The God of the Unexpected
—Gavin Koh, 8 January 2017 (Epiphany Sunday)
Isaiah 60. 1–6, Ephesians 3. 1–12, & Matthew 2. 1–12.
Wise men arrive in London. They declare that they are looking for the new King of England. You would probably point them in the direction of Windsor Castle? Kensington Palace?
If you were looking for the newborn king of the Jews, hands up…how many of you would have gone straight to Jerusalem, to the royal palace? Where else are you going to find such a child?
Now imagine the horror of King Herod the Great. Foreigners turn up at his palace. They tell him the new king of the Jews has been born. Well, Herod is the King of the Jews, and his own surviving sons, Archelaus, Antipas and Philip are all older than 20 years. His sons could not be described as ‘new born’ by any stretch of the imagination.
Are these wise men lying?
Well, these wise men are not Jewish. They are not his subjects. What do they care of Herod’s kingdom of Judea? What do they care of Herod’s own dynasty? What conceivable motive could they have to lie about this sign they have read in the stars. The only possible explanation is that this new king who has been born is an usurper.
Now, imagine the surprise of the wise men when they find a young peasant woman and an infant boy in a simple house in Bethlehem? They have brought presents fit for a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Does a carpenter's wife even know what to do with these things? The young mother and child cannot be anything like what the wise men were expecting.
Now, imagine the amazement of the Jews listening to Matthew’s gospel. The Messiah is meant to save the Jewish people. The first people in Matthew's gospel to recognise the kingship of Christ are not Jews but these strangers. Those familiar with prophets of the Old Testament would know that the Messiah will come to save his people Israel. The nations of the earth will see his glory, but only in the sense that the Messiah would restore Israel to greatness and that other nations would see the glory of Israel.
The understanding of the Jewish faith, even today, is that the Messiah is not yet come. That the Messiah is for the Jewish people alone.
Our God is the God of the unexpected. Herod’s misunderstanding led to the slaughter of innocent children. The wise men misunderstood the message of the stars. Are the Jews foolish for not understanding that the saviour was not just for them?
The Christians of today are just as likely to misunderstand. Remember that Christmas is not just a celebration of Christ's birth 2000 years ago. It is also the time of year when we look forward to Christ’s second coming. That belief in Christ’s second coming is an integral part of our faith. We repeat it every Sunday in the creed and it is a central part of catholic and orthodox faith. The reredos above our high altar is Stephen’s vision of the heaven’s opening and Christ in glory with the heavenly host accompanying him. A belief in the second coming, one of the the most challenging parts of the Christian faith.
We have no right to be smug about our faith. If the Jews are wrong, then Christians are just as capable of being wrong. You only have to look on the internet to find out the latest prediction for Christ's second coming.
A civil engineer called Harold Camping, predicted Christ’s second coming on 6 September, 1994. He then changed his mind that it was going to happen on 21 May, 2011 and then changed his mind to say 21 October, 2011. A woman tried to kill her children in preparation for the coming rapture. His followers lost hundred of thousands of dollars in life savings publicising Harold’s teachings.
In 2016 alone, the second coming of Christ was predicted to occur some six times, most recently on 14 November, to co-incide with the supermoon. The predictions always speak of dramatic events: earthquakes, asteroids, the clouds parting and Christ descending in glory.
So let us read the gospels again:
Herod thinks he finds a usurper hungering for his throne.
The innkeeper in Bethlehem sees nothing more than a poor peasant family and tells them to go sleep in the stables.
The Jews think they are looking for a military leader and will not accept a carpenter sentenced to death on a cross.
Modern-day crackpots think they are looking for a solar eclipse, earthquakes or an asteroid strike.
The Jews wanted someone to save the nation of Israel, but instead got a Christ who wanted to save the whole world.
We waited four weeks for Jesus to come, and on Christmas Day, what did we find? All we found was a baby in a manger?
We do not know when Christ will come again. We do not know whether he will come within our lifetime. Imagine the Christ child born again today. Might he he be born to a middle-class British family living in Berkshire? Might he be born to a radical evangelical family in Texas? Whose parents voted for Donald Trump? Maybe he has already been born to a Syrian family on a flimsy boat crossing the Mediterranean. Would we know or recognise Christ if we saw him today?
So what is the lesson we are to take away from today’s gospel? It is that our God is the God of the unexpected. So what should we expect? Perhaps what we must accept is that whatever expectations we take to God, we must be willing for God to challenge those expectations.