Straight No Chaser … that’s the name of the a cappella group which originated in 1996 at Indiana University. Majority of the group got back together in 2008 simply because a 1998 video of them singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” went viral, it blew up all over the internet with over 8 million views. Because of the group’s popularity, their fun renditions of Christmas classics, and their creativity … Straight No Chaser has become an international phenomenon.
A part of their song “Christmas Can-Can” tells the story of the playing of Christmas music in my house. They sing, “Christmas, Christmas time is here, The sleigh bells and the red-nosed deer, Songs and songs we love to hear, All played a thousand times each year. Heard this same song twenty times, and it’s only Halloween.”
One of those Christmas songs which has been heard over and over again and sung over and over again, especially in churches, especially in the last two weeks for sure, is Isaac Watt’s familiar hymn, “Joy to the World.” According to hymnary.org, “Joy to the World” is the most published Christmas hymn in North America. The third verse of that hymn can easily be applied to what we are observing to this morning. Listen to these words. “He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.”
How far is the curse found? Everywhere right? It’s found literally everywhere! If the curse is found everywhere … so also is God’s blessing in Christ. This is Epiphany! This is what Epiphany, what this morning is all about!
Think about the Christmas story with me for just a minute … Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem. They go around pounding on doors trying to find a suitable place for Mary to have a baby. They wind up in a messy manger. Soon after Jesus is born, angels beam onto the scene to blindly scare the living nightlights out of some shepherds who are simply tending to their sheep. The angels leave, the shepherds crazily look at each other and leave their sheep to go “see this thing that has happened” (Luke 2:15). They see baby Jesus all wrapped up in swaddling cloths just like the angel said. Awwwww! They tell Mary and Joseph what the angels said and then take off spreading the word concerning what had been told them about this child (2:17). After this, we don’t know, but they probably go back to being good shepherds and tend their sheep.
On the night of Jesus’ birth, how far does the word go about the birth of the Savior? Well, at least throughout Bethlehem but I’m not sure how much farther it made it out from there. It obviously didn’t make it to Jerusalem because King Herod didn’t know anything about the birth of this King of the Jews. If he had known about it, I guarantee the paranoid old man would have had Jesus executed shortly after he was born. Can’t possibly leave the competition living right?
Now fast forward a couple of years, enter in the Magi, these men from the East. The Magi remind us how the Christian message is one of radical inclusion which is for all people. Not only has God chosen to appear in the unlikeliest of places, like a messy manger in the little backwater town of Bethlehem, but if the blessings of God in Christ truly flow as far as the curse is found, then who is to say that God hasn’t also chosen to draw toward himself the unlikeliest of people?
I mean think about it … who are these Magi who come to Jesus anyway? Well … we really don’t know. We actually don’t know a whole about these people and what we do supposedly know is probably not accurate. These Magi weren’t wise. This was something which wasn’t attached to them until about the eighth century. They “followed” the star as far as Jerusalem and wrongfully assumed that the one who has been born king of the Jews would be born in a palace. Their foolishness is only further manifested in their ignorance of the situation in Jerusalem. Had it not been for God revealing to them in a dream not to go back to Herod, these so called “wise” men would have gone back and revealed the exact location of Jesus so that Herod could kill him.
These Magi weren’t kings either. The notion that they were kings didn’t actually come around till about the sixth century. There is also no historical indication that there were three. We assume that simply because there were three gifts.
It’s probably more accurate to describe the Magi as pagan fools. Outside of Matthew 2, the only other uses of the word “magus”, which is the singular form of Magi, found in the Bible is in Daniel 2 and Acts 13. In both cases, magus or magi are referred to as sorcerers, astrologers, practitioners of the dark arts. Today we would call them members of an occult and we would strictly warn our children to avoid them at all costs.
These strange visitors from east were immersed within the curse of a creation that is in full rebellion against its Creator. If anyone has ever been far from God … it was these men. Of all the people to come and worship Jesus, these men would be the last ones anyone expected. Thus why Matthew is like, “Behold! Hey guys, come take a look at this, you won’t believe who’s at Mary and Joseph’s house bowing down to Jesus!”
But the only ones who are close to God are the ones whom He chooses. God chose Abraham and his descendants. He didn’t choose Ishmael. God chose the Israelite people over the Egyptians. In doing so, the Israelites were spared the wrath of the plagues whereas the Egyptians felt the full wrath of God. In choosing the Israelites, God eliminated all the pagan people from the Promised Land who worshipped a whole host of false gods.
Matthew 1:21 says that the newborn babe of Bethlehem will be named Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua. Joshua was the leader of the Israelite people and helped save them from the different “ite” like people who possessed the Promised Land. So Jesus, the Greek named version of Joshua, comes to save his people, the Jews.
So unless you’re Jewish, this means you and me … we are on the outside of who Jesus came to save. This means we are like the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 who comes begging to Jesus on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus ignores this woman’s request. She comes and kneels at the feet of Jesus and begs again. Jesus said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (15:26). You and I … we’re the dogs.
But yet, here you are. You and I are immersed with the curse of a creation that is in full rebellion against its Creator, we are on the outside of God’s circle of trust and yet … here we are. If anyone has ever been far from God … it’s us! If Matthew was alive and writing today he would be like, “Behold! Hey guys, come take a look at this! You won’t believe who came to worship Jesus!”
“He comes to makes his blessings flow, far as the curse is found!” The curse of sin runs rampant within the Magi. The curse of sin runs rampant within your heart, my heart, the hearts of all people today! Everyone is immersed with the curse of creation that is in full rebellion against its Creator … and yet … and yet Jesus immerses himself within this curse. He immerses himself within this curse to make his blessings flow, to make his blessings flow to those who are the most unlikely and least deserving of his blessing. The Magi, you, and me.
This is what Epiphany is all about! It’s all about the revelation of Jesus. When the Magi come to bow down and worship Jesus, God is saying that salvation doesn’t belong only to the Jews, but it is also for the gentiles, for those who are on the outside, for the dogs.
But it doesn’t stop with these walls or within the confines of our homes as we worship from wherever one watches these services. The message that Jesus came to bring is that salvation and forgiveness is also for those who are on the outside margins of society. The Church’s mission is not to make ourselves comfortable, but to reach out to those who are lost, to reach out to the unlikeliest of people and gather them together with us to worship our ever loving and all-inclusive Savior. “He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.” This is the message of the ever repeating story of the Magi! This is the message of Epiphany! Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.