Wise men honor the Christ child

SERMON SCRIPTURE: Matthew 2:1-12

Jesus has friends everywhere, not only within his own tribe. Jesus’ enemies may also be found among those we would hope to be his staunchest supporters. People’s cultural, national or even religious affiliation does not dictate their opinion of Jesus nor their willingness to come to him, to honor him, and to be transformed by the experience.

Wise men from the east…

Who are these men, and why are they important to Matthew’s telling of the Gospel story? Why would they have mattered to Matthew and his community of first century believers? Why might they matter to us?

What do we know?

Everything we think we know about them beyond what is here in this text of Matthew 2:1-12 comes from later traditions. As hymns become a primary teaching element for the faith, we might consider our Christmas Carol “We Three Kings.” The gifts they bring would have highlighted the threefold ministry of Jesus as King, Priest and Sacrifice. The gold is a sign of Christ’s royalty, the frankincense a sign of priestly prayer, and the myrrh a sign of sacrifice. The carol helps us understand what the gifts represent as symbols of Jesus’ identity. As to the identity of the men themselves though, this is not from scripture. “Oriental” arises from an earlier use of that term to refer to the Near East – India and Persia – not the more common current usage of the Far East – China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea. As such, we locate them in the region around Babylon.

They were not kings in the sense of political rulers like Herod or Caesar or King David. The Greek word “magi” refers to a philosopher/astrologer/priest, such as those of Zoroastrianism which originated in Persia and was broadly known in Babylon during the time of the Jewish exile and captivity there (2Kings24; Jeremiah29). When Cyrus king of Persia conquered the Babylonian Empire, he released the Jews and helped them return to and reestablish Jerusalem (Ezra1). This experience would have further connected the Jews to an experience of the Persian religion and a high regard for these Magi.

The Magi came because they had seen a star rising, which was widely taken as a sign of the birth of a king. The star is thought by some to have likely been an asteroid, or perhaps a planet like Venus, which to the naked eye appear as a star and travel across the sky. It may also be that the Magi were exposed to the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and so anticipated the coming of a Messiah King to the Jews. Zoroastrianism also includes a story of a coming savior – in fact Zoroastrianism has several parallels to the Christian understanding of Jesus as the Jewish messiah/savior/king.

Who are they for Matthew and his community?

Culminating the return from captivity – For Matthew and his community, the visit of the Magi might represent the Jewish messiah being honored by the Persians who had helped reestablish Jerusalem, and thus pave the way for the Messiah generations earlier. This epiphany, or appearing, represents the culmination of that weaving of traditions. Perhaps Jesus represents the fulfillment of Zoroastrian hopes and prophecies along with those of the Hebrew bible. Jesus is, of course, the savior of the World, not only of the Jews, and not specifically through the Jews, as is evidenced by Peter and Paul’s work to confirm that Gentiles need not become Jews in order to follow the Messiah.

Blessing contrasted with cursing – The Magi are also set in contrast to the violent hatred of King Herod, himself a Jew who misunderstands what the Messiah represents for his people and for the world. It is through their hopeful inquiry that Herod is alerted to the presence of this potential rival to his family reign. Their arrival sets into motion additional fulfillments of prophecy that Matthew references – the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt (Matthew2:13-18). Thus, for Matthew and his community, the Magi are essential though secondary characters who advance the plot and fulfill the messianic hopes.

What might they mean for us today?

Nothing is simple. Even God has to take the bad with the good. – We see that bad and good are mixed, even in the living of our faith. The coming of the messiah is good, yet along with it comes suffering through responses of rejection. It seems that this is unavoidable, even as God is working out the divine will among us. The Magi come to honor the new born king, yet their arrival alerts others who would seek to destroy him. How often are we faced with choices in life that have both positive and negative outcomes, and we have to weigh the potential and likely consequences? We give people with deadly diseases treatments that also can be fatal. People have to decide, is the hoped for cure worth the risks of treatment? The coming of the Magi to visit the Messiah reveals that even in the working out of salvation history God faces such choices with mixed results. God acts to bring blessing and good, but bad things also result. This might suggest that we cannot escape such complex and ambiguous outcomes. This is not a matter of “the ends justify the means” but it may mean “the ends justify some undesired negative consequences.” I suspect we could find numerous other examples of this in scripture.

