Sunday, January 3, 2016

Christmas 2
1 Kings 3:4-15
Psalm 119:97-104
Ephesians 1:3-14
Luke 2:40-52

How sweet are thy words unto my taste! Yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

On the sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me: six geese a laying. Of all the bird gifts in the song, this is probably the most practical. At least the receiver will have eggs to eat. Practical or not, I'm thankful I won't be finding six geese on my doorstep today. Yes, today is the sixth day of Christmas, although you would probably not know this from the darkening streets of my neighborhood. Most of my neighbors have been turning off their lights and removing their decorations even though it is not yet Epiphany. Most of my neighbors don't even realize we are still celebrating Christmas. There is still a little holiday excitement in the world since we will be celebrating the New Year this Friday, but I imagine a majority of the Christmas decorations will be taken down this weekend.

The world will be back to normal Monday. Vacations will be over, kids will be back to school and workers will be back to the old grind. For Christians, however, the holiday does not end when the ball drops on New Year's Eve. We celebrate the birth of Christ through Epiphany. Even though the wise men have been in our nativities from the beginning, they don't actually show up in the church year until January 6th. That's why we have twelve days of Christmas.

The scriptures for this Sunday do not include the story of the wise men, but since most churches no longer celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, it is worth mentioning in today's message. Epiphany is defined as "a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something." The story of Epiphany talks of wise men, or kings, or magi following a star toward the fulfillment of a promise. They saw the star rise in the east and they followed it. The journey ended in Bethlehem where they saw the true Light. Isaiah writes, "And nations shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising." Jesus Christ was the rising light and His birth was the dawn of a new age.

Who were these kings? We also call them magi or wise men. From whence did they travel? What made the wise? Matthew tells us that the magi came from the east, and yet the prophecies we identify with these wise men speak of visitors from Arabia. Our understanding of these wise men often come from traditions rather than the biblical witness.

Some have suggested that the wise men were named Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior. Balthasar is said to be an Arabic scholar, Caspar an Indian scholar and Melchoir a Persian scholar. This is why the representations of the wise men in our Nativity scenes show different racial features. We number the wise men based on the three gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense, but it is likely that the three gifts were brought by a caravan of people, not only numerous wise men, but also family, servants and soldiers.

Some suggest that the wise men were not simply scholars, but kings. Other traditions give them different names. In Syria, the wise men were thought to be Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas, which are Persian names. Others identify the wise men as Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater (Ethiopia,) or Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma (Armenia.) Chinese Christians believe that the wise men were from China.

Now, we often talk about Epiphany as being the day we celebrate the Light shining into the whole world, with the wise men representing the Gentiles. They are said to represent us. However, Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience and was telling the story to prove that Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting. The prophecies point toward places that may have had some connection to historic Israel.

Isaiah says, "The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come; they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praises of Jehovah." (Isaiah 60) In Psalm 72, the psalmist mentions Tarshesh along with Sheba, whose kings will come to honor and give tribute to the king of Israel.

We are familiar with the story of Midian from the scriptures. Midian was a son of Abraham by his concubine Keturah (Genesis 25). Joseph was sold to the Midianites (Genesis 37). Moses lived in exile in Midian, and married Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest. The relationship is not always good, as God instructs Moses to destroy Midian. In the book of Judges, Israel is oppressed by Midian, and Gideon is sent destroy Midian. Ephah is the son of Midian.

Sheba is said to be in, or near, Ethiopia. Sheba was another son of Abraham by the concubine Keturah. History suggests that there was a thriving civilization in Ethiopia during the days of Solomon. According to tradition, the Queen of Sheba became pregnant with a son by Solomon, King Melenik, during her visit to Jerusalem. He founded the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia. A small Jewish community still thrives there today.

Tarshesh was among those who honored Solomon; there was a great deal of trade done between the two nations. The location of Tarshesh is even more in doubt, as some think that it is in Phoenicia, an ancient Semitic culture along the Mediterranean. Others specifically name it as Carthage, a city in Phoenicia. Yet others think it is Tartessian, a city in Spain that had open trade with Phoenicia. It is a city far away from the land of Israel, and apparently one that had a good relationship with Solomon, perhaps even religious ties to the Jewish people.

The prophecies do point toward places that may have had some connection to historic Israel. We are not surprised by Sheba or Tarshesh since they both had a good relationship with King Solomon, but what about the Midianites? They were enemies, oppressors. Why would a wise man come from Midian? We like to believe that the wise men represent us, but perhaps Isaiah was telling the people that the Messiah would come for Israel's enemies, too. After all, the forgiveness of God is available for all.

