Isaiah 60:1-6 (NIV)
1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. 2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. 3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip. 5 Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. 6 Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.
Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV)
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 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. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Today we conclude our Advent series on Awesome Deeds We Do Not Expect and we conclude with one more unexpected event. We conclude today with a story that we have all heard many times before. Our New Testament text is the story of the wise men. These wise men have been made famous through song and story. Traditionally we think of there having been three wise men, though we don’t know the exact number for sure. We know there was more than one (note the plural) and we know that they brought three gifts.
We traditionally call them “wise men” as they are called in the King James Version, but the text does not use this phrase. Surely they were wise, wise enough to find a baby born many miles away because of the appearance of a star. I have found what way is north because of a particular star, but never a baby. We sometimes also call them the three kings, though our text says nothing of their royalty. I have heard it suggested that this title came from later Christianity making the connection between this event and Psalm 72:11, which says, “May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.” I doubt that they were actually kings because I find it hard to believe that a king would follow a star many miles and bow down to worship a baby.
Christian traditional also gives these men three names, which I will not try to pronounce here today. These names were probably given to the men around the year 500 AD. Furthermore, we like to give their country of origin with one being from Persia, another from Arabia, and the third from India. I have no idea how anyone would even begin to guess where they came from.
We put a lot of effort into describing these men. We put a lot of effort into describing them without actually using the term that the Bible uses. The Bible calls them magi. Magi is the plural form of magos. Magos is the word used to describe the priests of an ancient religion called Zoroastrinianism. They were likely priests of the occult.
I think we as Christians have gone to great lengths to hiding the true identity of these men, but I think it is past time that we make it clear that these men noticed the star that led them to Jesus because they were astrologers. These astrologers travel many miles to recognize Jesus as king. There’s something pretty cool about that.
When I think about the possible reasons for why someone might try to hide the true identity of the magi, I assume it has something to do with our fear of people that come from different religions. This isn’t anything new. Humans have feared people from other religions since the beginning of religion. And yes, I am using the word fear with some intentionality, though I could probably substitute the word “hate” and still be accurate. If we look through the Old Testament, we see a lot of fear, anger, and fighting between the Israelites and other religious groups. The Israelites are constantly at odds with the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and the Mennonites (just making sure you are still listening). The New Testament tells us about the struggles between the Jews and the Samaritans. There is fear, there is often hatred, and I just don’t think that any of it is warranted.
In our 21st century context there tends to be two dominant yet opposing perspectives on how to view people of other religions. The first view mirrors the methods that I just spoke of from the Bible. We can call this the fear and hatred approach. This is what led to the Holocaust, the slaughter of innocent Jews in Nazi Germany. It is also what led to the terrorist acts of September 11th, 2001. And it has led to countless other acts of bigotry and prejudice, some acts perpetrated against Christians, and some acts perpetrated by Christians.
The other dominant view in our society is that of religious pluralism. Religious Pluralism is the belief that all religions are basically the same. So if there is no real difference, why can’t we all just get along?
I really like the part about all getting along, but I am going to reject both of these options. The Jesus of the New Testament does not fear people of different religions. Jesus speaks freely with the Samaritan woman at the well, the Roman centurion, and even uses a parable about a Good Samaritan to answer the question of Who is my neighbor? Jesus doesn’t fear or hate other religions (I’ll leave the Syrophoenician woman out of the discussion. I don’t have time to get into that here).
But the Jesus of the New Testament also does not simply say that every religion is essentially the same. Jesus didn’t even think that every sect of Judaism was the same, which is quite the way I feel about Christianity. We can’t agree within our own religion on a large number of things; we can’t even agree on everything within our own denomination, conference, or congregation. Guess what, not everyone is going to be correct! If I say that a coin is a quarter and you say that it is a dime, one of us is going to be wrong, and it is even possible that we both might be wrong! So while I like the idea of religious pluralism–and I do think we all need to get along and love each other–I think it is wrong to say that we all believe the same thing. I also think it is wrong to say that everyone that doesn’t believe exactly as I believe is going to hell, and I am sure glad that decision is not up to me.
So I reject the hate/fear model of viewing people from other religions, and I reject the religious pluralism model as well. Instead, I want to suggest a model that I believe is more biblical and healthy. I want to suggest the “light model.” But first, a little reminder of the biblical narrative.
In the beginning God created the world, including human beings, and God said that what he had made was very good. But that did not last long. The created human beings chose to rebel against their creator and things went downhill pretty quickly. Soon the entire world was called wicked, save for a few righteous individuals along the way. Eventually God calls a man named Abraham (eventually) and tells that man that he would be the father of a great nation and that nation would be a witness to all other nations; they would be blessed to be a blessing.
