Monday, January 4, 2010

Gifts of the Magi (Matthew 2.1-12)

January 3, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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It’s 2010 and we have a new year ahead of us. Interestingly enough, the church calendar celebrates Epiphany in the first week of January, so we aren’t quite done with the Christmas story yet. Last week, Dan Isadore preached and asked “What now?” as Mary, Joseph, and we look to the time after the birth of baby Jesus. Today we look at the visit of the wise men.

While I didn’t go into this passage looking for a connection with previous sermons, I saw a number of connections with what we talked about during December. Then we were looking at the story of Mary and asked these questions:
  • Is God trying to get your attention and what is God trying to say to you?
  • What does God desire to do in your life for His glory?
  • What is God doing in the world in and around you and how can you participate in that?
What we see in these magi are people who diligently asked those kinds of questions. We see what happens when we listen carefully for God’s voice and look for what God is doing in and around us. The magi provide for us a wonderful example of what it looks like to listen and attend to God. While there are many New Year’s resolutions we might make, I can think of no better commitment to renew and revisit than our commitment to make God a priority – THE priority – in our lives.

So as we look at this passage, note the connection to Mary’s story and those previous questions; but also consider the place of God in your life as we look ahead to a new week and year.

Paying Attention

When we talked in previous weeks about God trying to get our attention and having something to say to us, I said that I believe God is ALWAYS trying to get our attention and ALWAYS having something to say to us. The underlying question or issue is really whether we are willing to pay attention to God – to hear what He has to say.

Now the interesting thing about the magi – one interesting thing – is that as far as I can tell they were not particularly people of faith in the one God. They were likely court advisors to Mesopotamian kings, certainly wise and educated men who advised their ruler in all kinds of matters. So they were also foreign; meaning, they weren’t Jewish. They did take note of the world around them and particularly the sky above them, and they attributed meaning to things like the appearance and location of stars and constellations. To call them astrologers would be a little misleading because today’s horoscopes are a far cry from their studies. Nonetheless, they attributed meaning to what they saw and studied, and were particularly interested, as court advisors, to what they took to be the sign of a new king’s birth. So they set off, bearing gifts, to greet the new king.

The magi set an inspiring example of people who were interested in the world they lived in and even in what God might be doing around them. Even without the explicit truth of Scripture they were inquisitive and observant enough that that they found answers to those same three questions: What is God saying? What is God doing? And how can I participate in what God is doing?

Ironically enough, the fact that they were looking for a “King of the Jews” led to both trouble and help. They raised the dangerous interest of King Herod, who didn’t want any competition to the throne. But they also encountered the Scriptures and the promise of a Messiah to the Jewish people. There is no better combination to find God than one who seeks Him who encounters the Scriptures which speak so explicitly of who God is and what God is doing in the world. Unfortunately the world is full of seekers who do not turn to the Scripture and the church is full of the Scripture and those who no longer seek God or pay attention to this treasure they have!

Worshiping God

The middle verses are taken up with Herod’s plot to use the magi to find the child. We will not focus there today, but move on to the final few verses to look further at the magi and their seeking out the Child who would be king.

The text says (several times) that the magi came, seeking the newborn king, in order to worship him. Now you may remember that one of the main worship concepts in the Bible is literally “bowing down” or more figuratively “yielding” to God. That vocabulary is used several times in this passage, in verses 2, 8, and 11. I believe there is a progression of worship in this passage.

In verse two, the magi were likely seeking a newborn king, with presents to bring, to literally bow down and recognize earthly kingliness as envoys from another earthly ruler (or rulers). In other words, as representatives of their own king(s), they came to welcome a new king into the world. To do so was good politics and perhaps also seen as good luck. Their original intent was not what we think of as ‘worship’ so much as literally bowing down to acknowledge a new king.

In verse eight, Herod asks them to report the location back to him so that he, too, may go and “worship” the Child. It is likely that Herod, knowledgeable of the Jewish scriptures and the prophecies his own advisors have just quoted to him, is using the word in both the literal “bowing down” and the more spiritual sense… except he is trying to deceive the Magi. He actually is an enemy of God and desires to locate and kill the Messiah, who would pose a threat to his own rule. It is that fear and evil that leads him to kill all the male children in Bethlehem.

In verse eleven, the magi find the child with Mary. It is at this point that they planned to bow down and offer presents to a new king. But it is at this point that the use of the word “worship” seems to match what we would think of as worship. While Mary and the baby were no longer in a stable, the magi surely recognize that this is no king’s palace. And they have heard some of the prophecies and Scripture about the Jewish Messiah at this point. And there are some extra words in verse eleven which describe their worship. They didn’t simply “bow down” as had been planned; rather, they “fell to the ground (i.e. face down) and worshiped (bowed down).” While it is not clear how much they understood prior to this point, it is clear that they realize they are in the presence of God and they offer true and humble spiritual worship.

Beyond this, they no longer are offering good will offerings between earthly rulers, but present their gifts as part of their worship. Sharp students of scripture will make a connection between these gifts and prophecies like Isaiah 60, which opens with “Arise, shine; for your light has come...” and verse six of that chapter, which says, “…they will bring gold and frankincense, and will bear good news of the praises of the Lord.”

Again these magi serve as a convicting and inspiring example for us. Their worship is neither casual nor ritual. It is face-down, all-out, humility and awe at being in the presence of God. And their offerings, originally planned as “what you do for a new king” are now offered as part of that worship response to God, precious treasures in honor of the one they worship.

I wonder if we take such an understanding of God away from the Christmas birth story. Certainly we get sweet little baby Jesus in a manger. We can be inspired by angel choirs singing praises to God. But do we have any inkling of the kind of power and presence that would drive the chief advisors of foreign kings to their faces in the dirt? Do we tremble in awe? Do we offer God our very best in terms of treasure and time and abilities?

Paying Attention to God: Next Steps

I want to mention one last part to this story, tucked into verse twelve. The magi were confronted with deception and lies, described in verses 7-8. It is not clear until verse 12 that they were not deceived. There we read that they were “warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod.” What jumps out to me is that these men, who began this story as those tuned in to the world around them, but not necessarily to the God of Scripture, now are tuned in to God. And in being so tuned they are discerning what God wants them to do and they are discerning between truth and deception.

They began the story as seekers, perhaps not realizing in full who or what they would find. Encountering the Scriptures and the Christ child, they began to worship God and tune in to what He was doing in and around them.

This is what I desire for each of you; this is what God desires for each of you. This is what ties back in to those questions from December. God IS trying to get your attention; God IS speaking to you. God DOES desire to do something in your life and IS doing something in the world around you.

How do you tune in to that?

You look – you listen – you pay attention to God. You study the Scripture and respond to it, engaging in worship from the heart, not just going through the motions. You offer yourself to God – heart, soul, mind, and strength. You tune in, not just at Christmastime, not just as a New Year’s resolution, but day after day and week after week. Astronomers don’t just look up at the stars once every so often; they track movement and position and changes night after night, moment by moment. So it is with paying attention to God. God’s not going to disappear if you look away, but you will miss out on what God is doing around you and what God desires to do in your life, and may be deceived by evil and lies.

Pay attention; offer God that at least. Offer God what you treasure and yield yourself to him in worship. The magi were also called wise. For those with ears to hear… Amen.

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