January 9, 2019 by jmar198013
Manuscript and live audio of my message at Central Church of Christ, Stockton, CA. For January 6th, 2019.
From our ongoing series: God’s Neighborhood–a visit in Matthew’s Gospel.
The preaching text was Matthew 2.1-23, but I focused on vv1-12.
The live audio is embedded below. Sorry, for some reason the first three minutes or so got cut off.
Magi from the East
Our readings from Matthew’s Gospel today began like this: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem.
Many Bible translations call these magi wise men. But that’s sugar-coating what they actually were.
Today we would call them astrologers.
Back then, the science of astronomy was still tied up in the superstitions of astrology.
The best translation I’ve ever seen that captures how people in Jesus’ day would have thought of the magi comes, oddly enough, from a translation of the New Testament into Hawaiian pidgin English. In Hawaiian pidgin, they are called: Da Smart Guys who know plenny bout the stars.
They were star-gazers who peered into the night skies.
Scanning the heavens for signs and omens.
Looking for insights and clues.
Watching for warnings of doom. And for glimmers of hope.
The people who lived in God’s Neighborhood probably wondered what had brought da Smart Guys from the east who know plenny bout the stars to them.
Well … a star had brought them, of course.
It says: They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
The people in God’s Neighborhood had the scriptures. But these magi from the east only had the stars.
So God used a star to reach out to them, and invite them into God’s Neighborhood.
And they saw the star. So they followed it.
Okay, to really understand what this story is trying to teach us, you have to know that there’s actually a spiritual geography in the Bible.
Are you ready to learn some basic spiritual geography according to the Bible?
Notice that just in these first two verses of our reading, twice Matthew tells us that these magi have come from the east.
He did not want you to miss that detail.
In the Bible, east is not just a physical direction. It’s a spiritual direction. Any eastward movement is always a bad thing.
In the Bible, going east symbolized moving away from God.
Here’s a few examples.
Very early on in the Bible, Cain murdered his brother Abel. So as punishment, God sent Cain into exile, to wander the earth alone. Gen. 4.16 says: Cain left the Lord’s presence, and he settled down in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Did you hear that? When Cain left God’s presence, he went east.
A few chapters later, Abraham and his nephew Lot had been traveling and living together. But when they decided to go their separate ways, Gen. 13.11-13 says: Lot set out toward the east … and pitched his tent close to Sodom. The citizens of Sodom were very evil and sinful against the Lord.
Lot traveled east and it led him to a very, very bad place full of wicked and violent people.
And much later on in the Bible, when God had to punish his people for generations of injustice and idolatry—after repeated warnings—he sent them into exile in Babylon. In the east.
So I think I’ve made my point. This is a consistent idea throughout the scriptures.
In the spiritual geography of the Bible, east is the wrong direction to be going. It signifies people who have moved away from God. They’re either in trouble, or about to be in trouble.
And Matthew told us—twice—that the magi were from the east.
So he’s not just talking about their physical location. He’s also telling us about their spiritual condition.
They were away from God.
They were lost. They were confused. And they were in trouble.
Here they were, da Smart Guys who know plenny bout the stars. But they didn’t know God.
And there was probably also plenty about their world, their lives, and their own hearts they didn’t understand, either.
Can you see them now? I mean really see them?
Peering out desperately into the long, dark night all around them.
They weren’t just looking at stars and supernovas, constellations and comets.
They were looking for answers. Some answer. Any answer.
They were looking for comfort.
For clues about their future.
For guidance and direction.
For significance and meaning and purpose.
They were looking for hope in the darkness.
And the stars were all they had to go on. It was all they knew.
But God saw their longing. He felt them reaching out in the darkness. So he sent them a star to follow.
Listen to what Matthew says. Matt. 2.10: When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.
Somehow that star—bearing good news about a newborn king—told them they would find the answers, the clues, the comfort and the hope they were looking for.
So, overwhelmed with joy, they followed the star.
The followed the star out of the east, and right into God’s Neighborhood.
And the star led them to Jesus.
Matt. 2.11: They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him.
Let’s talk about this phrase, they honored him. If you’re reading from the NIV, it says they bowed down and worshiped him.
The same word can mean both to honor and to worship. And I like to think they came to worship.
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, an angel had said Jesus would be known as Emmanuel, or God-with-us.
