Thursday, January 31, 2008

“Far As The Curse is Found”

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12[1]

My family will attest that there are some definite advantages to living with a theologian. It’s nice to have a Bible/Religion/History answer-man around whenever you need one. But there are also some definite disadvantages. We can tend to be sticklers when celebrating holidays, for example. Anyone who knows me very well knows that I have this thing about the “Wise Men” in the whole Christmas story. I call them “wise guys”! The magi who came to see Jesus were astrologer priests from Babylon, called magicians or diviners in Daniel (cf. Dan. 1:20; 2:27).[2] They studied the movements of the stars because they believed that stars were deities who controlled human destiny.

Over the course of Christian history, these astrologers were turned into “kings” in Christian imagination, probably in no small part due to the influence of today’s lesson from Isaiah. If you trace the history of the “Three Kings” in Christian art, you find an interesting development. In some paintings, the artist renders the “kings” as people who look just like someone who stepped out of medieval Europe. But one of the interesting developments in the image of the magi is that they began to be depicted as men of all three races—representing the peoples of all nations worshipping the newborn Savior.

In a very roundabout way, Christian imagination isn’t far off. The main point of Matthew’s story about the magi seeking Jesus is that even Babylonian astrologers, using the (questionable) faith of their pagan religion, come to worship Jesus as savior.[3] In a very real sense, Matthew depicts what Isaiah predicts: “nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The idea that Matthew presents as fulfilled in Jesus is the same one that Isaiah describes as a hope—that the dawn of God’s redemptive work would encompass all the peoples of the earth.

We may think to ourselves that it’s easy to be hopeful when there are all kinds of wonderful and miraculous signs to reassure faith. Unusual stars and visiting dignitaries from foreign countries and choirs of angels could inspire hope in even the most cynical among us. But the reality is that both Matthew and Isaiah proclaimed the hope of God’s redemptive work bringing new life to all peoples precisely at a time when they didn’t have much to be hopeful about![4] In Isaiah’s day, the Jewish people had returned from the Babylonian exile to find Jerusalem in ruins. In the face of power struggles between rival factions in Judea, those who sought to rebuild the city had to do so with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other! And above all, the temple had not been rebuilt. The hope of God’s redemptive light shining through the covenant people probably seemed delusional!

But that was precisely the hope that Isaiah called the covenant people to remember. And Isaiah’s hope spoke to a variety of settings—when the Babylonian invasion loomed on the horizon like a threatening storm, when the people were living out the days of their exile in a foreign land, and when the remnant returned to find that the fulfillment of the promise of restoration didn’t even come close to living up to their expectations. In all of those hard times, Isaiah’s hope continued to inspire the people of God to devote their lives to faithfully serving God’s purposes in the world.

We live in a time when it seems like there is much to discourage the hope that the light of God’s new life might overcome the darkness in our world. Millions flock to self-help gurus—some of whom use mega-churches for their platform—while churches everywhere seem unable to prevent decline. What possible good can come of dreamy idealism about God bringing life and joy and peace to this world? It may seem foolish, but then Paul acknowledged that his preaching seemed foolish at times (1 Corinthians 1:18). Yet at other times he insisted that the gospel was the means by which God was transforming all things (Ephesians 3:8-10).[5] And he also insisted that no faithful service to God’s redemptive purpose in the world ultimately goes in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

As we celebrate epiphany in the coming weeks, we are celebrating the unveiling of Jesus as the Christ who has come to make all things new. We are celebrating the promise that God is already transforming this world, that the light of new life has already dawned and is dispelling the darkness. As the hymn text puts it, “he comes to make his blessing flow far as the curse is found.” As far as the curse of death and despair and violence is found, Jesus the Christ brings God’s new life and hope and peace.[6] That’s why, even when times are hard and the church seems to be struggling, we too can dedicate our lives in the work of the gospel, flinging wide the prison doors and binding up the broken-hearted.

[1] © 2008, Alan Brehm. A Sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/6/2008 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 26.

[3] Hagner, 27, 31.

[4] See Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 219-21; C. Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 297, 308.

[5] Compare Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 276-77.

[6] See Declaration of Faith, 1977, 2.2; 10:1-2; Study Catechism, 1998, qq. 14, 85; compare similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 250-55; see also John Paul II’s encyclicals Redemptoris Mater 7.1 and Redemptoris Missio 9-10. See J. M. Miller, CSB, The Encyclicals of John Paul II, 359, 501-502.

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