Where is the Messiah?


Matthew 2:1-12
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
Manteno UMC
March 23, 2014*
Our two daughters came home for Christmas. They escaped the frigid cold, snow and/or ice of Michigan for a few cold and balmy days in Springfield, Ill. Our daughters arrived Christmas Eve seeking a new manifestation of old family times. More than that, two of our three children came home to assess how Mom and Dad were doing.

My wife, Beverly, had major surgery Dec. 9. And I’ve been her private nurse. Departing last Sunday, both daughters confirmed the results of their visit. Their mother seemed to be recovering nicely. Dad was providing good care for his wife and their Mom. Food, prayer, conversation, gift exchanges, hugs and kisses had enriched our family time. Furthermore, God showed up in our personal testimonials and singing of Christmas carols. A family epiphany longed for came to pass, precipitated by their traveling from Lansing, Mich. to Springfield, Ill.
In the Christmas story, three Wise Men had a dream come true. They left home desiring a meaningful encounter with Christ. A Star, a manifestation of Christ, led them into His very presence. In Bethlehem they worshiped Him.

Our lives have been shaped by a similar search for Christ. John Hopkins encapsulated that quest in his famous Christmas Carol. “We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts we traverse afar, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star. O star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to the perfect light.”  Their trek, their travel, their pilgrimage grew out of one major question. “Where is the Messiah?”     

What an unusual quest?  Three Wise Men, of sound body and mind, search for a God born king of the Jews. Why? Were the Oriental gods of their country inadequate or impotent?  Were Oriental theologians and religious leaders avoiding their questions or thought it inappropriate to question non-Oriental god-speak of their day. Maybe an inner struggle grips the Magi. Is “religion of the head” a faith of choice?  Or, is their Oriental religion an excellent synthesis of head and heart lacking the capacity to really care for all God’s children?  Or, presume the Wise Men are students of world religions?  In separating the wheat from the chaff of various religions, do they find tenets of Judaism more tenable or reliable than their faith choices in the Orient?  I do not know.

However, the Wise Men know what the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem know. Over 700 years before Christ, an inspired eighth century prophet named Micah prophesies that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Messiah. Like millions before and after them, the Wise Men believe what they have read but not seen. To meet the Messiah in person, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is in order. So they act, out of faith not fact. Think for a moment about that notion; acting out of faith not fact.

The pages of Old Testament History are filled with hope for a coming Messiah. Generation after generation of Jews had been wishing, hoping, thinking and praying for the Messiah to appear. Although God’s chosen people waited over 700 years, they never gave up on the coming of the Messiah. Some folk envisioned the Messiah as a new King David. He would be equipped to restore Jerusalem, Jews and the people of God to their former glory. Rome would be defeated. And Israel, in its place succeeded.

Second, the Wise Men believed that a God born king of the Jews was concerned about Jews and non-Jews. If not, why would the Wise Men spend time, money and energy and leave their families for international travel?  Why would the Magi identify worshiping this new king as the chief aim of their trip if they did not believe that a relationship with this Jewish God would challenge and bless them all the days of their lives?  Third, the Wise Men journey from the East to Jerusalem because they observe a star. It’s not just any old star. Rather, “it’s a star, dancing in the night, with a tail as big as a kite.”  As if by mental telepathy, the twinkle and bright glow of this star literally speaks to them: “Come to Bethlehem and see, Christ whose birth the angels sing...Gloria in excelsis Deo,” meaning glory to God in the highest. No longer an astrological phenomenon in the heavens for scientific study; the Star becomes “a sign of God’s presence in the world.”  The light in the heavens was but a representation of the prophetic light the word of God had been beaming in the book of Micah for over 700 years. The Wise Men acted like the Good Shepherd after lost sheep. Asking themselves “Where is the Messiah?” was not enough. They were compelled to go and search for him. If we are looking for God to be near us, to help and guide us; we have to emulate the Wise Men. “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call on him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous their thoughts…” (Isaiah 55: 5-6)
When I thought of the numerous emotions stirred in the Wise Men regarding the Messianic question; words like emboldened, assured, pleased, delighted and encouraged came to mind. None of the Magi were interested in his prestige, power or money or administration of Judea. A new King had been born in his area. And they had come to worship him not render much of anything to him or Caesar. King Herod had a different reaction to the question. He was frightened.

