Rev. Jeff Chapman, Faith Presbyterian Church
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came toJerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and allJerusalemwith him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you,Bethlehem, in thelandofJudah,
are by no means least among the rulers ofJudah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my peopleIsrael.’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them toBethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:1-12, NRSV)
Have you ever wanted to throw a get-together and invite a group of people but you hesitate because the group includes at least one person you really don’t want to come? You’d like to organize a block party in your neighborhood for 4th of July but you hesitate. What if that creepy guy on the corner decides to show up? How can you include the whole neighborhood and leave him out? Or you want to host a family reunion over the holidays but you know that if you do Uncle Joe is certain to come and do you really want to spend another Christmas with Uncle Joe?
I’m not proud of it, but I’m like this sometimes. On my better days I want to include everybody. On other days, however, I find myself wanting to be a bit more selective in the company I keep and the invitations I extend. Honestly, sometimes there are certain people I’d prefer not to include around the table. To be fair, I’m sure that there are times others prefer not to include me around the table.
This is one of those places where the Gospel is really hard on us because God’s not like that. God is continually throwing the doors wide open, mass mailing invitations, making more room at the table to include anybody and everybody who wants to come. The people on God’s guest list are the sorts of people who often get left off our guest lists. The people I sometimes want to exclude are the very people God goes out of his way to include.
The story we just read is a prime example of this. If you and I were 1st century Jews living inPalestineand we were throwing a baby shower for a newborn son in our family there are very specific people we would invite and very specific people we would never even dream of inviting. That second list would most definitely include these star-gazing wise men from theFar East. Even if they brought their fancy gifts to the party, they still wouldn’t be welcome.
Let me tell you a little bit about these men. Although our songs call them kings, these men were not kings. In fact, most biblical scholars agree that they were probably more like fortune tellers than royalty. Likely fromPersiaorBabylonia, they probably belonged to a group of scholars who devoted their lives to studying the stars. They believed, as many ancient cultures believed, that the movements of the heavenly bodies determined the movements of earthly bodies. In their view, a person’s destiny was settled by whatever star under which he or she happened to be born. The movements of the stars determined the fate of history.
Today’s equivalent to these Magi would be people who take seriously the study of astrology. My astrological sign is Leo. Out of curiosity I looked up my horoscope for today, January 6th, 2013. According to some modern day Magi, January 6th is a day that Leos like me should beware of idle flirting. The stars supposedly tell me that my relationship with my wife will be hurt beyond recognition if I flirt too much today. Apparently tomorrow isn’t a problem; I can flirt all I want on Monday. But today, for some reason, I ought to refrain as much as possible.
Of course, most people today find this sort of fortune telling harmless at best and ridiculous at worst. In biblical times, however, this sort of practice was absolutely despised by faithful Jews. In fact, we can be certain that these wise men from the east would have been seen as wicked idolaters because they went around teaching others to look not to the creator, but to the creation, for wisdom and guidance and truth. These men would have been scorned by Jewish society and among the last people they ever would have included on any guest list, right down there next to tax collectors, and lepers, and Romans.
So what does God do? God throws a baby shower for his Son and he puts these Magi at the top of the guest list. And not only that, when God invites them he doesn’t send a prophet, or a burning bush. Instead, God invites them in a way they will understand. God speaks to them from the stars. God himself makes use of a practice his own people would never have considered holy or acceptable. God uses something nobody thought God would use to reach people nobody ever thought God would want to reach. And God does this so early on, while the Messiah is still in diapers, to make certain the world will understand exactly what sort of rescue mission this was going to be.
There’s a beautiful verse taken from the Old Testament prophet Hosea which foretells this radical inclusivity of the Gospel. It’s one of many, many Old Testament passages that does so. In Hosea 2:23 God declares, “I will establish my people in the land and make them prosper. I will show love to those who were called ‘Unloved’, and to those who were called ‘Not-My-People’ I will say, ‘You are my people,’ and they will answer, ‘You are our God.’”
By sending out the first invitations to foreign fortune tellers, God makes clear from the outset that Christ had come into the world to bring salvation to the whole world. Though the Messiah had come through the Jewish people, he was not only for the Jewish people. God loves all people. God came to save all people. The message of the Gospel is meant for all people. That was true then; it’s just as true today. And some of us, myself included, need to be reminded of this from time to time.
I regularly drive my daughter to school in the mornings. She goes to West Campus, which is way out east of 99. On the way we pass the intersection of Fruitridge and Stockton, a stoplight which seems to be red every single morning I show up. On that particular corner there is a little storefront called Psychic World Mystic Shop. I notice it almost every morning as I sit there waiting for the light to turn green. In the window there is a glowing neon moon and star and advertisements for good luck charms and palm readings.
I have never met the owner or any of the customers of Psychic World. I’m not a customer myself and I’ve never even been inside. But that hasn’t kept me from sitting in my car every morning and making judgments these people I have never met. Frankly, it’s been near impossible for me to imagine how the Spirit of God is even present in a place like Psychic World and at work in and through the lives of people who make their living and spend their money at Psychic World.
