Expressions of Christmas: The Magi
January 3, 2016
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
As a young person, I went through a phase where I was fascinated with magicians and magic. I remember receiving a gift one Christmas or birthday that I suspect many my age range received: a Magic Kit. It was a boxed set with a picture of a top hat containing a rabbit. It promised 100 tricks. I remember very little of it other than pinning a piece of elastic up my sleeve and having it attached to a coin. I also remember asking a conspirator to have a group name a number 1 through 15 while I was out of the room. I’d come in and place my fingers on my conspirator’s temple to “read their mind” for the number. My conspirator would simply, slightly clench their jaws the right number of times. I’d feel their muscles in the their temple and announce the number I “read” from their mind. I was a bad magician—witness the fact that I just violated the magicians number one rule of not giving away the secret of a trick. Do you remember seeing a magic act? Turn to a neighbor for a minute and share your memories!
The word “magician” comes from the word “Magi” (may-ji). Translators have given them the name “wise men” in some versions of the Bible, and in popular lore, they become the “Kings of Orient.” Yet scholarship helps with the real picture.
Magi were probably from Persia, or modern day Iran. They are a class of the Median people, who at one time were defeated in trying to overthrow the Persian Empire. They failed and subsequently became the philosophers, astronomers, and theologians of Persia. Some sources indicate that the Magi were the educators of the eastern rulers.
Around the birth of Jesus, there was either an appearance of Halley’s Comet or an alignment of a couple of the planets, resulting in a “star in the east.” The folks in Jesus day believed if anything unusual happened in the skies it was a result of the divine breaking normal routines in order to signify a divine event. So, the Magi, seeing a change in the skies, believed God was doing something different. More, numerous secular sources of the time recorded that the entire known world believed that a king would be born in Judea that would reign over the entire world. Such was the context of the visit of the Magi.
Today, we close out our sermon series, entitled “Expressions of Christmas.” We’ve looked at some colloquial expressions around the holidays today, and we’ve considered the expressions from the first Christmas. We’ve thought together about the expressions of worldly power through Augustus and Herod; then Joseph’s obedience; Mary’s joy; the Angels’ proclamations about Jesus; God’s expression of love toward humanity in Jesus; and the Shepherd’s expressions of gathering around Jesus and then scattering to tell what they had seen and heard. Today, we look at the expressions of the Magi.
It seems to me the first expression of the Magi, was that of the longing heart. I hope I’ve quoted it enough that you know it by heart. It’s a sign of God’s prevenient/preparing grace in God’s design of humans—to seek out Jesus. It was best said by Augustine, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in thee, O Lord.” Presumably, even before Jesus was born, the grace-given restless hearts of the Magi were searching for heart-rest in Jesus. Importantly, they acted wisely on their restless hearts. They set out on a journey in response to the divine initiative of God. Some scholars, I seem to recall, think their journey may have taken a month and covered one thousand miles!
Let me invite you to think about yourself: Is your heart restless? Do you feel you’re missing something in life? Have you tried to settle your heart through consumerism, acquisition, serial relationships, vocational achievement, wealth, or anything other than Jesus? Someone once said that a “restless heart results in a reckless lifestyle.” Does that describe your lifestyle? If so, it could be that God is sending the “grace of discomfort your way.” It might be that the Holy Spirit is working on you in order to lead you to deepening your relationship with Christ. Here’s a takeaway: We have many small groups, Sunday School classes, and a spiritual growth class coming up on Welcome Wednesdays offered by Alice Kunka. Perhaps your restless heart needs some rehab, which only the Holy Spirit can give; perhaps you’ll find rest for your heart in one of these experiences.
Then, the Magi’s expression was to come to Jesus. What I’m suggesting is that they took action regarding their restless hearts! I’ve offered some suggestions; there are many more ways to come into a deeper relationship with Christ. The only question remains—will you act? We’re in the time of New Year’s resolutions. Nearly every year numerous sources report the top resolutions. Most of them have to do with health and losing weight, spending more time with family, and getting finances in order. But what about your soul’s health? What about your spiritual life’s state? Have you thought about resolutions in that regard? Here’s what I’d suggest you think about: setting a worship goal; when we committed to Christ and His church, we committed to a life of “private and public worship.” Next, consider being more generous with your time, talent, and treasure. Then, consider being more graceful; that is, being more forgiving toward yourself and others. Finally, consider being more spiritually disciplined through worship, communion, prayer, Bible studies, small group life, service and learning.
