Staunton Mennonite Church
60Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 5Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “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.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, 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.”
9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
**Pseudonyms are used for “Brian”**
I was able to spend a couple of days last week with my family in Ohio, which is something that is getting harder and harder to do. One night my wife and I went out to eat with my older brother and his wife and we ran into some other friends at the restaurant. Sitting at adjacent tables, back to back, were Norma and Brian.
Now Norma and Brian were not there together, they didn’t even know that the other person was at the next table. To tell you the truth, it would really surprise me if these two were to do anything together. Norma is a clean cut, well educated, pious woman. Brian is a rough looking guy, tattooed from head to toe. He has piercings in his ears, lips, tongue, and, we’ll just say other places as well. Brian is probably not the kind of guy most of us would just walk up to and talk to on the street. Actually, many of us would probably cross the street to avoid him.
In spite of all of their differences, Norma and Brian have something in common; they are both followers of Jesus Christ. Norma is a local pastor in the Mennonite Church and Brian is a member at the last church that I pastored in Ohio. The difference is that Norma looks like a typical Christian, like the kind of person we would expect to find searching for Christ. Brian looks more like he belongs in a motorcycle gang than in the church. But both are followers of Christ, and both continue to seek him to this day.
As we look at the scripture for this Sunday from Matthew 2:1-12, we find another unlikely group of people that is searching for Christ. We find the Magi. And today I would like to focus on three points that we can lift out of this experience of the Magi. 1. God calls all kinds of people, 2. God can use our sinfulness to lead us to Christ, and the third is a question. 3. “Who will we welcome in God’s house in 2008?”
God calls all kinds of people
Matthew chapter two begins with the story of some people that come from the East in search of the child born king of the Jews. Some of our contemporary translations (NKJV, NRSV) call them the wise men. Sometimes we call them kings or priests. But the word that Matthew uses to describe these Christ-seekers is Magi.
It is interesting to me that we try to clean up their image by calling them wise men, kings, or priests. Because, while these men may have been wise, the word Magi means literally “sorcerer”. It is used other times in the NT and translated as sorcerer, such as is the case for Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8. The word magi and our English word magic are closely related. So these “wise men” were sorcerers. They were practicing a craft that was forbidden by God.
I am not sure why we try to clean up the image of the Magi. It is like we are embarrassed by the fact that these people were pagans. But if we take away from their past, if we take away from where they came from and the fact that these early Christ-seekers were sorcerers, then we rob them of part of their story and a part of their Christian witness. And that witness is this: All people are called to Jesus Christ. Whether Jews like the shepherds or pagans like the Magi, we are called to seek Jesus Christ. Whether we are clean cut and well respected pastors like Norma, or pierced and tattooed like Brian, we are called to worship Christ.
When I think about my friend Brian, I sometimes think that I would like to clean him up, put him in a shirt and tie, take out his piercings and allow them to grow shut. And I don’t think I am the only one that feels this way. Brian’s appearance can be distracting. Some might even consider what he has done to himself to be sinful. Your body is to be a temple for the Holy Spirit.
But if I were to do those things, if I were to try to “clean” Brian up, he wouldn’t be Brian anymore. If we were to clean up Brian, we would be robbing him of his identity, we would be robbing him of part of his story, and we would be robbing him of a part of his Christian witness. To think of where Brian has come from and where he is today is pretty inspirational. Brian has an illegitimate child with a woman he barely knows. He has committed crimes of robbery and theft against his own family members. These are things that Brian is not proud of, but he won’t lie to you and tell you that they never happened.
Today Brian is an active member of the church. I saw that he sang a solo at church this past Sunday. He has a great singing voice and he sings often in the church. He will celebrate his three year wedding anniversary this April, and he and his wife have a lovely two year old daughter together. Brian’s appearance may not have changed on the outside, but his heart has changed on the inside. And though we might want to clean him up from time to time to make him fit the cookie cutter mold of a Christian, if we were to do such a thing we would be taking away from his story.
Imagine the people that Brian can reach that you and I might not be able to even talk to. Brian could walk into a biker bar and approach a big burley man and talk to him about life, about choices, and about Christ. Brian can be a witness to people that are in the shoes that he wore a decade ago and be a witness that a better way is out there. And that way is Jesus Christ. The Magi were not perfect people seeking Christ. They were sinners seeking Christ. Just like you, just like me, and just like Brian. God calls all people.
God uses our sinfulness to lead us to Christ
So we return to our story from Matthew and we find these Magi, the sorcerers that they are, in pursuit of the king of the Jews. The Messiah has been born and they are going to worship him. But how do they know that the Messiah has been born? And how do they know what direction to travel to find him? They follow a star.
Now some people believe that the star that led the Magi to Jerusalem and later to Bethlehem was some large ball of fire in the sky that would have been obvious to the Magi that it was a sign for them to follow. And while I think that this is one possibility, I do believe that there are other understandings of the star that could make it more probable. If the star had been a large ball of fire that was so obvious, then I believe that there would have been more people that took notice of it. And I don’t believe that we have any other recording of anyone witnessing this star.
So it is more likely that the star was more subtle and less obvious to the average person. And many people have come up with theories of how different stars or planets or even comets would have been passing through our solar system around the time when Jesus was born. And this might not have been obvious to everyone, but to the Magi, this would have been seen as a sign that something miraculous had occurred.
