The New Gentiles, Christmas 2 – 2004
January 04, 2004
Where should we look to see the magi, the wise men, the Gentiles of today, the people perhaps different from us who are following the star to Jesus? May we consider this question with open hearts. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today’s Gospel presents an epiphany. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means “manifestation” or “showing forth.” What is manifest is Christ, the light of the world. The Gospels we hear in church this time of year feature several occasions of the showing forth of Christ’s glory, such as Christ turning water into wine at a wedding feast, and Christ transfigured on a mountaintop.
One of the most important epiphany stories is the baptism of Jesus, which reveals him as the Father’s beloved son, the one anointed by the Holy Spirit as the messiah, the Christ. We will hear that Gospel next Sunday.
Today, however, our focus is on an earlier epiphany, the story of the wise men or magi. These wise men from the east follow an extraordinary star that takes them to Bethlehem in search of a new king. They find the child Jesus, and present him with gifts. This is the story we heard in today’s Gospel and that we sang about in the well-beloved hymn, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
This epiphany story, taken from Matthew’s Gospel, balances out the Christmas story of the angels and shepherds. For those shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem are Jewish, and the angel announces that their long awaited messiah has just been born. This Jesus is the one foretold in their scriptures, the reason for their hope.
The wise men are not Jewish; they are Gentiles, non-Jews, pagans. They do not worship the God of Israel, but they do study the skies. They are scholars and scientists of the ancient world. The extraordinary star that they observe promises the birth of a new king. And they travel a long distance and overcome many obstacles in order to see this baby king for themselves.
Add the Epiphany story to the Christmas story and the conclusion is unavoidable: Jesus is not just for one people, his own people, the Jews. Jesus is for everybody: all nations and races and peoples and languages. He is not only the Jewish messiah, but he is the universal savior. He is not only the king of Israel, but reigns over all the earth.
This is all expressed in standard Christian language. It does not shock or surprise anyone familiar with Christianity. We are not challenged by the notion that the church includes Gentiles as well as Jews, since most Christians today come from Gentile backgrounds. It is easy to forget that one of the hottest controversies in the New Testament is whether the Gentiles (that is, the non-Jews) can become Christians directly, or whether they have to become Jews first.
So the Jewish shepherds come to see the baby Jesus as soon as he is born, and the Gentile wise men come later, for their journey is a difficult one. There is room in the church for both. No big surprise.
But let’s consider what may be the cutting edge of this epiphany story today. In our world, in our culture, there may be various other kinds of magi, Gentiles of a different sort, and the church needs to respond to them as they follow some star on their way to Christ.
Despite the opening words of that hymn-“We three kingsâ¦”-the Bible does not tell us how many magi appeared before Jesus. We know three gifts were presented: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But we are not told how many people brought these gifts. Christians of earlier centuries imagined the magi numbered two, four, or even a dozen! It might be interesting to picture an indefinite number of wise men, a whole bunch of them, presenting their gifts to Jesus. This adds to the mysteriousness of the event.
You might also want to take into account the convention in Christian art of depicting the wise men as diverse as regards age and ethnicity. Can we both picture an indefinite number of magi and see them as diverse?
Perhaps our imaginations can take a step further. Are there magi today, men and women who follow whatever guidance God gives them, and make their way, painfully perhaps, to Christ? Can we recognize these people, welcome them, and accept them? Can we acknowledge the gifts they bring?
The gifts of the original magi are not the usual stuff of baby showers, but certainly they are significant; they reveal the truth about Christ. Gold indicates his kingship. Frankincense, and incense used in worship, discloses his divinity. Myrrh, a substance used in embalming, points ahead to his sacrificial death. Christ is indeed, as we sang a little while ago, “King and God and Sacrifice.” Perhaps the gifts brought by the magi of our own time have much to reveal, not only about their givers, but also about the Jesus they are meant to honor.
Many churches today do not reflect their communities in regard to various demographic factors. So the magi of today, traveling a long, hard way to Christ, may include:
- men of any age, but especially young men
- young adults, single or married, with or without children
- people who live a hand-to-mouth existence
- members of ethnic minorities, especially those new to the United States.
These groups and others are underrepresented in many churches, including many Episcopal churches. They are present in our communities, but not necessarily in out pews. Yet we believe, as a matter of faith, that God calls members of these groups, as God calls all people.
The 17th century preacher Lancelot Andrewes aptly describes the journey of the biblical magi in these words: “A cold morning they had of it at this time of year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, the very dead of winter.”
Theirs was indeed a hard journey, and they must have been powerfully drawn to leave behind the comforts and satisfactions of home, and set out in the dead of winter for a distant and uncertain destination. Yet they did this, and magi still set out to follow some star to Christ. Can we appreciate these seekers for who they are, honor their quest, and point out that the Christ who is their Lord and ours? What will it take for us to do so?
Like their predecessors 20 centuries ago, the magi of today come to Christ bearing gifts, gifts that reveal something about who Christ is. What gifts are brought by men of every age, including young men? What gifts are brought by young adults, single or married, with or without children? What gifts are brought by people who live a hand-to-mouth existence? What gifts are brought to Christ by ethnic minorities, including those new to the United States?
Many such people are traveling to Christ even now, despite burdens and obstacles-or even because of them. They follow the star, they come singing with reverent voices:
O star of wonder, star of night,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.
Christ is born, and heaven sings alleluia for the wonder of it. Earth’s alleluia in reply is not complete unless it includes these reverent voices.
Let us pray:
O God and Father of all, whom the whole heavens adore: Let the whole earth also worship you, all nations obey you, all tongues confess and bless you, and men and women everywhere love you and serve you in peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen [The Book of Common Prayer, p.124.]
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