Lack of Curiosity Can Kill (an Epiphany sermon)

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:  ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a Ruler Who will govern My People Israel.’”          Matthew 2:3-6

For the 55 years before Jesus’ Birth, Persia and Rome had quite a history: First Rome conquered Palestine, and then went on to war against Persia.  Persia’s cavalry decimated the Roman troops, and drove Rome from Palestine.  Rome conquered again and put Herod’s father in charge.  Persia again swept Rome out and Herod’s father had to run for his life.

Mark Anthony now conquered Palestine, attempted to conquer Persia, and again Rome’s armies returned in tatters.  As a governor, Herod had to run for his life as Persia swept Rome out and established Jewish rule.  Having been proclaimed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate, Herod returned for three years of war and five months of siege to finally sit on his throne in Jerusalem.  By the time that Jesus was born, in some people’s lifetime, on an average of every seven years, they had lived through seven sieges in which Jerusalem was conquered.

Persia had a soft spot for the Jews.  Even during the time of the captivity, they had Jews in high offices.  Most notable was Daniel, who was placed as chief of the wise men – or, the Magi as they were called in that country.  It is from them that we have the word “magistrate” – of the level or strata of the Magi – which denotes wisdom and discerning judgment.  Magi were the scientists and the keepers of the religion, which at that time worshipped not a multitude of gods, but rather one God, the Creator of all things.

Through the Jew Daniel, they would not only become acquainted with the Old Testament and its prophecies, they would become familiar with the festival year, and, even more, they would be guided by an actual prophet.  When the time came, Persia believed that God had instructed them to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple.  Even as “the remnant” of Jews returned, there were many who stayed behind in Persia.

A lot can and did happen in the four hundred fifty years between the return from captivity up until when Rome decided to take on Persia.  Yet despite that passage of time, what Daniel had taught the Magi was not forgotten.  Then one day, signs in the heavens declared that certain prophecies were actually happening in their time and the Magi set out from Persia to greet a God-given “King of the Jews” – born as the rightful heir to the throne of David.  I do not believe that they had any sort of mysterious vision or anything extraordinary like that.  Instead, simply all they had was what you and I have: the Word of God and faith.

There were others who were equipped in a similar way – in fact, you might say they were even better equipped.  They were the keepers of the religion, they had the Word of God, they also had the prophecies, in fact, they did not just have a prophet, they had all the prophets to show them what God was doing.  They also could have easily witnessed the signs in the heavens that the Magi had, which when linked to the prophecies and the festivals would have indicated to them that God was doing something special.  In fact, they are the very ones to whom Herod turned when the Magi, who had come to the obvious place where the King of the Jews should be born, were asking, “Where is He Who is born the King?”

Yes, this group knew their prophecies.  They even probably had some fun at Herod’s expense as they read aloud such prophecies as Balaam’s in Numbers 24, which described not only that “a Star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel” but also that this Ruler would crush and dispossess Moab, Sheth, Edom and Seir which are Herod’s ancestral home.  Yet, probably gritting his teeth, Herod had to let them finish their task of going from one prophecy to another until finally they came to the prophet Micah’s Bethlehem prophecy.

The problem with this second group is that despite how they had even more than the Magi had, they lacked not only faith but even curiosity.  The ones to whom the prophecies were given, who had all the more reason to see God’s hand in the events of the world around them, weren’t even curious.  God couldn’t have been more obvious about His activity: Persians coming not in war but to worship God’s Messiah, and prophecies being fulfilled forced into their attention, but it seems that all they did was simply dismiss it all and merely go home that night.

These scribes and priests could debate the fine points of the Scriptures, and yet never listened to nor obeyed it; meanwhile those who were not of the approved chosen group risked their lives to discover the meaning in God’s Word.  Apparently no scribe or priest even for the sake of curiosity went with the Magi to find out whether all this could actually be true.  No, apparently they simply went back to their normal lives, had supper and went to bed.

Actually, if we stop to think about these two groups and their responses, we can get downright uncomfortable.  What both of them had was simply the Word of God, the Scriptures.  No angel appeared to them nor to us in order to get any of us to pay attention.  We on the other hand have even more than what either of those groups had: we, at least, know the story and how it all turned out.  We have Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude to “connect the dots” from the Old Testament to the New, and how Jesus is God’s solution for the rebellion of our sin.

