Advent #5 – The Faith of the Magi

This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on December 22nd, 2013, by Pete Bauer.  To listen to the audio, just click on this link – Matt 2.

As we close out Advent this week, we want to look, as we do every year at this time, at the visit of the Magi.  If we are going to approach Scripture honestly we have to recognize that the visit of the Magi is both a humorous story, (with these foreigners from Persia, blundering into the court of Herod the paranoid, expecting the young prince to be there in the palace), and a horrifying story, (finishing with the slaughter of the innocents, and the fearful flight of Joseph and his family).   The story of the Magi is a messy story that does not have a particularly happy ending – but it is a story that does speak to us about what God is like and what he is doing in the world.

God is Drawing People From All Faiths and Walks of Life to Jesus.

God is Calling All People to Believe:   The wise men have often been made out to be truth seekers, turning away from their pagan ways in order to find the one true God.   The fact is, when we look at the Magi, that they were not only pagan men, but also that they were following their own pagan religion when they came looking for the child, Jesus.  Our tendency is to Christianize the Magi, to refer to them as “wise men” – but that does a disservice to the Gospel.

The Magi did not see the star in the east and decide to convert to Christianity or even Judaism.   These men, who searched the heavens regularly in order to see signs and portents there, saw the star in the east over Jerusalem.   They searched the Jewish Scriptures, which they had access to because the Jews had been exiled in their land, and they found the prophecy in Numbers 24:17  – “I see him, but not now;  I behold him, but not near.  A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel”.   And what did the Magi think about this prophecy?

Zoroastrians believed that at the end of time, a savior-figure (a Saoshyant) would bring about a final renovation of the world, in which the dead would be revived and evil would be vanquished.  This Saoshyant would be a son of a one of the Zoroastrian deities.  It is likely that these Magi believed Jesus was the Saoshyant deliverer.

From a modern evangelical point of view, this is a problem.   The Magi came looking for a savior, not having given up their own religion but in hope of finding their own gods.  They did not understand everything about faith the way we  would want them to understand.   They were not like the converted men we would want them to be.   But this is the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, and what we are seeing here is that God is drawing these men to himself – incarnationally – which is to say that, using their own religion, God revealed Jesus to them in a way they could understand.

God Draws All People By All Means:  So how is Matthew beginning his Gospel?   He begins by showing us that God calls all men from every nation, by means that  – theologically – should probably make us uncomfortable.   But the point isn’t that God is, from now on, going to speak through the stars – the point is that God is speaking!…  to all people.

God is a revealer who uses incarnational means to reveal himself to those who are far off as well as those who are near – to those who are enemies of Israel and worshippers of other gods – as well as to Israel.  The Gospel began with the fact that God was actively calling men, while they were yet sinners – far off, and spoke to them in ways that they could understand.  God revealed his presence to the Magi and they worshipped Jesus as a Zoroastrian Saoshyant.

What does this mean for us?  It means that God is speaking to the agnostic, the buddhist, the sikh, the muslim, the atheist – in ways that are incarnational – concerning Jesus Christ.  And God, who is the judge of all the earth, is able to do this and to speak to every person in accordance with their culture and understanding so that they may come to faith in Jesus Christ.

Discipleship/Love for Neighbor, Must Mean that We Cannot Be Simplistically Against:  Consider the model we see at work here.  What is God doing?  God is showing a sensitivity and an understanding  – a willing interchange of ideas – with these astrologers.  On one hand, God is, in a sense, willing to discuss Zoroastrianism.  God is willing to compare notes with these Magi, even to find common ground.  It is as if God were saying to the Magi; “We both agree that the world needs saving and a savior.  You talk about Saoshyant, but let me show you Jesus.”  The Gospel of Matthew begins with God not reacting against, but welcoming these non-jewish, foreign men.

The Gospel Demands that We Be Thoughtfully Engaged in Conversation with the Other:  We should be confident enough in what we believe – in Jesus – to be able to discuss with others what they believe – to be able to see where and how others are reaching for Jesus.

An Example: So for instance, Buddhism is an attempt to find peace – inner peace – rest from the anxiety and striving of this world, from guilt over the perceived demands of life.  Buddhism’s answer is to say, in a sense, stop worrying about it and just BE.   There is no mission, no demanding purpose.  You can simply rest  and be at peace with who and what you are.

As Christians, we should acknowledge the truth in these statements.  The world is restless and anxious, and the Buddhist is right to say that what the world needs is peace, tranquility – and that all of the restless, anxious activity of the world is often destructive.

But then we should also be able to say that, according to Christianity, the reason that the world is restless is that God created us to be glorious beings – and that we fell from that and became sinful and broken.  And that our restlessness is the measure of our awareness of how far short we are fallen of the glory we were made for (Rom.6:23).  We should be able to say that Buddhism is right when it says that people live in the delusion that one more achievement, or a better house, or better child-raising methods will bring us rest.  But at the same time we can say that our Scriptures show us that our restlessness is connected to something real – and that rest can’t be found through denial.  Rather, Jesus died to give us rest… “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt.11:28-29).

We no longer live in a world where we can just reject and ignore other faiths.  In the same way, complaining about how we live in a multi-cultural society where people practice other religions does not reflect the character of Jesus – or the desire of our Father.   God chose to understand and to reach out – to engage and to call.

The Result is Faith and Resistance.

Reaction and Slaughter:   There is something particular about the coming of the Magi into Jerusalem.  They were out of place – doing something that they should not have been doing, according to the world and the way things work.  After all, Zoroastrians should have been in Persia, engaged in their own worship, unconcerned with the doings of the Jews.  In coming into Jerusalem they crossed a line and presented a threat.  Like diplomats who wander into a political situation that they do not understand and upset the balance of power, these Magi blundered into the court of an insane king and demanded to see the one who would take his throne.  Herod’s reaction was violent and horrible – the execution of all children aged two and under.

We don’t like this part of the story. It isn’t safe or comfortable or anything that we ever want to see repeated.  However, Herod’s response exposes a basic conflict and forces us to see that Jesus did not come to be one power to easily coexist among other claims.  Jesus did not come to be a spiritual guru – but as the Messiah/King – claiming, as God, absolute rule over our lives.

Resistance vs. Worship:  There are two instances where Jesus is very clearly proclaimed King, and both of them end in violence…

  1. This instance when the Magi claim to be looking for a king and worship Jesus as a king, a story which ends with the slaughter of the innocents’.
  2. The Triumphal Entry, when Jesus is proclaimed king by the crowd, which ends in his trial and the cross.

This is not a coincidence.   Both of these stories contrast worship (Magi/ Triumphal Entry) with a reaction of violence (slaughter of the innocents/ the cross).  The contrast exposes the resistance of a world that desires to worship whatever it finds desirable, and to throw off the rule of God (see Luke19:14, where Jesus, telling a parable, to those who were expecting the Kingdom of God to come soon, actually anticipates their future response to himself – see Luke 23:13-25).

The Gospel of Matthew sets forth these contrasts to confront us with this choice.  God makes common ground, acts lovingly, calls us to enter into conversation, graciously.  And yet, God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth demands nothing less than worship.

The Magi did not change all of their understanding – did not become Jews or Christians – but they did learn a new name for their Saoshyant… “Jesus”.  They worshipped Jesus as the Saoshyant (the Savior of the world), and, according to what they could understand, submitted themselves to him.   And this is what God desires of them and of us, no less – that we would worship the true God and Jesus Christ his Son, in the face of a world that also demands our allegiance and worship.

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