Sunday, January 03, 2016

Strangers no more

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 22:21

As Luke’s Gospel is unique in the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple, Matthew’s Gospel is unique in the story of the wise men.  Yet as with stories of the boy Jesus being found in other, extrabiblical sources, so are the visiting wise men found in some of those same sources.  There are details lacking in the Bible found in these other sources. 

So we can find all sorts of twists and turns to this story that may cause some confusion and even doubt as to whether the story itself is true.  There is even a birth account of Jesus in the Qur’an.  So any questions would be fair.  Looking more closely to the biblical and the extrabiblical accounts, however, will reveal a significant and fundamental Truth we can all embrace: all these sources point to the biblical prophecies written so long ago of what was to take place.  The Lord made a Promise long before this time, a Promise made in the midst of Israel’s darkest days, and the time of that Promise to be fulfilled was upon them.  Emmanuel had come to Israel.

Now come the visitors from the East, visitors from outside of Israel.  Other sources give these visitors names and countries of origin, but the Christian tradition does not name them though the tradition insists upon three.  Yet the only count we are given is to the number of gifts, so it has been deduced that since there were three gifts, there must have been three individuals bearing each gift.  Ok.  So what?  That number in itself tells us nothing useful, and has actually been the source of some conflict as we find ourselves engaged in senseless arguments about things that are not biblical, traditions we have created and embraced as “truth”.  These are alleged “facts” we dispute while unintentionally overlooking The Truth.  Stepping over a dollar to pick up a dime.

What we must see is a Covenant not only renewed in the sight of Israel with great Promise; but a Covenant greatly expanded so much so that the Holy Creator used His own creation, a Star, rather than a prophet to summon the Gentiles from a far-away land.  Kings, maybe.  Herod’s response was less than overwhelming as to the presence or even the status of these guests, but he was greatly disturbed as to the purpose of their visit. 

Though I think maybe the fulfillment of the prophecy may be the central part of the story, there are still a few elements of this story we should take into account.

It has been suggested perhaps Herod was Jewish by race, but it seems clear by what is revealed in the Scripture that Herod was no child of Israel; he was a minion of Rome.  If it is true Herod had some Hebrew lineage he was born into, it is pretty clear Herod favored his Roman acquisitions.    

There was power in Rome.  There were riches in his position of favor and authority; the best the “world” has to offer even today.  In the birth of this Messiah referred to as “King of the Jews” by these “strangers”, these “outsiders”, there was a potential threat to his power and authority.  And Herod did take this prophecy very seriously once he became aware, enough to confer with the religious leaders to pin it down.  A Gentile would not have so bothered, but Herod believed enough to feel threatened. 

He believed enough to feel as though all he had, all he believed he was entitled to apart from the Scripture, was now at risk.  He believed enough to know the world was not big enough for him and another King born in the land Herod thought was his own to do with as he pleased. 

Let us also consider that the chief priests and scribes, the Scripture teachers of Israel, are not written of as rushing out to see for themselves all which has been taking place.  Their reading of the prophecy pertaining to this news seemed almost casual as if with a shoulder shrug.  Would we not get pretty excited about the coming of the King we’ve so eagerly waited for if we read it and heard some rumor that added substance to the prophecy?  

Frankly, no.  We often point to the Revelation and some of what is written in the epistles and the Gospels of “signs” pointing to the End of Days, yet there is very little in the way of repentance.  Even within the Church it is business as usual.  Too many people, even those claiming to believe, are running away from the Church.  So it would seem we are no more excited about “signs” and prophecies than the chief priests and scribes were.  We are as casual today about worship of The Lord as the chief priests were about the Word of The Lord.  The Church must not overlook that parallel.

What we might be able to see is that these Gentiles, these “strangers” had come to find something worth the effort and the risk and the trouble they went to; a prophecy from the very Scripture Israel as a Body, as a people had come to take for granted.  These “strangers” were searching for something inside of Israel they seemed to believe included them. 

That alone might be worth some concern on Israel’s part, and certainly on Herod’s part.  Think of it: a KING who would summon outsiders by command of nature?  A King who would welcome “strangers”?? 

The prophecy speaks of more than a single “event” as the birth of Messiah.  This prophecy speaks of a “King” who was now laying claim to a Kingdom which extends beyond the borders of Israel, certainly beyond “Caesar’s” reach, well beyond the walls of any Church today.  The exclusive territory was no longer so exclusive that it is defined by “us” and “them”. 

The Church today must take a good, long, and much closer look at what is being offered to these “strangers” not by Israel as was Israel’s call as a “priestly nation”, but by Israel’s God. 

This God of Israel was always the God of all creation, all humanity; but because The Lord’s own people did not celebrate and worship and offer Him as such but tried to make Him exclusive and unique only to them – their “personal” God – the God of all creation has burst forth in an all-inclusive, all-encompassing way to summon those we have deemed unworthy of His attention.  The God of all creation has declared His independence from those who would dare try to hamstring Him as their “personal” or exclusive God.

Pope Francis has called 2016 the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and our own Bishop Mueller has issued a call for prayer and fasting for Spiritual Revival – both of which are to direct us to the “strangers” among us; the very “strangers” we once were.  Let this Epiphany no longer be what we have allowed it to become: a boring story with no real significance for us beyond the liturgical calendar or the little statues. 

Let us be renewed in the Spirit of the Living God to actively extend mercy and justice to those who cry out for mercy and justice.  Let us become once again the Body of Christ we are called to be.  “For we, too, were strangers once” … until a Star summoned us to come inside.  Amen.  

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