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Sermon – January 3, 2010: Gentiles

Sermon for Sunday, January 3, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Gentiles

Isaiah 60: 1-6; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2 :1-12

This church was founded by families in this area. It was a hundred and sixty-six

years ago, so to say they were local people makes sense in terms of real estate, but of

course some of those families have moved on, and some, perhaps, have died out. A few

of you in the pews are descendants of the founders, and our friend The Rev. Robert

Berger, whose mom worshiped with us years ago, is a descendant of William Moore, the

great campaigner for the founding of this church and the university.

It’s natural that when we tell the story of the church’s origins that we focus on the

familiar and the familial. We like continuity. We are drawn into a story if we feel connected.

We can walk down Market Street to where there once was a log house by where

Packwood House now is. That’s where Moore and other members of the Milton Baptist

Church who lived on this side of the river sponsored revival meetings to convert enough

people to the Baptist stance to get a new church started. That generation erected a brick

church on the site of the parking lot half a block north of here; and the lintel from the facade of

that church is in the wall of the Founders’ Room beneath this sanctuary. We feel a variety of

“pride of ownership” that eminent nineteenth-century hymn writer The Rev. Robert Lowry

was pastor of this church, and we conclude our communion services singing the song he

wrote for this church’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

Stories about the past are tricky. We don’t have to agree with Henry Ford that

“history is bunk” to recognize that histories get told for particular reasons from definite

perspectives, and that both evidence and inference can be confusing. Bob Berger holds

that it was William Moore II who was instrumental in getting what is now Bucknell begun;

that’s the tradition that has come down through the family. The university’s official recollection

is that it was William Moore III. There has to be some good reason about the difference,

besides the men having virtually the same name. Perhaps the son was the public face of

the father’s initiatives. No matter; my point is that it is not only poetic license which makes

tales of the past products of the imagination. Every witness has a unique vantage point,

and every experience is mediated by expectation.

One of the expectations which shapes the experience of the past is that it is a better

story if it has something to do with us. In the gospels this is reinforced by an identification

between the community which composes the gospels and the characters in the story. In

other words, the gospel author is a disciple and so relates to the disciples who knew Jesus

personally, and so deep levels of meaning about the experience of discipleship–the

timeless circumstance of inadequate ordinary persons aspiring to be worthy of a divine

master–color the narrative. Peter’s confession of Jesus becomes an exemplary confession

of Jesus; Peter’s denial in the Garden becomes a tragic warning about presumption;

Peter’s restoration by Christ at the end of the gospels is a promise of redemption to all who

fail.

It’s not simply that human nature influenced that scripture be written that way.

Scripture already was being read that way, the existing texts of law, prophets, psalms and

histories always being applied to the circumstances of a later generation, new believers

reading themselves and the frailty and promise of their own souls into the words and works

of those they knew through the book.

We’re getting at the Wise Men by a different route, reconstructing not the way they

get to Bethlehem, but the motives Matthew has to cherish and emphasize this tradition.

Matthew makes a case for Jesus being the Christ by showing how various Hebrew

scriptures are fulfilled by events in Jesus’ life. Eleven times in the gospel he points out

parenthetically which occurrences had been prophesied long before. There are many more

applications of prophecy to Jesus, as in Herod’s advisors pointing out that the Messiah’s

birthplace is to be Bethlehem, and Jesus himself quotes scripture to support himself and

his approach. In the second chapter, Matthew’s nativity story, Matthew three times gives

us the scripture he treats almost as the script for how Jesus’ story unfolds.

One great thing for Matthew about the wise men from the east is that they can be

argued to be equivalent to the “kings bringing gifts to Israel from afar” foretold in Isaiah 60.

Two gifts mentioned by Isaiah, gold and frankincense, are gifts brought by the wise men.

