Birth Announcement to the World As Roger Paynter points out, the fact there were three gifts may Matthew 2:1-12 prove there were more than three men. Surely somebody showed up Brent Beasley, Senior Pastor and said, I didn’t know we were supposed to bring a present. Second Baptist Church January 4, 2004 We usually call them “wise men.” Matthew calls them “Magi.” Epiphany Sunday They were probably magicians, these Magi, or astrologers. They were experts in astrology and the interpretation of dreams. What do you say when someone shows you a baby’s picture? May- be it’s a proud grandmother. But what do you say? To me, all ba- They were more like astrologers than astronomers. You know the bies look alike. They’re cute when they get a little older, but new- difference. born babies are usually all red-faced and squinty-eyed with a weird Astronomers deal with telescopes. shaped head and a patch of dark hair on top that is about to fall out— Astrologers deal with horoscopes. in other words, they all look kind of like Danny DeVito (Or, for you Scholars say these Magi were probably the kind of people who read Lord of the Rings fans, they all look kind of like Gollum.). horoscopes and tea leaves. But, of course, everyone shows pictures. I never know what to say. If they were alive today, they might have a “900 Psychic Friends Hey, that’s a baby alright. Wow. Isn’t that great. Hotline” number. Some scholars even speculate that the gifts the A baby. Magi brought-- gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh-- may have been tricks of their trade. Stuff they used in their magic potions. The wise men talked about in the gospel of Matthew came all the way from the East just so that they could see the baby. I imagine he We do know for sure they were foreigners. Even more, we know looked like any other newborn baby, but they had to see him. Some- that they were Gentiles and, worst of all, Gentiles who practiced the thing seemed to be drawing them to see this baby. magical arts, which Jewish scripture specifically condemned. Who were these people that came to see Jesus, the ones who brought They weren’t so much wise men as superstitious Gentile stargazers. him these gifts? It’s important that we understand who these guys The other times a magus, or a sorcerer, or magician were in order for us to get the significance of this story. [Thanks to is mentioned in the Bible, it is always in a negative light. They are Roger Paynter, FBC Austin, for many of the following insights on the never highly respected at all elsewhere. identity and significance of the Magi] And yet Matthew has the gall to say that these Magi were the first-- There’s a whole lot of legend about the Magi—the wise men, we call the very first-- to come to Bethlehem and worship Jesus as the Savior them. But the Bible doesn’t support all that legend. The Bible never of the world. These magicians, these stargazers, says there were three of them. It says there were three gifts. So we these Gentiles, were the first to bow down to Jesus. assume there were three men. Do you get the shock-- the outrageousness-- of that statement? Matthew is the most Jewish of all the four gospels. Matthew is al- The one who lies in Bethlehem’s manger is Lord of all. And that is ways quoting the Old Testament to show that Jesus really is why these magi from East came and knelt before him. the long awaited Messiah, the answer to the Jewish hope, our Savior, the one who comes to us, the insiders. And yet the truth Christians across denominations and around the world know this is that there is not a gospel, including Matthew’s, that will provide a Sunday and the season that follows it as Epiphany. The name supporting text for those who want to be exclusive with reference to “Epiphany” comes from a Greek word meaning “manifestation” or race, nationality, or sex. “appearance.” The Epiphany of Christ is a celebration of his revela- tion to the all the peoples of the world. Matthew opens the story of this very Jewish Messiah by saying that these insiders who had the Scriptures, those who were the recipients The Epiphany season follows Christmas and ends on the Tuesday of all the promises of God, missed it. before Ash Wednesday (the day that begins the season of Lent). Epiphany itself occurs on January 6 and is usually celebrated in wor- And these raggedy Gentiles, these outsiders who knew nothing of the ship on the Sunday preceding January 6. Scriptures, these stargazing astrologers who were the wrong race, the wrong religion, if they were any religion at all, The biblical theme stressed during Epiphany is the revelation of Je- they were the very first to come to the manger and kneel down. sus Christ to the Gentiles—in other words the revelation of Jesus Christ to the broader world outside the inner circle of Jesus’ Jewish I think by putting these Magi at the very beginning of the story of the religion. birth of Jesus, Matthew is trying to tell us something. He is telling us something about the nature of