Matthew 2:1-12 (click to display NIV text)
January 6, 2013 (Epiphany)
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ Herod: ‘As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’ “
In the season of Epiphany, the church celebrates the manifestation of Christ to all the world. So the first text in this season is the story of the Magi who come from the East, probably from Babylonia, to see Jesus and worship him. They have no knowledge of scripture, no connection with the Jewish community. They come from a different culture and a very different religious tradition. But they are attracted to Jesus. Jesus is the Savior, the Messiah for the whole world.
Magi were men learned in astrology, dream interpretation and magic arts. There is a record of a group of them coming to Rome to see Nero in 66 A.D., to pay homage to him. They did not mind traveling long distances. They were interested in what they called “the Westland,” or Palestine.
Both Jews and Christians repudiated the study of astrology and the practice of magic arts. Astrology is the belief that the movement of the stars controls the destinies of individuals and nations, and that the gods use the stars to communicate the fate of people. Astrologers believe that everything that happens in life is determined by the stars. Jews and Christians shared none of those beliefs, and did not view Magi in a positive way. Matthew seems to go out of his way to tell us nothing about these Magi and what they saw in this particular rising star that led them to Jerusalem. Tradition has filled in many details about how many there were, what their names were and even made them kings. Matthew simply reports their presence as a way of beginning to share the Good News about Jesus, that Jesus is the Savior of the whole world.
R.T. France writes that “Jesus is the Galilean Messiah born in Judea, honored by Magi from the East, who bring gifts from Arabia, and because of them Jesus spends part of his childhood in Egypt. All the surrounding elements of Israel’s world are involved in welcoming the Messiah.”
These Magi, men who are not part of the Jewish community, who do not know Herod, who are beyond the reach of Rome, somehow read from a star that a King of the Jews is born, and they want to see him and they actually worship him. People from all over the world are attracted to Jesus. He is the Savior of the world. People of the world want to worship Jesus.
Herod also says he wants to worship him. But what he really wants to do is to put him to death. So there is also a reality of hostility toward Jesus in the world. Not everyone is like the Magi. Some are like Herod. At the end of Herod’s reign in Judea he became very paranoid about protecting his power, and very violent. He killed three of his sons, because he thought they wanted to take his throne. He killed his brother-in-law, his favorite wife, all political suspects, everyone who was involved in carrying out conspiracies against him, and the remaining family line of the Hasmoneans, the family that had won independence for Israel in the time just before the Romans took over. It was not out of character for Herod to order the babies of Bethlehem to be killed. This is the first indication that Jesus will go to the cross; he will not be received as Messiah and King by everyone.
In Matthew’s Gospel there is a prominent theme that Jesus has come for the whole world. Crowds from the whole region follow him. Lepers come and kneel before him. A Roman Centurion comes to him for help. The Gadarene demoniacs know who he is and meet him. A Canaanite woman shows great faith in him. Jesus is for all the people of the world.
Through its history, the Christian church has struggled with the attraction and rejection of Jesus by the people of the world. Some people, like the Magi, have shown great interest in Jesus. Others, like Herod, have shown great hostility. This has caused the church to often approach the world out of fear. In some eras the church has tried to become triumphant, to be powerful and in control because of its fear of the world. At other times it has closed itself off from the world, seeking to be safe and isolated.
Over Christmas we were in Washington, and when we go to visit our son we ride a Washington State ferry across Puget Sound. On one trip we were sitting close to a woman was rather loudly criticizing the church and listing all of its failures. She concluded by saying that the church buildings stand empty all week and if the Christians cared at all they would open their churches to let the homeless sleep in them. She saw the church as being empty and uncaring. That was her image of the church. When we close ourselves off from the world in fear, that is what we can become, or at least what we are perceived as being.
But the church can also be, at is best, the community that helps people see Jesus and come to worship him. When the church is less concerned about the world as Herod, and more focused on the world as the Magi, then it welcomes the world to see Jesus.
Over Christmas, we went to see the movie “The Life of Pi.” I had read the book and wanted to see how they might portray a man crossing the ocean in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. It is not a Christian film, and in fact seems to uphold a universalism in regards to salvation, seeing all religions as of the same value. But there is one scene that struck me. The main character, Pi, lives in India and on a bet sneaks into a Catholic church and drinks some of the holy water. The priest sees him, and rather than chasing him away or scolding him for what he did, the priest brings him a glass of water, saying, “You must be thirsty.” Then he introduces Pi to Jesus and speaks to him of the love of God. Pi is very attracted to Jesus.
When the church communicates a positive view of the people of the world, it allows many to see Jesus and be attracted to him. When we are less focused on our fear of Herod and more given to welcoming Magi, the world sees the church not as empty and uncaring, but as the community of Christ. Here they see Jesus and are drawn to worship him. In this season of Epiphany, we think not only of Jesus and his manifestation to the world, but of our attitudes towards people of many cultures, people new to our communities, people who are poor or homeless, people who are our neighbors and may be interested in seeing Jesus and worshipping him. How can we invite, welcome, encourage and bear witness to Christ? Is there a thirsty person who needs a glass of water from you? Are there Magi among us, wondering where the Christ might be found?