Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Magi and God's Mission: Invitations for Outsiders/Warnings for Insiders

After the announcement by the angel to Joseph about Jesus' mission: God with us and save his people from their sins, Matthew's Gospel turns to an episode that is now so watered down that it has become pedestrian: Jesus and the visit of the Magi. 

In Christmas lore, the Magi are three kings who come bearing gifts. In the perfect nativity scene, the three kings arrive just after the shepherds and angels do on the joyous night of Jesus' birth. Yet a close reading of Matthew's Gospel demonstrates that much more is going on in the text.  In fact, there are profound missional insights in these verses including a strong warning to the community of faith. 

NIV Matthew 2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: 6 "'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

A Birth Announcement
Unlike Luke's Gospel, Matthew does not spend any time at all on the night of Jesus' birth.  There is no manger.  There are no angels singing to the glory of God.  There is not even a solitary shepherd mentioned.  There is not even a hint that Mary and Joseph have had any visitors to see their miraculous gift from God.

It is stunning and alarming that a group of astrologers from the east breaks this silence.  The Magi were most likely from the area of modern southern Iraq. They had traveled hundreds of miles. They arrived in Jerusalem in search of a king. They asked innocently, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”

At this point, this story becomes a study of character types. Matthew paints a strong contrast between the Magi and Herod/all Jerusalem. Some may be surprised by the latter group. Many of us miss the connection between King Herod and all Jerusalem, that is Jesus’ country(wo)men.

This contrast offers those who have ears 3 dangers to consider and 4 invitations upon which to act:

Danger One:
Being so invested in the status quo that we are unable to discern God’s work in our midst.

Change is difficult. Nonetheless, change is relentless and inevitable.  Yet we humans tend to resist change, almost instinctively. Whether it will be for the good or for the bad, we throw up walls to halt it.

Maxie Dunnam: “Most of us prefer the hell of a predictable situation rather than risk the joy of an unpredictable one.”

The Jerusalem of Jesus’ day was ruled by a tyrant, Herod. Herod was a non-Jew who had been appointed by the Romans. He was brutal and steadfastly interested only in maintaining his own rule. It is not surprising that he was disturbed by the announcement of the birth of a new king, but what about Jerusalem as a whole?  Why were they as equally disturbed as Herod?

Perhaps they were disturbed because the announcement came from outsiders. The bearers of the message were pagan astrologers from a far away land. They must have asked questions and made statements such as these:

What could they possibly know about a king of the Jews?  Wouldn’t God have let us know about such a birth first?  Everything was going well until the Magi showed up. Things were just starting to run smoothly around here. God doesn’t work among the lost, does he?

Danger Two:
Knowing the Bible so well that we stop listening to it or at least stop listening to God.

One of the deepest ironies in this text is that Herod and all Jerusalem know almost immediately where to find the long awaited King. The Magi make it to Jerusalem, the capital, but there is no new born King in Jerusalem. To answer the question of the Magi, Herod calls together all of the Jewish priests and bible scholars.  He inquires about the birthplace of the Christ, the Messiah. They immediately respond with a quotation from Micah 5:2 that prophesied the Christ’s birthplace in Bethlehem. Herod and Jerusalem do not suffer from a lack of biblical knowledge or insight.  They are lacking in its transforming power.  In contrast, the Magi without any access to Scripture recognize an anomaly in the heavens as a sign from God that a King has been born.  They act on this information.

Scripture is a gift from God, but unless it fuels personal transformation and missional action, bible reading and study can mask our true need for a vital moment by moment relationship with God.
Israel’s priests and bible scholars knew where the Christ was to be found, but did they act on this information? Why didn’t they run to Bethlehem ahead of the Magi?

There is always a danger that we substitute knowledge of the Bible for knowing the God behind the Scriptures. There is a profound warning here about substituting a relationship with the living God for mere information from a text.

Danger Three:
Being so committed to our own power and prestige that we seek to thwart actively God’s mission

Herod responds to the announcement of a new born king swiftly and decisively.  Despite recognizing the birth as the fulfillment of prophecy and despite the apparent worldwide announcement sent out by God that drew the Magi, Herod took the decision to attempt to murder the baby Jesus. Why? Because the arrival of a newborn king pointed to the end of Herod’s power and prestige.

Why do we as humans have the tendency to view the new as a threat to the old?  Why do we always take account of our own power and prestige rather than revel in the new movements of God and the new people that God is working to bring into God’s Kingdom?

The frightening side of this story is that Herod and all Jerusalem plot to eliminate this threat through violence. In essence, we find here a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death on the cross. When Jesus goes to the cross as the ultimate act of salvation for the world, it is at the bidding of the Romans and those in Jerusalem who will be shouting out, “Crucify him!”

