With Christ Into the New Year ©


Kathleen Crane, a Presbyterian pastor in Wisconsin, shared an incident that happened to her while flying a number of years ago.
 
Two Sikhs, men from northern India, with their heads in turbans, sat down beside me (on the plane). We had a pleasant conversation, but I didn’t force my beliefs on them. I helped the older man next to me with his dinner tray, and I told him about a friend I had from India. I told him the Bishop of South India had visited Princeton campus. Our professor had asked us to befriend him, because his wife had died a tragic death, and he was very lonely. I baked him some cake and took it to him, and he invited my husband and me to his home for an Indian meal. As I told my neighbor on the plane this story, he seemed to have tears in his eyes. Then he went to sleep. As we neared Newark Airport, he opened his eyes and turned to me and said, ‘Tell me about Jesus Christ.’”
 
Does this sound far-fetched, an incident that might happen to others but surely not to you or me?  Think again. Studies report that, of the well more than 60 million unchurched adults in America, at least half (or more than 30 million) are seeking a deeper, more meaningful faith to govern and guide their lives. The recent explosion in growth for non-Christian religions in the United States is stark testimony to the spiritual hunger that exists in our society.
 
This is not an irreligious period in American history but a time of great spiritual hunger and searching
 
If you read your paper with care, you will notice the regular printing of horoscopes. These so-called guides to modern living are but another example of spiritual hunger. Stargazing, looking for signs and portents, seeking a deeper life, are a part of the very fabric of modern living. Such stargazing is, of course, not new. In fact, it was part of the original Christmas story.
 
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?  For we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship Him.’” (Matthew 2:1-2)
 
My Bible calls them “wise men,” which Raymond Brown (the great Catholic biblical scholar) thinks is too charitable a designation, if not downright misleading. They are called, in the original, “magi.” A little note at the bottom of one translation says they were “a learned class in ancient Persia,” (RSV, Oxford Annotated Translation of the Bible) which doesn’t tell the whole story. Brown reminds us that “magi” covers “a conglomeration of astronomers, fortune tellers, arguers, and magicians of varying degrees of plausibility and quackery.”
 
Matthew is probably thinking of astrologers or stargazers – a ridiculous, absurdly frivolous, specifically condemned pastime by Jewish standards. The magi would thus represent, to the early Jewish reader, the epitome of Gentile idolatry and religious quackery, dabblers in stars or chicken gizzards, forever trotting off here or there in search of some key to the future. They were not so much ‘wise men’ or ‘we three kinds of Orient are’ but your average, credulous, naïve, gentile horoscope devotee – sincere perhaps, learned, earnest – but utterly ignorant about religious matters.” (William Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, pp. 48-49) 
 
And yet, Matthew, in his own way, commends them to us. Why is that?  What lesson can these stargazers teach us as we move into a new year? 
 
With an economy of words, Matthew tells of their unrelenting search for Jesus. They come to Herod for help, and the religious scholars of the day carefully check things out in Scripture. “They told him, in Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:…then Herod…sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.” (Matthew 2:5-8)
 
The religiously learned sat while these untutored ignorant stargazers searched. Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “wise men (and women) still follow Him.” This is true, good and holy advice, but it misses the first and most vital point of the lesson. Wise people still seek Him. These wise men, these stargazers, these seekers, would instruct us of faith’s journey. The new year begins best for us when we seek Him.
 
Do you see? The Chosen people (read, church) pour over our Scriptures, debate fine points of theology, doing it all so decently and in order, checking one another out on correct doctrine, keeping our religion middle-of-the-road, balanced, respectable. In our wait, we miss the whole thing.” (William Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, p. 49)
 
Ironic isn't it, God uses searching, seeking unbelievers (probably from Iraq or Iran) as a lesson for us. In one sense, all our spiritual searching reaches its culmination, according to the Christian witness of faith, on Dec. 25 with the child found in a Bethlehem manger. In another just as assuredly true sense, the search continues into the new year. 
 
As we enter this year of our Lord 2020, we must not miss the warning given in this passage. It is a warning given by God deliberately to those who are believers. Don't get so lost in pouring over the scriptures and debating theology that you fail to enter the new year seeking Christ. Don’t get so lost fuming about national and international news, impeachment and conflict, that you fail the central task of searching for the Savior and following the Lord.
 
These strange visitors from the East discover the truth of searching, seeking faith. They find the Christ. “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy, and going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11) So, we too will discover that our searching comes to a close with Christmas and yet is transformed into a worshipping and following as we enter the new year.
 
Funny isn't it, that for us Christmas is over and in the Bible the story is just beginning. Do you remember the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas?" The tradition for these12 days of Christmas comes from this passage. There are twelve days of Christmas until "Epiphany Day."  Jan. 6 is the Epiphany Day. The word "epiphany" means "an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being." (Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary) Check a good dictionary and it goes on to say that an "epiphany" is a "usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something ... an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking ... an illuminating discovery."
 
The shock of this passage to the first century reader lies in just who finds the Savior. It is not the great King Herod or learned scholars. Those who we call wise were unbelievers (probably followers of Zoroastrianism), those thought by all to lie outside God's grace and care. The "ah-hah!" moment, the "epiphany," comes in the realization of where their arduous searching journey leads them. Notice carefully that they are led by God (remember the star) to the new born Lord. If star-gazing, chicken-gizzard dappling interlopers from Iraq (Persia) are led to the Lord, then this God is for all! The Savior is not the property of one race, clan or nation.
 
Surely this is an epiphany – a striking new insight – of which we need to be reminded. This God, the very one who comes to us in the baby Jesus, is for all. No one is outside God's grace, not even strangers from the East. The implications for us – as conflicts continue in the Middle East or the political and cultural wars of our own society escalate – are astounding. They call us to reach out evangelistically to everyone and commend our care of those most perceived outside of God's love and concern.
 
Encountering the baby Jesus, we are led not just to Christmas but into the new year. The first lesson we must embrace is the importance of the following Christ in our lives. The second lesson is that God is for all! The third lesson lies in the surprising nature of the gift.
 
Notice I said gift not gifts. So often we focus on the material gifts the wise men bring – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These were stupendous gifts, no doubt about it. But, they were not the gift. The Bible tells us, "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." (Matthew 2:11)
 
"The greatest gift they brought was their devotion: their willingness to endure whatever it gook and to look as long as it took to find what God had promised them through the sign. Their physical gifts paled in comparison. What greater gift can we bring to Christ than our commitment to find Him no matter what the cost, and when we have found Him, to worship Him?" (Dan Schaeffer, In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, pp. 162, 163)
 
Our encounter with the Christ-child always finds its conclusion in homage, worship with the those called wise. Here lies the "epiphany" of God:
1) To seek Christ constantly in all our living,
2) to embrace Christ who embraces all in sharing His love,
3) and to offer Him our unstinting worship.
 
Gazing at the stars, truly wise men beckon us on a journey of faith that experiences the joy of worshiping Christ, offering Him our treasure, and sharing His love who those who do not yet have the privilege of knowing Him. May such a blessing be yours in this coming year of the Lord, 2020.