So I prefer to believe that the magi, who searched the stars for so long, looking for a message from God—realized somehow that they were actually meeting God when they met baby Jesus.
It was more than they could ever have dreamed hoped for or even imagined.
The people we know living out east
Okay, church family. Let’s leave the magi for now, worshiping Jesus. They will give him gifts, and then go home another way. Because spiritually-speaking, they would never again go east—away from God.
The magi took God home with them. Now God lived in their hearts. In their memories of meeting Christ.
Let’s talk about here and now.
Right now our lives,
our our social media friends lists,
are full of people like those magi, before they saw the star.
Spiritually, they’re living in the east. Without God in their lives.
They’re lost. They’re in trouble. They’re confused. They’re lonely.
They’re searching in the darkness for meaning.
You know these people, and so do I.
The star of Bethlehem and the light of the world
When Jesus was born, God sent a star to shine in the east. So the magi would see it, and they could follow it to Christ.
God’s still shining a light out into the darkness. But now it’s not a star.
The light God has put in the world to show the way to Jesus now is us.
The church. It’s you and it’s me.
Listen to what Jesus said a little later on in the Sermon on the Mount. He’s talking about us. He’s saying this to you, and to me: You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden.
See, the magi knew stars. So God put a star in the sky for them to see.
But the people you know—they know you. So God has put you in their lives, to show them the way to Christ.
Right now, God is putting us—this church—in a new community. A new neighborhood. And he’s sending us there to shine, and bring people to Christ.
God wants us to be seen.
Like I said, it’s in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus tells us we’re the light for the world. We’re the star shining over Bethlehem now.
And he spent the rest of the Sermon on the Mount teaching us how to shine.
And how we shine really all comes down to relationships. And communication. And how we treat other people.
For example, let’s say you come to worship. And you’ve got a gripe with someone else here. Jesus would say, before the communion tray gets passed down to you, you need to go to this friend and make things right.
That’s how you shine.
The way of the world is to stew over it. To talk about that person, instead of talking the problem over with them.
Or maybe there’s someone who just irritates you. Rubs you the wrong way. Gets under your skin. And you really just wish you could avoid them. But Jesus says: If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that.
When you bear with the people who annoy you the most, that’s how you shine.
How’s about this. Matt. 6.3: When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively.
Don’t be a glory hound.
There’s a paradox there. When you intentionally try not to be seen doing good, it stands out more. You stand out. You shine.
Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sums it all up like this. He says: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them.
When we live like that—when we do life together like that—people will see.
People will notice.
We will be like that star the magi saw in the east. Matthew said when they saw the star, it filled them with joy, and they followed it to Jesus.
Same with us.
When people see you shining—when they see us shining together—it brings them joy. And they’re going to follow the light we’re giving off, and it’s going to lead them to Jesus.
They’ll come and worship him. And they’ll bring their gifts to him, and share them with us. For Christ’s glory and the common good.
O, church family—God’s really impressing all this deep on my heart right now. That as we prepare to move into our new home, in a new community—he’s sending us there to shine.
And the habits we’re forming right now, the ways we’re letting our hearts be discipled—that’s going to carry over into our new home.
The ways we work to keep our relationships with one another healthy.
How we communicate with each other.
How we work together.
How we bear with one another and lift each other up in our shortcomings.
The ways we interact with visitors and strangers.
Those are all going to determine how bright we shine in this new place God is sending us.
My deepest concerns as we move forward aren’t if we’re going to be able to pay the bills or maintain the physical property or have enough teachers and volunteers.
I do care about all that. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us that if we faithfully pursue the peace and well-being of God’s Neighborhood, God will make sure all those needs will be supplied.
What I care most about is that we shine, like that star shone in the east.
I hear Jesus blessing us, saying: You are the light of the world.
But I also hear Jesus’ warning in another part of the Sermon on the Mount: If then the light in you is darkness, how terrible that darkness will be!
Even though God is sending us to shine like a star and lead people to Christ, there’s still this possibility that the light in us could go dark.
And what a terrible tragedy that would be!
For us, yes. But also for all those people God is sending us to, to light the way to Christ.
We are the light of the world because he is the light of the world
So here’s something that’s really essential for you to understand. Write this deep on your heart and believe it: None of us can shine on our own.
Remember how I said the Sermon on the Mount was Jesus teaching the church how to shine?
