Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

 “The Mysterious Magi”

Sunday, January 6, 2008

 

 

Matthew 2: 1-12


Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

The Sistine Chapel was stunning, of course.

 

But the paintings I remember best were scattered throughout the Vatican gallery. They were by different artists but similar. They were biblical scenes of familiar stories, ordinary in many ways, except standing there in the scene would be people who lived centuries later – saints and popes.  

 

Some of them were paintings of the nativity. There would be the holy family – Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus – and standing with them would be St. Francis, or St. Catherine, or Saint Veronica, or some pope who actually lived 1500 years after Jesus was born.

 

My first reaction was to be amused – how anachronistic!

 

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought – how fitting that St. Francis should be at the manger! St Francis and St. Catherine and St. Augustine. There should be paintings of others at the manager as well – Martin Luther, John Wesley, Mother Theresa, and for that matter, my mother. 

 

One of the reasons an artist included a saint or a pope in a biblical scene, even though everyone knew they weren’t literally there, was that it was a way of including a people in the story.

 

Literally speaking, there were not a lot of Italians present at the birth of Christ. But if St. Francis was, in a mystical sense, present at the birth of Christ and you lived in the Assisi region of Italy, then you are part of the story as well.

 

This is what Matthew was doing with the story of the magi in his portrayal of the Nativity of Christ. He was including a people in the story.

 

It is only in the Gospel of Matthew that the story of the magi is told. Nothing like it appears anywhere else, not even in Luke who tells story after story about the nativity. The magi belong to Matthew alone. He is the only one who knows about them.

 

The Gospel of Matthew was written, we believe, in the city of Antioch, the capitol of Syria.

 

Antioch was a Greek-speaking city with the largest population of Jews in Syria. According to the Book of Acts, some Greek-speaking Jews founded a Christian congregation in Antioch just a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Very early in the congregation’s history, perhaps because they could understand the language, some Gentiles became part of the congregation and soon the growth of Gentiles within the congregation was so great that they sent for the Apostle Paul, who was an expert on Gentile ministry, to serve as their pastor for a year. (Acts 11: 19-26)

 

Antioch became the center of the early church’s great struggle over whether Gentiles could really be Christians.

 

Some argued that Jesus was the Jewish messiah so people had to be Jews in order to be followers of Jesus. Gentiles could become Christians, but only if they converted to Judaism first and were circumcised and followed Jewish dietary laws.  

 

Others argued that Jesus was all humanity’s messiah. Jew and Gentile were equally included in the community of Christ.

 

It was a long and a hard battle. The Gospel of Matthew was written during the height of this conflict. Matthew was a proponent of the inclusion and affirmation of Gentiles within the Christian church.[i]

 

In Matthew’s telling of the nativity story, he did what the artists did in the paintings in the Vatican gallery. He put Gentiles in the picture. Even though this may have been anachronistic in a literal sense, he put Gentiles at the very beginning of the Christ story.

 

The magi, the wise men from the east, were Gentiles. In Matthew’s telling of the story they are actually the very first ones, after Mary and Joseph, to know about the birth of Christ, and they were the very first ones to pay him homage and to worship him and to bring him offerings. In Matthew the first Christian worship service is by a Gentile congregation.  

 

The truth Matthew is affirming is that the Gentiles were there from the very beginning, spiritually. Their presence in Christ’s church was always intended. They belong. It doesn’t matter whether the story of the wise men is literally true or not. It is a spiritual truth, just as St. Francis and Mother Theresa and my mother being there at the manager is spiritually true.

 

And it is interesting that Matthew chose the magi to be the Gentiles in his story. Out of all the Gentiles that Matthew might have chosen to include in the story, of all people why did he pick the magi?

 

Magi do not fare well at all in the Bible. The magi were a priestly caste from Persia. They were astrologers and fortune-tellers and dream interpreters and magicians.

 

The Old Testament warns against them. (Jeremiah 10: 2) or mocks them. (Isaiah 47: 13) The only other magi mentioned in the New Testament are villains. Simon Magus and Elymas Magus, magi mentioned in the Book of Acts, were portrayed as fierce enemies of the first Christians. (Acts 8: 9-24 and Acts 13: 6-11)

 

Of all the possible Gentiles he might have included in the nativity story, why would Matthew pick magi?

 

Matthew picked the magi because the magi were so very, very Gentile. They were not only Gentiles, they were flaming Gentiles. Hardcore Gentiles. There was nothing subtle about the magi. They were not Gentiles who could pass as Jews. They were the most Gentile of Gentiles.

