Saturday, January 5, 2013

Welcoming the magi

Matthew 2:1-12

Today, the magi could be the persons of interest in the sermon. They came from far away, from another culture, from another religion. Tradition has often called them kings, but they more likely were astrologers, intently studying the patterns of the stars and planets, and their relation to human interactions. Treated as a science, astrology takes into consideration the skills of math and science and physics and human behavior.
Because the studied the stars so thoroughly, they were able to notice a new star in the sky. New stars meant the birth of a king, and that meant they needed to travel to give homage to the baby. I find myself wondering if they took with them the equipment to plot out his life, and if they would have seen his death on the cross written in the stars.
In the meantime, although some people take horoscopes very seriously, and spend a lot of money to have the exact moment of their birth plotted on the map of the stars, most of us read horoscopes – the predictions of astrologers – with a sense of fun. They are general enough to apply to lots of people.
My horoscope for Saturday on one website read like this: Turn up your fantasy dial and let your imagination run wild. Your intuition is strong today, and you should give your emotions room to flow. Work to clear the blockages that keep you from doing things you truly want to do. Get your ideas on paper and manifest more of your fantasy world in reality. People may be stingy, so now isn't the best time to ask for a raise or loan. Tee-hee!
The magi followed the star to Jesus, stopping at Herod’s palace, assuming a new baby had been born there. When that was not the case, the magi consulted with the priests and scribes to discover where the baby might be. Curiously, but predictably, considering what Herod was like, the priests were able to identify Bethlehem as the location, but did not accompany the magi on their visit.
Once the magi found the baby, they gave him gifts, expensive gifts, the kind of gifts kings would give each other. They gave him gold, which has obvious value. They also gave him frankincense and myrrh, gifts we don’t know much about today. Fragrances such as frankincense and myrrh were burned as the incense offering in the temple. They were both used as medicine, to heal wounds, to support female hormones, and to treat arthritis. Myrrh was also used in the process of making mummies in Egypt, and in anointing the dead in Jesus’ time.
These valuable gifts remind us that Jesus was seen as a king, an important king, a king worth visiting from far away, a king worthy of honor and glory to this day. But these gifts remind us of the end of Jesus’ life. Judas was paid in gold to betray Jesus. Jesus’ was anointed before his death with fragrance – probably frankincense. And frankincense and myrrh were most likely the spices the women took to the tomb on Easter morning.
The gold and the fragrance gifts could have been sold by Mary and Joseph to support their emergency trip to Egypt. We don’t read the story often, but the result of the magi’s search for the baby king was the slaughter of all children – boys, at least – in Bethlehem aged two years or younger. Mary and Joseph and Jesus escaped, because an angel warned them to flee. The Magi were also warned – in a dream – to not return to Herod. Unfortunately for the parents of Bethlehem, because the one child was not identified, many children died.
So, why do you think the magi made the trip to Judea from wherever they lived? Tradition has always told us that they came to prove that Jesus was born to be the king of the Jews and to point out that even his own people did not recognize him as such. Their visit is a symbol of the intent for the good news of Jesus to reach all peoples, and this is the message from the beginning.
We don’t often think about their visit as an acceptance of very different people. The magi visited Jesus, gave him their gifts, and returned home. They did not become Christians. They did not return to be his disciples when he grew up. They were not at the tomb; they were not among the first evangelists after the resurrection. They were simply foreigners, people from a very different religion, who honored Jesus with their presence at his birth.  
We can learn from this how important it is to treat all people well. There is a lot of mistrust of people who are different from us. Lately, there is a lot of mistrust of Muslims, and hatred enough that some people are now trying to kill them, one person at a time. I agree that there are extremists who have been taught to kill all non-Muslims. And I agree that we do need to be careful and protect ourselves from them. But, most Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet, and regard him as almost as important as Mohamed. Do we offer them the respect they deserve? Do we allow them to believe as they believe? Do we invite them to know our Jesus without insisting that they will not be saved if they don’t?
Christians don’t always treat other Christians very well, either. In the name of Jesus, some Christians tell others they are not welcome in their church. Christians are not always kind to those who are different: those who speak another language, who have a different sexual preference, who have no job, who have a “questionable” past, and so forth. Do we welcome all who come in our doors? Do we treat all we encounter in the community with Jesus’ kind of love?
Let’s use the visit of the magi to remember that Jesus loves and welcomes all people to himself, and do likewise. Amen