But when I hear the things he tells us to do, I know I can’t do them. If I’m really being honest with myself, and with Jesus. And I think if we’re all honest, we’ll all admit we can’t do them. Not fully, or consistently.
Jesus tells me to keep my anger in check and not to hold a grudge. But to make peace with people who annoy me or make me angry.
But I know how I cling to my anger. I justify it by calling it righteous anger. Even though I know full well the Bible says not even my most righteous anger will accomplish the good God would rather do through me.
Jesus calls me to love even my enemies. But I don’t always do a very good job of loving the people I love.
Jesus tells me forgiveness is the bridge we all must cross. So I had better not burn that bridge.
But I’m so tender. And once somebody has hurt me, I have such a hard time letting myself be vulnerable again. So maybe I don’t burn the bridge. But I don’t work as hard as I could to maintain and repair it, either.
Jesus tells me not to be judgy with other people. But I’ve learned how to disguise my judginess by being a fixer.
And my hurry to fix other people too often becomes the plank in my eye that makes it so I can’t really see them. It’s the cotton in my ears that keeps me from really listening to them.
I know I’m not the only one here who sometimes suffers from fixer fatigue.
And then Jesus tells me to treat other people the way I’d like to be treated.
But then I beat myself up. I compare myself to others, always ashamed that I’m too much of this, or not enough of that. I often don’t treat myself with grace or compassion. So how can I treat you with grace and compassion?
And if we’re all being honest, we all fail to live the way Jesus told us to live.
We all struggle to shine. The light in us is small. And hazy. And it flickers a lot. And sometimes we make more irritating smoke than we do light.
And no matter how much we try,
how badly we wish for it,
how hard we struggle,
how long we work on it,
even how much we pray—
we just can’t make ourselves shine.
But Jesus told us to shine.
And for us to shine basically means not to be petty. Not to be worry warts. Don’t be so quick to get annoyed or offended.
But be patient and generous and pay attention to what other people need.
And we have a really hard time even getting those things right.
So how can we ever be the light of the world?
Only because Christ has already said: I am the light of the world (John 8.12).
And through faith and baptism, we live in Christ, and Christ lives in us.
He is the light of the world. He shines in the darkness. Even in the darkness inside us. And the darkness doesn’t overcome his light.
We can only be the light of the world when Christ dwells fully and richly in us. When his light lives in us, and shines through us.
Remember the star, shining in the east, that led the magi to Christ?
It didn’t just show up and start shining on its own. God had to fill it with light, and send it into the heavens, where he wanted it to go.
It’s the same with us and Christ. He fills us with his light, and sends us into the world to shine.
Think of all the ways Jesus taught us to shine. He taught us that when we look at other people, we must look beyond what is offensive and annoying and inconvenient to us. To see their hurt and their deepest needs.
He told us to do very hard things. Like loving, forgiving, and blessing our enemies. Turning the other cheek when someone slaps you. Giving them your other garment, even if it leaves you naked. And carrying a burden that doesn’t rightly belong to you.
And then he did all those things. For us.
He looked beyond our sin and shame and rebellion—and saw our loneliness and our longings. Our fears and our hopes.
And even when we were his enemies, and our hands were stained with his blood, he loved us. He forgave us. He prayed for us.
He was slapped, to expose our pettiness and cruelty.
He was stripped, to expose our shame.
He carried the burden of our sins and our sorrows across his shoulders.
In his death, Jesus is the light who exposes our sins and our failures.
But in resurrection, he lives in us. And he shines through us. Through our faith, and by his faithfulness.
And he dwells with his church—moving and working among us and through us and in us—by the Holy Spirit.
No, we can’t generate enough light on our own to be the light of the world.
But when we faithfully surrender to him, he will be the light of the world through us.
Reaching out into the darkness. Shining in the east. To lead people to him.
He will be understanding, patient, forgiving, merciful, open, vulnerable, and welcoming through us.
He will bind up the brokenhearted and pick up the pieces of shattered lives. But we will be the tools he uses to heal and restore.
His love will cover a multitude of sins. But his love will pour out through our lives. Through this church.
He will make us the light of the world.
And just like the magi were filled with joy
when they saw the star,
and followed it until they found Christ;
the people in our lives,
on our social media feeds,
and in our new neighborhood will see us shining.
And they will be filled with joy. And they will come to us.
Because they will find Christ
dwelling here within us and among us.