Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Unlikeliest Heralds - Advent Meditation

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
-Matthew 2:9-11

We encountered the wise men yesterday, but let us not rush past them. We are so used to them appearing in our nativity sets and children's plays that we fail to realize how bizarre they are. We are told two things about them: they are Magi, and they are from the east. Let's examine those in reverse.

First, they're from the east. Matthew doesn't say from where. commentators assume that they were from Babylon, which is in modern-day Iraq. Which could well be. Or even further east is possible too – there were trade routes in ancient Rome with India and even China. But regardless, that meant two things to those who encountered them.

One is that these guys were foreigners. And we mean foreign - they were from outside the Roman Empire. These were people who were national and cultural outsiders. They would have drawn stares and spoke Greek or Aramaic with a thick accent.

What's more, they were Gentiles. Remember, Jesus is born into a day when God's people are constituted along national and ethnic lines. You could convert to Judaism, yes, but it required a long and involved process. These people were not that – they were gentiles.

So they're from the east, and they're also magi. That's the word we get “magician” from. We often hear them called “wise men,” and that's not wrong, but it doesn't just mean they're smart dudes. They're wise men in the ancient sense, the sense that they have access to hidden wisdom. Mystical wisdom. These men were not producing doves from handkerchiefs; they were instead using those doves' entrails to try to tell the future. Magi were people who practiced divination. In almost every other use we have of this word in Greek, it is used to refer to astrologers. Which makes sense, since as it says in verse 2, it was a special star that they followed to find Jesus.

Astrology might call to mind silly newspaper horoscopes for us, but in Scripture it is a serious sin. The Bible is straight up against divination and astrology. It is forbidden from the very beginning for Israel, like in Deuteronomy 18:10: “There shall not be found among you ... anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer.” (Deuteronomy 18:10) God is not a fan of the wisdom these wise men peddle.

All of which means that these are the unlikeliest people to meet in the advent story. They don't fit. People reading this story would see them as the wrong ethnicity, and the wrong nationality, and the wrong religion, and the wrong profession. Which should make us wonder what it is they're doing here.

The answer, I think, is that the magi stand as a challenge to our pictures of how we think people meeting Jesus should look.

One of the things that breaks my heart is that we live in a world where lots of people feel like Jesus isn't for them. He isn't for them because of their background, because of how they dress, because of their race, because the sins they struggle with aren't as respectable as the sins we struggle with. I have talked to people who feel this way, and I tell them “No! That's not true! The church is for you. Jesus is for you.” And they look me in the eyes and I can tell they don't believe it.

The wise men challenge the things we add to our picture of Jesus. We often make Christianity about all kinds of things that don't involve God's commands. People feel unwelcome in churches because of how they dress, or their tattoos, or their lack of wealth. They are in the wrong cultural group or the wrong political party. They feel like they can't meet Jesus because they drink or have struggles in their marriage, or aren't physically beautiful. That they're the wrong social class or the wrong ethnicity. These pagan foreigners coming to welcome the infant Savior – they turn all of these expectations on their heads.

Even beyond this cultural baggage, the wise men challenge even the place we give to God's commands. Let's say a person is deeply mired in sin. That shouldn't matter either. These Magi were astrologers. Sorcerers. In God's law, they deserved the death sentence. Yet they were the ones God chose to call.

Before you accuse me of encouraging license - yes, becoming a Christian involves acknowledging our sin. No, you can't go on in blatant, unrepentant disobedience and think you and Jesus are best buds. But the model of the bible is not that people fix their sin and then are allowed to encounter Jesus. It is that they encounter Jesus and that is the thing that causes repentance. We love because God first loves us. Not the other way around.

The thing this story ultimately shows us is that it doesn't matter who you are when you encounter Jesus. It doesn't matter how your life looks. What matters is whether you are looking at Him. The difference between the Pharisees and the Magi was that the Pharisees stayed in Jerusalem, looking out for themselves, while the Magi came and looked upon Jesus Christ instead. Looked to Him, and fell on their faces, and worshipped Him, and gave what they had to Him.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
-T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi

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