Star-Seeking Joy

An Unlikely Advent  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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Seeing Up-Close

I still remember it like it was yesterday, the first time I saw a planet in a really good telescope. I was very briefly a Boy Scout when I was younger and one of our field trips was to Nixon Park in York County. At the park they have an observatory, a large building custom-built to house a really large telescope. And on the evening we happened to be there it was prime viewing conditions for viewing not only the moon, which is very cool in its own right, but the planet Jupiter.
Now, at the time, I was around twelve or thirteen years old, and I was always fascinated by science, so I had done my research on the planets. I had read books about them and I knew lots of facts. I knew Jupiter had a big red spot which in actuality was a giant storm that rages across its surface much like a hurricane rolls across the Gulf of Mexico.
But it wasn’t until the excited guide at the park told us that we could actually see all of that stuff through the lens of the telescope that things began to become magical. You see, it is one thing to see things in textbooks, to know lots of facts about something, but it is quite another thing all together to experience it for yourself first-hand.
And I have to admit for someone like me it nearly brought tears to my eyes that evening as I approached the telescope and saw this massive gas giant in my field of view. Now this was many years ago too so I didn’t wear glasses then so there was nothing between me and the giant planet but the vast distance of space. I wasn’t really a super-committed Christian at the time either, but there was just something so awe-inspiring and wonderful about this that it led to something like worship in me.
Perhaps you have experienced something like this when you encountered the vast wonders of creation. Perhaps you had heard stories of what it might be like at the beach, or what California or Hawaii is like. You had a good idea maybe of what you would find when you got there. But it was taken to a whole other level when you actually got to experience it for yourself. The sand between your toes, the sea breeze brushing gently against your hair. The smell of the salt air and the boardwalk fries. All of those things make it somehow more real than mere pictures. In short, there is no substitute for actually being there yourself.

The Journey of the Magi

And that reminds me of what the central characters of today’s message might have thought as they prepared for their trip to the land of Israel. Today, folks, we’re going to talk about the Magi, sometimes called the Wise Men, sometimes even called kings. We’re going to figure out who they were, then we’re going to figure out why they’re headed for the Holy Land, and how they knew what they knew. And then we’re going to discuss why it is that people who are supposedly “outside” of God’s people are called to such an extraordinary ministry in the life of Jesus, presenting him precious gifts and giving him worship.
Who were these Kings of Orient Are? Well, I think the first myth we need to bust is that they were in fact not kings at all, per se. Where does that come from then? Well, it comes from our passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah that we heard a little bit ago. In this passage, Isaiah describes that in the latter days kings would come and do honor to a special individual and to the city of Jerusalem. Kings from foreign nations would come and honor Jesus and Lord and Savior and they would march in festal procession into the end-times banquet of the Lamb.
That sounds like a very beautiful description of an event in the life of the Messiah. But the first thing we should note about this is that prophecy doesn’t always quite line up in just the way we think it should. And this applies especially so to prophecies that have to do with the time of the end. It’s very easy to look around at the prophecies in books like Daniel, Revelation, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel and try to make a one-to-one correlation to contemporary events.
But try as we might it is difficult to shoehorn world events into the type of predictive prophecy we often see advertised on Christian television. Now that’s not to say that the prophecies of the Bible don’t have a future fulfillment, not at all. But what I want to carefully suggest is that the fulfillment of prophecy in the Bible is much more complicated that pointing to one event and then showing how this event fulfills that particular prophecy.
So, in Isaiah 60 for instance, we see prophecy of kings bearing gifts to Zion, the city of Jerusalem. And then in verse 6 we see that these kings will bring gold and incense, right? Well, golly gee, two plus two equals four! The wise men bring gold, incense, and myrrh, which is a type of incense as well. And we think, well, that’s got to be it. The magi bringing gifts to baby Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy.
But its actually not quite that simple. Because we know for a fact that the magi were NOT kings. Well, if they weren’t kings then what were they? Well, the term used to describe them in Greek brings to mind something of a learned scholar and a statesmen combined. And educated person skilled in things like the movement of the stars, the functioning of the calendar and also religious prophecy.
In fact, it would be more likely to assume that the magi were religious figures more so than governmental figures, though it is quite possible that they were sent with the seal of approval of a king or governor of some type. In fact, some scholars think that the magi were a kind of priest of an obscure religion called Zoroastrianism which worships fire, a religion that still has followers today in the country of Iran.
So, these magi were religious figures who were schooled in the knowledge of what today we might call a blend of astrology and astronomy. Astronomy in that they studied the movement of the stars and planets, astrology in that they believed that these movements were connected to human destiny much like those who follow horoscopes today.
And then there is the question of how they came to know anything at all about the birth of baby Jesus. How in the world did they get their knowledge of what was going to happen in an obscure town in Judea when they lived over a thousand miles away?
The answer to that question is found in one word: Exile. Remember that first the Northern Kingdom of Israel, then the Southern Kingdom of Judah were taken captive and forcibly removed from their land. Those in the North became the ten lost tribes of Israel while those in the South became the exiled peoples who were scattered across the Babylonian and later the Persian Empire. If you want to learn more about these times you can read the books of Kings and Chronicles for the sad story of captivity and forced march. But there are two tales in the Bible of particular note that can help us.
The first is the Book of Daniel. Now this book tells of us of Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were taken from Jerusalem and placed to serve in the court of Nebuchadnezzar the Great of Babylon. They were trained to serve in high office because they were intelligent and literate. And we know that Daniel was raised to a very high position in the government of the Babylonians. And it is more than likely that through people like Daniel, the knowledge of the Jewish God spread throughout the East and people began to learn about the Hebrew people and their prophecies.
And then there is the book of Esther. Esther chronicles a later period when the Babylonian Empire had fallen to the Persians. And the Jewish people were miraculously saved on Purim by the strength of God and the cunning of Mordechai and the courageous strength of Queen Esther, a Jew by birth and one who also told of the mighty acts of Salvation of Israel’s God.
So, fast-forward a few hundred years or so and it stands to reason that our wise men or Magi who came from the East were familiar with the tales of Israel’s God and the many prophecies spoken about her future through those that were exiled in the land. While some Jews had returned to the land, others remained in Babylon and Susa, capitals of these great empires to share their faith and their knowledge of Scripture with other wise and learned people.
But were there just three of them? History has given us three traditional names of the wise men. According to tradition they were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. And while that makes a great story, there is just no evidence to back it up. It actually stands to reason that there would be more than three of them travelling together. It could have been even a delegation of over twelve or more men travelling. Travelling that far was something likely done in a larger group than just three. So, where does three come from? Well, the three gifts of course! Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But it doesn’t follow logically that because there were three gifts that there were three wise men. When Angela and I give gifts to family, we give together. My niece and nephews get one gift each from Aunt Angela and Uncle Jason TOGETHER, not one from each of us!