Wherever the wise men began their journey, they likely would have entered Jerusalem by the East, or Golden Gate. It was the largest and most impressive gate into the city; an impressive caravan with wise men or kings would likely have entered by this gate. It was the only gate that faced east, and is the gate through which the Messiah was expected to come. The gate leads to the Temple Mount and is just opposite the Mount of Olives. It is the gate through which Jesus entered on Palm Sunday for His triumphant parade into Jerusalem. The Muslims walled up the gate in 810 A.D. to halt the coming of the Messiah. The gate remains closed today, although we know that no walls will keep the Messiah from coming again.

What is it about these kings or wise men that set them out on a strange and difficult journey? The followed a star. They may have had some knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, but their understanding was imperfect since they went to Herod's palace rather than to Bethlehem which was prophesied to be the birthplace of the Messiah. They took gifts that had great value, not only financial but also spiritual. Did they know they were giving gold to the Great King, myrrh to the Great High Priest and frankincense to the perfect Lamb who would be slain? Perhaps they had knowledge, but what makes us wise?

Wisdom. That's what this Sunday is all about, that is what we see in the scriptures for this Sunday. Solomon understood the importance of seeing things from the right perspective. He could have asked for anything, and God would have provided it for him. Yet, Solomon didn't ask for health or wealth. He asked for wisdom. God was pleased and granted him not only wisdom, but the rest.

Solomon was humble; he knew that he was not qualified to lead the people of Israel. The nation had grown so great, fulfilling the promise given to Abraham so many generations earlier, that God's people would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. How could a boy, barely twenty years old, lead such a nation? We might think that health and wealth are exactly what we need to accomplish our purpose, but Solomon knew that he needed wisdom, and with wisdom came the rest.

The psalmist seeks wisdom, too. Psalm 119 is a devotional on the Word of God. It is divided into twenty-two stanzas, each focusing on a specific letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each line of each stanza begins, in Hebrew, with the letter of that stanza. Throughout the psalm, the writer repeatedly uses eight different Hebrew terms, which can be translated as "law," "statutes," "precepts," "commands," "laws," "decrees," "word," and "promise." Though these may seem redundant, there are subtle but distinct differences. The psalmist recognizes the importance of knowing the Word of God and living it obediently.

I often joke about my gray hair being a sign of wisdom. It is a signal that I've lived a long life, and that I've experienced many things which gives me knowledge about how the world works. It might be somewhat true, but the psalmist writes, "I understand more than the aged, because I have kept thy precepts." Wisdom is not necessarily something for the old; the young, like Solomon, can be wise. Wisdom comes to those who seek God, who humble themselves before Him and who live according to His Word.

It is that kind of wisdom we see in today's Gospel store. Jesus, only twelve years old, sits with the elders in the Temple to discuss the things of God. It is hard for us to imagine a twelve year old theologian, but that's exactly what Jesus was in this story. He was sharing with the learned men His thoughts and understanding about God. As the Son of the Living God, Jesus had more knowledge than the others. In this story, though, we see Him also being humble before the elders, asking questions. They were amazed, not only that He was interested, but that He knew the right questions to ask and that He had an understanding far beyond His years. Jesus had the wisdom that is more than knowledge and experience.

It was risky for those wise men, perhaps not even very wise, to go chasing after a star to find a baby born to be the king of an insignificant nation. It is risky for us to chase after the same star. After all, Jesus never sat upon a throne and He died on a cross. What sort of king is that? The world certainly rejects Him and it rejects those who follow Him. They call us foolish for believing and give us plenty of reasons why our faith is misplaced. The wise man of the world is the one who has great knowledge; he is the one who follows the ways of the world. The wise man of the world would never chase a star or believe a fairy tale.

But the wisdom of God is much different than the wisdom of the world. Solomon knew that he needed more than health and wealth. He needed God to give him a discerning heart so that he would rule rightely. We don't rule over a kingdom, but we do rule over our own little corner of the world, our own flesh and lives. We need wisdom as much as Solomon to make the decisions that will affect us and those around us. We would do well to be like Jesus in today's Gospel lesson, humble enough to sit at the feet of those who have come before us, asking questions and learning about the God who has called us out of darkness into the Light. We would do well to seek the wisdom that comes from God our Father, to seek Him and to listen to His Word.

Paul reminds us that we have everything we need to live according to God's Word. Sometimes we think we know what we want, or need, but we would do well to see Solomon and Jesus in light of our own spiritual journeys. They were young, but they had the mind of God. They were humble and willing to learn, to seek wisdom. They understood what was truly needed to do what God was calling them to do.

We can be like Solomon and Jesus. We can seek God's wisdom and He will give it to us. As we trust God we will ask the right questions, He will answer according to His good and perfect purpose for our lives. As we live according to God's Word which is sweeter than honey, we will see the changes that will not only make us healthier and more responsible, but even more so, more faithful to God. It will take a lifetime and we will fail time and again, but God will continue to work in us and through us, transforming us into the people He created and redeemed us to be.

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