This is Us - Introduction
Passage: Matthew 2:1–2:12
Have you ever had an experience that changed your life? Have you ever encountered a piece of art, heard a piece of music, or watched a movie and had a transcendent experience?
My mom told me about the first time she saw Phantom of the Opera. She went with my dad and she said that ten seconds in to the first song her eyes welled up. It was just so beautiful. Her eyes remained misty the rest of the show. At the end of the play she looked at my dad with her non-dry eyes and said “wasn’t that incredible.” And my dad, totally predictably, said “yeah it was ok.”
I remember the first time I really heard Les Mis. I had grown up listening to it, it was one of the cassette tapes that my parents had in their car for long trips. My mom coaxed me and my little brother to do a lip sync performance of the Confrontation song at our family reunion when I was 6 and he was 4. And I knew that it was some good turns. But when I was in college I read an article in the Duke Divinity student magazine that talked about how Les Mis was the Christian life of redemption and I listened to the music anew. There isn’t a song in that show that can’t make me cry.
I remember going not see the animated movie Up in theaters with Emily. This was very early on in our relationship and we couldn’t decide which movie to go see. I wanted to see a movie that involved gangsters and Al Capone. She wanted to see a romantic comedy. Neither could make the other agree. So I said how about we just see Up instead. I thought it would be a fun animated movie, an enjoyable experience, a good date. And more than anything else, a way out of the minor disagreement. The first ten minutes of that movie are so beautiful, so kind, so tender, so real that I was in tears. At an animated movie. I didn’t know animated movies could do that.
Have you ever had that? Where you’re surprised and caught off guard by an experience of pure beauty? An experience so real? An experience of happiness, joy, hope? Have you ever had an experience that changed you in a real way?
Today is a day in the Christian calendar called Epiphany. Epiphany is we remember the Wise Men traveling to see the Christ child, led by the star. And don’t get me wrong, we’re talking Wise Men today. But it’s also about much more. It’s about the ways the light of Christ dawns in our lives. It’s about how the Wise Men were changed through their encounter with the newborn King and how our lives can be and our changed when we encounter Jesus. It’s about the transcendent experiences we have, what they mean, and where they lead.
But before we look at our lives let’s look at the original people who experience Epiphany. Let’s look at the Magi, the Wise Men, the strange men who came from afar to find the baby.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Now here’s the deal friends, this story is crazy. The details of it are striking. The story itself is crazy and far-fetched. But if there’s anything that’s weirder than the details of the story its that it not only survived and was passed down to us, but that it was was also canonized and called holy text. I believe this story is true and the reason why I believe its true is this is the exact opposite way you’d have written the story if you were making something up.
You see, Matthew’s gospel came out of and was written to a very Jewish community. The allusions Matthew makes, the way he talks about things all make it clear that his community is a group of Jews who believe Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. And the Jewish community had their own history, their own customs, their own vocabulary. Part of that were prophetic descriptions about how and when the Messiah would come. And people looked for these things. Especially during the time of Roman occupation of Israel. The people who lived in the decades before and after Christ believed that they were living during the culmination of history, when God would act decisively to bring control of Israel back to Israel, reestablish the throne of David, and bring about peace and prosperity for God’s chosen people. They were looking for signs of this. They were on alert. They were ready.
And yet this story begins with Magi from the East coming to Jerusalem “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star and want to worship him.” It had happened. The Messiah had come. And everyone missed it. How is that possible?! But here’s where the story gets really strange. The Magi talk about noticing a star. This would have made the Jews crazy. Star gazing was what the Greeks did. And what people from the East did. But there wasn’t anything in the prophets about a star. So for the Messiah to come and for that sign to be a star would have flown in the face of how Israel was expecting their Messiah to come. Perhaps they might have even felt betrayed. Perhaps the mere mention that a star foretold the birth of the Messiah was enough to spark public outrage. And perhaps a disturbance of the peace is how these men came to be standing in front of King Herod asking where the King of the Jews was born.
This is where it gets political. Because did you catch that I said Herod was King Herod? King of what? The Jews. These Magi are asking the King of the Jews where the King of the Jews was born. Guess who might not like that question. And now here’s where it gets dangerous. King Herod is King of the Jews because Rome put him there. To suggest that there is another rightful King of the Jews is not just a personal affront to Herod, bad as that would be, but its openly questioning the power and authority of the Roman government. And Rome did not take to kindly to such behavior.
Friends we are like four verses in and already this is a Hollywood epic.
So Herod asks the chief priests and the teachers of the law where the Messiah was to be born. And in good Jewish fashion, they report what the prophets had said: Bethlehem. If indeed the Messiah was here, that’s where it would have happened. So Herod tells the Magi to go to Bethlehem and to send word when they had found the child so Herod could pay him a visit too.
So they set out for Bethlehem. And then something happens on the way to Bethlehem. So we know that at some point they had seen a star. They had seen something in the heavens that caused them to set out from the East. But the star must have gone away. Or else why do they end up in Jerusalem asking questions? Then Scripture tells us, on their way to Bethlehem, the star comes back. Because once again they are following the star to where it leads.
We don’t know what they saw. We don’t know what it was that led them to leave their country and set out on a journey. But it had to be big. It had to have been real. Whatever they saw had to have been such an experience that they left their homes, set off on a far journey which led them to ask questions that insulted Herod and Rome and could lead to them being killed. Their mission was dangerous. And they went anyway. Because they saw something. Because they had an experience and they knew their only choice was to go.
Which brings us back to that first question. Have you had an experience like that? Have you had an experience where you knew you had to follow it, you had to pull the thread, to see where it might lead? You feel something you’ve never felt. Something touches you in a way you haven’t been touched before. And you can’t just ignore it. You feel compelled to explore. That was what the Magi felt when the saw the star. They had to do something.