Yet how often have the great events of God’s activity been displayed before us and no longer have we even curiosity about them?  How often have we put aside the wonderful gifts of God and simply walked away, gone home, had supper and gone to bed?
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The tragedy is that there are people who are on the very doorsteps of our lives with the same question: “Where IS He that is born King of the Jews?”  Just as those scribes and priests had, we also have the answers, we also may or may not send them on their way with the truth.  But now what?  Just how do we react to the same questions placed before us as had been done to those devoted to God’s Word in ancient Palestine?

Standing from the distance of time, we recognize that behind those Magi, GOD was calling His People, His scribes and Priests to worship Him – He was calling on them to listen to and to follow His Word.  What a lesson in humility to have these non-Jews remind them of what they weren’t doing even though, as Paul put it, they had it all:

They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the Glory, the Covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. GOD Who is over all, be blessed for ever. Amen.       Romans 9:4-5

They were so well equipped with tremendous knowledge ABOUT God’s Word, but it made no difference to them.  What about those who surround us?   To what is God calling US, through them?

I wonder if those scribes and priests back then got as irritated with the Magi we do with those who have questions of today – I wonder if they got as irritated with the voice of God behind them as we do today.

Perhaps like Herod’s scribes and priests, we also have become so familiar with God’s Word that we have stopped listening, because we are too ready to debate and redefine that Word, and to determine our own sets of rules which God really ought to agree with.  Perhaps we have become too busy PLAYING with the Word of God rather than stopping and falling on our knees in worship.

We have so much more.  We have come not to worship a Baby with an unknown future, but rather a Lord Jesus that has shown Himself human as well as God, merciful as well as demanding, loving as well as just.  Have we heard God’s voice in all of this?  Just what is it that God is whispering over and over into a gradually rising crescendo until we celebrate the day of Jesus’ resurrection?

Can you hear it?  Over and over God whispers, “I love you – see, this is what I would do especially for you!”  Over and over God’s voice is constantly in the background during Jesus healing, during His preaching, as He pronounces forgiveness and life, as He feeds and strengthens, even as He clears the temple of those would distract His People – constantly God is repeating, “This is My love for you, to this degree is the interest I have in your life!”  Over and over God’s voice is speaking to us as Jesus faces His own betrayer, humbly washing even Judas’ feet, calling him to repentance again and again, even at the betrayal.

Listen to how that voice builds to a hoarse cry as Jesus grabs hold of our pain and agony as the whip bites into His own flesh and the nails pierce His hands.  Listen to how that voice never skips a beat, not even in the terrible loneliness of Jesus being forsaken by His Father, not even when He bows His head in death, and then especially when He bursts the bands of the grave in the resurrection.

Listen! as Jesus stands with His full majesty right now in front of you, still repeating “I love you!” in the absolution, in the lessons, in the sermon, in the hymns.   Listen as Jesus again speaks in Holy Communion, as He comes once again in flesh and blood, as He repeats, “See, this is what I would do especially for you!”  Listen as in the words of the singing and the confession of faith all around you, God is saying, “I do love you – see, I would do even this especially for you – for where two or three are gathered in My Name, I am right there in your midst!”

Yes, you do hear His voice!  After all, that’s why you are here!  The Holy Spirit has already opened your ears and your mind and your heart, and you do hear that strong message from God, the “I love you”‘s constantly echoing throughout your life.  But it is time for us also to repent of the sin of the scribes and Pharisees, to listen closely again, and then to rejoice in words of the angel, “For there is born to you … a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord”[Luke 2:11].

As Epiphany opens the door wide to both Jew and non-Jew, indeed it has GOOD NEWS – astonishing News – for us!  As we stand before this great event, the message is clear: God accepts all people – even US!!  With wide open arms, He calls us to come out of our “Jerusalem”’s of religiosities for show, our deafness to His Word, and our curiosities dulled by our contented lifestyle, and instead to now come and fall on our knees before God the Son made flesh for our sake, and therein to discover the Savior Who is Christ the Lord, Who is “unto us” too.

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