Matthew doesn’t have to underline that one, it’s a fulfillment he expects people to see. He

may well expect people to connect the story of Joseph from the Hebrew scriptures to

Jesus’ father of the same name, not only because the first Joseph was spoken to by God

through dreams, and so is Jesus’ father–but also to help link the Egypt experience, which

had to do with the beginnings of the Chosen People, to Jesus. In the first two chapters of

his gospel Matthew, by the use of genealogy and scripture-quoting and analogy,

recapitulates centuries of the salvation history of the Jews and recasts all of it as aiming at,

and finding completion in, Jesus.

The wise men are part of that in a deeper sense than merely as unusual visitors

predicted by a prophet. Just as the long genealogy in Matthew 1, which nobody usually

reads, has a bias to demonstrate the importance of non Jews in God’s plan, the wise men

give us an example of foreigners whom God leads to true recognition and true worship,

even when Jesus’ own countrymen either are ignorant of who he is or hostile to who he

claims to be. Matthew’s Christmas story is not just boyhood biography, or wondrous

family reminiscence. Using the weight of Hebrew scripture and the rabbinic custom of

reinterpreting and applying scriptures, it remakes the thrust of Biblical narrative into a stage

set for Jesus’ arrival and Jesus’ confirmation as Christ.

Isaiah’s own vision of non Jews being drawn to a great revelation of truth and

connection with God available through what was to take place in Jerusalem is part of the

message. Read on its own, Isaiah 60 can sound like a more ordinary kind of triumphalism,

as though the Gentile nations surrounding Israel are going to be converted to admiration for

Jewish religion as much by political power and earthly glory as by God. The various

streams of people coming from afar are not just the once-dispersed hostages of foreign

powers being restored to their homeland, but emissaries of those whose submission to

Jerusalem has overtones of political tribute. Getting the wealth of other nations was a prime

motive for the warfare of that era, and Israel, which had been stripped of its luxuries by

conquests, had this vision presented to it by the prophet of restoration.

Isaiah’s prophecy had enough spiritual emphasis and a large enough proportion of

otherworldly vision that it could be read, and was by the Christian community, as pointing to

a different future. Christians like Matthew understood it as aiming at the new order which had

begun to be ushered in by Jesus’ birth, and was fully revealed in Jesus’ resurrection.

What’s important about the wise men? They are wise in worldly ways, in the natural

and somewhat supernatural ways the pagan world is wise. They are astrologerastronomers

back before one becomes a superstition and the other a science. God

speaks to them through their own efforts at understanding and leads them to a different kind

of knowledge, to a revelation through a savior whose attributes are royal, religious, and

sacrificial. That’s what gold, frankincense and myrrh portend–power, God, and the grave.

This is important to Matthew because this is who Matthew is. If you want to use the

traditional association between this gospel’s author and the tax collector Matthew whom

Jesus redeems from a life of predatory betrayal of his fellow Jews, then make him a very

secular Jew, the kind of person nominally belonging to a religion because of ancestry and

upbringing but not really believing and certainly not practicing. He’s not much different than

a Gentile, and in league with them in Judea. He believes in worldly wisdom, and certainly

doesn’t get to belief in Jesus through the means of his own people’s religious

establishment. He is an outsider until God invites him in, unexpectedly.

This is even more true if you conceive the evangelist as one of those religiously

earnest pagans who were drawn to the synagogues scattered throughout the

Mediterranean because that religion seemed deep and meaningful, but who never entirely

converted to Judaism. When Christian proclamation arrives with its living Christ, worldly

efforts to know the truth become the opportunity for God to call to the stranger and make a

new person of faith out of the formerly unacceptable outsider.

Matthew’s loving and sharing the story of the Magi is an instance of his proclamation

that Christ’s message is for all the world. They stand for every foreigner whom God brings

to faith. They stand for every believer who seeks out an otherworldly king, to invest with

honor and power, and to seek peace and protection in that king’s realm. They both see and

fail to see, know and don’t quite know, and must rely on God to guide them to their journey’s

end. God brings them at last to Christ, and they are fulfilled, and that’s the message for

each and all. That’s the revealing of God given us by Matthew on this Epiphany Sunday.

 

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