So God choses Abraham’s family, who we eventually call the Israelites to be the nation of people that will reveal to the rest of the world the character and the will of God. Through the giving of the Torah God was grooming this nation to accept and extend the invitation to come back to God to all of the world.
But this chosen nation of Israel, like their predecessors in the Garden of Eden, exercised their free will to rebel against God. They followed other gods, they became self-serving, and they got caught up in all sorts of things that were antithetical to God’s will. And above all this, the Israelites began to interpret their chosen status as a badge of righteousness, like they were some part of a secret club and all other nations were excluded. Now, rather than being a blessing to other nations, rather than inviting all nations to come and follow God, they began to judge other nations, hating them, fearing them, rather than loving and serving them, revealing to the nations the true nature of God.
So God sent his prophets to deliver messages to the people, calling them to return to God. And through the prophets we see God’s invitation to his people and to all others to return to him. Isaiah 55 invites all who are thirsty to come to the waters, all who are hungry to come to the table to eat and drink. Our scripture from Isaiah 60:1-3 says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
There is this invitation to come back to God and there is a reminder to the Israelites that they are not supposed to just be smug about their chosen status. That chosen-ness is to serve a purpose: Be a light that draws people back to God. And we find this many times throughout the Old Testament. All people will be drawn to Israel, to Jerusalem, to God.
The prophets were successful, at times, but not fully. So God says, “Enough of this. If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” God comes to the world that he created in the form of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the perfect expression of God’s character and will. Jesus even says that his will and the Father’s are one.
On that first epiphany, Magi, priests of Zoroastrinianism, came to the light. They were drawn from far and they worshipped the newborn king. Epiphany means “revealing” and it was revealed to them that the king had entered the world.
As I spoke of the failings of Israel, I wouldn’t be surprised if Christians felt slightly convicted by my unflattering description. As followers of Jesus we are called to continue his ministry as lights to the world. Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot easily be hidden. I think we fail Jesus when we view people from different religions from a fear/hatred perspective and we fail Jesus when we view people from a religious pluralism perspective. We need to be light.
I was thinking a little this week about different forms of lights that we might be familiar with. On our back porch, where we usually come in and go out of our house, we have a special kind of light mounted above the door. This light has a special sensor in it that recognizes movement within a certain distance of the sensor. And when it senses movement, the light comes on. Obviously, we call this a motion detector light. It is off until someone or something walks comes close. This is great for when we come home after dark and need to find our way to the door.
Another popular type of light is the kind that we have installed on the exterior of the church. We have a light on the two gables of the church building that come on when the sun goes down and go off when the sun comes up. So if it is dark outside, the lights are on. If it is light outside, the light stays off. We call these “dusk till dawn” lights.
The final kind of light that I thought of is not so much a kind of light, but the status of a light. Many of you will remember the old radio commercials featuring the voice of Tom Bodett for the motel chain Motel 6. In these commercials Bodett would often share some down-home story with brief commentary relating to the clean, comfortable, and affordable rooms offered at Motel 6. And in his very first radio commercial for Motel 6, Bodett signed off with what is now his catch phrase, and I was surprised to find out that it was ad-libbed. Bodett simply said, “We’ll leave the light on for you.”
This brings back memories of my mother leaving the front light on when I was out with friends late on the weekends while in high school. It is warm and inviting. It is homey and comforting. It beckons you in from afar.
As Christians, I think we too often are like the motion detector or dusk-till-dawn lights. We might be willing to let our lights shine, to live like Jesus, when it is convenient. Like a motion detector, we might start following Jesus when someone comes into our motion sensor zone, but when nobody is looking, we fail to be Christ-like. Especially when we can maintain anonymity, we tend to say or do something unlike Jesus. We might post something online that is hurtful and demeaning, but come Sunday morning, we are perfect little Christians. Or maybe we are more like the dusk-till-dawn light, or more likely the opposite of the dusk-till-dawn light, following Jesus by day and our own rebellious ways by night.
No, I think we are called to be Motel 6 Christians. We are to leave the light on at all times.
Our passage from Isaiah reminds us that “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Isaiah didn’t say that nations and kings will come to God’s light or Jesus’s light. Nations and kings will come to your light. And that light is to be a reflection of Jesus, who is the image of God.
When we encounter people of other religions, we cannot fear them and we surely should not hate them. We must respect others but we also need to be aware of our differences. This applies to interaction with other Christians as well. And we must be light. We must live as Jesus showed us to live, we must live as Jesus has called us to live. Loving God and loving neighbors, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. Our light will shine, God’s light will shine, and all nations will come to him. We see it in the Magi, I have seen it in my own life as well.