The Magi

All twelve days of Christmas are now over, and now we celebrate one of the most important aspects of its meaning – not only did God become incarnate, God came for all of us. That is what Epiphany is all about.

One of the remarkable stories connected to Jesus’ birth is about strangers who were drawn to him even before his first sermon or miracle. Matthew’s Gospel tells us about a visit by Magi from afar – and it illustrates for us that right from the beginning God’s incarnation is more than even the most faithful believer expected.

Now, there’s an old joke that if the wise men had been wise women, they would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable and made a casserole. They would have brought gifts more useful than gold, frankincense and myrrh.

But what is striking to me about this story is not what the Magi bring, but who they are. Now, to be sure, we don’t know much. Matthew does not tell us their names, where they were from, or even how many there were. Some translations say they were kings, but most say they were Magi – scholars, astronomers, scientists.

They have the means to bring extravagant gifts, the types of gifts you bring to a person of importance and high leadership.

And probably most important, they come from outside both the oppressed Jewish culture and the dominant Roman power structure into which Jesus was born.

These visitors come to a country not their own to honor a Messiah outside their tradition. Why was it so important that Matthew tell us this story? What does it tell us about Jesus and about our own faith today?

Prior to the arrival of the Magi, Matthew starts Jesus’ story with a genealogy that links him directly to Abraham and David. He is absolutely, definitively Jewish. His birth is the fulfillment of prophecies within one particular tradition.

These visitors are clearly not Jewish or even Roman – they are possibly Persian, Indian, Arabian. Legends have given them names  – Melchior, Caspar, Balthazar – that make the point that they come from the outside and they give an important signal to those on the inside.

Mary and Joseph are in that line of faith that culminated in the birth of Jesus. They are faithful to God, to their community. They have a special role to play in the story of God coming to us, yet they are also like their forebears and their own generation. They have waited and expected the Messiah to come to them. To the people who worship at the Temple in Jerusalem and study the Hebrew scriptures. To the people who were exiled to Babylon and are oppressed by the Romans. To the people who keep the law.

What does it mean that they will share him? With outsiders?
What does it mean for us?

Our scriptures tell us that the Messiah was foretold and expected based on tradition, word, and prophecy. But God Incarnate was also revealed by creation itself. You didn’t have to hold a certain belief to know about this King. The Magi saw signs of his coming written in the stars. This is not a Messiah who will stay inside one community.

This story of the Magi at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel connects with the message at the end of the gospel. After the Resurrection, Jesus tells the disciples –

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…

Well, this gospel tells us that at Jesus’ birth, the nations already came to him. Outsiders. They sought, found, and honored him.

The Magi come from outside to honor the Messiah on the inside.
The Messiah, this infant Jesus, fulfills a prophecy inside a specific religious tradition.
Yet he is recognized and honored by people from outside it.

No matter who you identify with in this story, if you recognize the Messiah you’re going to have to leave your comfort zone.

If you are like the Magi, you will seek and follow the holy wherever it takes you. You will risk being an outsider.
If you are like Mary and Joseph, you will welcome a stranger and the stranger’s gifts. You will risk redefining what it means to be inside.

The story of the Magi is a challenge to Christians today just like it was to its first audience centuries ago – are we insiders or outsiders? Most of us are both. Like the Magi, we are all seekers and strangers.Like the Holy Family we are kin.

What does it mean to share this Christ child with people whose faith experiences and expectations don’t match ours? What does it mean that the Messiah came for us as well as those who find God by a different path.

When people outside our comfort zone recognize Jesus, do we see it as a threat to our institutional religion, or welcome them as people who have given up all they have to follow? I think often, we see members of our own extended Christian family as outsiders. Maybe they baptize the wrong way. Maybe their worship is not liturgical enough, or too liturgical.

As we worship together and especially as we leave our time together at the altar, consider what it means to be an insider and an outsider. This movement from inside to outside, from outside to inside – it is one we each make all the time.

When we gather for worship, we come from our lives outside in the world to gather at the table on the inside.
We bring the successes and challenges, celebrations and brokenness here, remember the stories of God’s love for us and with us. We are fed.

The altar is where the inside and the outside meet. Where strangers and kin gather.

As a deacon these past few months, one of my regular duties has been to dismiss worshippers at the end of each weekly celebration. To send them – us – back outside.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.

When you gather at the altar, what treasure do you bring from the outside to the inside – how daring is your journey to seek the truth? When you leave, when you go outside, what will you take with you from the table?

When you are inside, whom do you welcome? Are you willing to expand your understanding of the infinite God you claim to follow? When you are outside, do you see the seeker in the faces you meet every day?

Every time you take your faith out into the world
Every time you welcome the world to your faith
It is a kind of Epiphany.

The coming of the Messiah, the Incarnation of God in the Christ Child didn’t put a bookend on a prophecy long ago. It opened up the experience of God’s love to all of us – and allows us to share it with all.