by Matthew Morgan
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. — John 1:9-12
The world did not recognize him – Because he turned all our expectations upside down. This week, we are looking closely at the characters involved in Jesus’ birth in order to further understand that “the world did not recognize” Christ: in the Nativity Story, God turns every expectation upside down.
Read Matthew 2:1-12
Whenever I think there’s a perfect pattern, further reading and study reveal an exception. Whenever I want to say “only” or “always,” someone or something proves me wrong. My scientist friends have come up with things like “principles of uncertainty” and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution and clarity, while thinking that we are people of “faith”! How strange that the very word “faith” has come to mean its exact opposite. (Richard Rohr)
It’s simple. This is the way faith works. One hears about God, ideally from a preacher or the Bible. They believe what they hear and then they give their life to Jesus in baptism, by which we are forgiven and we receive the Holy Spirit. It’s a formula as reliable as the quadratic equation. The specifics change – who is doing the teaching, who is being converted – but the formula is always the same…until you actually get into the Bible. When we read Scripture, we realize that people come to faith in all sorts of ways. In fact, the main method Jesus used in bringing others to faith centered on an invitation to share life with Him – Come, follow me. Cornelius received the Holy Spirit before he was baptized. Paul was blinded by an encounter with Christ. But maybe the most unexpected route to Jesus was that of the Magi in the second chapter of Matthew.
It’s important to know who the magi are. Popular tradition has labeled them “wise men” or “kings,” but neither say enough about who they are or how seemingly out of place they are in the birth story of the Jewish Messiah. All that Matthew says about them is they are Magi (magos in Greek) and they are “from the east” or more literally, “from the rising of the sun,” but there is actually a lot to be learned from this description. First, the Parthian Empire occupied almost all of the land east of Syria and Judea. The center of the empire was Persia and its dominant religion was Zoroastrianism. And simply put, the magos, were the Zoroastrian priests. As a part of their function, they studied and interpreted the movement of stars. It’s important to know that these were not people that gave any authority or attention to the Jewish Old Testament. Why would they? Matthew gives no indication at all that they knew of the Messianic prophecies. Matthew simply says that they “saw his star in the east.”
What does it mean that foreign, pagan priests show up in the birth narrative of Jesus? What does it say to religious people, of which I am one, who assume to have figured out how God reaches people? It’s through the word of God, right? I want to affirm that the Bible is important, that it is alive and is useful in forming us and convicting us. I believe that engaging the Bible is critical for faith development. I also want to affirm the Christian religion. I believe church and rituals are important. But in the birth story of Jesus, the Jewish faithful stay home. The people of the book, the scribes and the priests, they stay in Jerusalem. Instead, it’s the pagan stargazers that welcome Christ with gifts.
Growing up in the church, knowing our Bible well, and being familiar with the ins and outs of our religion can lead to a sense of entitlement and a false sense of security and may, in some circumstances, be the very thing that stops us from a reckless pursuit of Jesus. We can become so comfortable in our knowledge and religious pedigree that we forget that God is alive in the world, not just in the pages of a book, but in the stars, in His creation. He’s alive and present to people, not just in our churches but in places we would never expect to find Him. And the message of the Magi is that if we grow too comfortable, if we think we have figured out how God is going to work in the world, well then we are in danger of missing Him. We are in danger of being one of those to whom Jesus warns, “you search for me in the Scriptures…but you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). Erwin McManus, in a sermon on Matthew 2, says that we might think that being of another religion is a big obstacle or that not having or reading the Bible is an overwhelming hurdle, but in reality, all that matters is, do we really want to see Jesus? “There is no distance too far from God. He is so near to you that the only distance that matters is the distance we create in our heart.” (Erwin McManus)
What barriers have you put up in your heart that put distance between you and God? What can you do to make yourself more open to God?