People from the Outside In

The stunning thing about these wise men is not their intellect—they were quite smart and wise as their name suggests, it’s true, but then again so was Herod as well but he doesn’t come out of this story looking too good, does he? And it’s also not their status. While not kings, they weren’t poor beggars either. They were something like Ambassadors sent on a mission from an official. They were on a diplomatic mission to pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews. Their mission, in part was political.
No, what is astonishing is that these people simply were not Jewish. Think about the rest of the Christmas Story. We have angels, they come from God. Then we have Joseph and Mary. They are both good practicing Jews. Same goes for Zechariah and Elizabeth, he is a priest and she’s a good observant Jew as well. Then there are the shepherds. Maybe a little less polished but still Jewish by birth if not looked at highly. But right in our nativity sets we have something of an anomaly with the wise men, don’t we. Everything else in the manger including baby Jesus is somehow tied to the God of Israel—but not the wise men.
In fact, these wise men were more than likely pagans. They more than likely came from a culture in which many gods were worshipped and at the time it is fair to conclude that they thought the God of Israel just one more deity in a crowded pantheon of many gods and many lords. There was a temple on every street corner in those days and the number of gods worshipped in the Roman Empire were myriad.
So, why does God choose these wise guys to be the heralds of the Messiah? Why not some pious Jew like Anna and Simeon? Well, I think that God is up to something. You see, many people in Israel had started to develop something of a complex. This complex we will label the “Us versus Them Complex.” In this way of thinking you were either a Jew or you were a Gentile sinner.
If you were a good observant Jew, you were there in the In-Crowd. But if you were anything else than an observant Jew you were something less, something to be suspicious of, to keep your eye on. Jews kept a great deal of distance from Gentiles in those days. And maybe they hadn’t read their prophecy closely, because almost all of the great prophets insist that a day is coming when those same Gentiles will flock to Israel en masse and join in worship of the one true God.
And I think the story of the wise men is Matthew’s way of telling us that that future day is now upon us. The old way of thinking in which a wall of separation between holy people and unholy Gentiles is now done. With the rending of the Temple Veil, the way is now open for ALL PEOPLE to join in God’s one family. Neither Gentile nor Jewish titles matter anymore, Neither slave or free status, neither our identity as male or female. For we have all found ourselves in the one family of God that was always intended from the beginning.

The Eunuch

And that brings me to our unlikely reading from Acts this morning. The story of the Ethiopian Eunuch isn’t a traditional Advent Reading, but it is a story of God’s expanding Kingdom. One thing to know about Eunuchs at the time of Jesus is that according to Scripture, they were not allowed to enter into the Temple to worship. They were considered defective because their anatomy had been altered.
But through this story, the conversion, the baptism, the filling with the Spirit of this unique individual, God is showing again and again that the old boundaries of who is in and who is out in the Kingdom of God have been destroyed in the saving acts of Jesus Christ.
There is no more exclusion in God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is open to all who would come, regardless of any particular category or distinction we might use to exclude, God has an answer. God’s answer is this: To the thirsty I will give water and to the hungry I will give bread without price. Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, and knock and the door will open.
This doesn’t mean that we’re all just going to go to heaven some day and it also doesn’t mean that when we become Christians we somehow cease to be what we were before. Our physical makeup still is unique to each of us. But what this does mean is that there is NO ONE who can be excluded from God’s people. As John Wesley famously said the only requirement to become a Methodist was a desire to flee God’s wrath and live a holy life.
That’s what is behind the United Methodist slogan of Open hearts, Open minds, Open doors. Our hearts are open to God. Our minds are open to the wisdom we find in Scripture as we study it together. And our doors are open to whosoever may come. As a pastor I will never say no to someone who asks me if it is OK to come to my church. We don’t get to make the guest list, it is for us to entertain the guests and introduce them to the Host. That’s also the reason we do not exclude any who would seek to take communion. The table is not mine to host—it is Jesus the host and only he can turn away and yet he bids all to come.
This Advent season, as we prepare for another turn of the clock and calendar to a new year, let us renew our conviction to the All of Scripture. God desires ALL people to repent, to turn their lives toward God and God’s will and to come to a knowledge of Salvation in Jesus Christ.
My question is are we prepared for that ALL? Are we prepared to welcome those who have been hurt? Those that look different, think different, act different than us? If not, we might need to rethink what it means to be the church. We are an outpost of God’s multiethnic, multiracial, and multicultural kingdom. God’s Kingdom welcomes all, and so must we. Amen.
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