Now, let me clear about something. I put zero stock in astrology. I wouldn’t give one nickel to have my palms read or my life interpreted by a set of cards. There is so much New Age mysticism around these days, and it’s all full of the sort of superstition, and falsehood, and deception which can do great damage to the truth which sets people free. In my opinion, if you spend your money at Psychic World, you’re wasting your money. Let me clear about that.
At the same time, however, the story of the Magi forces me to acknowledge that we serve a God who not only frequents churches and temples, a God who does not only keep company with priests and prophets. In fact, when the very Messiah was born, God sent an invitation to pagan fortune tellers and did so through astrological means. The story of the Magi forces me to ask myself, who am I to say who God wants to invite and how God wants to invite them?
Orthodox Christian theology reserves an important place for something John Calvin once called “common grace.” Common grace is the idea that God’s presence and activity are not restricted to that which we consider to be sacred. In other words, common grace rejects the idea that life can crudely be separated into the secular and the religious, as if God is present in some places and not others and at work in the lives of some people more than the lives of other people.
John Wesley called this idea “prevenient grace.” Prevenient grace is divine grace that comes to us even before we even know Christ, much less decide to follow Christ. This sort of grace exists prior to, and without reference to, anything humans may have done. Prevenient grace, in other words, is extended as fully to the palm reader in Psychic World as it is to the pastor stopped at the red light just outside, as fully to the Eastern fortune teller from Babylon as to the Jewish Pharisee from Jerusalem. As one writer put it, “the Spirit of God is at work in all human beings, no matter what their religion, no matter what their morality or lack of it, no matter what they have done or haven’t done.” All people are dead in their sin and in desperate need of salvation. All people are loved by God and, from his perspective, worth saving. God invites all people, even the ones we never would consider inviting. God goes into all places, even the places we would never dream of going.
The Apostle Paul spoke of this common grace frequently in his letters. He often applied it to Gentiles who were considered, by the Jews, beyond the scope of God’s concern. In Romans 2, for example, he writes, “When outsiders who have never heard of God’s law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by their obedience. They show that God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven in to the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within [all of us] that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong.”
Let’s be honest. There are people we know who, because of their lifestyle, because of their beliefs, it’s hard to imagine that Christ is actively at work in their lives. But he is. Christ loves those people and is concerned for them as much as anybody. He loves those who do not love him as much as he loves those who do love him, pursuing them constantly, always, to the very end.
Now, some people may never respond to God’s love. That’s true. Some people will forever reject Christ and choose a life of eternity apart from him. Though only God knows who, that will be the destiny of some, maybe many. In the meantime, however, let us be assured that God is at work, inviting, wooing, drawing all people to himself by whatever means possible, even by means we never before thought possible.
No Jew inIsraelin those days would have ever imagined that God would speak to Magi from the East through the stars. But God did. What would have been even more inconceivable was that such men would respond to God. But they did. These men, after all, had been created by God. The very image of God was imprinted indelibly on their souls. So when God spoke to them from a mysterious star one day, they were drawn to follow. They did not know the source of the voice which called, much less the name behind it. They had likely never heard ofBethlehem, the place the star would lead them, or the prophesy which had long been spoken about that city. Still, there was a hunger in their souls, a hunger which exists in every human soul, a hunger which led them on a search they hoped would not disappoint.
If we take the time to pay attention, and if we are willing to expand our spiritual vision wide enough, maybe we will also discover that there are people all around us, people who do not call themselves Christians and do not get up early on Sunday mornings to go to church, but nonetheless are people who are being nudged by God towards faith. Could it be that our job, as people who have already received the gift of faith, is simply to watch for these people and then, when we find them, help them identify the source of the nudging they sense within their souls?
A Christian writer named Leonard Sweet argues that evangelism is less about attracting attention than it is about paying attention. He says the best evangelists are not attention getters, but attention givers, and he suggests that instead of always trying to get people to pay attention to the message we have to share, perhaps we should simply try and help people pay attention to the message God is already sharing with them.
Evangelism is less about trying to manage an outcome as it is sharing events and offering an advent alternative for what everyone clearly sees. Rather than wrestling the sinner’s prayer out of a person who will say anything to get out of the headlock, it is a nudge toward the undeniable truth that is alive in all of us. Such a nudge, [for example], is a shared moment over the crib of the firstborn of a friend counting toes and marveling at the entire miniature beauty, the acknowledgement of a miracle. What parent, in that moment, would contradict? There is little talk of primordial soup or big bangs in the hospital nursery.
Of course, these nudges towards the reality of Christ in our world don’t just happen in hospital nurseries. One day a friend asks a question over a cup of coffee that is a signal to you that she is doing some spiritual searching in her life. At another time you witness an uncanny set of circumstances which other people call a coincidence. But you know better. And suddenly you have an opportunity to point out the divine mover behind the extraordinary events. Other times it’s hardship in life that has a sobering effect on people and leads them to start asking more important questions than they have ever asked before. And while you don’t have all the answers, you do have some answers. Plus, you have a willingness to join them in the journey God is clearly leading them on.
