Sermon Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Today we celebrate the feast of Epiphany, when wise, wealthy gentiles far from the East followed a star and came to worship the young Child, Jesus. Now if we think about it, this should be quite surprising. This should be quite shocking, because here on the one hand we have people [the Israelites] who have been around for well over a thousand years; we have a group of people who have been around for over a millennium. They have had the Scriptures, they have had the prophets, [and] they have over time witnessed the miracles of God that He has shown through His prophets. They’ve had the prophet Isaiah say that a virgin would be with child. They’ve had the prophets tell them that the coming king would be born in Bethlehem. And yet after all of the Scriptures, all of the prophets, all of the miracles, so many of God’s people in Israel missed Christ. They didn’t see Him coming, and they didn’t recognize Him after He had come.
And yet, thousands of miles away to the East, we have these idol-worshipping pagans. We have these astrologers that look up to the stars for their answers, that bow down to foreign gods that are not true gods, that do not have the prophets like Moses and Elijah, that do not have writings by these prophets, that do not have these prophecies. Now if you were to look at Israel and then you were to look at these other pagan nations far away, which one would you expect to recognize the Messiah when He comes? And yet who is it that recognizes Him?
So many right there locally didn’t know who He was. They believed He was the illegitimate son of some promiscuous woman. They thought He was just another man, they thought He was nothing special, and yet there were these wise men—we don’t know the number—who come thousands of miles from the East, because they knew that He’d come. They saw this star in the heavens, and through whatever means—we don’t know how they knew it, but they knew what it meant—they recognized a king was being born.
And so here we are, we’re in the Church; we have had in the past few hundred years in this part of the world, we’ve had more exposure to the Scriptures than many people have throughout history. We have great literacy, great abundance of printed Bibles. We’re part of the Church; we worship liturgically every Sunday. We take the Body and Blood of Christ. We hear the preaching of the Scriptures. We hear these writings by the prophets and by the apostles.
And what I wonder is, is has the shock of this worn off? Have we gotten to where it doesn’t seem shocking at all? We just think, “Oh, ‘we three kings of orient are…’ nice Christmas/Epiphany tune, something you would have heard since childhood. No big deal. Jesus is coming, so of course, wise men are gonna come from the East and worship Him. Yeah, we’ve heard that since we were kids.”
Why should it shock us that Gentiles travel thousands of miles to worship this newborn king while God’s own people missed Him? Why should that amaze us? I think the reason we’re not shocked anymore is we’ve forgotten what “gentile” means. You see, we ourselves are gentiles. We’re not directly descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We don’t have any Jewish blood in us that I know of. At least, I don’t think I do. So when we hear the word “gentile,” we just think of ourselves, as we should, but again, because of that we just don’t think much of this word. We think, “Ah, there’s millions and millions and millions of Gentiles who have come to Christ, so what’s the big deal?”
Rewind over two thousand years and imagine that there’s only one nation on the planet where God is widely known. Only one. Go anywhere other than Israel, and there are many places where the Scriptures are not to be found. If you find anybody with the Scriptures, it’s only because there are some Jews that have been exiled, and they happened to be there (like Alexandria, Egypt comes to mind). But for the most part, if you’re not within the borders of Israel, you’re in the borders of a nation that worships demons, that worships pagan gods, that bows down to idols. You hear the word “gentile” [and] you would think of a neighboring nation that bows down to an Asherah pole. You would think of a neighboring nation which bows down to a calf: Baal worshippers. Think of modern Hindus. That’s what they do; they bow down and they worship cows. When you hear the word “gentile,” you would have thought of those who worship Molech: those who literally would take their own children and offer them up to this idol to be burned to death as worship to their god. And of course they’d have loud music and celebration to drown out the cries of their children as they burned to death. Think about the modern abortion industry, where children are murdered just as mercilessly, to the god of convenience.
When you hear the word “gentile,” you thought of people who didn’t have the Scriptures, who didn’t follow God’s laws, who bowed down and worshipped demons, who were murderers, who were lustful. They would, a lot of times, have explicit sexual acts as part of worship in the temples in some of these foreign countries. Promiscuity was not something that you secretly hid and did in your basement or in your bedroom; it’s something you did right out in front of the open. It was celebrated as being a wonderful thing. There were a lot of sickening, evil practices going on in all of these pagan temples of these foreign nations.
