Text: Matthew 2:1-12 | Psalm 72:1-14
Happy New Year, and Happy Epiphany. Christmas is over and now it is time to start fresh. A new light is dawning. That’s what Epiphany means. Something new is dawning. We see things in a fresh way.
This is the time of year when many people make what? New Year’s…resolutions. I have only made one resolution that I’ve truly kept. Many years ago I resolved to never make New Year’s resolutions, because I can never keep them. I’ve been doing pretty good at that one.
This is a season when we tend to look forward and set goals. Here’s my big question for today. Is it this [point up] or is it this [point to both sides]?
In our Western culture we have a tendency to think about goals like this [point up]. Look at this drawing. We think of progress as something that moves upward. Things start out bad, then they move to good, that’s like a bronze medal, then they move to better, that’s like a silver medal, and finally they reach best, that’s like a gold medal. Best is perfect, top, supreme, the ultimate.
This is true of all kinds of goals. What’s one of the most common goals set at this time of year? Weight loss. We want to shed those holidays pounds. So, we have this ideal picture of what our body should look like and that is the gold. We place our current reality somewhere down here and then we work upward toward the goal.
It’s true of relationships. We have an idea of the perfect mate and we climb up and over all the losers to get to the goal.
In our professional life we call it “climbiing the corporate…ladder, right.” We start on the ground floor until we work our way to the top, often climbing over and on the competition until there is just one standing.
We run into this in our text today.
Wise men from the east saw a star. These were people who devoted their lives to studying the movement of the stars in order to see what was happening with the gods and with the world. What is really interesting is that they probably came from Persia, and this is probably the kind of person that Daniel was trained to be. Do you remember when we looked at that story a few weeks ago?
These wise men, or magi, as the Bible calls them, saw something in the heavens that indicated that a king was born in Israel, so they set out to find the king. They asked the question, “Where is the King?”
What did they expect to find? Where did they go first? They went to Jerusalem, of course; to the palace of the King. You see, this is how society is structured. You have the bad on the bottom–the gentiles and the unclean. Then you have the commoners, then the priests and scribes, and finally you reach the ulitmate–the King. The top dog, the head honcho, the dude in charge. Wouldn’t the newborn King of Israel be born here?
But that is not what they found. Instead, they found the newborn King down here, at the bottom of the scale.
They had an Epiphany. They found an unexpected King. They found the kind of King that God has always wanted. They found the kind of King described way back in Psalm 72. Let’s read this together from the Message translation:
“Give the gift of wise rule to the king, O God,
the gift of just rule to the crown prince.
May he judge your people rightly,
be honorable to your meek and lowly.
Let the mountains give exuberant witness;
shape the hills with the contours of right living.
Please stand up for the poor,
help the children of the needy,
come down hard on the cruel tyrants.
Because he rescues the poor at the first sign of need,
the destitute who have run out of luck.
He opens a place in his heart for the down-and-out,
he restores the wretched of the earth.
He frees them from tyranny and torture—
when they bleed, he bleeds;
when they die, he dies.”
That is what God’s kind of leader looks like.
During these five weeks of Epiphany we are going to look at this King Jesus and the kind of Kingdom that he came to establish on earth. It is an unexpected Kingdom. God’s kingdom turns our upward system on its head. This is not a new thing. This has been God’s plan for people from the beginning. It’s what God has been working on all through the story of Israel that we studied last fall. We’ve seen how God establishes the people like this [point out] and then the people make it go like this [point up] over and over. Now Jesus has come to show us what it actually looks like to live like this [point out], not this [point up].
Jesus turns it upside down, in order to set us free. This is the message that we need to hear this year. Maybe you are tired of the pressure that the upward system puts on you. The problem with it is that in order to get to the top you have to look down on those below you.
We can even think of our spiritual formation in these terms, as if growing spiritually moves us up the ranks and makes us better than others who are still stuck in their sin, down below. It is really hard to follow Jesus when you are looking down from above others.
What I find interesting is that there is a growing trend in leadership and business circles that is starting to realize this. Listen to this quote from the Economist. (view the article)
Nitin Nohria, the new dean of Harvard Business School, argues that we need leaders who demonstrate moral humility. I believe that we need an approach to leadership in which the starting point is our lack of knowledge, a frank admission that we do not know very much about how to build a sustainable system for business and society.
In this humility-driven vision of leadership, business schools need to shift their centre of gravity away from economics, finance and dreams of individual fortune. We need to teach future leaders to reflect and critique—that there are alternatives to theories that they accept, without question, because they speak to their self-interest.
To do this, business schools need to challenge their own orthodoxy—a crude Darwinian view of business and society rooted in the survival of the fittest. They need to focus on the social consequences of their actions and accept responsibility for the business excesses of recent years. What is required is a narrative of common interest to combat the mantra of selfishness; one that appeals to the sense that leadership is for all not for the few.
Isn’t that amazing? That is the Harvard Business school, not a seminary.
What if our goals looked like this? Instead of thinking about spiritual formation as a movement toward perfection, or becoming more like a perfect God who is way up there, what if we realized that God has come to be with us, right here, and wants us to grow out in love. God wants us to love ourself as God loves us. to love our families as God loves them. to love our neighbors as God does, and to love our enemies as God does. This is the Kingdom of God. This is an unexpected, and desperately needed Kingdom.
God’s way, God’s Kingdom is a paradox in our culture. It is a puzzle. You’ve probably heard the Paradoxical Commandments before, but I thought I would read them, because I think they really capture the heart of God’s Kingdom on Earth. It doesn’t make sense to follow Jesus, but it is the only hope for our world. Here they are:
The Paradoxical Commandments
by Dr. Kent M. Keith
(view the website)
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway
Wise men came from the east looking for a king. What they found was unexpected. When people see our lives, what will they see? Will they see the expected upward climbing attitude? Or, will they find an unexpected, paradoxical follower of an unexpected king?
I hope you will be with us during this season of Epiphany as we explore the Unexpected Kingdom that Jesus brought for us to live in. Maybe we’ll learn how to move from this [point up] to this [point out].
Here’s a link to the TED talk I mentioned in the audio version.