Jesus’ call is radical. It is life changing. It calls for us to give up our own lives and follow Jesus into the world on mission. Jesus’ call is for self-denial and living as though one were already dead.  Jesus’ call to follow him is always a challenge to the status quo.  It is one in which the first become last and the last become first. The humble are lifted up and the proud made to bow low. For Herod and all Jerusalem it was too much of a risk to their own power and prestige to permit God to work outside of the system. Thus, Herod acts to thwart God’s intentions by acting to kill Jesus (Matt 2:12ff).

If the story of the Magi offers a series of warnings to insiders, it also offers profound invitations to those on the outside.

Invitation One:
Seeking to follow Jesus for the chance to experience a real life.

The story of the Magi is astonishing. Magi living hundreds of miles from Israel leave their families and their ways of life to chase the mere possibility of encountering the long-awaited King of the Jews.
What would have driven these men to go to such links to meet a king? They had to have realized through their observations of the stars that something spectacular was happening.  Moreover their God-given longing for the true God must have been stirred within them.  Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century scientist/philosopher, said, "There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus." As I have argued elsewhere, being shaped after the image of God implies that we were created for authentic relationship with one another and with the creator.  We know this instinctively.  However, too many of us fail to act and remain unchanged. 

Jesus comes to all of us this morning and says, “Follow me.” Who among us will answer his call?  What would you give for a chance to live the life of God’s dreams?  What would it mean for you to live as the person whom God created you to be?

This text invites us to follow Jesus as the true way of experiencing the life of God’s dreams.

What do you need to give up today to embrace the life offered to us by God through Jesus?

Invitation Two:
Experiencing true joy in encountering Jesus.

After the detour in Jerusalem, the Magi follow a special star to Bethlehem.  The star stops over the place where the child was staying.  Our text says that the Magi were overjoyed over arriving at their destination. This was a joy in discovering an allusive pursuit.  As humans created in God’s image, we long for happiness.  We long to find meaning and fulfillment in life. Yet how many of us actually find it?  How often do we experience an overwhelming sense of joy in our lives? 

My children constantly remind me of the joy of living.  My daughters have always enjoy going for car rides to look at Christmas lights and decorations in the neighborhoods surrounding our home. When my children were preschoolers, there responses to a good light display were memorable. They would squeal at the top of their lungs, “LIGHTS!!!” at the first site of the display. Their faces would glow and their smiles were seemingly miles wide.

Joy like this is a gift from God.  It is a reminder of something that too many of us have lost. The Magi rediscovered their capacity for true joy when they encountered the baby Jesus.  We can too.  This text invites us to find joy

What is the source of greatest joy in your life?  What if following Jesus Christ were the only way to true joy?

Invitation Three:
Finding our true self in the surrender to and worship of Jesus.
The Magi aren't content to experience Jesus from afar. They have arrived at their destination so they approach and enter the house containing Jesus and his mother Mary.

There response is profound.  In the presence of this young child born not among the rich and powerful of the Jerusalem elite but out in the country in Bethlehem, these elites from the east bow down and worship him. The word worship is repeated three times in our passage (vv. 2, 8, and 11) and it is a significant term in Matthew's Gospel (13 uses).  Worship is the proper response to the person of Jesus in Matthew (cf. 2:2, 11; 8:2; 15:25, and 28:9, 17). It is the recognition of his person and authority. This stands in profound contrast to the actions of Herod and all Jerusalem who sought to thwart God's plans through the murder of the young king.

But the Magi do not stop with worship. They also offer the baby Jesus costly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts are gestures of submission. They represent the surrender of the Magi to the Lordship of Jesus. They are ritually offering to Jesus all that they are for the use of his Kingdom. This text invites us to do the same. True life is not found in amassing power, wealth, or prestige through our own efforts.  True life is found in surrendering all that we are to Jesus.

Have you gotten to the point in your life in which you have surrendered yourself to God and moved from a life focused on self to a life focused on serving God?

Invitation Four:
Returning to our old lives to share the message.

An encounter with God is never a mere existential experience.  When God meets us, we are transformed from self-centered persons committed to self-fulfilment and gratification to an over-oriented existence as the Spirit propels us back into the world to participate fully in God’s mission to bring salvation to the ends of the earth through Jesus Christ.

The Magi do not remain in Israel with the savior of the world. They offer themselves to the King and then they return to their homeland. We do not hear from these men again in the New Testament, but these unnamed Magi become the very first Christian missionaries in history. They came to pay homage to the King because they instinctively realized that Jesus was the one for whom their very beings longed. 

Having met Jesus, they return to their old lives. But this is only half of the story. They do return to their old lives but they are now living as transformed persons.  The actions of the Magi foreshadow the end of the Gospel where the Risen Jesus sends out his eleven disciples into the world to make disciples of all persons. This is the Gospel mandate.  Or as my friend Alex McManus reminds us, “The Gospel comes to us on the way to someone else.”

The Magi do not become secluded from the world. They become agents of transformation for others. This is our call as well.

How is God using you to shape the lives of others and to share the Gospel?

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

For resources on preaching Scripture missionally and for establishing a missional community, I recommend the following: