Written by Pastor Ed
January 8, 2017
Isaiah 60: 1-6
Ephesians 3: 1-12
Matthew 2: 1-12
Imagine the scenario that Matthew records in Matthew 3 about the magi coming from the East to look for the king of the Jews. It’s clear that some time has passed since the events of the birth. We don’t know how long Mary and Joseph had to make do with the accommodations in the stable, the town was full of people for some time undoubtedly, but we are informed that eventually they found a house to stay in, and we might assume that things settled down for a time at least. After all the excitement of finding a place to stay, the birth and all the events surrounding it, it must have been nice to feel just a little settled, even if they were in a different town.
So you’ve brought the baby home; tried to get into some kind of routine; the neighbours check in on you from time to time and Joseph is getting established in a new job – and then a group of Zoroastrian astrologers show up at your front door bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, traditional tools of the astrologers of the day used to help divine the signs of the times. Moreover, they say they found you by reading the stars and talking to the king who directed them to your village.
Can you imagine how you’d feel? Can you imagine what the neighbours would say? Think about the incongruity of this scene! These were not Jews looking for a messiah. These were not local Torah scholars who discerned some truth hidden in the saying of the prophet Micah. These were foreigners, from a different country and even a different religion who were coming to pay homage, to worship and recognize a new baby. And they had talked to the King, who wasn’t the most popular guy on the block!
Tongues must have been wagging. The local newspaper undoubtedly ran front page headlines and pictures of these strange visitors and wondered again what it all meant. And then, tragically, sometime later would have recalled the visit as the reason for the reaction from the government to come into the region and mercilessly kill all the children under two years of age. Now in a town of maybe 300 people that may not have been many children, but even a few would have caused a stir in town. Can you imagine the grief and conspiracy theories that must have erupted then?
How was it that Joseph and Mary and their baby managed to escape? Were they in on the plot somehow? Who had those strange visitors been exactly? Had they been spies or government agents? There are so many thing about this account that we don’t know, but certainly there is more to the story than we read, and much more than we ever portray in our Christmas pageants.
We remember this story on the day we designate as Epiphany, January 6, this past Friday and usually recognized on the closest Sunday, which is today. Epiphany, not a word we use all that often. Have you ever had an epiphany? It’s often defined as that “ah-ha” moment when the light bulb comes on and you suddenly see things more clearly, or understand something in a new way. Like when you’re trying to solve a puzzle or a mystery, and all of a sudden you see the answer.
I haven’t been a part of one of these lock room experiences, but I suspect there are epiphanies that happen as the group tries to figure out how to get out of the room. Epiphanies are often depicted by the light bulb coming on over someone’s head, like the one on the bulletin cover.
So what does this story of strangers coming from a foreign land to find the baby Jesus have to do with the idea of Epiphany? What light bulb came on? Well, for that to make sense we perhaps have to look at our other passages as well as recall Matthew’s reasons for including this account, for it is only in Matthew that we find the visit of the magi. Matthew, you may recall, was writing primarily to a Jewish audience sometime in the latter half of the first century and the church was continuing to struggle with the question of the inclusion of Gentiles. Who was the gospel really for? Could Gentiles be saved, or was God’s promise still only for the children of Abraham? It was a question Paul addressed again and again in his letters to the churches.
And a question he speaks of forcefully in the letter to the Ephesian church, a portion of which we read. He calls it the “mystery of Christ” which has “now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (3: 5b-6) Yet somehow, people still didn’t get it. And so Matthew adds to the evidence.
It was right there, already at Jesus’ birth! Can’t you see it? Right from the beginning Jesus was recognized not just by the angels and some shepherds out in the field, but by foreigners who came looking for a royal personage. Magi were well respected across the Middle East in those days and were seen as important interpreters of the stars and the signs. It would have been unthinkable for an important person to be born and the astrologers of the day not to have noticed. And they had!
Why was it so hard to get that message across? Even the prophets had spoken of a light that shown among the Gentiles. What was there that was so hard to understand? The gospel, God’s love, was meant for everyone. Anyone who came seeking could find acceptance and be a part of God’s kingdom. And Paul proclaims that it is through the church that this mystery has been made known, because the church clearly should accept anyone who comes!
Epiphany! The church got the point and hasn’t had an issue with this since. Right?? Right?
Unfortunately, it seems the message of that mystery revealed to and through the church, that Jesus came because God loved the whole world, needs to be learned again and again. The Doctrine of Discovery that our Mennonite Church Canada Assembly took action this summer to repudiate, declared that people who were not from the “Christian” nations of Europe were not considered really even human and therefore could be displaced and even killed if they stood in the way of “progress.”
We could cite many examples throughout the history of the church where this same attitude prevailed. I’m currently reading a recent book on the history of the Indiana-Michigan Conference in the US, the conference that I grew up in, and there, as in many other places, there were times when the Mennonite church wasn’t even sure that other branches of Mennonites could truly be part of the kingdom. I’m afraid that if the magi had shown up at many of our church doors over the years looking for Jesus, they would have been turned away.
Thankfully, many of those attitudes of the past have been dispensed with, but we’re still having the same issues, albeit with different groups of people. I’m wondering when it is that the light bulb will finally shine bright and we’ll have our “ah-ha” moment that we are perhaps focusing on the wrong question or the wrong issue. If we truly believe that God’s love and invitation is extended to all, and that really is the message of Matthew 2 and Isaiah 60 and Ephesians 3 and many more passages, then our focus should be on extending that invitation, not on worrying about who responds.
And if, as Paul says, the church is the vehicle to proclaim and live out that message, then we should be ready to welcome anyone who responds to God’s invitation. They may look different than us. They may be at a very different place in their spiritual lives and see things differently, but if they are seeking Jesus, I would hope that they would find him here among us, as we too seek to know him better.
Our lectionary scriptures over the next few weeks, taken primarily from the Gospel of Matthew, will explore these themes more. What does it mean to share the light of Christ in our world? And why do we seem to think that the light is primarily just for us? The message of Epiphany is that the light was not for just a small group of people, but was for the world. May we not only see the light, but also share it with anyone who might see it and then welcome all who respond.