But still, it’s hard for us because today we see churches on every corner. We see Bibles all over the place. We can flip on the TV and if we choose to go to one of those channels, we can go to a channel where something is being preached from the Scriptures. We can go on YouTube on the Internet and watch Orthodox church services right there. So how do we get ourselves to understand just what this word “gentile” really meant over two thousand years ago?
Here’s what I want you to imagine: I want you to imagine that today an angel comes down from God out of heaven and appears in our midst. That would be quite a new direction for the service, wouldn’t it? I’d stop preaching immediately. We’d all be on our faces, bowing down before the angel of the Lord. And so we see this great bright presence. We see the angel of the Lord speaking to us and he says:
“Do not fear. I have good tidings of great joy. I have good news to share with everybody. I love the Muslims. I love the people that are currently members of the Taliban. Christ died on the cross so that they could have the opportunity to repent, to be saved, to be healed, to be your brothers, so that their wives and daughters could be your sisters. And the good news I’ve come to tell you is that many of their hearts are about to open and there are many current Taliban members, many current Muslims, many who are currently training in suicide death camps, many who have chopped off the heads of Americans on television and have put it on the internet, many who have trained so that in the future they might be able to fly their planes into buildings. Many of them are about to recognize Christ for who He is, and they’re going to be your brothers and sisters and eat at the same table, the same Eucharist, with you. And they’re going to spend forever happy in heaven in eternity, in the presence of Christ, in your presence, and in the presence of many of the Christians who died in 9-11.”
Now, if that happened, how many of you would be overjoyed? How many of us would be angry? How many of us would feel a little of both and not quite know how to feel about that? Now, let’s expand that even bigger. Let’s say that God sent angels down to every church in the United States of America, with the same message. How do you think they would all respond? Would they all respond the same way? Would all of them respond in joy?
Let’s go even further. Let’s say God sent one of His prophets today, to give that message, and that prophet’s words were published, in the newspapers, on the news, on the Internet, and on YouTube. Do you think unanimously the American people would rise up in joy and celebration? How do you feel when you hear that word, “Muslim?” How do you feel when you hear, “Taliban?” Do you feel like you’re hearing about somebody that you really love and you want good things to happen to them? You see, when you hear the word, “Taliban,” that’s what the Jews felt when they heard the word, “gentile.” After all, what is it that we hate about the Muslims, that we hate about the Taliban? Well, they’re not even Christian. They worship the wrong God. Check. Well, they’re mean, and they’re murderous, and they kill people and do horrible things. Check. Well, but they don’t even have the Scriptures, or the prophets, or the Gospels or the Bible. Check. See, those are the things that the Jews hated about the gentiles. Same three things.
And yet, from day one, from day one, if you go to Genesis chapter 12, when God first takes Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees, brings Abraham as a stranger and a sojourner in a strange land, and tells Abraham that eventually this land of Israel would become his, and according to the book of Romans, God even told Abraham that ultimately he would inherit the entire earth; the whole planet would become his. Right there in Genesis 12, God says that all the nations would be blessed through him. God repeated that later when He passed the covenant on down to Isaac and Jacob, and then here, not long after the birth of Christ, what do we see but the nations coming to Christ? Those outside the people of Israel. Those not genetically related to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, traveling thousands of miles so that these Gentiles could bow down to worship Christ. Jesus said later in John chapter 12, He said that when the son of man is lifted up on the cross, He said, “I will draw all men unto Myself.“
“All men” includes all the Gentiles, which includes Hindus, Muslims, members of the Taliban, Republicans, [and] Democrats. Jesus was lifted up–crucified–so that all men could be drawn unto Him. So we need to rethink how we think about those who behave as our enemies: Those who are worshipping pagan gods, in foreign countries. Those who worship pagan gods in this country. Those who hate us. Those who kill our brothers and our sons, and our wives and our daughters. Those who come after us with blasphemies and epithets and swords and bloodshed. Those are the ones Christ came to save.
And the moment you start thinking, “Oh, but you see, I needed salvation, but I wasn’t that bad. I was basically good, so it would make sense that Jesus would want to save me, but they are so bad, how could Jesus want to save them?” The moment you start thinking like that or talking like that, you have fallen into the pride of Lucifer himself, for he is the father of pride: the same pride that made him fall from heaven, the same pride that allowed Adam and Eve to disobey God and partake of the forbidden fruit. That’s the same pride that we enter into whenever we start thinking that our salvation was somehow based on how good we were to start out with. “But that guy over there, he’s so dirty, he’s so scummy, he’s so bad that even Christ can’t save him. . . .”
