“The Invasion Expands”
January 01, 2017
By John Partridge*
Isaiah 60:1-6 Matthew 2:1-12 Ephesians 3:1-12
Many of you were there, or were reading the newspapers, during World War Two. For a time, as the Nazi war machine drove across Europe, it seemed as if there was nothing that could stop it. But then, after years of planning, after building hundreds of ships, thousands of airplanes, and training enormous numbers of troops and ferrying them all to England, came D-day and the Allied invasion of Europe. No one knew if they would be successful, but the beachhead was secured and the long fight back across Europe began. But already, even before the Normandy invasion had begun, more invasions were being planned. In short succession, the Allies would invade North Africa, and then Sicily, and then bring forces into southern Europe through Italy. This expansion of the war forced the Axis to fight on multiple fronts and further divided their forces. It was a plan that was both risky and bold. The allies, particularly with the participation of the United States, had resources of both men and material that they could afford to spend while the German army did not. In the end, this expansion was a key part of the allied victory.
But why do I recite this story today on the day that we celebrate Epiphany?
The answer is simple, in scripture, the events that we remember at Epiphany, with the coming of the wise men, are incredibly similar to the Allied invasions that we saw in Europe. But let’s back up for a moment. The birth of Jesus as a human child, God wrapping himself in human flesh, is a decisive moment in both history and scripture. That moment has often been described as God’s invasion of the Earth, a beachhead landing in a small town in the hill region of Israel. From that point, God’s people would carry the Good News of Jesus’ coming, his life, his sacrifice, and of our rescue from sin and death. But in the story of the wise men, the invasion expands. This widening invasion was not a surprise, or at least it shouldn’t have been, because just as Isaiah prophesied about the coming of the messiah, he also told of how the messiah would expand his kingdom. (Isaiah 60:1-6)
60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
3 Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
The story of God’s covenant with Abraham, as well as that of Moses and the Exodus, and nearly all of the Old Testament, is a story of God’s special relationship with the people of Israel. But here, Isaiah declares that one day, with the coming of the messiah, other nations from all over the known world would join them.
And in a story that sounds as if it is almost a mirror to the prophecy of Isaiah, we hear these words in Matthew 2:1-12.
2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Beyond representing the fulfillment of Isiah’s prophecy regarding the messiah, the coming of the wise men represents a significant shift in the way that God chooses to deal with the affairs of humanity. Beginning with Abraham, God chose to become involved, to make a commitment to and a covenant with, one family. Among all the people on the earth, God chose to build one special relationship with one people, in one place. But with the prophecy of Isaiah, and then the coming of the wise men, God expands his invasion. No longer does God choose to limit himself to one nation or one people. The doors are thrown open and God invites people from all over the world, foreigners from far away, Gentiles, people who do not follow the laws and the rules laid down for Israel. The wise men, scholars and governmental ambassadors, who travelled from Arabia, or Persia, possibly from what we would now call Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, or Iraq, or Iran, and quite possibly knowing of the prophecies of Daniel, they follow the star, and come to Bethlehem to worship the new king of Israel.
These were not Jews. They were not children of Abraham that had gotten lost, immigrated abroad, or somehow misplaced. These were non-Jews, unbelievers, truly Gentiles by every definition. And the invasion expands as God begins landings, not only in Israel, but all over the world. As the angels proclaimed to the shepherds on that first dark Christmas night, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”
And then, after the Gospel accounts of Jesus life, which also included several tantalizing hints of God’s ministry to the Gentiles, then comes Paul, a Pharisee and a dedicated persecutor of the Jewish followers of Jesus, who has a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. After that time, Paul becomes a missionary of Jesus Christ but in contrast with James, John, and the other disciples, Paul is called to minister to the Gentiles. Once again, the invasion expands. In Ephesians 3:1-12, Paul says this:
3:1 This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— 2 for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, 3 and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, 4 a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. 5 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: 6 that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
7 Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. 8 Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
Paul says that in former generations the mystery of God was known only to the Jews, but with the coming of Jesus Christ, God has not only been made known to the entire world, but the Gentiles have become heirs of God’s kingdom, adopted as sons and daughters alongside of Abraham, Moses, and the people of Israel. Paul proclaims that not only has he been called as a missionary to carry this good news, but that it is God’s intention, “through the church” for God’s wisdom to be made known to the Gentiles and thus to the entire world.
And so, as we celebrate Epiphany and the coming of the Wise Men we recognize that this marks a significant expansion of God’s invasion of the earth as well as being the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. The worship of the wise men symbolizes the beginning of God’s ministry, outreach, and rescue of the Gentiles… our adoption, our inclusion into God’s family alongside the people of Israel.
But Paul reminds us that this, like the invasion of North Africa, was only the beginning of a long and difficult battle. For two thousand years the message of Jesus, the Good News of our salvation and rescue, has spread around the world, but that work is not yet finished. Many people have never heard the stories of Jesus. Many have never known that Jesus sacrificed his life in order to rescue them. Many of our family members, neighbors and friends do not know that Jesus has invited them to live forever in paradise. Although we, as Gentiles, have heard the Good News and belong to God’s family, our work is not done. God’s intention, God’s plan, is that all these people will hear of his message through the church.
And so, in the end, the message of Epiphany and the arrival of the wise men, reminds us that we still have work to do.
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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646. These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.