 

The magi were not only foreigners, they were foreign. If God guided these particular Gentiles – the magi – to Jesus’ manger, Gentiles everywhere would know it must be okay for the rest of us to be here.

 

The story of the magi in the Gospel of Matthew is not just about the magi, as a matter of fact it is only secondarily about the magi. It is a story about Gentiles in the midst of a debate in the early church about whether Gentiles could be as fully included as those who were there before them. And it is a story about newcomers, especially those once excluded, coming into the community of Christ throughout the ages.

 

Whatever newcomers find their way to Christ, their presence was intended from the very beginning.

 

And Matthew is saying more. He is saying that magi, Gentiles and newcomers coming to Christ is essential to the Christ story. Look at the story of the magi. There are at least three reasons magi, Gentiles and newcomers are critical to the community of Christ.

 

First, they bring new gifts, ones that the community has not appreciated before. The people of Israel already had the scriptures, but the magi brought the gifts of science and mystical spirituality. Before they knew what scripture said, the magi found their way to Christ by studying the heavens and following a star.

 

The old-timers said, “We look for Christ in the Scriptures.” Magi, Gentiles and newcomers say, “But we have seen his star at its rising.” They open our eyes to new insights, new understandings, and new ways to truth.   

 

Second, magi, Gentiles and newcomers are critical to the life of the church because they shake up the power structures. The magi were obviously not very impressed by King Herod's power.

 

They walked into King Herod’s palace and said, “We are looking for the child who has been born king of the Jews.” Did it never occur to them what Herod’s reaction would be? He thought he was king of the Jews.  

 

When King Herod ordered the magi to return to return to tell him where the child is, they ignored him. They blew him off.

 

One of the great gifts of magi, Gentiles and newcomers to the church is that they don’t know the way we’ve always done it here before. They don’t know who’s really in charge. They don’t know the questions it is not okay to ask or the things it is not okay to talk about.

 

Magi, Gentiles and newcomers shake up the power structures.  

 

Third, magi, Gentiles and newcomers restore a sense of joy to communities whose lives have become routine, prosaic, and ordinary. “When they saw that the star had stopped, the [magi] were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother and knelt down and paid him homage.” (Matthew 2: 10-11a) When the sense of awe and joy seeps out of a church and things begin to become merely routine, magi, Gentiles and newcomers can help us recover a sense of excitement and joy about the Christ who is born to us.

 

Matthew wasn’t talking about magi in Bethlehem when he told the story of the wise men. He was talking about Gentiles in the church at Antioch. He was saying something about the essential nature of the church of Christ.

 

Christianity is a missionary religion, not because we have something to share that others are lost without, but because we need the newness of those who used to be outsiders. We are lost without them.

 

Evangelism and reaching out to others is at least as important for us as for them because they bring new gifts, new vision and new joy into our lives.

 

Really we don’t have to worry, because God will always bring the magi to where Christ is being born. As Herod learned, we really can’t stop God from doing this.

 

I stayed up past my Saturday night bed time last night to watch the New Hampshire debates. First the candidates form one party debated each other; then the other party. During the first half, the most energy among the candidates was when they talked about building walls around the United States of America to keep people out.

 

I would have thought that at least one of the candidates would have read his Bible. When we build walls, God laughs. The biblical creed begins:  “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien…” (Deuteronomy 26: 5) The biblical story is all about God breaking through walls to create new peoples, to re-invent and re-energize communities. In the Bible new life always comes from the alien, the stranger, the excluded, the newcomers, and we don’t get to pick who they are. When we pick, we’ll always pick someone who we think is like us…when what we need for new life – as God well knows – is someone who is alien.

 

Build your walls. Give God a chuckle. Go ahead, General Conference, write legislation into the Book of Discipline to keep people out of the United Methodist Church. Give God something to laugh about.  

 

Don’t miss the message of the magi. Those of us who have followed stars and dreams to Christ…those of us who have traveled through intellectual deserts and wildernesses of personal doubts…those of us who have fought our way past Herods who wanted to tell us we don’t belong…those of us who have been told we look funny or act funny…those of us who have wondered what we are doing here and sometimes still do…we have always been intended to be here. We were there from the very beginning. We are the magi.

 

 

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[i] For a discussion of this debate in the church at Antioch, see John P. Meier, “Matthew, Gospel of,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4 K-N (Doubleday, 1992), 622-627.