Video of this worship service can be found here: https://youtu.be/YOV2uT1u5u4
Bone Grafts in Far, Far Away
January 02, 2022*
By Pastor John Partridge
Isaiah 60:1-6 Ephesians 3:1-12 Matthew 2:1-12
Of course, you’re thinking that Christmas was more than a week ago, but that’s only because our tradition, that was handed down to us through the Protestant and Catholic churches, celebrates the birth of Jesus as the appropriate time for celebration. But today, the first Sunday of the new year or, more specifically January 6th, is Epiphany, the celebration of the arrival of the Magi, or the Wise Men. In the Orthodox tradition, Epiphany is the day that is celebrated as Christmas. And, if we’re honest about our theology, there’s a good case to be made in favor of the Orthodox tradition as, perhaps, a better choice. At the very least, Epiphany is a day that is worthy of both remembrance and celebration. But before I dig too deeply into theology, let’s begin with the story. It is a story, like many of our stories, that began in the Old Testament with the words of the prophet Isaiah where we hear these words in 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.
Isaiah tells of the Messiah that will one day come to rescue Israel, just as he does in other passages that we have read over the season of Advent. But in today’s reading he speaks of how other nations will be drawn to the light of Israel’s messiah. Not only will the coming messiah be a king for the nation of Israel, but Isaiah says that he would also be worshiped by other kings and other nations. Gifts of gold and incense would be given to him from nations in southern Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula, Israel’s southern neighbors, and Saudi Arabia and they would bring so many camels, that thousands of them would cover the hillsides of Israel.
And those stories were remembered as an entourage of magi from far, far away entered Jerusalem along with what was most likely a significantly sized, well-armed, military security and logistics force that would have been sent along to protect, and care for, these important government officials. The magi were, after all, at least ambassadorial level officials, if not what we would think of as presidential advisors or even cabinet level officials. They would certainly not have traveled through wilderness and potentially hostile countries without adequate protection. This is, in my opinion, why we hear Matthew say that King Herod, and all of Jerusalem, was frightened. Reading from Matthew 2:1-12, we hear this:
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.
It’s a story that has become familiar to us after years of repetition, but we still have questions. Did the magi come from the East, or did they see a star in the East, which would mean that they came from the West? Were these emissaries from far, far away ambassadors from nearby Egypt to the West or were they, as is often supposed, the philosophical and scholastic descendants of Daniel from the Persian Empire and this from the area of modern-day Iran or Iraq to the East? Honestly, I don’t know and, as far as I know, there isn’t a definitive answer anywhere in scripture. But what we do know, is that these scholars came bearing gifts from a land far away and became the first Gentiles, the first non-Jews, to worship the newborn Jesus and that is the most important part of the story and begins to tell us why today’s celebration is a big deal. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul explains it this way (Ephesians 3:1-12):
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 13 I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.
Paul says that by God’s grace, he was called to reveal a mystery of prophecy, scripture, and the workings of God among his people on earth. Although it had been hinted at in moments of history, like the one that we saw with the coming of the magi, many, if not most, of God’s people missed what God was doing. But with the coming of Jesus, and the calling of Paul who had once hunted and persecuted Jesus’ followers, the mystery was finally being revealed and explained to everyone, and that mystery is that the Gentiles, people who are not now, and have never been, Jewish, were not only being invited into God’s family, but were being adopted as family members, becoming not only sons and daughters of God, but heirs of his gifts and of his kingdom.
Now, anyone in the world, whether they were Jewish or not, or came from a Jewish family or not, could hear the good news of Jesus Christ and become a part of his family, kingdom, mission, ministry, and join him in his eternal home. The revelation that Paul received, and was called to proclaim, was that this was God’s plan all along. This is the message that God was revealing to the world with the coming of the magi. At that moment, God threw open the doors of heaven and invited the Gentiles, invited us, into his family.
And that’s why today, Epiphany, is a big deal worth celebrating. Certainly, the birth of Jesus was big deal because the Messiah that had been promised to the Jews had finally come to rescue them. At the moment of his birth, Jesus was a Jewish messiah for the Jewish people. But with the coming of the magi, God reveals that Jesus was not just a Jewish messiah for a Jewish people but was instead the savior and rescuer of the entire world. The coming of the magi is the moment when… we… were invited in.
Although Paul says that this was God’s plan all along, it was at that moment, at least symbolically, when we were adopted by God and grafted into the family of Abraham so that we, the people from far, far away, could become, in the words of Samuel, God’s own flesh and bone.
And that is definitely something worth celebrating.
…Merry Christmas everyone.
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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. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.