The Magi show up inJerusalemone day with a general sense that God is leading them in their lives. God has come a great distance to meet them, all the way to theFar East, all the way through the stars. But they don’t really know what exactly it is they are looking for, who exactly it is they are looking for. Like so many people even today, they know their souls are hungry but aren’t really sure where to find the spiritual food that will satisfy.
Ironically, it’s King Herod of all people who points them in the right direction. Even though he does so with evil and self-serving motives, Herod does exactly what we are called to do when we come across people who have sensed the movement and leading of God in their lives. Herod searches the scriptures, or at least consults those who know the scriptures, and there he finds direction to give to these magi who have come searching.
Don’t miss the great truth here. The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the means by which God reveals specific truth to those who have responded to him in a general way. In the scriptures we discover the truth about who God is, and who we are, and why we need saving, and how God has come to save us, and what God will do for those who trust him. The Magi came searching for some king they hoped existed. The scriptures confirm the existence of such a king and identify him as a child, a child born in the city ofBethlehem.
If we pay attention, we will come across all sorts of people in life who are searching for Christ without knowing that it is Christ they are searching for. If we are willing, God will use us in the lives of these people to name the object of their search and to point them in the right direction. And scripture, more than anything else, is the compass God has given us to give to them.
You see, though star brought the Magi toJerusalem, only scripture could bring them toBethlehem. God’s movement in the ordinary circumstances of the lives of people we know may set them on the road home, but only scripture, humbly and clearly offered by those of us who understand what it declares, can lead them all the way home. Sometimes, to be honest, the biggest sticking point in this whole thing is that those of us who are already found our way home fail to pay attention to the movement of God in people and in places we have wrongly assumed God would never move.
Nobody comes to faith in Christ apart from the initiative of God in their lives. God always moves first. God always sends a star that begins the search. But there are people in this church who now know the joy and hope of salvation through Christ because some other Christian in their life paid attention to God’s initial movements and helped lead them toBethlehem. Some of you, in fact, can name the person who was sensitive enough to recognize God’s nudging in your life at one point and you are forever grateful to that person for helping to point you the rest of the way home. You are forever grateful to that person for recognizing Christ at work in you.
There’s a famous story about Karl Barth, the world renowned theologian from the last century. One day Barth was riding on a streetcar in his home city ofBasel,Switzerland. He took a seat next to a tourist, and the two men started chatting with one another.
Barth asked the man, “Are you new to the city?”
“Yes,” the man answered. “I’m just here visiting.”
“Well,” Barth asked, “Is there anything in particular you would like to see while you are here?”
“Oh, yes,” said the tourist. “I would very much like to meet the famous Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Do you know him?”
Barth answered, “Why, yes. As a matter of fact I do know him. I give him a shave every morning.”
Delighted with himself, the tourist got off the streetcar at the very next stop. Immediately he rushed back to his hotel room and told everyone, “You’ll never believe it, but I met Karl Barth’s barber today!”
I wonder, how often do I find myself in the very presence of Christ and not even know it because since Christ is in places and in people I don’t expect to find him and so I’m not even looking.
I know Christ is present this morning in this place and among these people. I know because I have met him here many times. I’m coming to believe, however, that Christ is just as present on the streets of my neighborhood, in and among the tables at Starbucks, in the classroom of my kids’ school, in the halls of the Capital building downtown, in the offices where you go to work tomorrow morning, even in the back room at the Psychic World Mystic Shop on the corner of Fruitridge and Stockton. I’m coming to believe that Christ is in all these places and at work in the lives of all the people I find there.
If only I could pay attention.
Lord, help me to pay attention. Lord, help us all to pay attention.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Matthew 2:1-12. What do you notice in this story that you never noticed before?
What was the Magi’s interest in the child? Why do you think they left everything behind to seek after him?
When the Magi finally find the Christ child, they prostrate themselves before him in an act of humble adoration. Why did they do this? What do you think it was that made such an impact on them?
If God once spoke to ancient fortune tellers through astrology, do you think he could do it again? Do you think that God is at work on the corner of Fruitridge and Stockton at the Psychic World Mystic Shop?
Do you ever see God at work in the lives of people who do not have faith in God? If so, do you ever point it out to them? What would happen if you did?
One person defined the church as “the community of competence to recognize Jesus as Risen Lord.” Do you like this definition? Is it our job to help the world around us recognize how Jesus is already at work in their lives?
Though not a Christian himself, Gandhi once said, “If you don’t find God in the very next person you meet it is a waste of time looking for him further.” Do you agree?
Is it possible that Christ is actively at work in more places and in more people than you ever before imagined?
Further ScriptureReadingsfor the Week:
Monday: Psalm 5 ~ Isaiah 60:1-6
Tuesday: Psalm 6 ~ Acts 10:34-40
Wednesday: Psalm 7 ~ Acts 15:5-11
Thursday: Psalm 8 ~ Ephesians 3:1-6
Friday: Psalm 9 ~ Ephesians 3:7-12
Saturday: Psalm 10 ~ Matthew 2:13-18
Sunday: Psalm 11 ~ Matthew 2:19-23