The Gift of the Magi by Rev Richard Hasselbach
What happens when someone completely unwanted saunters into your life?
Recently an extraordinary visitor came to our church: a young man, perhaps in his mid-thirties. If he were cleaned up you might have described him as handsome with his dark wavy hair and beard and bright blue eyes. He was shabbily dressed, though, and if he had taken a bath in the recent past, the effects had long since worn off. The closer I got to him, the more pungent the smell of his body odor: this was not someone I’d want to be standing downwind of.
He politely asked me about our service: when was it; where should he go to attend … And I thought to myself that he would go over with our congregation like a BLT at a bar mitzvah. Still, God works in strange ways and through unusual people.
That is undoubtedly what Matthew believed as he wrote his Gospel.
Matthew opens his story with the genealogy of “Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham;” a long list of Jesus’ ancestors, starting with “Abraham, who was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, …” and so on. While many readers skim over this dull recitation of Jesus’ ancestry, there is something beautiful embedded in it if you look carefully.
Matthew’s world is patriarchal. Most women of the time spent their lives either as the property of their fathers or of their husbands. Except for the wealthy or privileged, without a man to support and care for them, women were often reduced to poverty and desperation. Nor could a woman own property or inherit it. No rabbi would teach them Torah; in fact, the rabbis of Jesus’ time taught that a man should not address a woman in public, even if that woman were his wife.
Considering the low status of women, it is amazing that Matthew mentions four of themin Jesus’ lineage. Two, Rahab and Ruth, were gentiles: outsiders to the Jewish community. The other two on the list are Tamir and Bathsheba. All four might be considered women of “easy virtue” if we read their stories. Yet God gave them important roles in his plan of salvation. “How odd of God …”
Why does Matthew include these women? Could he have wanted to show us that God achieves his purposes through outcasts and marginalized people of no or low status? That, as Paul put it, God “chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak to shame the strong (I Cor.. 1:27).
God is full of surprises - and we, his people, should prepare to be surprised.
Matthew then tells the story of a young unwed mother who suddenly finds herself pregnant because the “holy spirit overshadowed her.” How do you think that story would have worked with your parents? Joseph her fiancé, was understandably confused and hurt when he discovered the pregnancy: he concluded what any of us would have surmised. Then the angel spoke to him: “Joseph, do not be afraid, …” The child IS from the holy spirit, and he will be the savior of his people. All this fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14): “the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (which means God with us).”
God’s name, Moses learned at the burning bush, is YHWH. This name so sacred that the Jews do not speak it. YHWH is most often translated: “I am who I am,” but it is best translated “I will be who, what and where I will be.” God is not the blind watchmaker of Leibniz who winds creation up and walks away. Nor is He the unchanging, unfeeling deity of the metaphysicians. God is the Lord of time and history. He promises to be with us and in the birth of Jesus that promise is kept in a more beautiful way than any human could imagine.
My friend Ed Kelly is a very down to earth and practical guy. He’s attorney and college administrator. Some years ago Ed collapsed at work. The college president, a medical doctor, sent Ed right to the university hospital where they scheduled emergency surgery for later that day. Ed had a brain tumor.
Alone in his hospital room, Ed was frightened and confused. Then, as he tells the story, he “heard a voice as clearly as if someone was speaking right next to me, except no one was there. The voice said: “Ed, I am with you, I have always been with you, and I will never leave you.”
God IS with us. All of us, all the time. Immanuel.
The word epiphany means “manifestation” or “showing.” The story of the Magi's visit to Jesus in Bethlehem is, at its root, the story about the God of Israel, YHWH, revealing Himself as the God of ALL peoples and fulfilling the promise made to Abraham that, through him, all nations on earth would be blessed.
Who are the Magi?
We know little about them, but we can surmise some things:
They were foreigners, and so “gentiles.”Jews at the time of Jesus considered gentiles “unclean” and were not permitted to have them as guests in their homes or even as friends. Simply put, the Jews thought of Gentiles as enemies of God and His people. On that account alone, the Magi were unwelcome visitors to Jerusalem. Strike one.
Most likely the magi were Persians and followers of Zoroaster. Matthew calls them Magoi (in Greek), a word that means “magician” or “sorcerer.” As such they would be considered “detestable to the Lord” (Deuteronomy 18). Strike two.
And they brought news to Jerusalem and King Herod of the birth of a New King. This news, which should have delighted Herod and the chief priests and scribes, instead “troubled them, and all of Jerusalem with them.” Strike three
For all these reasons, when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem looking for directions, the locals hardly rolled out the red carpet. As wealthy and regal as we have come to think of them, Herod and his court, the High Priests and scribes, all found the Magi despicable.
Yet these despicable ones discerned God’s immanent saving action in the world. Not content with simply knowing they took action: they followed the star not knowing exactly where it would lead them. Once in Jerusalem, they stopped for directions, (evidence that they were traveling with their wives). Nature can take you just so far: to find God you need His revelation, and that comes from the Jews: from Torah the wisdom literature, and the prophets.
With the guidance of the prophets as well as the star the Magi continued to Bethlehem. There they found the king that they sought, worshiped and gave Him their gifts. The chief priests, the scribes, the learned Jews, and their king, all of whom should have come to adore failed to do so: their vision dimmed, and their faith had become so calcified and ridged that they could not see the signs of his coming. Outsiders, though, sought him diligently and adored him, once they found him, with joy.
The good news in this story is that, now, the outsiders are now insiders. Gentiles are also invited to come to Christ and to adore him. The child born in Bethlehem brings joy to the world - all of it.
The Lord has, in Paul’s words to the Ephesians, “torn down the dividing wall: there are no longer strangers and aliens, in Christ, we are all fellow citizens with God’s people” (2:14). Our challenge is to accept that we are called to be a FAMILY of faith. We are called to accept Gods reckless love and, in turn, love each other recklessly. This is harder than it sounds: God expects us to love and accept even, and perhaps especially, people we don’t particularly like or want to love.
Asked recently what he thought the greatest sin in the Church might be, Jim Cymbala, the pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle, replied it is that: ‘we are not on our knees crying out to God ‘bring us the drug addicted, bring us the prostitutes, bring us the destitute, bring us the gang leaders, bring us those with AIDS, bring us the people no one else wants, who only you can heal, and let us love them in your name until they are whole.’”
Robert Frost says that “home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Isn’t that what we are called to be for each other, home? Doesn’t being a Christian Community (aka church) require us to create a safe and loving place for each other to find God? No matter who comes to us, the Lord asks us to put aside our judgments and preconceptions and simply accept folks as they are.
Whatever our differences; whatever we may think of another, the epiphany asks us to welcome whoever God sends us, whether they’ ride on a camel or smell like one.
Which brings me back to my visitor. The young man entered the church and sat in the middle of the sanctuary. I noticed him as I started the service, but when I looked for him again he wasn’t there. I never saw him leave, it was as if he just disappeared.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” the author of Hebrews tells us, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (13:2)