So disturbed was King Herod by the question of the Wise Men that he consulted with all the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem. They told Herod about the prophecy of Micah; the same prophecy that had inspired the Wise Men to travel to Bethlehem via Jerusalem. It’s remarkable; a single verse of prophecy had brought the Wise Men to the Holy Land. Hear it again. “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah from you shall come forth from me, one who is to rule in whose origin is from old, from ancient days.”  That same verse proved to be the most disturbing event in Herod’s reign as King.     
Herod’s response to the Magi’s question is a part of our lives. We know frightening questions too. For example, will Obamacare raise taxes?  Will the judge and jury spare or convict my relative?  Am I ever going to be poor, homeless, unemployed, friendless or abandoned like some folks I see on television?  Why won’t the government raise the minimum wage?  Why did the State of Illinois adopt legislation on same-sex marriage?  Are we really safe from earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, typhoons, thieves and terrorists?  Is my child going to die from cancer?  Will I die of cancer or some other horrible disease?  Is my spouse going to leave me for someone else? If there is a divorce, how will I and my children survive?  Is it well with your soul?  When is Jesus coming to judge the quick and the dead?   Am I going to heaven or hell when I die?  Life bereft of frightening questions is a misnomer.    
One can imagine some of Herod’s real fears. The birth of a new king suggests the end of his kingship, loss of power, loss of prestige, loss of income, loss of his ability to support his family and moving. The end of his kingship means an uncertain future including retirement, the time it takes to find a new job, etc. Unwilling to speak publicly of these concerns, Herod holds a secret meeting with the Wise Men. He charges them to find the exact place in Bethlehem where Jesus can be found and bring him the news. Just like the Wise Men, Herod wishes to worship the newborn King. Without their permission, King Herod adds his own agenda to theirs. All they want to do is worship the newborn King but Herod wants the Wise Men to perform an FBI, CIA or police function, namely: report the whereabouts of the Messiah so he can allegedly come and worship him. With Herod’s agenda and their own, the Wise men set out for Bethlehem. And God’s epiphany, the Star, reappears “with a tail as big as a kite.”  And it leads them to Bethlehem.

Today’s Bethlehem hardly resembles first century Bethlehem. We know and are led to the place where is it said Jesus was born. Cameras in hand, throngs of people wait in long lines to visit the grotto inside the Church of the Nativity. Outside, vendors wait to sell you anything money can buy. Lord willing, in February, a group from IGRC will enter the Church of the Nativity and visit the spot said to be Jesus’ birthplace. A beauteous altar, a graved plaque on a cold floor, and biblical history will recall what’s left of that silent and holy night. Yet, there is an aura about that sight, as if Jesus, Joseph and Mary are silent but invisible witnesses who choose to come to Bethlehem. I know not why his birthplace left me in tears years ago; but it did.   
It was a joyous, most worshipful and high holy moment for the three Kings when they met the Christ child face to face. In his presence, the Wise Men were transformed, welcomed, inspired, loved, respected, fulfilled and given a new lease on life. So moved were Magi over the attainment of this impossible dream that they offered to Christ themselves, plus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. More than that, each man had a story, a testimony to share with the folk back home. They had met a babe in Bethlehem destined to change the world, not just Israel. Two thousand years later, that same Messiah - that same babe in Bethlehem has touched our lives too. We are no longer the same. The babe of Bethlehem, born King of the Jews, is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ too.  He has touched our lives.

After their visit was over, the Wise Men had Herod’s agenda to complete. The King asked and they agreed to return with information on the exact whereabouts of Christ. Herod claimed that he wanted an opportunity to worship the Christ child himself. And then, it happened. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. What ought the Wise Men do?  They had made a promise. A promise made ought to be a promise kept. As they discussed and reflected on this dream, it had the same impact as the Star that led them to Bethlehem. The dream seemed to come from God. To put it bluntly, the Wise Men had a choice: to obey King Herod because of a promise or to obey God?  That is the lifelong choice faced by all who follow the Messiah. The Three Wise Men chose to do what God’s dream instructed. Without saying a mumbling word to Herod, they returned home by another road.

Realizing that he had been tricked, Herod showed his true colors. The King issued an edict that all male children in and around Bethlehem should be killed immediately. Using that strategy, King Herod figured he could get rid of Jesus. Worshiping the newborn King was never his intent. The newborn King was his enemy and he wanted to get rid of Jesus. But an angel of the Lord had already appeared to Joseph in a dream urging him to leave Bethlehem. Joseph took his wife and new baby to the safe haven of Africa. Consequently, Herod failed to kill a King whom he saw as his enemy.  Where was the Messiah?  Biding his time, safe in the arms of his parents, preparing for the day to make John 3:16-17 real.
Let me point out some lessons in this story already spoken.  

  • God speaks to us in many ways. Epiphanies are all around us. Listen and learn from the stars, the rain, the night and the seasons of life be they spring, summer, winter or fall. A Negro Spiritual adds this poignant imagery, “My Lord he calls me, He calls me by the thunder. The trumpet sounds within - a my soul...”
  • Learn from the Three Wise Men. Pursuing an encounter with Christ is the best mission we can embrace. Whatever it takes, physically, mentally, economically, and\or personally, they do what it takes to worship him. If God had not extended his amazing grace, love and forgiveness to all of us, it’s no telling where we’d be.  Be clear, Christmas puts a high priority on worshiping the King.  One of our Christmas carols said it thrice. “O come let us adore him; O come let us adore him; O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”
  • Receive what the Messiah brings. God sent him to be the   “Messiah” for the world not just our Jewish brothers and sisters. In the Orient, the Holy Land, America, down in the valleys, up on the mountain, this Messiah is omnipresent. You don’t have to go to Israel, attend a certain church, give a big sum of money, be of a certain race, class or gender to find the Messiah. Jesus knocks; but you have to open the door. And the Messiah will come in bearing the best approach to faithful living:  Love God and love neighbor. 
Isaac Watts said it this way. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.”  Where is the Messiah?  He is standing outside the door of your heart and knocking.  Will you let him in?  If you do, things will change.  After meeting the babe of Bethlehem, they left for home traveling another road, God’s road.  “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, o come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold him born the King of angels. O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”  May it be so for all God’s children!!!  Amen.                  
*Originally scheduled to preach on Jan. 6, 2014.   Date changed due to bad weather.