The following sermon was preached on January 6, 2013:
“The Center of the Universe”
Today is the first Sunday of the New Year. On Monday night I spent my New Year’s Eve watching “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve. Though Dick Clark was sadly missing this year, there was, as always, a massive crowd gathered in the streets around Times Square to ring out the old year and ring in the new. On more than one occasion the host of the show referred to Times Square as “the center of the universe.” At midnight, on schedule, the great ball dropped signaling the start of a new year.
God invented the measure of time we call a year. During the creation as recorded in Genesis, God placed the stars in the heavens. The stars are how we measure seasons and years. If you notice, the constellations in the night sky on December 31 each year look the same as they did on December 31 of the previous year and the year before that. The only change we see in the night sky, for the most part, is the seasonal and annual movement of the stars.
Pope Benedicit XVI writes: “In the ancient world, the heavenly bodies were regarded as divine powers, determining men’s fate. The planets bear the names of the deities. According to the concept prevailing at the time, they somehow ruled over the world, and man had to try to appease these powers.” People in those days thought that stars controlled their destiny. This belief is, to a degree, still held today by those who follow astrology or read their daily horoscope.
One of the beliefs in the ancient word was that the appearance of a new star signaled the birth of a new leader. The Magi of Matthew 2 see such a star and follow it to Jerusalem. When they arrive in the city, word of the Persian visitors reaches the court of King Herod. The news that they had come seeking the King of the Jews is of great concern to Herod; after all, he is the king! Herod calls in the priests and asks, “Where is the king of the Jews to be born?” They explain that according to the prophets he is to be born in Bethlehem of Judea. Herod then calls in the Magi to help them locate the child they seek. The magi find Jesus, and worship him, but ignore Herod’s request to tell him where Jesus is.
The magi are descendants of the Babylonians responsible for Israel’s exile. They had probably heard stories about the promised messiah from those Jews who still lived in Persia who had not returned home following the exile. When the magi saw the star over the land of the Jews, they assumed it heralded the birth of this new “king of the Jews.” Seeking revelation and understanding, they set out in pursuit of the star.
Talk about a king of the Jews worried Herod. Herod was a Jew but was unfamiliar with Scripture, so he turned to the experts for help: he called on the priests. When he felt his power threatened, he turned to the holy men for answers. Today, many Christians have no relationship with the church but when they have religious concerns or spiritual needs they call a preacher. Many people are like that with God as well: when they find their back against the wall they’re quick to pray, but otherwise they ignore God.
The priests know the Scriptures and tell Herod what the prophets recorded there. I wonder, however, why they didn’t ask Herod any questions themselves. Didn’t they want to know why he was asking about the messiah? They were certainly waiting for the Messiah to arrive, but apparently they weren’t expecting him. Or at least they weren’t actively seeking him. Think about it – the Messiah has arrived in their town¸ and they are blind to his presence. The priests are so busy holding on to the Law that they miss the fulfillment of the prophets’ promises. In a sense, church got in the way of Jesus!
Based on the priests’ information, Herod tells the Magi where to find Jesus, and he asks them to return to him so he can go and worship as well. Herod, however, plans to kill the child. Can we grasp what is happening here? Gentiles are seeking Jesus, a Jewish ruler wants to kill Jesus. Gentiles see his birth as the start of something new and wonderful while Herod, a Jew, sees it as a threat.
Herod’s problem was quite simple. Herod saw himself as the center of the universe. Herod would do whatever he could to hold onto power. He exercised his authority over the priests, and tried to exercise that same authority over the Magi by telling them “Go find him, and then come tell me where he is.” Why should these foreigners follow Herod’s orders? In Herod’s mind, they should obey because he is Herod. Herod has an insatiable appetite for power. In his mind, the entire universe revolves around him. The priests and the visiting wise men, like everyone else, are there to serve him.
When the magi do not return with the information he requested, Herod takes matters into his own hands and has all the male children under a certain age killed. Herod figures that his plan will ensure that the so-called messiah will be eliminated, thus removing any threat to Herod’s hold on power.
Herod’s priests, to some degree, see themselves as the center of the universe. They are the keepers of the Law, and they feel there is power in that position. They don’t want to lose that power, and, like Herod, they see Jesus as a threat . Herod tries to kill Him before he grows up, and the priests succeed in killing Him after he reaches adulthood. The people in power lash out at God’s intervention in the world when it threatens their hold on power.
The magi, however, had a different view of power. When they saw Herod, they saw earthly power, and took Herod’s authority with a grain of salt. When they saw Jesus, they recognized divine power, and bowed down before him.
Herod saw Herod as the center of the universe. He saw how everything revolved around him. The priests had the same problem. Unbeknownst to all of them, the true center of the universe was right down the street from them. The magi traveled 1000 miles to tell Herod about something that was happening right next door to him. Why did Herod and the priests not see it? Because they were not seeking it. They were too busy looking at themselves and their own interests.
Our world today is producing a society of loners who see themselves as the center of their own universe. Their only thought is “What’s in it for me?” Young people grow up spending all their time on computers and in a world of video games where they create their own idea of reality. Nowadays, one of the most popular genres of television is the reality program. The picture of reality presented by these shows is a far cry from true reality. The false realities bombarding the minds of people today warp their view of the universe. People cannot see the real center of the universe because they have put something else there in its place. As a result a 20-year-old walks into a school building in Sandy Hook and riddles the bodies of kindergarten students with bullets. How different is what that gunman did than what Herod did? Herod decided that children should die because that was what he wanted. He showed no regard for the children or their families. The only person Herod thought about was Herod because the world revolved around Herod. He was the only one that mattered.
To be honest, we can all get that way sometimes. We want to be in control and see ourselves as the center of the universe. When we sin, we put ourself in God’s place, deciding that “I’m the one who calls the shots; I decide what’s good and bad and what’s right and wrong for me.” When life becomes about us and what we want regardless of how it affects others, we become the center of our own universe. But that center is not ours, just like it was not Herod’s.
Ryan Seacrest said that Times Square was the center of the universe on New Year’s Eve. All the eyes of the world, according to him, were on that great shining ball. When it came down, the new year began. Turn the page, start with a new slate – right? Wrong! Whatever problems you had at 11:59pm were still problems at 12:01 am. Problems don’t go away simply because the calendar changes! We act like the calendar has power over events. It doesn’t. 2013 is just a number. Believing a new year changes everything is like believing your horoscope. It’s a belief that the stars control your destiny.
God created the stars and all of the cosmos. God directs the cosmos. God is the center of the universe. Jesus, God’s Son, is the face we see when we look to the true center of the universe. The risen Christ was given and has all authority over all things.
People look to this shining ball in Times Square and cheer as it ushers in a new year. When Christ came, He ushered in a new age, but there were no crowds cheering. As a matter of fact, there were no crowds that even noticed – just a few non-believers who came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Herod and the priests missed it because they were so busy looking at themselves they couldn’t see Jesus.
When we become entangled in sin we only see ourselves. When we sin we cannot see Jesus because we’re not looking for Him. When we’re not looking for Jesus we are blind to His presence.
Christ came into the world to usher in a new age – an age where evil, sin and death are defeated. They are far from gone, but they are defeated. Evil, sin and death can still hold power anywhere that Christ is not seen as the center of the universe. If you focus on evil, it has power over you – but look at Christ and that same evil has no power over you.
I had a teacher in junior high school who would bring our class under control with the command: “Keep your eyes front and center!” That’s where our eyes as believers need to be turned – front and center, focused on Jesus – the TRUE center of the universe.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
look full in his wonderful face;
and the things of earth will grow strangely dim
in the light of his glory and grace.