Date: January 6, 2008
Scripture: Genesis 9:8-17; Exodus 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12; Matthew 17:1-12; Luke 24:1-12; Revelation 21:22 – 22:5.
Sermon: Let It Shine!
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells
Any creche display or Christmas pageant is not complete without the Magi – later referred to as the 3 kings. We image three exotic, stately figures clothed in rich robes. These Magi, we are not actually told, were three. That has been inferred from the mention of the three gifts but the Magi were priests of the Zoroastrian religion which originated in present day Iran. Zoroastrianism is based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster, who is generally thought to have lived in the 10th or 11th century BCE. This religion is based on the worship of the one Creator God, Ahura Mazda. The sacred texts are called the Avesta. The Zoroastrian world view presumes the presence of Asha, which is truth and order. And the presence of chaos present as falsehood and disorder. These two forces, Asha and Chaos, are in conflict. Through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, humans can align themselves with Asha and keep Chaos at bay.
Asha, the presence of truth and order, can be observed in the laws of the universe, the planets, stars, and astral bodies, and in the changing of the seasons. So Zoroastrian priests, or magi, were astrologers. They were also seen as magicians, sorcerers, and wise men. They were experts in the interpretation of dreams.
As Matthew’s gospel begins we are told that Magi from the east followed a star which led them to Jesus. These Magi are clearly foreigners. They are markedly different from the Jews of Palestine, Jesus’ cultural context. In world view, heritage, culture, and beliefs, these Magi are separate, distinct from the Jewish context into which Jesus is born. They are strangers from a strange land. They are entirely “other.”
So why are we told this story at the beginning of a gospel about the Jewish Messiah? A book addressed to a Jewish context and rising out of the Jewish tradition. A book aimed at solidifying belief that Jesus is the Messiah in the lineage of David, who was promised and awaited for centuries. Where does this story of the Magi fit in?
And not only are we told of the Magi following a star to Jesus, of a different culture, in a strange land, countries away necessitating a journey of months, if not years. We are told of religious leaders in Jesus’ context, experts in the Scriptures, who are blind to what is happening in their own back yard. Why does Matthew tell us this story?
The story of the Magi shows devout people on a search, a quest. They are responding to a longing, a deeply felt desire. They are following a star they believe leads to the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams. The desire for a sense of the sacred, for authentic life and for the true human community is not limited by culture, geography, time, or religion. It is a universal human longing. The abundant life rooted in communities of justice and compassion that is manifested in the life of Jesus speaks to the longings and desires of the whole human family, not just what has become the Judeo-Christian tradition. So, this story shows the common longing of all of humanity, the common quest, the shared hope. Present in every culture, every era, every religion, we share the desire for thriving life and wholeness.
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
— (United Church of Christ Hymnal p. 591)
We share the hunger to be part of something beyond ourselves. We pursue that desire in countless, different ways, but it is our common bond as human beings. So this story affirms our oneness as a human family with common hopes and dreams.
This story of the Magi also shows us foreigners being drawn into the narrative of another religion. We are shown a God that is bigger than one religion or one spiritual path. We are shown a God that is beyond just one religious tradition. We see respect for different belief systems. These Magi come to worship Jesus; to pay their respects; to offer lavish gifts befitting someone of extreme significance. Then they go back to Persia, now Iran, back to their religious context of Zoroastrianism, back to their jobs as priests, diviners, astrologers, and dream interpreters. They don’t stay in Palestine. They don’t become Jewish or Christians. They go home a different way. Who would not be changed by such a quest? But they go home. To their religion and their culture. Jesus can be honored and appreciated, respected, and revered, beyond the Christian faith and the church as he is a light that shines beyond one faith tradition. The mercy, compassion, justice, and power seen in Jesus can be appreciated universally.
In this story, then, we see Jesus as a point of commonality and reconciliation of all peoples. We see the recognition of our universal human longings for the sacred, for abundant life, and compassionate community. We see recognition of generosity and justice as the path to the fulfillment of our common hopes and dreams. We see universalism in this story that transcends time, culture, geography, religion.
I think it is very important for us to hear the messages of the story of the Magi in our current context. Far from being a magical tale of far off exotic royalty, this story offers intense and significant insight for us today.
The autumn issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin is devoted to peace. In the introduction to the Journal, Professor Donald Swearer explains that there is a basic assumption about the exclusivity of Christianity. “Focus on peace building comes at a time when the world’s religions are castigated by vocal critics as instigators of divisive exclusivism, promoters of hatred, and perpetuators of violence. These critics site the examples of Sunni-Shi’a sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, Hindu-Muslim conflict in India, Buddhist-inspired nationalistic chauvinism in Sri Lanka, the legacy of the Roman Catholic-Protestant animosities in northern Ireland, Roman Catholic-Orthodox-Muslim conflict in Bosnia, and the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States and globally” (Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Autumn 2007, pg.1.)
The perspective presumed that God is revealed in Jesus Christ and that Christianity is the only valid path of salvation. We live in a setting that assumes the superiority of Christianity. And we live in a time when the bond between Christianity and the agenda of American Empire have become inextricably linked. This context has dulled our vision and distorted our perception of God’s greater hope and dreams. Like the religious leaders in Matthew’s gospel, our political/cultural context is affecting our vision. The strange priests from the east perceived God’s presence and activity and were led by a star to Jesus. The chief priests and scribes, trained to look for their Messiah, couldn’t see it, because they were blinded by the power structure, the political context, and fear. We face the same challenge today.
Friends, if the people of Iraq were Christian you can bet the United States would be proceeding in a very different fashion. In my travels this fall, while waiting to board a plane, I got to talking with a group of women who had been to a Christian Women’s Conference in Jacksonville. When they heard I was a pastor they went on about the wonderful experience they had had. The powerful expression of faith. The incredible evidence of the Holy Spirit. They were pumped. Then one woman mentioned that at the same hotel at the same time there was a convention of Muslims gathered to celebrate one of their holy days. The women had on their scarves and long dresses. There were a lot of them all over the hotel. And this Christian woman went on about how strange it felt. How it felt uncomfortable. How odd it was to have those Muslim people there while we were there. In a discreet, diplomatic way, I asked why. And she replied, “To them, we’re the enemy.” Then I asked, “Were you treated in a hostile or disrespectful manner?” “Oh no,” she said. “They were very nice and friendly.”
How incredibly ironic that Jesus, who revealed our common longings; Jesus who showed a God larger than any one tradition; Jesus was sent to reconcile all humanity, has become a source of separation and division.
The story of the Magi invites us to see beyond the exclusivism of cultural Christianity which serves the agenda of Empire. God’s light is not limited to one religion or nation or time period. God is not confined by culture or class.
The story of the Magi shows us the fulfillment of God’s vision that all nations stream to the divine presence and the promise to Abraham that his lineage will bless all nations. Right from the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew the writer refuses to let God’s revelation of presence in Christ Jesus to be confined to one culture, time, place, or religious tradition. In Christ Jesus, God shows God’s presence – with all of humanity for all time.
As this New Year begins, may we have the courage to search for the divine presence. To risk getting lost. To experience new places beyond the familiar and comfortable. To overcome our fears. To offer our best to the quest. To be surprised. To let Jesus really save us. Then, with the Magi, we too will be overwhelmed with joy. Amen