Other faiths also honor Jesus and are allies. – The visit of the Magi to the Messiah can be a model for us of an interfaith dialogue. Here we have people who are not Christians in any traditional understanding, and yet they come to Jesus, worship and serve him, and leave transformed (literally “by another way”). How might we see this as a model for engaging with people of other faith traditions? Can we convey the Good News of Jesus in such a way that people of other faiths are drawn to him, honor him, and are changed by the interaction, even if we do not see them abandon their own faith as a result? Can we accept that as something to be celebrated, as Matthew seems to do? Islam, for instance, affirms Jesus as a prophet worthy of honor. So perhaps in the Magi we see a foreshadowing of those like the Muslims who would honor Jesus, and even support kingdom work with their gifts, though they be not fully converted to traditional Christian orthodoxy.

Non-religious belief systems can also find room for Jesus. – The Magi may also represent non-religious spiritual, philosophical and scientific traditions. Many people give to Christian ministries out of their shared sympathy for the cause and respect for the way the kingdom work is conducted. They are not thereby manifesting Christian faith, per se, but are “leaning into Jesus” being drawn toward him and honoring him, not as their own king, but as a king nonetheless. If we as Christians will properly represent Jesus to the world, many will respond as the Magi did – coming to him, honoring him, and being transformed by the experience. This, Matthew suggests, is something to affirm, even if they are not fully converted. We can honor them, because they honor Jesus, even if they do not recognize all that we would about him.

Proclamation of the Gospel includes affirmation of people with diverse beliefs. – The Christianity of Matthew’s day found itself increasingly embroiled in theological and political conflicts. Tensions between Jews and Christians were rising after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Within Christianity there were liberals and conservatives, Gnostics and Ascetics, Judaisers and Hellenists, strict literalists and those who embraced a free and open theology. Paul’s writings are filled with his responses to such struggles, attempting to articulate a middle position between all of these – both grace and works, word and spirit. Paul even notes that he is the apostle to the gentiles, while Peter is the apostle to the Jews – ministry moving in two very different directions, among different communities with diverse cultural, national, and even religious perspectives. All of these things were still true as Matthew wrote his gospel emphasizing how Jesus was the fulfillment of promises found in the Jewish scriptures. And within that story, Matthew included this narrative of the Magi, Persian philosopher priests who were likely of the Zoroastrian religion, who came to honor Jesus and bless and serve him with their gifts.

Jesus has friends everywhere, not only within his own tribe. Jesus’ enemies may also be found among those we would hope to be his staunchest supporters. People’s cultural, national or even religious affiliation does not dictate their opinion of Jesus nor their willingness to come to him, to honor him, and to be transformed by the experience.

Even kings may come and worship the King of kings.

The Gospel According to Mark

Beginning January 13 and Running through Pentecost Sunday, May 19 we will be studying the Gospel of Mark at FGCC and out in the community. Our Bible Study resource will be Mark for Everyone by NT Wright available at Amazon.com by clicking on the link.

Mark for Everyone by NT Wright

The paperback copy is $8 and the kindle edition is $6.72 if you want to have a copy of the study guide, which will be a wonderful resource for those who chose to order it.

We will study a chapter of Mark each week by first hearing a sermon drawn from the chapter, followed by opportunities during the week and on Sunday to study the chapter more in depth. The times and locations of these studies are yet to be determined. If you would like to help lead or host one, please let me know.

May God bless our efforts to grow in faith as we hear the Good News proclaimed and allow it to transform our hearts, minds and lives.

Grace and Peace


Our Mission as Disciples of Christ

Our Mission as Disciples of Christ

To be and to share the Good News of

Jesus Christ, witnessing, loving and serving,

from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth.

 We are Disciples of Christ. A disciple does what her teacher does. When first called, Simon, Andrew, James, and John were told, “Follow me. I will teach you…” The notion of a disciple derives from Greek culture, where philosopher/teachers would gather a group of students who would literally follow them around, watching and listening and learning. Over time, some of these disciples would become serious enough students that they could stand in and represent the teacher. The most famous of these is the disciple Plato, through whom we know about Socrates. What would the history of western thought be without the contributions of Socrates. And without Plato, we would know little of Socrates. The same must be understood about Jesus and his disciples. John makes it explicit in Jesus Last Supper prayer when he says, “I pray not only for these (my disciples) but also for those who will believe through them.” (John 17) (Italics mine)

For the past 2000 years there have emerged succeeding generations of “those who would believe through them” who came to hear and embrace the Good News that God has acted in Jesus of Nazareth for the salvation of the world. Some of these also became disciples, students of the teacher who were serious enough that they sought to not only listen, learn and believe, but to act. Disciples allow their lives to be transformed by the teaching of their master. This transformation does not happen overnight. The conversion to a way of thinking may be sudden epiphany – you wake up one day, or hear something in a new way, and as if out of nowhere you realize this is a truth you must embrace. The larger story is most often that a gradual process of exposure to this “new way” has unfolded over preceding months or years. Consider even the Apostles, most of them were part of one or another renewal movement within Judaism that was looking toward some intervention from God. Some anticipated it to be spiritual as with the followers of John the Baptist including Andrew and Nathaniel (JN 1), while others looked for the political as is the case with Simon the Zealot (Acts 1:13). Among the messages of this narrative may be that the Gospel is both spiritual and political, and that both are valid starting places for the journey toward Jesus, though neither is an ending point.

Disciples lives are transformed by the life and teaching of the master, so that they come to resemble their teacher more and more. The word “Christian” means “little christs” for that is what we become, small copies of the original. It can also be understood as “of the house of Christ” or “belonging to Christ” as would have been used regarding servants. As Paul wrote to the disciples of Jesus who were in and around Ephesus: “come…to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. …we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Eph 4) Growing as a disciple of Jesus means growing to think, speak, look and act more like him every day. We are to think of ourselves as he did – a beloved child of God (MK1:11). We are to think of others as he did –lost and hurting siblings whom God desires to save (Mk 3:31-35). We are to think of God as he did – a loving divine Parent (MT 6) who has made us and is willing and able to set us free from the idolatries that destroy us. In John’s words, we are to “walk as he walked” (1 John 2:6).

The Gospels tell us that Jesus made two declarative statements about why he came:

From Mark1, “Let us go to the surrounding towns and preach the Good News there also, for that is what I came to do.” And his preaching was this, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is here. Repent and believe the Good News.”

From Luke 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind. To let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The Gospel message is that Jesus understood his life as one chosen by God and sent to be and to share Good News, from his doorstep and beyond.

He would SHARE the good news by proclaiming the fulfillment of this promise found in Isaiah 61. He would invite people to receive God’s mercy freely given, to believe that they were already loved, and that a holy life was a response to and living out of that love, not a way to earn or keep it. He would SHARE the good news by allowing the power of love within him to go forth and accomplish healing in the lives of others (LK8). It is likely that this power from the Holy Spirit was made available to him at his baptism (MT3), just as Jesus promised that his disciples would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts1). He would SHARE the good news by telling odd stories about the kingdom and love of God, stories that always seemed to turn back on the hearer any time they got complacent (MT22).

He would BE the good news by accepting and welcoming all into his presence and honoring them by even receiving their hospitality – both Pharisees who were often thought judgmental and self-righteous (LK7) and tax-collectors (LK5) and lepers (MK14), who were the lowest of the 1st century Jewish caste system. He would BE the good news by talking with the Samaritan woman and even allowing her to be the first evangelist (JN4). He would BE the good news by staying with the “woman caught in adultery”, right in the line of fire, so that her punishment would fall on him as well, and then releasing her from condemnation from God, other or self (JN8). He would BE the good news by accepting the consequences of his life – both his being and his sharing. This unavoidable consequence was the cross – unavoidable because systems of power in society (MT14:5) and within ourselves (MT23) are violently resistant to a radical grace that is available to all and doesn’t keep score. We want everything to be fair, and there is nothing fair about the Gospel. He would BE good news when the tomb was found empty (Acts 4:33)and life conquered death (2Cor 5:4). And finally he would SHARE good news when he extended the invitation we find in MT28 and Acts 1 –to go and continue the adventure of making disciples, and to do so in the power of the Holy Spirit that would be given.

Our mission is to be and to share

the Good News of Jesus Christ,

witnessing, loving and serving,

from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth.

Well, that is some of what Jesus did. And if we are like him in what we say and do, then what is ahead for us?

How can we BE good news?

