The message of the eastern wise men’s visit — linked to the Bible study post for January 10.
OT reading: Isaiah 60:1-6 — A vision of God’s glory on His people
NT gospel reading: Matthew 2:1-12 — Mystics travel from afar to worship
NT letter reading: Ephesians 3:1-12 — God desires to reconcile all people to Himself
Here’s a short video introduction
ONE OF THE clearest and most simple mission statements used by churches is “Knowing Jesus and making Him known”. It’s understandable, memorable and balanced. Little wonder, then, that with so many churches adopting it, it risks being over-used.
Can we over-use a slogan like this? In six words it encapsulates the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Jesus said that the law comes down to loving God and loving others. In some of His last words, He exhorted His first disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations” and teach them to do what disciples do.We easily overlook the meaning of “all nations”. For Jews, this was a big step out of their comfort zone. It meant befriending and discipline non-Jews, or Gentiles.
What does that mean for us? What does it have to do with the story of the Magi who mysteriously turned up to show their devotion to Jesus with very valuable gifts?
Isaiah had seen something like this in the Spirit, a big picture which he attempted to convey in words:
Darkness… covers all the nations of the earth, but the glory of the Lord rises and appears over you. All nations will come to your light…Isaiah 60:2-3 NLT
The prophecy continues to say that “mighty kings” will be drawn to the light of the Lord’s glory. From that has arisen the tradition of three kings (from the three gifts named) and they appear in many nativity scenes. In reality the visitors were priestly sages and they have come, as Matthew’s account tells us, to a house. That could have been a year or two after the birth. The point Matthew is making is that Jesus is Lord of all who receive Him.
Matthew’s account, I believe, started to circulate only a few years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. He was writing with Jews like himself in mind, and preparing them to be broad-minded for a church fast becoming multicultural.
This was a challenge to Matthew’s original hearers or readers. And it is a challenge to us. We want to retain some control of who comes to know the Lord. It’s our insecurity — we want to be sharing this with people like ourselves. If our gathering changes through new people coming in, we feel that it isn’t ours any more. As if it ever was!
This is the root of our ‘club mentality’ and the Lord’s challenge of it. Here are the two directions of pull.
One pull is us wanting to create our own security — independently from God. He is our security, but we want something more tangible, more assured. So there is an instinct to protect and preserve what we have.
Change is seen as a threat, because it might take away something that we know and expect and which makes us feel secure. We know who is who in our congregation, and we know the pecking order. When we meet together, it is predictable and familiar.
But is this what Jesus wants? Is this what He came to create?
Here’s a story I heard this week on a BBC interview. Rev Carmel Jones arrived in England from the Caribbean in 1955. A committed Christian in the Anglican tradition, he sought out his local parish church in Clapham where he felt he belonged. The first Sunday, no one spoke to him. And the second was the same. After he went for a third Sunday, the vicar contacted him. He thanked him for coming but said he had received representations from others in the congregation, and asked him not to come again. Carmel Jones has long since forgiven the church, which recently apologised to him publicly. Now, he is best known for starting the Pentecostal Credit Union. This helped many of the new arrivals, lending money at fair rates to help with housing and other essentials.
On one level this is a sad story of the racism that was all too common at that time. On another level, it is also the story of a church with a club mentality. It is a picture of people who feared having to give up some of their identity, and couldn’t show love to someone they saw as an ‘outsider’.
The other direction of pull in this tension is in the readings for Sunday, January 10, with Isaiah’s words to the people of God:
Let your light shine for all to see… All nations will come to your light…Isaiah 60:1 and 3
These words take us into the story of the magi:
…Wise men from eastern lands [who] arrived in Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews?… We have come to worship Him.’Matthew 2: 1-2
There’s no mention in Scripture of any Jew, especially any prominent Jew, coming to bow before Jesus. There were some shepherds — the lowest social class – who received a supernatural revelation. And revelation was given to these eastern sages. What was God doing here?
The answer is in the third reading where Paul, writing to Christians in and around Ephesus, talked about the unfolding revelation of God’s plan. He showed how it was or progressive, a bit like a jigsaw puzzle where previous generation didn’t have enough of the pieces to see the picture
God did not reveal [His plan] to previous generations, but now by His Spirit He has revealed it to His holy apostles and prophets. And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body… because they belong to Christ Jesus.Ephesians 3:5-6
The church is not a club of like-minded and religious-minded people. It is part of God’s plan for people, all sorts of people, to believe the Good News and have the joy of knowing and belonging to Christ Jesus.
It doesn’t just happen. It happens because we have a message, and new life, which we are passionate about sharing with any and all, because it didn’t cost us anything more than our pride, but we know that it cost Jesus everything.
If church is not about sharing that message, not about God’s plan, it begs the question of what it is about. If it is concerned with its order of service and its traditions and who may be considered welcome, it begs the question of whether it is joining God in what He is doing. The wise men broke the Jewish tradition and overturned the Jewish sense of separation from other people. God was doing a new thing (foretold by Isaiah and others).
The take away for us is to go into 2021 with the will to look beyond the comfort zones and social boundaries we have created, to see where God is working and what He is doing. And allow Him to do a new thing in us.