Powers and Principalities
Sun, Jan 07, 2018

Visitors from the East


Duration:12 mins 50 secs

Our Scripture Text for today comes from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, verses 1-12. Matthew begins his Gospel with a long and detailed genealogy of Jesus and then a single story in which Joseph is convinced through a dream not to divorce his betrothed, Mary, but to take her as his wife. He knew her not until after she bore a son and together they named him Jesus. As we reach the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we find a visit from ones we often expect to have heard from already – the magi. Let us hear this Word of God.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “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.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They 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.’”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then 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.” 9 When 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

In January of my first year as a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary, the seminary hosted some visitors from the East. At the time the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, of which the Presbyterian Church (USA) is a member, was engaged in a theological dialogue with representatives from various Oriental Orthodox Churches. Now at the time I had never heard of “Oriental Orthodox Churches,” but quickly discovered that members of these churches live in places like Egypt, Syria, Armenia, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and India. My church history professor, Rebecca Hardin Weaver, a staunch Presbyterian, was a member of the dialogue and asked another student and me if we would serve as stewards, or “general gofers,” for the week. I readily agreed.

My first task was to pick up the various representatives from all over the world at the Richmond airport. We had a schedule of arrival times and flight numbers, so we divided up the trips. Just like you see in the movies, at the appointed times we would stand by the arrival gate with a sign that said “Oriental Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue” and hope that the person we were looking for happened to notice us. Members from the Reformed Churches, many from the United States and Europe, knew the drill and found us easily. The representatives from the Oriental Orthodox Churches were easy to spot as these bishops arrived wearing their full clerical regalia – long robes – some black, but others bright blue, yellow and even purple. They all wore hats in matching colors. Most of them wore long beards as well. Yes, not something that you see every day at the Richmond, Virginia airport.

Now although it was technically yesterday, January 6th, this morning here at Reid Memorial we are celebrating Epiphany, a day which marks the arrival of the visitors from the East, the Magi. For like those bishops arriving at the Richmond airport they add a splash of color to the familiar Christmas story. The Magi are somewhat exotic and intriguing, especially since we really do not know that much about them. What else do we know except that they come from the east? Plus they are kings, right? They even have their own song, “We three kings of orient are,” which we sang a few moments ago. Yes, finally the royalty arrives to greet the Christ child.

And yet, the original readers of Matthew’s gospel would not have shared our excitement for the Magi. If we take that word “magi” seriously, then it is almost certain that these visitors were not kings or royalty at all. At best, they might have been royal court psychics. They were ones who tried to figure out the present and the future by reading the stars. And even more, the Old Testament is pretty harsh on these folk. They are called idolatrous deceivers and are to be avoided at all cost. Indeed a Jewish rabbi wrote not long before Jesus’ birth, “He who learns from a magi is worthy of death.”

Yes, you see when the visitors from the East show up things start to get complicated. It is no longer nice and simple. When I was picking up the bishops from the Oriental Orthodox churches at the airport, one of the bishop’s flights was delayed. This was before the days of cell phones, so I kept checking with the airline as to when the flight would arrive. Several hours late, the plane finally rolled up to the gate. I stood there with my sign waiting for a colorful bishop to disembark. I waited and I waited, but he never emerged from the plane.

I went to the counter and asked if the bishop had boarded. He had not. I called my professor. She did not know where he was and she had not heard from him. Together, after multiple phone calls to multiple people in multiple cities around the world, we finally discovered that when the flight was delayed, the bishop decided he would take a train to Richmond. He would arrive about 12:30 AM at the Richmond Amtrak station and was expecting someone to pick him up.

So at 12:30 AM, I was standing there with my sign at the train station. As he swept off the train with great vigor and authority, immediately recognizable in his colorful robe and hat, I sensed that this man was going to make his own way. If I had not been there to pick him up, he just might have walked in the middle of the night the several miles to the seminary.

Yes, when visitors from the East arrive, things get complicated. The Magi who come to visit Jesus tip off Herod that a new king has been born. This leads to the slaughter of innocent children. The Magi are not Jewish. They are foreigners. They are magicians who just stumbled onto the one true thing. And yet here they are mingling around with the Israel’s Messiah. No, they are not a welcome intrusion at all.

And yet, that may be precisely the point. As New Testament scholar Scott Hoezee writes:

Apparently, Matthew is trying to strike a universal tone in his Gospel. He wants not just men but women included; not just Israelites but people from all nations; not just those whose lives conform to the standard shape of orthodoxy but even Magi who could not have seemed less likely candidates for God’s love. … Matthew is giving a Gospel sneak preview: the Christ child who attracted these odd Magi to his cradle will later have the same magnetic effect on Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracized lepers.

Wow! When the visitors from the East show up things get complicated. Yes, this may be an Epiphany, a revealing, even for us today. Grace reaches far beyond our expectations. Salvation is not a members-only club for those we recognize in the pew beside us on Sundays. No, grace extends to those who are not present inside these walls. To those who need to hear a good word, a gospel word. To those who might look and think a little differently. To those who just might be drawn to a star that stops over the place where the Christ child lays. To those who just might point us to Jesus when we’ve too busy keeping the temple and palace going to see that a new king has been born.

My friends, today is a day of new beginnings. It is the first Sunday of a new calendar year. It is a day on which just we ordained and installed a new class of elders and deacons. It is a day on which we should consider what kind of church God is calling us to be in this New Year and beyond.

So how wide open is our front door? How wide open are our hearts as we sit here inside? What will others see and feel if they happen to come in? And perhaps most important, are we willing to go and share the good news out there instead of expecting the world to come to us if they want to see Jesus?

If we are so willing, we too just might find ourselves going home by another way, by God’s way of transforming and amazing grace.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: