Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 24, 2016, Year C
Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Cor. 12.12-31a; Luke 4.14-21
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the one who brings us into the family of God, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
On Friday night I watched a movie I had been wanting to see for a long time. It’s called the fourth wise man. Right now we are in the church season of Epiphany. Epiphany is about light, the light of God that has come into the world in Jesus. It is a season in which we hear stories about Jesus that communicate who he is and what he is about. Stories that reveal to us what God is like.
Epiphany begins ever year on January 6th with the story of the wise men journeying to find the baby Jesus who had been born in Bethlehem. Tradition tells us there were three wise men who traveled from the area of Persia. The movie I watched was about a fourth wise man who missed traveling with the other three to seek Jesus.
This fourth wise man, named Artaban, sells his entire fortune to buy three precious gems to give to Jesus when he sees him: an emerald, a ruby, and a pearl. He sets out on his way and encounters a dying man. Being a healer and a physician, Artaban decides to care for him.
By the time he reached where he was to meet the other three wise men, they were gone. Artaban decides to seek out Jesus anyway, traveling across the desert, finally making it to Bethlehem.
He arrives too late. His three friends had been there and already left and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had just fled to Egypt. Artaban sets out for Egypt and spends years searching in castles and other places where a king might be found. He does not find Jesus, but he meets a rabbi who suggests to him that he is looking in all the wrong places for Jesus the Messiah. The man unrolls the scroll and reads from Isaiah 61:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour …”
The man tells Artaban he will find the Savior of the world among the poor and destitute, the broken-hearted and oppressed. Confused why a king would spend his time around these suffering people, he sets out again anyway, this time back to Jerusalem to find Jesus.
In our Gospel reading Jesus stands up in his small hometown of Nazareth, in the midst of all the people who knew him as Joseph and Mary’s boy, and reads from the scroll the words of Isaiah. People are impressed with him and they wait and strain to hear Jesus’ sermon following the reading of Scripture.
He rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, and sits back down. His interpretation of the reading is real short and to the point: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus wants everyone there to know, as well as you and me, that his life and mission is about bringing wholeness, healing, and new life to people who society says are worthless, people who know suffering.
Jesus makes it clear that God loves those who are poor, who are broken-hearted, those who are in prison, those who are sick or suffering, those who find themselves unwanted by anyone … God even loves me (you!).
Jesus says, “Today … today this scripture, these words, are fulfilled in me.”
Today is a really special day in the life of our congregation. Following worship there will be two baptisms. Now it’s true that Jesus can show up in our lives at any point in time, but there are two places Jesus promises to be present in a way that we can touch and feel the presence of God. One place is in Holy Communion where we take bread and grape juice, the very presence of Jesus, into ourselves.
The other is in the waters of baptism, where the same Spirit of God that is upon Jesus as he reads from the scroll in Nazareth, the same Spirit that descends on him in his baptism, the same Spirit that gets poured out on all of the disciples at Pentecost, is the same Spirit that is given to us in our baptism. The Spirit of God then dwells inside each of us, making us into one body together, connected in Christ.
The 1st Corinthians reading tells us that we are all baptized into one body. Paul says that “you all are the body of Christ together and individually members of it.” When we are at our loneliest moments, or trying to figure out who we are or where we belong, we are chosen by God to be a part of the body of Christ, the family of God.
And when we try and convince ourselves that we don’t matter or that we don’t have any gifts to offer, we hear Paul reminding us that those who seem insignificant, those who society says are worth nothing, are worth the most in the family of God … indispensible, Paul says.
All of us are important to God and to carrying out the continued work of Jesus in the world. The work of bringing good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, freedom for those who are oppressed, and the year where all are set free from debt and slavery.
A student once said, “I think it’s much harder to be a Christian than not.” I think he is absolutely right. It’s hard to love people we are not used to loving. It’s tough to be in relationship with people who are suffering because we also suffer then as well. It can be painful to give our money away to help others in need. It can be uncomfortable to change how we live or admit that we follow Jesus.
So back to the fourth wise man. On his way to Jerusalem, Artaban’s pearl is robbed by outcasts. He discovers there is a whole village of these outcasts living outside of Jerusalem who are sick, who have leprosy, who are blind, and suffering. No one wants them and they steal because they have no other way to eat and live.
Still wanting to find Jesus, Artaban strikes a deal that if he stays for a few days to work on healing people, they must give him back his pearl so he can give it to Jesus when he finds him. They agree.
Well, a few days turned into weeks, into months, into years. Artaban winds up spending nearly 30 years with these people on the outskirts of Jerusalem, healing them and teaching them how to grow food, and care for one another. Artaban has never been so happy and fulfilled as he was living among those who no one else cared about.
Towards the end of the movie Artaban learns that Jesus is in Jerusalem. Old and dying he tries desperately to find him. He just misses Jesus again and again and Jesus dies on the cross without Artaban ever getting to meet him.
The disappointment is only brief because on the day of Jesus’ resurrection Artaban finally sees him. He tells the resurrected Jesus he was sorry that he had no gifts to give him for he sold or gave away all that he had.
Jesus then tells him, “You have already given me so many gifts. When I hungry you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink, when I was naked you gave me clothing, when I was sick you took care of me, in prison you visited me.”
He told him, “Lord, I have never seen you before today, I’m sure of it.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
True, it may be harder to be a Christian than not, and yet how can we not, like Artaban, be compelled to see, know, and experience God who has come in the flesh in Jesus?
How can we not desire to be part of the family of God, the body of Christ, to belong to something greater than ourselves?
How can we not long for forgiveness and new life that only Jesus can offer?
How can we not have hope even in our darkest times when we know that we are promised eternal life?
Like Artaban, we are all seekers of Jesus, encountering him all along our life journey, whether we know it or not.