Sunday, January 5, 2014

Sermon -- Epiphany, transferred (January 5, 2014)

MATTHEW 2:1-12

In the name + of Jesus.

     The Bible is filled with stories about kings.  Some were good, and some were not.  Of course, the way the Lord assessed who was good and who was not is different than the way we assess whether or not a leader is good.  We elect our leaders based on whose policies and promises we like.  We grade our leaders based on whether or not they have improved the state of the country.  Or perhaps more specifically—whether or not our wallets are thicker after the leader leaves office.
     God’s grading system is very different.  God’s judgment had nothing to do with economies, foreign policies, or infrastructure.  Every king, especially those of the nation of Israel, was judged on this scale: Either he did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord, or he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.  History books care about what is material or military.  The Lord, however, looks at the heart.  That’s all that matters.
     There are a number of kings in our Gospel today.  First was King Herod.  He was influential and powerful enough that history has given him the title Herod the Great.  And Herod did wield a great deal of authority.  He was a crafty man who jockeyed his way into power, always managing to play the right side in Roman power plays.  He had worked hard to gain his position.  Herod kept his position by keeping his subjects scared and his enemies either distant or dead.  Herod would not tolerate any challenge to his power.
     So naturally, when Herod had other royals come to see him, and when Herod had heard that they were seeking the one who had been born King of the Jews, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matthew 2:3)  The wise men had declared that the star had proclaimed a true king.  They had come to worship him.  Herod would not.  Herod would not tolerate a rival, much less bow down to him.  Herod wanted him dead.
     But Herod was a fraud.  No matter how much power and authority he was convinced he had, Herod was only dust and breath.  He was just as mortal as any man, and history has proven it.  Herod is dead, and he no longer scares anyone.  He has learned that death has authority over him.  He has learned that he must answer to the God he had tried to destroy.  Herod would not humble himself before anyone, even before the Lord.  And therefore, God humbles Herod for all eternity, keeping him forever imprisoned and tormented in hell.
     Be warned, so that you are not guilty of the same arrogance and rebellion as King Herod.  Herod’s problem was not ignorance.  He consulted the teachers to hear what God’s word said.  Herod simply would not listen.  He would not humble himself.  He would not repent or believe.  Herod had deceived himself into believing that he truly was Herod the Great.  But now his power is gone.  His breath is gone.  He is only dust.
     The star proclaims a true king.  Listen to what the teachers of the law said about the Christ: “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Matthew 2:6)  Jesus would shepherd his people.  That means he leads you where you need to go.  If you need to feel to poking and prodding of the shepherd’s staff to keep you from going astray, the shepherd will do that.  A good shepherd does not simply let the sheep go where they please, even if they are very pleased to go there.  The shepherd’s role is to care for the flock—to provide and protect, not to pander.  And so there are times when, through the shepherds he has called, Jesus will call you to repent of your sins.  But like Herod, you will not like it.  The sinful nature is not willing to be corrected, much less convicted or condemned.  And like Herod, you may find yourself refusing to humble yourself before the true king.  Your sinful nature wants to deceive you into thinking that you are great, that you owe apologies to no one, that your will should be unrivaled.  But do not deceive yourself.  No matter how great you think you are, like Herod, you are dust and breath.  Your wit, your will power, and your opinion of yourself cannot save you.  Therefore, humble yourself.  Repent.
     The star proclaims a true king.  When his star first appeared, Wise Men from the east recognized it.  Isaiah had foretold: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (Isaiah 60:3)  It is for this reason that the Wise Men are often called kings.  Though they may have reigned over many lives, they were not so high and mighty that they would not humble themselves.  The Wise Men were not frauds.  They had honestly assessed themselves.  They knew they needed a Savior, and they rejoiced when the star proclaimed he had come.
     The Wise Men went to the palace in Jerusalem to see the one born king of the Jews.  But this was far more than a diplomatic visit.  The Wise Men confessed, “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)  True to their word, that is exactly what they did when they came to Bethlehem.  Going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. (Matthew 2:11)  The Wise Men literally fell upon their faces, completely humbling themselves before an infant.  In him, the saw their Savior and the King of the Universe.  This was the one before whom they would have to stand in judgment.  But before standing in judgment, they fell on their knees before Jesus.  For, they knew that this was the One who would speak on their behalf.  He had come to save them from their sins and grant a full pardon for all their guilt.
     The star proclaimed a true king, and the gifts of the Wise Men confessed who this king was.  Besides the royal gift of gold, they also gave him frankincense and myrrh.  The presence of the Lord was marked by the smell incense in the Holy of Holies.  The morning and evening sacrifices were offerings of incense.  And therefore, Jesus became a fragrant offering for you.  He covered the stench of your sin by his sacrifice of himself.  The King of the Universe and the King of kings humbled himself not just to be born a frail human being, but especially to die an accursed death on a cross.  He died for your sins.  He atoned for your guilt.  And then, he was laid to rest in strips of cloth and myrrh.  The empty tomb and the risen body of Jesus are no longer marked by a stench of sin and death, but proclaim that your sins are forgiven and that you are delivered from death to life.  And so he saves you from your sins.  He restores all things.  This divine King proclaims that the very presence of God is where you will dwell forever, and it is all because this King first chose to come and dwell with you.
     The star proclaims a true king.  There will always be people like King Herod who demand their respect, who intimidate, and who will not change their ways.  They may even live long lives and seem to get everything they want.  But that is all a farce.  For, we are all dust and breath.  We all have to stand before the true king.  How much better and wiser it is to approach our Lord as the Wise Men did—on our knees, with broken and contrite hearts, and with great joy that a Savior has come for us!  And while we give of our best to him, we also recognize that we are blessed because this king has given the best gifts to us.  Your heavenly King declares that you are good and right in the eyes of the Lord.  His royal decree is salvation.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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