Jesus. What Matthew came to un- This revelation to the Gentiles is represented by the magi who make derstand is that this baby, this Messiah sent to save, is not our sole their long journey after Jesus’ birth to see this “King of the Jews.” possession. He is not our people’s property. He doesn’t belong to And so on Epiphany Sunday we read together this story of the magi, any insider group or club of any kind. He is the Lord of all. He is the because this story here at the beginning of the narrative of Matthew’s Savior of the whole world. gospel highlights for us in bold relief the opening of the gospel beyond Jewish boundaries and the reminder of the worldwide mis- These Magi came from a long way off. They didn’t read the Scrip- sion of the church. tures. They probably didn’t know much, if anything, about Jesus. But they did know one thing. And so we learn from scripture, including this passage about the ma- gi, that the gospel is not only for us, not only for the insiders, not When they got there they knew this was their baby too. And so they only for the ones who have grown up in it, not only for the ones who worshiped. know the story, not only for the ones who know how to do church. If we in the church think that Jesus is only for us, only for the insid- The reign of God is for all people, and we realize we’ve got to do a ers, the ones who have grown up in it, the ones who know the story, better job in communicating that to all people in our community. We the ones who know how to do church, then we don’t get it. don’t always do so well with this. Sometimes, you know, churches can be openly hostile to outsiders. one who was not a Baptist, much less a Christian, had never entered his mind. He wasn’t hostile to outsiders, just oblivious to them. James Emery White tells how Kristina and her roommate decided to [White, p. 45] go to church because they had hit on some rough times. Kristina’s roommate had gotten pregnant. She wasn’t married. They decided This story of the magi from the east is a reminder to us that we can- to search a little deeper for purpose and meaning in their lives. High not be hostile or indifferent to outsiders if we are going to be Christ’s on their list for investigation was Christianity. church. This is the beginning of the gospel story of the opening up of the gospel beyond Jewish boundaries and it’s the beginning of the They decided to try a church near their apartment. They went, at- story of the worldwide—to all people—mission of the church. tended regularly, and tried to build some relationships. They both wanted to turn from the lifestyles they had been living and seek God. This account of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem and their worship of Jesus as King is just one episode in the larger story of God’s redemp- After just a few weeks, however, it became known in the church that tive plan for humankind. the baby carried by Kristina’s roommate was conceived out of wed- lock. People stopped sitting by them at church and stopped talking Salvation comes through Jesus the Jew, in fulfillment of Hebrew whenever they approached. No one smiled at them when they en- scriptures, but salvation reaches far beyond to strangers from the tered the church. East, and later on in the story we’ll see it reaches to a Roman centu- rion and to a Canaanite woman and to an Ethiopian eunuch. It wasn’t long before the pastor told them that maybe it would be better for everybody if they didn’t come back for awhile because of And at the end of the story it is no longer a matter of non-Jews com- the nature of their “situation.” As you can imagine, Kristina and her ing to Bethlehem, but of disciples going out to all the nations. This roommate never wanted to darken the doorstep of a church again. is the mission of God in the world. And we are active participants in [James Emery White, Rethinking the Church: Challenge to Creative God’s mission. Redesign in an Age of Transition, p. 44-5] This great story of God’s redemptive plan for humanity involves our Most churches aren’t openly hostile to outsiders like that, though. participation—Second Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee. And I Most churches are just indifferent, oblivious. think we at Second Baptist are in a unique position to be able to reach out to people who are not Baptist, not Christian. We have a One church consultant tells of meeting a pastor of a Baptist church in history of being open to those outside that ever tightening Baptist New England who was sharing his frustrations regarding the growth circle. We have certain history on these things. of his church. The consultant asked him what he thought the prob- lem was, and he responded, Well, there just aren’t any more Baptists In July of 1963 the deacons of this church considered the integration in my area! question. Some were against integration in any form. Some thought any black man or woman who would try to attend this He thought the only people that church could reach were people