Receiving the gifts of outsiders
I am comforted because it is a story that reveals that God’s kingdom announced in Jesus is not limited to the Jews or any other singular people. God’s promise to Abraham was that through his descendants God would bless “all the peoples of the earth.”
Matthew’s gospel begins with “an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” It is only in Matthew’s gospel that we have the icon of the fulfillment of this promise in story of the Magi—who were outsiders to the story of Israel.
The gospel of Matthew says they came from the East. This may have been Persia, Babylon, or Arabia. That is why we read their story on Epiphany. God’s light is revealed to all peoples.
There are many ways we experience life as outsiders. I was born somewhere else. My sense of self is rooted in many places—Mexico , Dallas, Tulsa, Bally, Hubbard and now Lancaster. Even after 20 years of living here, I am aware that I did not grow up here.
So, as one who often experiences life as an outsider, I am comforted by the story of the Magi because it reminds me that in God’s story there is no insider status. In God’s story, we are all outsiders who have been brought near.
But the story of the Magi can also be unsettling. It can be unsettling because the Magi are enigmatic characters. We have tended to miss that in our reading of the text. I suspect we have missed it because we have seen the magi through the sentimental lens of nativity scenes, Christmas cards and as the plum parts in the Christmas program at church.
In his commentary on Matthew, Stanley Hauerwas observes that sentimentality is one of the greatest enemies of understanding the gospel, especially the Christmas story and the events surrounding the birth of Jesus.
So, perhaps our first task as readers of this text is to see the Magi as outsiders.
Whatever the language of the Magi was, we know that they were well-versed in reading the stars. One tradition says that the Magi were a caste of pagan priests who specialized in astrology—which was considered a respected science at the time.
Their study of the stars leads them to believe that a child has been born king of the Jews. So they embark on a long journey to search for this child and to pay him homage.
The news of their pilgrimage reaches King Herod. Herod is unsettled by the possibility that the Messiah has been born.
I find it ironic that the Magi who discerned God’s work in the world by studying the stars were moving to Christ to kneel and pay homage, but those who were consulting the scriptures were afraid. While we might focus on the contrast between insider and outsider status, what I notice is the marked difference in behavior that is shaped by fear and that which is shaped by faith.
Matthew’s account says that King Herod was frightened and all of Jerusalem with him.
I recognize the fear of Herod because I have seen it in other rulers in scripture. Pharoah. Nebuchadnezzer. The fear of Herod is enacted over and over again in the human story.
Fear is a powerful human emotion. It is fear that we see played out in American politics where, as Duane Hershberger expressed so well in the December issue of The Mennonite: “…politicians toss vast hunks of red meat to people’s murky, inner fears and win elections.”
Herod’s fear leads him to consult with the chief priests and scribes regarding where the Messiah is to be born. The words of the prophet Micah speak of one who will come from Bethlehem and will be a ruler to shepherd Israel. Herod is not put at ease.
If I am honest, I can identify with Herod’s fear. When things are changing, when I recognize that my security is being shaken, when circumstances are beyond my ability to control, I also experience fear and anxiety. Again and again, I am invited to let go and to trust that God’s work in the world is trustworthy—even when it does not look like I would want it to. Even when it threatens the security structures that I have built.
So I see myself in Herod’s story. Herod scrambles and tries to control things. He calls for a secret meeting with the Magi. He wants them to tell him what they know. He tells them to search diligently for the child and then to come and tell him when they find him so that he too can pay homage.
The magi listen to the king, but continue to follow their desire and the star to their destination. When they reach the house where they find Mary and the child, they are overwhelmed with joy. Their joy is the joy of those who are willing to leave home and go on a pilgrimage of faith.
The story of the Magi reminds me that faith involves paying attention to the signs of God entering our world. They remind me that faith is about taking journeys, bearing gifts, and kneeling in worship.
The story of the Magi calls us to see the possibility of God being revealed to those outside our own story and tradition in surprising ways. They remind us to not get side-tracked by the agenda of power politics and fear.
The assigned lectionary reading for today stops at verse 12. I extended the reading to include verses 13-18—the account of the slaughter of innocents.
I included these verses so that we could wrestle once again with the question of where God is in the midst of tragic violence. I included these verses because we live in the world after the ovens of Auschwitz and the atomic bomb of Hiroshima. We live in the world after 9-11.
We live in a world where the ancient slaughter of innocents is re-enacted all around the world, again and again—at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Damascus, where children are blown to bits by their own government…
So where is God in the midst of this unspeakable suffering?
Where was God in the face of the massacre of all the children who were two years and under in and around Bethlehem? Where was God in the midst of the voices of wailing and loud lamentation? Where was God in the midst of mothers weeping for her children, mothers refusing to be consoled, because they are no more?
If we consider these questions through the lens of our text, we must say that God was present in this kind of a world. God was present as a vulnerable refugee baby crossing a border in the middle of the night to get to a better place.
The good news this morning is that God enters the chaotic, unstable, violent world where innocents are slaughtered. The good news is that God enters our violent world not to play the game of power politics and fear mongering better than Herod, Hitler, or any other politician.
God enters this world in vulnerable weakness and is eventually crucified by the powers that operate by fear. The good news is that God enters into a dark world of fear-driven politics and violence and embodies another way. The way of vulnerable love.
Love is a light amidst the darkness of fear. Love is familiar with suffering and acquainted with grief.
This is the same one whose star was discovered in the Persian sky a long time ago. This is the one who received the gift and worship of outsiders a long time ago. This is the one whose light is rising upon us.
Welcome to the season of epiphany. May we be open to the surprising way in which the light of Christ is shining in the midst of darkness.