Monroe Congregational Church, UCC
January 6, 2002 Rev Maria Hoaglund

Christmas is a wonderful time of year! But I must say that every year about this time, I remember that there is much to be said for the celebration of Epiphany, too ...

Christmas is everybody's favorite time. Even in a pretty much secularized society which hardly ever mentions anything religious like ours at Christmas time, there seem to be frequent carols and hymns, both on Television and on the radio. People who we hardly see at church during the rest of the year, usually manage to show up around Christmas time. These strangers pack the churches around our city and country on Christmas Eve, singing the hymns by heart. Faces radiant with piety, as if they were at home in the churches all year long.

And perhaps some of you know the old joke about the pastor who ended his Christmas Eve service with the benediction: "See you all back here again, same time, same place, NEXT Christmas!"

Those of us who are still here in church after all the Christmas hoopla know not to be OVERLY impressed by the seasonal outburst of religiosity among these "yuletide Christians," or I've heard the term "C & E Christians" ... By Epiphany, when we celebrate and remember the star which led the three Wise Men to Jesus soon after he was born, the star which symbolized who Jesus was to become here on earth, these yuletide Christians are no where in sight; they probably wouldn't even know how to pronounce the word "Epiphany." Just a few days after Christmas Day, here we are, you and I, just us truly religious folk. The curious, the uninitiated, the superficially committed, are gone. Maybe we'll see them again at Easter; maybe not. By Epiphany, it's back to being just us. The baby Jesus and us. OUR baby Jesus, we're tempted to say.

And yet, before we jump to any fast conclusions here, let's take a closer look at how Matthew tells the story of the birth of Jesus. When Jesus was born, says Matthew, magi came from the East and worshipped him. Who were these magi? Well, actually, they were not "Wise Men," or the "We Three Kings of Orient Are," as we often call them. Matthew calls them magi. Magi, that's where we get out word "magic." They were magicians, these magi, stargazers, astrologers, wizards, who dabbled in magic potions. In today's world, they might be considered New Agers, or followers of New Thought. And some scholars have speculated that the gifts which the magi brought to the baby Jesus - the gold, frankincense, and myrrh - might have been the tricks of their trade, elements used in their magic! Somewhere along the line I learned that these stargazers traveled in groups of 40...

Not only were the magi foreigners, from the East; they were Gentiles. Not only were they Gentiles, they were Gentiles who practiced those arts of magic which were specifically condemned in the Scriptures of the Jews. They weren't so much "Wise Men," as your superstitious, gentile stargazers. You know, like a modern-day New Age person who dabbles in crystals, pyramids, and tarot cards. Incidentally, on the few other occasions in which a magus is mentioned in the NT, it is in an extremely unfavorable light.

And according to Matthew, these magi were the VERY FIRST to come to Bethlehem and worship Jesus as the Savior of the world. The very first, can you imagine?

Can you appreciate the shock in this realization? Back in a NT class I took in seminary, we learned that Matthew was the most "Jewish" of the four gospels. Matthew consistently quotes the Hebrew Scriptures (the OT) to show that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of the hope to Israel, OUR savior, the one who has come for US. And yet Matthew opens up his account of this very Jewish Messiah by noting that those "insiders" who had the Scriptures, those who were the recipients of all the promises of God, missed it. And these Gentiles, these outsiders who knew not- a-whole lot about Scripture, the wrong race, the "wrong" religion, people who couldn't probably even PRONOUNCE the word "Epiphany," much less know what it meant, were the very first to come to the manger!

Perhaps by putting these magi up front, at the very beginning of the story of Jesus, Matthew wanted to tell us something about the very important nature of Jesus. This baby, this Messiah sent to save, is not only OUR possession, not OUR people's property! He is Lord of ALL! He is the Savior of the World! Even though the magi may not have known everything about him, although they knew very little about the Bible, and were probably confused on a number of issues, they knew that this was their baby, too! And so they worshipped him by coming to him and bringing him costly gifts.

Those folk who crowd into the churches once a year, all the people who get so choked up over TV Christmas specials, these folk may know more than we think. Deep down, in their heart of hearts, they sense that this Jesus-coming-into-the-world means something for them, too. If we in the church think that Jesus is ONLY for us, only for the "insiders" who are in the know, then perhaps it is WE who have misunderstood rather than THEM. The one who lies in Bethlehem's manger if the Lord of ALL!

Later in his Gospel, in Chapter 22, Matthew told a story about a great banquet in which a man invited all of his friends and kinfolk to a wonderful feast. You recall their reaction to the invitation - they all had excuses to make: One had a field to inspect, another had bought an ox, someone else was recently married. In great anger, the determined host instructed his servants to go out into the highways and byways to invite EVERYONE to the feast. Yes, EVERYONE! Jesus says that THIS is the Kingdom of God: A bunch of riffraff whom we would not be caught dead being seen with, much less partying with, all eating at the Master's table.

Something about us keeps getting confused. We keep thinking that the church is just for us, just for people like US. But Jesus said clearly that he has sheep who are not of this fold. Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God as a place where the net is cast out and ALL KINDS of fish, big and little, good and bad, are drawn in. He also told about a farmer two had a field in which both wheat and weeds GREW TOGETHER.

Things in God's realm are never as neat and tidy as we would like them to be. These outsiders keep showing up at the manger. Weird people keep hearing their name being called. Just when we think we have it all nailed down and all figured out, we insiders are shocked to find that we missed it, that those whom we had labeled as outsiders know more about the kingdom than we know and may be acting more appropriately, too. This is when sometimes God's amazing grace becomes God's exasperating grace.

A few years ago, a congregation decided to do something about evangelism. But it had been so long since they had intentionally sought out new people, they had forgotten how to do it. So they hired this consultant in evangelism. The first thing the consultant did was to have the congregation look at their church as if they were an outsider, a visitor, coming to this church for the first time.

The members of this congregation discovered some things about themselves. For one thing, they noted that there was no way to find the front door of the church. THEY knew how to get into the church, of course. But if you were visiting the church for the first time, you couldn't find the front door. You couldn't find the church office. You couldn't find the restrooms. There were no signs, no attempts to help new people find their way.

They learned many other painful things about the ways they had unintentionally, but nevertheless powerfully excluded outsiders. No wonder they had not grown! They had become a cozy club for the insiders, those who knew where the door was.

Look at those strange magi who showed up, as if out of nowhere, to worship the babe at Bethlehem. Even though they probably knew very little about the Messiah, all that he was to be, all that his advent meant, they knew a great and glorious truth which they now try to teach to us: The Light that shines in the darkness, the light which came to light up the world once and for all, is light for the WHOLE WORLD, not just a light for us.