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January 08, 2023*
By Pastor John Partridge
Isaiah 60:1-6 Matthew 2:1-12 Ephesians 3:1-12
If you watch the headlines, or start surfing the internet, you will occasionally see fantastic headlines or posts in the comment sections of your friend’s posts, claiming that the church is repressing the truth, that there are banned books, deliberate conspiracies of secrecy, and all sorts of hidden knowledge. Over the centuries and millennia, many groups have launched new heresies, cults, and religions claiming that they had access to hidden knowledge that no one else could obtain. In every case, their claims are heaping piles of hogwash.
While I was in seminary there were several times when the tabloid style headlines claimed that there was some new revelation from a “newly discovered” or “hidden” gospel that had recently come to light, and our professors would just tiredly point out that the artifact in question had been known to theologians for centuries and that dozens of books had already been written about it. The early church fathers, in the first centuries after Jesus, repeatedly fought against sects that preached that they alone held secret knowledge and every time, what they really held was some misinterpretation of scripture that everyone already knew about.
But in today’s scripture, Paul seems to claim that there is indeed secret knowledge about Jesus. Or that there was, past tense, secret knowledge. Or maybe he just seems to be saying that, and we need to slow down and read it again more carefully. In any case, before we get to Paul, let’s back up eight hundred years, and listen to the prophet Isaiah in this passage from Isaiah 60:1-6, where he says:
60:1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.
5 Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
Isaiah tells of a day when God will send a light into a world that is filled with darkness, a king so filled with the glory of God that nations and kings will flock to worship him and to listen to him. But think about what he said for just a moment. Yahweh was the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was the God of one family who made up the twelve tribes of Israel, but Isaiah says that a king is coming who will be so great, that other kings, and other nations will bow down and worship him. These would, by necessity, represent people who were not family, who were not sons and daughters of Abraham, and who were not, therefore, Jewish at all. That represents a significant change from the status quo of a people who traditionally looked down on, and avoided, Gentiles as much as possible. But then comes the Christmas story, the birth story of Jesus, and in Matthew 2:1-12, we hear the first fulfillment of Isaiah’s words:
2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magifrom the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people, Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Magi, high ranking government officials representing at least one foreign government, travel to Bethlehem to deliver gifts and worship the new king that they saw foretold in the stars. We retell this story every Christmas, and it seems so familiar that it has become ordinary. But the familiarity of the story causes us to forget how big a deal this really was. These men were not Jews, or members of the twelve tribes of Israel, in any way the children of Abraham. They were foreigners, strangers, outsiders, and Gentiles. Jesus was barely old enough to walk when, through him, God had already begun to use him to fulfill the promises of scripture and to invite the outsiders and foreigners into his family. And after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, that fulfillment explodes into the world as we can see in the words of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 3:1-12:
3:1 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—
2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
And here is where Paul discusses the mystery of faith that was revealed to him. It wasn’t some sort of “secret knowledge” or any information that had been hidden in code in the Hebrew alphabet, or the writings of scripture. The mystery was that Jesus did exactly what God had told everyone that the Messiah would do. Jesus was the agent, rescuer and king of his people that invited the outsiders, the outcasts, and the foreigners into Abraham’s family just as Isaiah had written. The mystery really wasn’t what God did, or that he did it, because through Isaiah and his other prophets, God had made it abundantly clear that these were his intentions all along. The mystery of history was how God would bring fulfillment to these scriptures. The revelation was that God chose to do these things through Jesus Christ.
Paul’s great calling was to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the Gentiles, but also to connect the dots that had been written by the prophets and show the Jews that this was what God had intended all along. The big deal that we miss in the Christmas story is that, for us, the climax isn’t the birth of Jesus, the Messiah of the children of Abraham. The big deal is the arrival of the magi who announce to the world that the doors have been opened to the Gentiles. The arrival of the magi is the moment in scripture where God fulfills his promise to invite the outcasts, outsiders, and foreigners to be adopted into the family of Abraham and be grafted into his family tree.
The big deal in the story of magi, is that this is the moment when the story really matters to us because the moment that those outsiders, outcasts, foreigners, and Gentiles are invited in, is the moment when you and I become a part of the Christmas story, and the moment when we were invited to become a part of God’s family.
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, 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 or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com . All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.comThe “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™