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Called to Worship
Winter Quarter: Call in the New Testament
Unit 1: The Beginning of a Call
Sunday school lesson for the week of Dec. 20, 2020
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Matthew 2: 7-15
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11)
Important Characters in the Narrative
- To understand the events of Jesus’ life just after his birth
- To understand the major characters in the narrative
- To understand how the events and characters of the post-birth speak to us
First, there was Herod the Great, or Herod I. He was appointed King of Judea in 38 BC and ruled until his death in 4 BC. He was a vicious tyrant. The great revolt in Judea after his death reveals the tension in the nation under the rule of Herod. In our text he is King of Judea who ordered what is known as the “slaughtering of the innocents.” This horrific act occurred when Herod ordered all boys 2 years of age and younger to be killed. The date of Jesus’ birth is still debated. However, most scholars believe Jesus was born around 4 BC. That would make Herod I king during the birth of Jesus. His son Herod Antipater was king during the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.
The Jewish people resented the Romans. Believing they were God’s people, they greatly disliked having an outsider ruling over them. I am not certain if Herod was made king by Caesar in hopes that his appointment would settle the angry Jewish people. Herod was raised a Jew but was Edomite. The Jewish people resented having someone who wasn’t of Jewish blood reigning over them.
There exists no justification for killing innocent children. One would have to possess a cruel, cold heart. However, we can seek to understand the obvious paranoia of Herod the Great. The zealots were determined to overthrow the Roman government in Israel. The people were a pressure cooker ready to explode in revolt. They would revolt upon the death of Herod. Caesar placed pressure upon Herod to control his people. Herod was finding it more difficult to control a people who were passionate about their faith. Therefore, he was very protective of his throne and sought to purge the land of any possible threat.
Have we become so protective of a title, job, or item that we would harm another through hurtful words and actions? What must always be our first love? The choices Herod the Great made emerged from a hard heart. He has eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear. Have we been guilty of rejecting obvious truth when it threatens our status in life?
In the nativity, the Magi play a major role. We do not know if there were three and only three of them. Most assume since there were three gifts there must be three Magi. They were from the East and were Gentiles. Most likely they were from Persia or Babylon. Large populations of Jews lived in both places making it likely they were aware of the prophecy about the Messiah drawing all nations to himself in Jerusalem. A new star seemed to call them to seek this Messiah.
The Magi were not just astrologers. They studied signs in nature and in the movements of animals. They advised kings and royalty. Their advice was sought by many rulers. The prophesy and appearance of the star created a great quest for the Magi.
The activity of the Magi violated Mosaic Law. However, God chose them to seek the Messiah. They were Gentiles seeking the Jewish Messiah. They were the first to call him “King of the Jews.” Their mission would open the door to God’s inclusive love. The Magi were Gentiles who would join the Jews in worshipping and honoring the Messiah. In God’s Kingdom it isn’t just Israel, but rather the entire world journeying to Jerusalem, toward love, mercy, light, and life.
The Magi were questioning people as to where they might find the Messiah. Herod received news of these visitors and secretly asked to see them. Herod wanted to know the time the star appeared. He asked them to find the child and report back to him.
Undoubtedly, they were unaware of Herod’s reputation. Herod I was a cruel, selfish tyrant.
It is probable that the star was not present to them while visiting Herod. Herod was determined to be King of the Jews and now he hears of an opponent. It is obvious Jesus is no longer a baby in the manger. According to the timeline and the reading of the text Jesus is a toddler. This explains why Herod killed all Jewish male children 2 years of age and younger.
The Magi are Gentiles seeking to worship the King of the Jews. This is a remarkable act on their part. We clearly sense the wonder and mystery of God’s loving will. Though most nativity scenes in modern life include the Magi, they were not there. However, it is just as moving to see these men of knowledge find the Messiah and bow before him in a house. Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were gifts usually given to royalty, and the Magi would have known that. Therefore, their gifts reveal their belief that Jesus was truly a king. Herod proved very wary of them and plotted to have them killed upon leaving him. However, an angel of the Lord appeared to them with warning. They were not to visit Herod again; instead, they would need to travel home by a different route. The Magi escaped and again the star appears. They follow the star to Jesus. Indeed, the heavens and the earth are proclaiming Jesus is the king; he is Messiah! As stated in prior lessons, God speaks to the world in ways we can understand. For the Magi, it is through prophesy and a star. Did they know everything about Jesus? No. But their discovery that he was a king proved a good start on their journey of faith.
The text reveals that the Magi went home “a different way.” How true! The Magi traveled from the East to Bethlehem. Once there, after encountering Messiah, they were transformed. No person encounters Jesus without being changed in some manner, to some degree.
Have we participated in a spiritual journey into the unknown, as did the Magi? God spoke to the Magi in a way they could understand. This is the manner in which God has always spoken to the world. How do you believe God speaks to you? Are you discovering that as we journey, our wisdom and faith increase? Can you name specific examples from your life?
The village of Bethlehem
Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” It is a small village that today is almost a suburb of Jerusalem. For Joseph and especially Mary, the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would prove long and difficult. It was approximately a 70-mile trip and Mary could average only 10 miles a day, at best. Thus, it was a 7-10-day journey. Mary had to use a burro or walk. Imagine walking and riding a small burro on this trip while on the verge of giving birth! How many of us could walk nine days in a row, over tough terrain, carrying the weight of a baby? The journey was exciting for the Magi and agonizing for Joseph and Mary.
Jacob’s wife Rachel had died in Bethlehem during the beginning years of the covenant with Abraham. The events in the book of Ruth occurred here, and King David was born and reared here. The Jewish people believed the coming Messiah would have a special connection with Bethlehem. Joseph is taking his family to Bethlehem to be counted for taxation, for this was the town of Joseph’s ancestors. Matthew reveals that Joseph is also in Bethlehem because it is the home of David, and Joseph is therefore from the house of David. All events begin to line up to proclaim Jesus as Messiah. Again, we discover God using the most ordinary people and places to accomplish his beautiful and remarkable will.
Places play a significant role throughout the Bible. Those places were not notable until God used them for his will. We stand in various places in life. The most memorable for the Christian are those places in our history in which we experienced God’s will being accomplished. Can you name such places? The journey was difficult for Joseph and Mary, yet they continued to walk. Have there been struggles in your life which made you just want to stop and stand in place? In these moments did you choose to walk by faith into the unknown rather than give up?
Significance of Joseph’s decision to flee to Egypt
Actually, it was a little misleading for me to write the decision to flee to Egypt was “Joseph’s decision.” The Lord spoke to sleeping Joseph through an angel. Joseph was told to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt; they were to remain there until the Lord commanded them to leave. Once again, Joseph would walk by faith into the unknown. The journey for Joseph and Mary would cover 432 miles. Let us consider how difficult this move would be. It involved another long trip for Mary. Now she had a babe in her care. Imagine walking and riding a burro while tending a child between one and two years of age. They most likely had never been to Egypt. It required funds to make the journey, and since Joseph and Mary came from a working-class background it was unlikely they would travel. Perhaps this trip was going to be funded by the gifts from the Magi. The narrative doesn’t state how they acquired the money for the trip. Egypt had a large Jewish population, so at least they could find people and participate in community life. What would Joseph do for an income upon arriving in Egypt? Most likely the Jewish community could help them establish a social life. He and Mary would now walk into the unknown together.
Matthew will refer to Joseph’s and Mary’s return from Egypt as the fulfillment of O.T. prophecy. “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11: 1).
What role does courage play in the development of faith? Was it because of the angel’s proclamation that Joseph fled to Egypt? Was it because of his desire to protect Mary and their new son? Or was it both? Can you name a moment or moments when life required courage? Can you name moments you could not understand, but you chose to walk by faith? What did you learn about yourself and God?
Bringing it all together
The nativity is a beautiful event that reveals God’s choice to use the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary. All of us are called to be used. Each of us possess different gifts and graces. Yet, as members of Jesus’ church, our gifts and graces blend together. Together we become a powerful witness for Christ.
The nativity also reveals the power of faith and the limitations of our minds. There are realities so high and deep even our greatest minds cannot fathom them. When our minds cannot grasp what God has done and is doing, we continue to walk by faith. However, it is very important to know that walking by faith is not a shot in the dark or an act of weak resignation. The prophecies and events in the Bible are all moving in the same direction. Though we do seek to know God only through our human experience, we still must remember experience plays a role in the faith we possess. The hearts that have journeyed to Jesus and encountered him are transformed. The hearts that worship God in spirit and truth experience the King of Kings. The person with Christian discipline will have experiences that enrich faith.
Finally, I find the journey of the Magi especially revealing. The Magi were journeying from the East to the West. In the Bible the East represent the arrival of hope and light. Therefore, the Eastern Gate, or Golden Gate, is the gate through which the Messiah will journey to the temple. The east is the direction of the sun’s rising. Therefore, each day we walk in the morning sun, let us worship the Lord for walking into our lives through Christ! In contrast, the west represents darkness, for this is where the sun sets. Most people look eastward for God’s appearance. Even the graves of most Americans face the East. But, the Magi were looking westward. What does this mean to me? The Christ can be found and experienced in the dark! In our darkest moments Christ is near. Through faith, prayer, and worship we experience Jesus.
Moving to my third parish I visited my new sanctuary. I walked through a rear door into the sanctuary and walked several steps into the chancel. The heavy wooden door through which I entered slammed shut and I was immersed in total darkness. I could see absolutely nothing. There was an organ bench, a chair, and several wires on the floor in the area where I stood. Thick darkness shrouded them and I couldn’t see. Not knowing what to do I chose to sit down on the organ bench which I found when feeling around with my hand. I sat quietly and listened for someone to discover me. Yet, after several minutes my eyes begin to see darkened forms. Those forms began to become more visible. Eventually I was able to see my way to the door. Why? My pupils had enlarged and were picking up the smallest light particles. The most important fact in this story is that the particles had been there ALL ALONG! I just needed to sit quietly and wait until my eyes opened. God has been present all along! He is always present. I wrote in one of my books that “utter darkness” doesn’t exist in our world. Utter darkness means an absence of light. Light particles, from the sun’s to the tiniest particles in the cosmos, are constantly being emitted. I am sure a physicist would find some rare occurrence in the universe where no light exists. As of yet, I am unaware of it.
The nativity consists of characters whose eyes are being transformed. We also have spiritual pupils, and so did those in the nativity. The longer we still ourselves and seek rescue, the greater our spiritual pupils grow. Eventually we will begin to see, and through our journey with Jesus, we will see all we can comprehend.
Jesus is born! The ever-present Messiah has revealed himself to us! Let us worship Christ through stillness! Let us worship Christ through worship within the church! We will experience him, and thus be transformed!
When you face darkness, do you flee or seek Christ? Are there moments in life in which it is right to flee? Can you name them? Can you name moments when your spiritual pupils enlarged through prayer and worship?
Almighty God, thank you for the beauty of the earth, the glory of the skies and the gift of Christ Jesus. Grant us the courage to walk forward when the earth seems to tremble beneath us. We do not always know where we are going, but we believe in you, the one who holds all of life in your loving hands. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at email@example.com.