But then whatever started that experience went away. The star, the thing they saw, the thing that made them leave their house and start out on this dangerous journey disappeared. And they were out there walking around guided only by a memory. Some might call that wandering.
Many times in my life, but especially as I was forming my faith in high school and college, a song would stir something in me. And then a couple months later or maybe a year or two later I’d listen to that song again hoping to feel that same thing and it wouldn’t be there. Maybe you’ve come to church recently and it you felt like you were right in the very place you were meant to be and it was incredible. And then you came back a week or two later and it was straight up boring. Or maybe you’ve served at a homeless dinner and the sense of purpose and beauty of what you were doing was overwhelming. But after a while you find yourself getting annoyed at some of the people. All of this is ok. It’s normal. It happened to the Magi. They had an experience that got them going and then all of a sudden that thing was gone. Here’s what we need to learn in moments like that: the Magi kept going.
The Magi keep walking, the Magi keep pressing confident that they’ll be led somewhere. And sure enough their faith is rewarded as the star returns. And they were overjoyed. It wasn’t just a one time thing, they weren’t being ridiculous, this was real. And they follow it to Bethlehem. To the child. And his parents.
When they entered the place where the child was they knelt down and worshipped the child. They presented the child with gifts. This imagery of kneeling before someone and presenting homage to someone evokes encounters with royalty. These Magi are treating Jesus as if he is a king, as if they truly are meeting the King of the Jews. But this encounter goes beyond just simply meeting a foreign leader. This encounter will not be one among many diplomatic instances that would inevitably occur that year. This encounter changes the lives of the Magi.
For while they sleep an angel appears to them and warns them not to return to Herod. They are warned that if they go see Herod they will be in danger. They are warned that they are in trouble. And so they return home via a different route. This is a pragmatic warning from the angel that serves as a way to foreshadow the violence that is about to come in this story. But I think it also functions on a personal and spiritual level. They returned a route that was different than they one on which they came. They walked different paths, they made different choices having encountered the child. It’s almost as if on some level Matthew is telling us that upon encountering the child their lives were never the same.
And this is what we celebrate on Epiphany. We celebrate an encounter with Jesus that resulted in real, genuine life change. We remember how the Magi came, met the Christ child, worshipped him, and returned via a different route. They weren’t the same.
But Epiphany isn’t just about the Magi. Epiphany isn’t about an event that happened a couple thousand years ago. We celebrate Epiphany because this thing that happened two thousand years ago keeps happening today. We celebrate Epiphany because people are still encountering Jesus and are having their lives transformed by such an encounter.
It happened to me when I went on a mission trip in high school. And at some point I knew that worshipping Jesus and serving the world in his name were a part of the grain of the universe, part of the foundation of the world. That worshipping Jesus and serving in his name were truly real. It’s happened to me in college, it’s happened to me as an adult when I feel deep in my soul that following Jesus is the only way my life makes sense. That when I follow Jesus I am moving in step with something deeper and greater than myself.
It bet it’s happened to you too. I’ll bet at some point you had an experience of God. You had a moment of transcendence. You felt in step with something that was bigger and greater than deeper and truer than anything you’d felt before. Maybe it was in worship, during a sermon, or in singing a song. Maybe it was in prayer or while reading your Bible. Maybe it was in serving. Maybe it had nothing to do with the church as such, but was in a relationship, in the birth of your child, or in nature. But you knew that there was more going on in the world than meets the eye. And you’ve sought out the source of that. And perhaps you’ve found it in following Jesus.
We’re here, we’re worshipping today because we still encounter the Christ. We still worship and adore the Christ. We still bring gifts to the Christ. We still have our lives changed and transformed by the Christ. We go home different because of the Christ.
But here’s where we fully leave the Magi behind and focus on us because we know nothing about what happened to the Magi after they left Christ. We know they went home a different way, but that’s it. There’s no story about what they did when they went him. There’s no story about how they processed their encounter with Christ. There’s no story about how their encounter with Christ left them changed forever.
And so we might naturally ask what are we to do when we encounter Christ? How are we supposed to process that encounter? What are we to do as a result?
Here at Spirit & Life we have a particular way of doing that. We have particular ways of helping us encounter Jesus again and again so that we can follow him and be transformed by him. We have a few things you can do as a result of encountering Christ in order to devote your life in worship and service to Him. Those things are worship, small groups, and service.
For us, at Spirit & Life, we believe those three things are ways we can repeatably encounter Christ and form the basis for discipleship. Worship, small groups, and service are the things we do as followers of Christ. Worship, small groups, and service are the ways we order our lives, they’re the alternate route home that our lives take.
Worship, small groups, and service are what we’re about here at Spirit & Life. Worship, small groups, and service are…well they’re us. So this month, as we begin a new year, as we look at our lives and think about how we can change and order our lives so they reflect who we want to be and what values we want to hold, we wanted to talk about the things that make us, us. This is us. Let’s look at it. And just like the TV show This Is Us centers around the big 3, we are going to center around Spirit & Life’s Big 3: worship, small groups, and service.
In the coming weeks we will look at each one of these and see how they help us encounter Jesus and how and encounter of Jesus transforms us so that we can be living signs of God’s presence in the world.
I want to regularly encounter Christ. I want to regularly have moments of transcendent beauty, moments where my soul rejoices. I want to have ah-ha moments where my heart and mind are blown away by God’s grace. I want to have moments where I know I am doing and working towards the restoration of the world. I want to have epiphanies. If that sounds compelling to you, if that sounds like a life you want to have too, if that sounds like having life abundantly, I invite you to join us as we look at our big 3 and explore the ways we can encounter the Christ in the hopes that we will never ever be the same. Let us pray.