Next, I would suggest that another important expression of the Magi was of the forthcoming global nature of Christianity. Right off the bat, the Magi showed the truth of the angel’s expression, that the Good News of a Savior was for all people, not just the chosen people, Israel. For four years I served as the senior pastor of the American Protestant Church of The Hague, The Netherlands. For numerous reasons, The Hague has more embassies than any other city in the world. Moreover, it is also the headquarters of Shell Oil. Because of this it is a very global city. The American Protestant Church reflected the globalism of the city and Christianity. In that church there were people from about 40 nations! Someone once said that the congregation looked like the United Nations at worship. On Pentecost Sunday we asked people to wear celebrative clothing from their nation of origin. The Americans didn’t know what to wear, really. That is, except for the Texans who wore their cowboy hats. The real beauty was the people in dashikis, saris, beautiful Caribbean clothing, gorgeous kimonos, and numerous other colorful outfits. But more beautiful than the clothing were the people—people from all over the world who loved, served, and worshipped Jesus. It was truly a glimpse into heaven, where skin color, language, paperwork, culture, and economic status don’t matter! And, it all started with the Magi! The angel’s announcement of “Good news for all people” began to be fulfilled with the visit of the non-Jewish magi and really kicked off with the birth of the church at Pentecost. The magi shared the first Christian expression of a global Christianity.
Finally, the Magi’s expression was to worship and give. Despite their honored position in their society, despite scholars telling us they were the leading scientists, teachers, philosophers and theologians of their culture—they came to Christ, bowed down to a baby they knew was greater than they were, and worshipped him. Ours is a culture that touts the individualism, the self-achievement, the self-worth, and the agency of each person. (Sometimes, it seems, to the extreme—that is, until a person gets into legal trouble; then it’s the fault of society or the environment in which they were raised. This characteristic of “rugged individualism” has served our nation well in many ways. But it can make something very important difficult – to humble ourselves; to submit to a greater power; to bow down and worship Christ. A New Year is a great time for serious self-inventory and self-examination. In that regard, do you truly put Christ first in your life? Are you obedient to Christ? Do you truly bow down and worship him, not with lip service but with life-service. Today, can be a day of new beginnings.
The Magi weren’t about empty gestures. They not only worshipped the Christ, they took the action of giving! They gave as they had been blessed, valuable gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
If guests would indulge me a moment, let me address a word to the Christ Church family—members and regular supporters: Christ Church can do better in terms of giving and supporting ministry than we have been doing recently! Our God-sized vision is to shape this city after the Kingdom of Christ! And yet your finance committee has struggled for the last five months just to maintain our current level of ministry and put the budget on a freeze. Church, you’re better than that! You love Christ and His Church here more than that! As we begin a new year, I’d urge you to grow in your generosity toward Christ and His Church. The Biblical teaching of stewardship is that “to whom much has been given, much is required.” We have some folks who are hurting economically and yet are giving sacrificially. We have others who are well off in their personal economy. If that fits you, I’d want to encourage you toward giving as sacrificially as the widow in Jesus story, to give as sacrificially as those in our congregation who are struggling give. Generosity in the church is not about equal gifts, but about equal sacrifices.
The expressions of the first Christmas: worldly ways of power that are being overcome by Jesus’ Kingdom of love; obedient acts exemplified by Joseph the Carpenter; the joy of Mary’s song proclaiming the new day coming of the Kingdom; the message of the angels sharing the Good News of Christ is for all; the rejected shepherd class who came to know Christ is even for them; and the Magi, the foreign responders to the yearning of every human heart, who came to Christ, humbled themselves, worshipped, and gave generously.
God’s inspiration of those who recorded the birth story of Jesus was with purpose and design; you see God wants us to find in the birth story of Jesus what can be our story. A narrative of hope, joy, action, humility, and generosity. God’s desire is that the expressions of the first Christmas become the expressions of our love for Jesus everyday. Will that be so with you? With our congregation? Let us pray that it would happen in our lives; in this place; at this time.
· Share with your group any memories you have a seeing or trying to perform a magic trick.
· Share with your group your experience of “a restless heart” until you found rest in Christ.
· Share with your group your sense of the global nature of Christianity.
· Share with your group how you truly worship and humble yourself before Christ.
· Share with your group a resolution or commitment to grow spiritually in the New Year.