“Jesus is for Everyone”
Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Brett Cane, Parish of Central Saanich, British Columbia, January 3, 2016
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
Heavenly Father, out of your love for the whole world, you sent us your Son, Jesus, to be our Saviour; help us now, by your Holy Spirit, to grasp the truth that Jesus is for everyone, and so embrace a global vision for your Kingdom, to the honour and glory of your name. Amen.
Sermon – Audio[audio:160103-Epiphany Sunday.mp3]
Today, we celebrate the Epiphany. The word means “unveiling” or “revealing.” It commemorates the first exposure of Jesus to the world at large through the visit of the Magi or Wise Men. The whole season of Epiphany, from now until the beginning of Lent, focuses on the mission of God to reach out to all nations through Christ. So today, the theme of this sermon is “Jesus is for everyone.” This is what the story of the Magi is all about.
The Story of the Magi
The story of the Wise Men, or Magi, is found in Matthew chapter 2. It tells us a lot about God’s plan for the whole world. We need to realize first that Matthew’s story of Jesus is the most Jewish Gospel of them all. It contains many Old Testament quotations and is very respectful of Jewish law and custom. On the whole, it appears to be an appeal and a defence of the Christian faith to the Jewish community. However, at the same time, there is a very strong element in the Gospel which pushes the faith out beyond its Jewish roots to a world-wide mission. As we pointed out two weeks ago, when Matthew gives the list of Jesus’ ancestors (in chapter one), he includes not only women (which was a great step forward for those times!) but those who were not Jewish; for instance, Rahab the Canaanite prostitute, and Ruth the Moabite grandmother of King David. God has not restricted his love to only one nation. Then in chapter 2, the Wise Men from the East are among the first people to come to see the baby Jesus. It is not the rich and famous of Jewish society who pay him homage, but foreigners.
So let’s take a look at the visit of the Magi. Who were these Wise Men? I will try out your knowledge of the Magi with this true and false quiz:
1. There were three wise men – true or false? False: we don’t know – we only presume there were three from the fact that there were three gifts mentioned.
2. Their names were Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar – true or false? False: these names come from an Armenian legend of the sixth century.
3. They arrived just after the shepherds at the stable – true or false? False: they came when the Holy Family had moved into a house (see verse 11) and it was obviously much later as Herod gave orders to kill all boys two years old or younger (verse 16) in accordance with the time he learned from the wise men.
4. They were kings – true or false? False: they were wise men or magi, who came from a special group of people within the Persian Empire. They belonged to a tribe of priests, much like the Levites who administered the Temple in Jewish religion. They were teachers and instructors to the Persian kings, men of holiness and wisdom and skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science. They were also involved in astrology, which is frowned upon in the Bible. They did not have as clear a picture of what God was going to do as the Jews did – they needed to ask the Jewish priests and teachers of the law where Jesus was to be born and they were able to tell them from the Scriptures – in Bethlehem.
But it was these people, these foreigners with a questionable profession of astrology and a mongrel religious pedigree, who came searching for Jesus. The Jewish religious leaders and nobility of the day didn’t even bother to go and find out if there was anything to their story. But these men from another nation came seeking God’s Messiah and found him. This is the main thrust of the story. So, right from his birth, Jesus is shown to be God’s saviour for all nations, not just some select racial or religious group.
Many people, though, are somewhat resistant to this concept of reaching out to all nations. They raise objections.
1. What about other religions? The first objection is “what about other religions?” We are aware of other great religious traditions in the world. We ask “what right do we have to present to others a different faith?” We know that much missionary activity in the past was an importation of western culture and destroyed harmless or even beneficial local traditions. We see that there was much paternalism and exploitation.
We would do well to note these criticisms and take them to heart. There has been much done in the name of Christianity that was not good. But just because something is done badly doesn’t mean we jettison the thing itself. In our own culture just because evangelism can be turned into Hollywood-type extravaganzas complete with accompanying scandals and intrigue doesn’t mean that all sharing of the faith is wrong.
But then, what about the religions other nations have? There is much in the faith of others that we need to look at and listen to carefully. Not all other religions are totally evil and wrong. The Magi are a case in point. Some religions help us see the Bible more clearly – when I visited friends in Kenya some years ago I discovered that Kenyans find it easier to understand the Old Testament than we do because their tribal religion is closer to it than our experience. Another example is the fact that Islam abolished idolatry.
However, the Christian faith does claim to be unique, “I am the way, the truth, and the life – no one comes to the Father but by me,” Jesus said (John 14:6). It is not that Christians have got together, made up the rules as if in a club, and said “unless you abide by our rules, you can’t get to God.” It is God in Christ who has established this uniqueness: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). If humanity has a problem of separation from God and needs rescuing, then it is God who has to bridge the gap. The Bible claims that bridge is Jesus, through his death and resurrection. Nothing else, no matter how noble, how worthwhile, can bridge that gap. If it were possible, then why did Christ have to die? If Jesus is not the One for all, then he is the One for none.
