Missio Advent: The True Gift of the Magi

During Advent, Missio is concurrently running two series.  On Mondays and Wednesdays Cameron Barham, lead pastor of Christ Community Church in Kennesaw, GA provides Advent devotions from the Gospel of Matthew.  On Fridays, Drew Masterson of The Washington Institute provides a series of reflections on four films for Advent.

1193px-Magi_(1)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Matthew 2:1-12

Who is it that you think is the most lost and farthest from being found? Who do you think has their theology and worldview so distorted that the chances of them stumbling across the truth of Christ would be comparable to being struck by lightning four times in the same week? Whoever you come up with in answer to either or both of these questions would have quite a bit in common with the wise men (or magi) who came from the east in search of the infant king of the Jews. These men were seers and soothsayers who studied the stars and dreams in a blend of astronomy and astrology for the purpose of advising their native king on matters of wisdom and prophecy.[1] While Matthew writes nothing to indicate any particular disdain for these men, they are pagan Gentile magi from Babylon (or modern day Iraq) whom the Old Testament commands the people of God to stay away from lest they be cut off from Him in judgment.[2] The magi would, in essence, be one of the last groups of people that the Jews in the first century would have thought God would draw to Himself for the purpose of redemption.

But God, being rich in mercy, used something that would grab their particular attention (a star risen in honor of the Christ[3]) to bring them to His Word which would lead them to Jesus. In fact, they express greater faith in God’s Word than do those to whom it was first given. Frederick Dale Bruner describes this paradox in this way: “The despised astrologers who have nothing but their natural idols are led to Israel, who has the written Word of God, and when this Word is heard (by both groups!), it is the pagans who follow it, while the leadership of the people of God (not the people of God itself, note well!) sit complacently or conspiratorially at home. Outsiders believe the Word; insiders ignore it.”[4] These pagan Gentile magi receive a grand reward for their faith and obedience: they get to worship and bless the Christ babe, the incarnate King of the Jews in person! What a unique gift to the least in the eyes of the religious establishment who would have never allowed those who get so much so wrong to come so close to incarnate redemption! As Craig S. Keener writes, “Without condoning astrology, Matthew’s narrative challenges his audience’s prejudice against outsiders to their faith…: even the most pagan of pagans may respond to Jesus if given the opportunity….”[5]

Though the magi gave Christ gifts worthy of a king, they have given us an even greater gift: hope. Hope for the least and the most lost to be found, and hope that comes from participating with God as ambassadors of reconciliation. Paul in Romans 15:1-3 makes it clear that a major aspect of our vocation as Christians is to “bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” He goes on to say, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” We should desire and pursue opportunities that grant us engagement and relationship with those who are lost and entangled in a host of blinding beliefs. Yes, it will be messy and challenging; however, will there be a greater party thrown in heaven than that which is thrown for those who were once lost who have now been found?

Just as God used something within the magi’s frame of reference to connect them to His Word which would lead them to Christ, we too are called to do the same in the power of the Spirit. This means that we have as part of our calling the need to engage culture as balanced opportunists looking for points of connection to the redemption story. This also means that we have as part of our calling the need to know the Word of God well enough to be able to facilitate these connections that will lead to Christ. Consider how this flings wide the creative gates to serve this world through a wide variety of vocations at every level. This allows us to participate in the variety of opportunities for those who are the farthest off to come and adore Christ the Lord. What a great gift of hope indeed that we receive from the example of the magi in Matthew 2!

 

Cameron Barham is the Lead Pastor of Christ Community Church in Kennesaw, GA.

Images: “Magi (1)” by Nina-no – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
“Star of Bethlehem” by Wonderlane

[1] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 108. Balaam in Numbers and Nebuchadnezzar’s dream interpreters in Daniel serve as biblical examples.

[2] See Leviticus 19:31 and 20:6.

[3] This fulfilled the Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17; however, it is not clear if it was this text was known to the magi.

[4] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary: Volume 1: The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 61.

[5] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 100.

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