  • We allow ourselves to be transformed inwardly (RM 12:2). The New Testament is clear that inner transformation is most important (MT 23), and that the inner may not always manage to transform the outer (Rm 7), but that does not call our salvation into question. What matters is our hearts, and only God can really assess our hearts (1 Sam 16). How does this inner transformation take place?
  • Acceptance of God’s mercy, grace and love. You are loved. Period. (Rm 5:8-9)
  • Giving increasingly more of yourself to the Divine Lover (Mk 12:30). This happens in various forms of prayer and study and worship. Different modes of communion work for different people. Some pray though music, others through spoken or written words, still others through a pregnant silence where we have nothing to say and are only longing to hear and receive. Jesus seems to have practiced all of these.
  • Giving to God through giving to others. We are transformed by what we do, not only by what we feel, think or believe (James 2). The doing of love makes it real. (1 Jn 3:18) Whether we welcome in gracious hospitality, or serve those in need, or accompany our sisters and brothers on this shared journey, we are transformed in the process. All of these were practiced by Jesus, by his Jewish ancestors, and by his disciples.
  • Allowing the light of God’s Love and God’s Word which comes to us through the scriptures to shine on our lives to bring healing to our brokenness and cleansing from our sin. We are all the same as sinners in need of a savior (Rm 3:23), the sick in need of a healing physician (Mk 2:17). We are all different in the nature and degree that our sins trouble us and cause suffering around us. The fact that we are the same is more important than the ways that we are different.
  • What does a transformed life look like? Well, the short answer is “Like Jesus.” The long answer takes more time than one lifetime holds. In between is the journey of faith we live and the answer as it unfolds within and through us:
  • The sermon on the mount (MT 5-7)
  • ‘The fruit of the spirit’ (Galatians 5:22-23)
  • Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 & Deut 5)
  • Community (Lev 19; Phil 2; Col 3)
  • Joy and Peace (Is 55; Phil 4)

To SHARE the good news flows out of the Being, at least in part. Intentionality is also required, for Jesus said, “GO, and as you go, make…” (Mt 28) Go and do stuff. We want not only for our lives to be transformed, but also to “always be ready to give an explanation for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15) Some audiences are more receptive than others.

Circles of Intimacy: Remember that Jesus’ siblings seemed to think he might be crazy (Mk 3:21), and his hometown-hero parade turned quickly into a lynch mob (Lk4). Those who knew us as children often have trouble accepting who and what we have become as adults if it is anything other than what they would have dictated for us given the chance. Not so easy sharing the good news on your doorsteps sometimes. Paul suggested that even in difficult relationships and situations we can witness by our quiet life, and sometimes that is all we can do, and is enough (1 Cor 7:13-17). In other instances we are called to do more.

Circles of Influence: The next group of people are those with whom we have some shared influence – there is a mutual respect and appreciation, or a strong bond through common history, interest or passion. For Jesus, this group included the disciples of John, who he knew were already anticipating the coming of the Messiah and had a deep hope and interest in what God was about to unfold in their day (JN 1:19-51). You know their dreams.

The next two groups are Circles of Affiliation and Acquaintance: (LK 8-10)

Affiliation: The next group is those who you interact with perhaps on a daily basis. They are folks we know fairly well, but perhaps not who “remember us when”. These people have a familiarity that brings a level of comfort and credibility, making it easier to earn the right to be heard. They are people you know well enough that you would be aware when they were sick or had a family crisis. You know about some of their relatives. You know their hobbies and interests.

Acquaintance: The next area is our community and region, those with whom we cross paths during the month. Consider where you go in your week that you see the same people repeatedly. You know them by face, and they you, but may not know their name or much about them. You’re not exactly strangers. They would not be surprised if you walked up to them and started a conversation. You know something about them.

Fishing Ponds: Jesus came to Simon, Andrew, James and John and said, “I will make you fishers of men.” (Mk 1:17) Sometimes folks will think, “Everyone I know already goes to church, or I’m certain they aren’t interested.” Certainty about such things is questionable – perhaps they just haven’t been given the right kind of opportunity. And besides, we’re not looking to get people to church, we are wanting to join with others as we follow Jesus together. So “fishing ponds” are places we go to turn strangers into acquaintances. We will discover affiliations of common interest or experience, which then will lead to deeper conversations about life and loss, hopes, fears and dreams. This, then, is the place to engage conversations about faith. We can create fishing ponds at the church – Central Christian Church, Dallas has a dog park and FCC Arlington has a community garden. You can also go find a “fishing pond” in your community or beyond. Join a club. Frequent a local watering hole. Our “Invite Events” like the BBQ, Car Show, and Fall Festival are “fishing ponds”. Our mission work can serve the purpose of building relationships in this way. These activities include Family Promise, Allen Seniors Luncheon, Boyd Park, and Mission Trips.

Where will you “GO” to “BE” and “SHARE