I have a helpful true story that sheds light on the relationship between Jesus and other faiths. My friend Robin Guinness, former rector of St. Stephen’s Church in Montreal, tells of a Hindu man who was very interested in becoming a follower of Jesus but was concerned about negating the benefits he and his father had received through a certain Hindu guru. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Robin said, “The guru was like a candle shining in the darkness for you, wasn’t he?” The man replied, “Yes.” “Would you settle for the light of a candle when you can have the light of the sun?” Immediately, the man saw the issue clearly and he became a follower of Jesus. There is certainly some light shed in other faiths, but compared to the brightness of the light of Christ, which would you choose? This is what the Magi knew and discovered for themselves.
2. What about the needs at home? Another objection to going out with the faith to all nations is that we have needs at home. “What about all the folk in our own lands that do not acknowledge Christ? We have a massive problem of our own to meet.” “What about the homeless in our own country? Let us see to the needs of our own before going out to the rest of the world.” Your concern for home is a good one and absolutely necessary. But the situation is not an “either/or” one – it is “both/and.” While we are to have a special concern for those on our own doorstep, we have been given gifts and resources that we are to use throughout the world. Compared to the rest of the world, we are rich in resources, spiritual and material. We have a full-time priest for two congregations of sixty to eighty people each. Our brothers and sisters in some of the growing churches of the non-Western world have one priest for ten or more congregations of hundreds if not thousands of people. Most of their priests have limited Bible-school education, yours have five or six university degrees between them. We have transportation by car or bus, they are happy if they can get hold of a bicycle. What if the church in Antioch in Acts 13 had said, “We desperately need teaching here, we can’t afford to send off Paul and Barnabas into the wilds of Asia Minor – keep them at home?” We wouldn’t be here today! We need to catch this world-wide vision.
The Biblical Picture
In order to do this let us look briefly at the picture of world mission that is given in the Bible and let it seep into our consciousness and hearts. The biblical basis for mission is that God is a global God. In Genesis 12 (1-3), God said that through Abraham, all nations would be blessed. God’s purpose in choosing one nation originally was not to exclude others, but so that through that one nation, all nations could come to faith with Him. God’s people in both the Old (Exodus 19:4-6a) and New (1 Peter 2:9) Testaments are called a holy nation, a kingdom of priests to serve God and declare his praises. Now priests don’t exist to serve themselves. We are to be the go-between for God and others in the world. The books of Ruth and Jonah in the Old Testament are there to remind people that God is interested in other nations and the prophet Isaiah is full of messages about God’s reaching out to all nations such as the passage we heard read from Isaiah 60 (1-6).
Jesus takes up this perspective in the New Testament. His favourite title for himself was taken from the Book of Daniel, “The Son of Man,” the figure that all nations worship on the Day of Judgment (Daniel 7:13-14). His first sermon in Nazareth in Luke 4 emphasized God’s openness to all nations by recalling Old Testament stories of God’s prophets working with non-Jews – a widow from Sidon and Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:25-27). Jesus related to non-Jews around him – he healed the Roman centurion’s servant, spoke to the Samaritan woman, and in response to some Greeks who wanted to see him, said “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
When speaking of the future, Jesus included clear references to the world-wide mission of the church. In Matthew 24:14, he says, “This Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations” and that they were to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Paul also affirms this in the passage we heard from Ephesians (3:6): “The Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” Our God is a global God and his plan is to reach out to all nations. We are part of that plan.
What, then, is our role? Jesus said, in leaving his disciples “As the Father has sent me, so send I you” (John 20:21). We who are followers of Jesus are sent out as he was sent out. This doesn’t mean that all of us have to hop on the next plane to South America or Europe. God has a specific calling to each one of us. Jesus ministered mainly within the confines of Israel. That was part of his strategy – to concentrate his ministry so that his disciples would then be able to take the message far and wide. God’s strategy may be to have you here at home. For others, he wants you elsewhere. What he does want from all of us is a global vision, a concern, not only for the situation here at home, but all over the world. A large portion of the world’s population has either already responded to the Gospel or lives amongst those who have. However, there are still over 2 billion people of the world who have never heard the Good News. We can help by going ourselves, sending others or providing resources for our sister churches elsewhere to do the job.
Let us not be like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, who were so bound up in their own concerns and national interests that they failed to recognize him. It took people from another nation, people who were desperately seeking God, the Magi, to find him and worship him. Let us join in that world-wide movement of the faith that our God has at the heart of his being; let us grasp that Jesus is for everyone.