You see, the Magi were more than just sorcerers. They were also astrologers. They looked to the stars to tell them the future. And while I don’t believe in astrology, I do believe that God used this sin of the Magi to lead them to Christ.
Now I don’t believe that God ever wishes for his people to sin. The Bible is pretty clear that we are to avoid sin and even avoid situations that may cause us to stumble into sin. But if someone is already living a life of sin, is it not possible for God to use that sin to lead someone to Christ? If God is all powerful, then can’t he use our sinfulness to lead us to Christ, like he used the sinfulness of the Magi to lead them to Christ in Bethlehem?
In the early 1970’s there was an up and coming lawyer that was getting involved in the political system. He was put in charge of writing up legal briefings and lobbying for pro-war efforts and funding under President Nixon. This lawyer was gaining a reputation for being ruthless, being given the nickname “Nixon’s Hatchet Man” because he was willing to do whatever was necessary to get the job done. News reports quoted this lawyer as saying that he would run over his own grandmother if that was what it was going to take to get Nixon re-elected. This lawyer proposed hiring thugs to beat up antiwar protesters and even firebombing a local building where documents were kept that were potentially disastrous for the Nixon campaign.
And while this lawyer never did hire the thugs or firebomb the building, he was involved in a group that paid a ¼ million dollars to steal documents from an office building that would be helpful for the re-election of Nixon. And when things went wrong, this lawyer tried to help cover up the scandal. He would later admit to obstruction of justice and was sentenced to jail time and to pay a fine. He was also disbarred, losing his right to practice law.
Well, if you are over 40 years old, you know what this scandal was called. This is the Watergate Scandal. And who was the lawyer? His name is Chuck Colson. And if you know the story of Chuck Colson, you probably know that in the middle of all of the hearings and accusations, Chuck Colson was given a book by a friend of his. This book was Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Colson became a seeker of Jesus Christ when he read that book.
Of course, many people accused Colson of making a phony claim to faith in hopes that his sentence would be reduced. But when Colson was released from jail, he was a new man. He began a program known as “Prison Fellowship”, a program designed to reform the punitive system because the “lock them up and leave them” approach wasn’t working.
Today, Colson has written about 15 books and many articles on faith, ethics, and the prison system. He has received humanitarian awards and is a popular speaker. Colson received the Templeton Prize for the Advancement of Religion in 1993, which is the largest cash prize given in the world today, and he donated that prize, just as he does with all of the money he has made from his books and from his speaking engagements to Prison Fellowship.
God didn’t cause Chuck Colson to sin. But God did use Colson’s sin to lead him to Christ. And he has used Colson’s sin to lead hundreds, maybe even thousands of others to Christ as well.
Who will we welcome into God’s house in 2008?
This brings me to the final question that I wanted to ask you all today. Who will we welcome into God’s house in 2008? As we return to our story about the Magi, we find that they continue to follow the star which leads them through Jerusalem and eventually to Bethlehem, directly over the house where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were staying. They must have found a place to stay after Jesus’ birth because most versions say that they were staying in a house. So when the Magi finally arrive, and who knows how long they have been traveling, they are welcomed into the house, and they find the living God, and they worship him.
The Magi, those heathen, pagan, sorcerers and astrologers, were welcomed into the house where Jesus was so that they could worship him. The scriptures don’t say anything about Joseph or Mary resisting the Magi coming near the Christ child. The scriptures don’t say that they were looked down upon by Joseph and Mary or judged because of their past. But they were welcomed in and they had the opportunity to worship Jesus.
What if Chuck Colson would have not been accepted by the church when he got out of prison? What if he was rejected because of the things that he had done in his past? How many people in our world have been touched by this man’s work, and how might things have been different if he hadn’t been welcomed into the church?
I wonder sometimes what would have happened if Brian hadn’t been welcomed into the church when he first became serious about seeking Christ. I wonder what would have happened if someone would have told him that he first needed to clean up his act and put on a tie. But that wasn’t the situation that Brian entered into in the church. He was embraced by the community and welcomed. Like the Magi, Brian carried a lot of baggage with him. There was and there still is a lot of junk in his past that he would like to forget and move past. Brian did a lot of things that were not pleasing to God, Brian did a lot of things that were not pleasing to his family, but he was welcomed when he opened the door of God’s house on Sunday morning and he was given an opportunity to worship the living God.
My brothers and sisters, God is calling all people to himself. And the only way to the Father is through the Son. It is my desire to see us as the church inviting people of all backgrounds to join us to worship the living God. Whether they are sorcerers, astrologers, pagans, pastors, tattooed and pierced, all people are welcome in God’s house to worship Christ. We must not force someone to conform to our image in order to worship God or to search for Christ. The image that they are to conform to is the image of God, an image that we see most clearly in Jesus Christ.
Think how many people have come to Christ because of the work of Chuck Colson. Perhaps Brian could be the next Colson, or perhaps the next Colson is still outside of our church because he or she does not feel welcome here.
Now that Christmas is over, perhaps it is time to put away our cookie cutters. Maybe it is time to stop trying to make sure everyone looks perfect on the outside and accept people for who they are. And maybe it is time for us to walk together with all people that God call’s as we seek the living God.