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The Rev. Dr. Laura Mendenhall The Rev. Dr. Laura Mendenhall

The Rev. Dr. Laura S. Mendenhall is the former president of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA


Not For Us Alone

Matthew 2:1-6, Ephesians 3:7-12

Epiphany of the Lord

January 05, 2003

Hear God's Word from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, verses 1-6:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and we have come to pay him homage?" When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all of Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: '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.'"

God's Word continues to the church in Ephesus, reading in chapter 3, verses 7-12. Hear what the Spirit says to the church:

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. 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, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 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. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and competence through faith in him.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

When my children were young, they got a big kick out of Halloween. Our kids never wore purchased costumes. They always thought up things they wanted to be, and then we figured out how to make those costumes out of boxes, scraps of material, whatever. I remember the time one of them was a jack-in-the-box and popped out of a big cardboard box dressed as a clown. Or the time one of them was a bag of jellybeans and wore a big, clear plastic bag tied at the neck and filled with small colored balloons. One year one of them was a Wise Man from "a far" and dressed as a fireman. I realize you may have to be from a particular part of the country to get this one. A wise man from "a far." You know, a far--you need a hose to put it out.

Well, where were those Wise Men from? And, by the way, we don't know that they were particularly wise; many translations simply call them visitors from the East. Nor do we know how many of them there were, only that there were three gifts. Nor do we know from this text that they were kings. Most likely, they were astrologers--people who searched for life's meaning in the stars--the heavens. The Greek called them Magi. But where did they come from? They were not nomads; they were from somewhere. They were probably leaders in their community, professionals, scholars. All we know for sure is that they were from afar.

We can assume that they had personal lives-that their families and friends quizzed them when they were preparing to leave home and follow a star, asked them where they were going. Did they answer, "Oh, we're following a star in search of the King of the Jews"? King of the Jews? Why would they care? They were not Jews. The promise had not been given to them. Every Hebrew knew that King David's great successor would, of course, be born in the City of David, in Bethlehem, but this was not their king. They did not know the birthplace; nevertheless, they knew from their studies that a new king had been born. That was enough for them to leave home and travel from afar in order to worship this King of the Jews.

The question I have is, "Why would they come such a distance to worship a king who was not theirs?" The Jews were expecting a king. The prophet Isaiah in chapter 60 tells what the Jews expected at their Messiah's birth. Dignitaries on camels, the wealth of the nations brought to him--gold and frankincense--the glory of the Lord appearing over them all proclaiming the praise of their Lord. The psalmist, too, in Psalms 72, celebrates the appearance of a king, the liberator of those who cannot liberate themselves, the king who judges with righteousness and justice. And the Jews expected to worship their king, but where did these Wise Men from afar get the idea that they needed to go and worship this King of the Jews?

I do not know. Scripture leads us to believe they came because God led them, guiding them each step of the way. What we know is that they came. Gentiles who could not have been more remote from the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem in their heritage or their worldviews--these astrologers came to worship the King of the Jews.

This is particularly interesting since Herod, the ruler of the Jews, was frightened by the birth of a new king, and all of Jerusalem with him. The ruler of the Jews was jealous of a new king and began immediately to plot to have Jesus killed. The Jewish people were upset because their ruler was upset. So it was that this king of the Jews was worshipped by those from afar who had no faith heritage, but was not worshipped by those whose faith pointed to him as the fulfillment of God's promise to them. Thus began the procession of outsiders who have found and continue to find in Jesus Christ the mystery of their salvation.

At this very beginning of Jesus' life, we see the dividing walls between races and cultures and backgrounds breaking down. As Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus through the Gospel. And all of this is particularly good news for us, because, you see, we are the Gentiles. We are the outsiders to the Jewish tradition. Yet we are sharers in the promise, fellow heirs, even though the covenant did not come through our families' ancestors. We are in the line of those astrologers from afar worshipping a king, not because he is ours but because in Christ we have found the gift of God's grace. We are heirs of the promise, standing with the Magi, led by God to worship Christ the King.

What we have to be cautious about is slipping over and standing with Herod. It is not out of the realm of possibility for us to imagine ourselves among God's chosen and to resent those we perceive to be outsiders. Our lives are so blessed. We were born into a land of promise. We have been well nourished, educated, vaccinated, air-conditioned and heated. Others look to us for help. So we may on occasion find it difficult to be open to what others recognize about the mystery of salvation, for our lifestyle leads us to think that we have it all figured out. Certainly, we can become very sure of ourselves with the potential for arrogance.

That is why it is important for us to hear this story of the Magi, a story of outsiders who were led from afar in order to worship a king they could not claim as their own but one they knew was their Lord and Savior. Paul sums it up this way:

Now in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off, have been brought near by Christ who is our peace. In his flesh he has broken down the dividing wall--that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with his commandments and ordinances that he might create in himself one new humanity, thus making peace. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were afar and peace to you who are near.

By the end of the Gospel story, it is no longer a matter of outsiders coming to Jerusalem but of Jesus' disciples going out to all the nations so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to all.

Today the Christian Church has more members in the Southern Hemisphere than it does in all of the Near East, Europe, and North America. Therefore, when we pray, we pray along side those beseeching God's mercy in Africa. When we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we share with those offering tortillas to one another in Latin America. When we sing praises to God, it is with brothers and sisters in the Pacific Islands. When we hear God's Word and seek to live it out, it is with a whole spectrum of Christian traditions--Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Reformed, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and other free churches. Wherever we claim our church home, it is only one small expression of Christ's great church. Our salvation is not for us alone. At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, in spite of the challenges of being open to outsiders, they are our best hope for living into the reign of God. The mystery of our salvation binds us to one another and empowers us to be faithful together in God's work for justice and peace, bringing light to those who are most at risk--children, the poor, the oppressed, the discouraged, the downtrodden.

Let us welcome one another, knowing we have access to God in boldness and in confidence through faith in Christ. While the mystery of salvation is not for us alone, it is for us. Thanks be to God!

I invite you to pray.

Holy God, we thank you for Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, for revealing your glory to the nations, for sending a star to guide seekers of wisdom to Bethlehem that we all might worship Christ. Thank you for your signs and witnesses in every age leading people from every place to worship and serve him. O Christ, let your gospel shine now in every place, draw the whole creation to yourself that your salvation may be known throughout all the earth. O Christ, Savior and Lord, make your church a place of welcome for people of every race and tongue, of outsiders and insiders, of all who seek their Savior and King. O Christ, Ruler of rulers, direct the work and thoughts of leaders of our nation, that they may seek justice today and further peace and freedom for all. O Christ, Master of all, the support of the weak and comfort of the afflicted, strengthen the tempted and raise the fallen, watch over the lonely and those in danger. Give hope to the despairing and sustain the faith of the persecuted. God of majesty and light, you hold the whole world in your hand. Your light is strong. Your love is near. Draw us beyond the limits that this world imposes to the life where the Spirit makes all life complete. Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.


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