Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




Birth Announcements: To Goyim

Sunday, December 17, 2006



Matthew 2: 1-6

Rev. Dean Snyder


They were magi … wise men from the east.


I love these guys!


The history of the magi goes back to six centuries before the birth of Christ.[i] The magi were a caste of shamans and priests in ancient Media located in what is today northwestern Iran, generally corresponding to the modern regions of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan – places in the news. Some traditions say the modern Kurds are descendents of the magi.


When the Persians under King Cyrus conquered the Medes in 550 BCE, and Zoroastrianism became the dominant religion of Persia, the magi managed to survive the change in rulers and religion. The Median magi became Persian Zoroastrian priests. They specialized in astrology and dream interpretation.


The writing of Philo of Alexandria, who lived at the same time as Jesus, suggests there were two kinds of magi: those the biblical scholar Raymond Brown calls “scientific magi” and others who were charlatans and magicians.[ii]


Presumably the magi in Matthew’s gospel were the scientific magi – proto-scientists, proto-astronomers.


So what are these Median/Persian Zoroastrian priests doing in the story of Jesus’ birth?


This Advent and Christmas I am asking you to think with me about birth announcements in the nativity stories. Annunciations, they are sometimes called.


The birth of Christ is announced by angels and cosmic manifestations to shepherds, to magi, to a peasant teenaged girl, to an unbelieving priest, to a righteous man who discovers his fiancée is pregnant, and to a despotic king.


The nativity stories in the New Testament, which are found only in Matthew and Luke, are some of the purest theology in the Bible.  The stories were written after the death and resurrection of Christ as a way of communicating what the early Christians believed about Jesus, and thus what they believed about the heart of God which Jesus reveals.


So the question is what are these Median/Persian Zoroastrian astrologers doing in the story of the birth of Jesus? What are our Christian ancestors trying to tell us in this story?


They are there, first and most importantly, because they are goyim.  Goyim” is the Hebrew word used in the Old Testament that means “peoples of the nations of the world.” In the first half of the Old Testament it is used to refer to all humanity including the Israelites. In the second half of the Old Testament it came to be used to mean the people of nations other than Israel – to distinguish between the Israelites and everybody else.


The magi are in the nativity stories as a witness to the Christian affirmation that Jesus was born for goyim in the fullest and original sense of the word -- all the peoples of all the nations and cultures of the world. In Jesus’ coming, the traditions, practices, stories, and teachings that divide humanity are transcended and overcome.


No more clean and unclean, no more ins and outs, no more special and ordinary.  All peoples are present at Jesus’ birth.


The birth announcement to the goyim magi was the rising of a star. The magi astrologists came looking for Jesus because they had “observed his star at its rising.” (Matt. 2:2)  They did not have to stop being Median/Persian Zoroastrian astrologer priests and become something else to find Jesus. The birth of Christ was announced to them by the stars. They came to Christ by their own path.


Any path profoundly followed can lead to Christ. Christ is present in the stars and rhythms of the universe…the Christ reality is present for all who would find it.


Years ago, when I was a campus ministry, I put a long quote from Fred Buechner defining the word “Christian” on a brochure we distributed on campus. I inadvertently caused a theological war on campus. The quote irritated most of the other Christian groups on campus. This is what it said (Fred Buechner’s definition of a Christian):


“Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was born the son of God, say, Or that Mary was a virgin. Or that the Pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are wrong.


“Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible.  Doing a good deed a day.


“Some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy.


“Jesus said: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.’ (John 14:6) He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said he was.


“He didn’t say it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied that was his way.


“Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.


“A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.


“A Christian isn’t necessarily any nicer than anybody else. Just better informed.”[iii]


That quote led to some pretty interesting and vociferous discussions on campus.


Any path profoundly followed can lead to Christ. Christ is present in the stars and rhythms of the universe…the Christ reality is present for all who would find it – even those who do not know its name.


We are entering a debate within Christianity, a time of discernment, that may make the debate about the inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians seem like a minor discussion in comparison. The question is whether Christianity owns Christ? Does the institution of the church have a copyright on Christ?


In the midst of the debate are the magi, kneeling at the feet of the Christ child.  


They didn’t have to become something else to find Christ. They found Christ by their path. 


The magi at Jesus’ birthplace are testimony that the movements of God cannot be contained in neat and careful definitions found in church rule books or in official definitions of membership or in creeds. Christ is in the stars and rhythms of the universe. Many paths lead to him.  










[i] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday), 167-170.

[ii] Brown, 167.

[iii] Frederick Buechner, Wistful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper & Row), 14.