Remember when Jesus looks at the Pharisees–the religious leaders of the day–and He says that prostitutes and tax collectors are coming into the Kingdom of heaven faster than you? Why? Because the Pharisees would not humble themselves. They would not bow their knees, their necks, and their hearts to Christ and come to Him like little children who had nothing to offer.
But the prostitutes, the tax collectors, they were just as far away from God as the Pharisees, but they knew it and they admitted it. They humbled themselves, and they were welcomed into the Kingdom of heaven, even before those who thought they were close to God.
So when we think of the Magi visiting Jesus from the East, we need to remember that God came to save all men, all nations, all people, without exception. And if we harden our hearts against them the way the Jews hardened their hearts against the Gentiles, then the same condemnation will come to us that came to many of them, and those who are prostitutes, those who are tax collectors, those who are blasphemers, those who are idolaters, those who are murderers, will bow their knees and will be cleansed of their sins by Christ, and will come into the Kingdom of heaven before we will.
There’s a saying that we could glean from this that applies to us today: If you think it’s hard to pray for a Muslim to be saved, if you think it’s hard to pray for a Hindu person to be saved, if you think it’s hard to pray for a murderer or an adulterer to be saved, how much harder would it be for you to take criticism from such a person? Imagine that some member of the Taliban walks through the door of your home, and after spending some time there, gets an arrogant and haughty look on his face, spits out some insults at you and tells you that you’re doing a terrible job as an American, as a citizen, as a Christian, as a husband, as a father, as a wife, as a mother, as a child. And he mentions some specific things that he thinks that you’re just doing terribly. And he cusses at you and he spits at you and then he stomps out the door. How easy would it be for you to accept that criticism?
You see, it’s difficult enough to accept criticism when it comes to us from the Scriptures or from God Himself, or from a bishop or from a priest, somebody who is above us that we look up to in the Church. But it’s much more difficult to take criticism from one of your brothers and sisters in Christ, or from a child, or even from a pagan who is outside the Church and has no love for Christ at all.
How many of you have seen a TV show called Lie to Me? Anybody? If you’ve seen that show more than two or three times, you know what a “deflection” is. You ever heard of a deflection? Basically the way it works is, somebody asks you a question, and instead of answering that question, you ask a different question, or you divert the conversation to some other topic and you start answering something else that they didn’t ask. It’s anything that you do to actively turn the focus off of you, off that particular thing that you do not want to think about. It’s deflection. It’s like a shield that you put up so that that question bounces off of it. You’ve deflected that question.
We do the same thing with criticism, with insults. You see, in Scripture it tells me that I’m supposed to be a certain type of dad. That’s so hard to take. I might try to ignore it. If I’m praying and God convicts my heart and I realize that there’s something that I need to do differently than I’m doing, that’s hard to take. I might try to put it off. But it’s much easier to deflect conviction whenever we’re criticized by other fallen human beings. You see, if that Muslim comes and criticizes me about not being a good American, not being a good family man, ha! I don’t have to listen to him, I can just say, “Well, look at you. It’s your people that flew into our buildings and killed a bunch of our people, so you have no place to talk to me.” Well, I might be right. He might have no place to talk to me. He might be worse than I am, and guess what? That’s a deflection. It’s irrelevant to what he said about me.
It’s interesting; you read throughout Scripture, and something striking happens. Many times, God’s people–Israel–throughout the Old Testament, falls into sin and they turn their backs on God, and then to wake them up, to get them to turn back towards God, God will send Babylon or Egypt or the Assyrians, to come and defeat them in battle, and there’s one of the Old Testament prophets who spent some time really talking about this. And he doesn’t accuse God of any wrongdoing, but he just cries out, “Why?!” He just doesn’t understand. “Lord God, I know that we’re sinners, I know that we deserve punishment, but the people you sent to punish us, they’re worse than we are! They’re bigger sinners than we are. They’ve blasphemed Your name way more than we have. They’ve killed their own children. They worship demons! They’re worse than we, but you sent them to punish us?” That’s often how God works.
For you see, only a humble person has audience with the Lord. And only a humble person is able to receive criticism from somebody who is a sinner, from somebody who is an enemy, from somebody who they feel is even worse than they are. It is humbling, and that is God’s entire point. Now, I don’t think any time soon that you’re going to have a radical, murderous, Taliban Muslim storming through your door, and telling you how to run your life, how to run your marriage, how to be a Christian in the Church. But your boss, your coworker, your brother and sister in Christ right here in this congregation, might challenge you about something, [and] might say, “Russ, you really need to shape up. Christa, here’s something you need to work on. Amy, here’s something that you need to look into.”
And the moment that happens, our first thought is to bristle, it’s to put up our defenses. And instead of asking ourselves, “Is what this person said true? Is it biblical? Is it in alignment with what the Church teaches? Is it in alignment with what the Early Church Fathers taught? Is it in alignment with what the saints of the Orthodox Church teach?” We don’t ask any of those questions. No, the first thing we do is bristle up, put up our defenses, and get into deflection.
Whatever that person said bad about me, whatever that person said I need to work on, all I need to do is point back at them and say, “Well, you, too! Look how rotten you are at this same thing that you just got after me about. See, you don’t have any place to talk to me, so therefore, I don’t have to listen.” That’s deflection. That’s what God’s own people did. That’s what the Jews–many of them–are still doing to this day.
The gentiles were far from the people of God. They were worshipping idols. They didn’t have the Scriptures. They were in murder, they were in blasphemy, they were in adultery, they were lost and they knew it. And millions upon millions of them have poured into the Kingdom of heaven, on their knees, humbled. And so many of the Jews are scandalized by this.
See, they thought that the Messiah was just a Jewish Messiah. They thought that He would come just for them. They did not think that He would ever do away with circumcision as a requirement. They’re scandalized by this idea that Jews and gentiles–[comparable to] Muslims–can worship and fellowship at the same table. And so many of them, scandalized by this, would not bow the knee; they would not humble their hearts before God. They decided to wait for some other Messiah.
They’re still waiting, and they’re gonna keep waiting, and they’re gonna keep waiting until they finally humble themselves and realize the Messiah has already come, and He’s come not just for them but He’s come for all people.
So how can we grow in the Christian life? How can we grow spiritually? When we receive criticism from another human being, it is irrelevant whether that other person is a bigger sinner than I, it is irrelevant whether that other person has been guilty of the same sin as I; the only thing that matters at that point is, have I humbled myself, and have I asked myself whether this person’s claims are true? When somebody criticizes me, I’m not, at that point, I am not there to judge that person, and their motives, and their ability to assess the situation. I am there to receive the criticism, to compare that criticism with Scripture, with the teachings of the Church, with the writings of the Church Fathers, and if I find truth there, even if the person that delivered it is worse than I am, even if I think that they’re lower than the scum on my shoe–well, first of all, I need to stop thinking like that, about any of God’s creation, but even if I do think that, it’s irrelevant–I need to stop deflecting. I need to accept it, and I need to compare it to what God has taught.
It’s a very humbling thing to realize that God loves each member of the Taliban just as much as He loves Deacon Joseph, Shamassy Amy, Jennifer, Alan, Russ. That’s a humbling thing, to realize that God loves Muslims just as much as He loves you. God loves the Hindus just as much as He loves you. Now, do they need to come to Christ? Absolutely. But God loves each one of them with the same love that He loves you, and He calls them into His Church the same way He called you into His Church.
And whenever we receive criticism, it needs to be with humility, the same kind of open heart that says, “I am not here to judge everybody else. I am here to receive whatever is said and to see whether I have something to learn, to see whether I have something to repent of.” Because you can’t repent for them, but you can repent for yourself. And the neat thing is this: even if the other person that criticizes you is even worse of a sinner than you are, if you will receive their criticism and if you yourself will humble yourself and will repent, then you have just set an example for that other person, so that that other person, too, may come to know Christ and His forgiveness, so that that other person may repent in the same way that you have.
So we need to change the way we think about people outside the Church, we need to change the way we react to even people inside the Church who criticize us. Because if we will spend most of our focus finding some way to change the one person that we have the power to change–that’s ourselves–that’s when we’re going to be conformed to the image of Christ.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, God is one.
This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, January 6, 2013, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.