who church was an agitator and should be stopped at the door. Some were already Baptist. Cultivating an atmosphere attractive to some- thought they should be seated in the basement. Some thought they should be seated in the sanctuary but surrounded by deacons. Some And so in 2004, if the people of Second Baptist Church are not going thought they should be seated in a separate area from the whites. to be open to those outside the circle, who will do it? If we won’t preach and live a gospel that is inclusive of race and na- A committee was appointed to look into the situation. It took a year, tionality and gender, who will? but in July 1964 the committee made its recommendation. It said: “In the event that Negroes come to our church seeking admission We who are here in this church today have a unique opportunity and during our services we seat them with no exhibition of prejudice, responsibility to be about building bridges from the inside out. malice, or hesitancy.” We can get into some discussions about the best methods of reaching Can you find another church—especially Baptist—in Memphis, out, the best methods of evangelism—certainly it is true that some Tennessee with that kind of a policy in 1964? Maybe one other forms of evangelism are so bad that they are harmful. But just be- Baptist church. You could find plenty that had the opposite policy. cause some of the ways evangelism is done we don’t like does not You can find some churches whose reason for being founded in the mean that we can just abdicate our responsibility to somehow build first place was to perpetuate that exclusive policy. bridges to those outside the circle of God’s grace. In 1968 there was the pastor of this church, Brooks Ramsey, plead- I would challenge any of us to start in any one of the four Gospels ing the case for racial reconciliation before the Memphis city council and read through them and see if they don’t have an outward focus. when this city was in the throes of racial conflict, and there was the See if they don’t all have basically the same message: Sunday morning in June of 1968 when the great majority of this church voted to support Brooks Ramsey and his stand for civil rights. That a wonderful gift has come into the world. That God himself has [Thanks to Andrew Smith for providing me with these vignettes from come into the world and that our lives find their deepest meaning and Second’s history] highest purpose by accepting this gift found in Jesus. And that this gift is so powerful, so dynamic, so energizing that we cannot help There are the women, Cindy Morris and Linda Serino, whom this but show it to our friends and neighbors like a proud grandmother church ordained into the Christian ministry. There is Harold And- shows her pictures of her new grandbaby. rew, an Afghan, whom this church ordained into the Christian minis- try and supports financially today. There are the women we have Leonard Sweet is a United Methodist minister and Dean at Drew ordained as deacons in our church. University in New Jersey. He spoke at a conference in Houston a We have a history on these things. We can’t escape it even if wanted few years ago about the new tasks for the church at the end of the to. It is who we are. We have a certain identity as a church on the century. He was in the middle of a sermon when he stopped and side of the inclusive Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have a history to be asked 10 volunteers to come out of the audience and form a circle. proud of welcoming inside the circle of the church and inside the Then he asked 10 more and then 10 more and finally 10 more. circle of ministry those who more often than not were in the past and in many cases still are in the present left standing on the outside He got 40 people out of 500 to come forward and form four circles of the circle. of 10 each. There they stood, facing each other, feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. Then he asked them if there were any other ways to form a circle. Some held hands, some locked arms around their waists. Then he asked, Is there any other way to form a circle? Some of them started to move in a circular pattern, some knelt down, and one circle turned and bowed toward each other. Finally, one group formed the circle, facing outward. This, he said, is the problem of the modern church. The world is in a terrible mess. And even though the gospel tells us otherwise, we form our circles, week in and week out, facing inward. We even get pretty creative about different ways to face inward, but not nearly often enough do we form our circles outward [Dr. Roger Paynter, FBC Austin, Texas] Jesus Christ has been born. The hope of the world. The savior of sinners. The friend of the friendless. Let 2004 be the year we deliver this birth announcement to the whole world. It’s just a shame we don’t have any of Jesus’ baby pictures. But we don’t need pictures. We’ll find a way to do it.
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