that covers the earth and the thick darkness that covers the peoples.  In the fall, Satan exploited the weakness of flesh and caused all creation to be covered by this darkness.  In this darkness, we could no longer clearly see God or know His will.  It is in this darkness that Satan and his demons work, doing whatever they need to turn our hearts and minds away from our God.  It is in this darkness that our sin is done, that we ourselves become creatures of darkness.  This is our fallen state as humanity, but this darkness is much more personal.  It touches each one of us as it tortures and oppresses us: through sin that we struggle with, through pain and suffering we endure, through sickness and disease that overwhelm us, through death that overtakes us.
The dark is a dangerous place indeed, and all the while Satan and his horde torment us further by whispering to us that we've been lost, forgotten, abandoned by God.  That we are stricken, smitten, and afflicted by Him, and that this darkness is our punishment, condemned to never see the light again.  While it is true that this darkness is our own doing, God was not content to leave us here alone.  From the very beginning, God set into motion a plan for our salvation, to bring His people out of darkness and into His marvelous light, so once again we may know our God and to know His will toward us, that He plans for our welfare and not evil, that He assures us of a bright future, full of promise.
Today, we celebrate Epiphany.  The season of Epiphany is one of light and revelation, as the mystery of God’s salvation is unfurled before the eyes of a dark world.  Until now the Christ child has been revealed only to the people of the promise, the people of the covenant.  But now, today, we hear of the revelation of the Christ child to the wise men, representing the whole of the Gentiles.  Yet, as you might expect, there is more going on here than it seems.
As we read in Matthew, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, “behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.”  They were searching for the One who was born king of the Jews.  They arrived in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, to the palace of Herod, for naturally that would be where the king was born.  Yet Jesus was not there, and when Herod heard of his birth he was troubled, for he knew that this king must be the Christ and would one day challenge his own authority.  So he gathered the chief priests and scribes, asking them where the Christ was to be born.  Referring to the prophets, they sent the wise men on their way to Bethlehem.  They set out and the star reappeared overhead, leading them to the very house of Joseph, Mary and Jesus.  When they saw the child, they fell down and worshiped, presenting him with gifts fit for a king.
In order to fully appreciate this narrative, however, we must ask ourselves just who these wise men are.  Matthew does not tell us much about them.  He doesn't even tell us how they determined the significance of the star.  It is often assumed that these men had access to at least some of the Jewish writings that went out with the people during their exile.  Some believe they were philosophers or learned scholars seeking enlightenment.  Others believe they were pious kings seeking truth.  However, these ideas of tradition came about quite late and have no basis in Scripture.  In fact, when we look at the Greek, the word used for these men is μάγοι, most correctly translated as magi.
This reveals more of the puzzle, as we know this is the same word from which we get magic and magician.  Μάγοι also appears in other places in Scripture.  First, in Daniel 2, we see the king calling together his sorcerers, astrologers, and his μάγοι.  These μάγοι are the court magicians; practitioners of the occult; masters of the mystical.  From the testimony of Scripture, these are the kinds of people that directly oppose God and His people.  Even in the New Testament, we read of one μάγος who opposed Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13 as they shared God’s Word on Cyprus.  Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked at this magician and declared, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”  Then the Lord condemned the magician to blindness and a darkness fell upon him and he could not see the light.
These were the magi.  There was nothing noble or wise about them.  In fact, they were the direct enemies of God.  The very mention of them would have brought disgust in the hearts and minds of Matthews hearers.  So why?  Why did God reveal Christ to His enemies?  Not only did He reveal Christ to the Magi, but through the Magi He also revealed Christ to Herod, the one who sought to kill Jesus to avert the threat to his own throne.  And why was this revelation even recorded?  And why is this the revelation that we read on Epiphany?
We remember this revelation, because it is the very heart of the Gospel that we have received.  Paul declares himself a prisoner of Christ on behalf of us, the Gentiles.  He was given to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.  It was his mission to bring the light to everyone, the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, that this Gospel is not a Gospel of the Jews only, but one for all people.
As I said before, our sin made us creatures of darkness.  In our sin, we were made enemies of God.  In or sin, we oppose Him and rebel against His will, and as a consequence are left in darkness, and while we remain in darkness we are helpless and hopeless, but God sent Christ into the world to bring us into the light, to be our help and our salvation.  As Paul declares in his letter to the Romans, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.  And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
One of my professors told us he refuses to engage in conflict resolution, because it if focused only on eradicating the conflict.  His goal, then, is reconciliation, for we were in conflict with God, but thankfully God was interested in more than conflict resolution.  If He was, He could have resolved the conflict by wiping us out of existence.  Instead, God Himself was interested in reconciliation.  He wanted to unite all people to Himself, so He sent Christ to us and revealed Him as our Savior.  The punishment that was on Him brought us peace, so that we are reconciled to God through Christ, as Paul says, “in whom we have boldness and access with confidence though our faith in Him.
This is what the revelation to the magi reminds us, that though a darkness covers the earth, and a thick darkness over the peoples, a light has shined for us in Christ, and that His glory is seen by all peoples, gathering them together before the Lord as sons and daughters gathered from afar.  This is the mystery of salvation, as Paul declares, that we are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.  Though we were creatures of darkness, through Christ we have become children of light.  This is the Gospel that gives us peace.

And may this peace, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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