December 19, 2010
The Road to Bethlehem
The Gifts of the Magi
Have you noticed how different people are when it comes to finding the right gift for Christmas? There are some people who hint all year long. On December 26 they are already dropping hints for next year. Then, there are those who are very difficult. I’m talking about those who, when asked about a gift, will respond I don’t need anything, and they give you no help.
As we continue our Advent series The Road to Bethlehem this morning we complete the passage of the magi. Last week we studied their encounter with Herod as they came in search of Jesus and this morning we will study The Gifts of the Magi.
The gifts I want us to consider, though, are not the ones we usually think of in relation to the magi – the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Those are important gifts, but there are some less noticeable gifts in this passage that are very important as well.
The gift of spiritual awareness.
As we saw last week, the magi arrive in Jerusalem after following the star. Their journey had been long and they had followed the star for quite some time.
What’s interesting in this passage is that the magi arrive in Jerusalem in search of the Messiah and no one seems to have any idea what they are talking about. This is Jerusalem – the center of faith in Israel – and the religious leaders seem to be absolutely clueless about the birth of Jesus. How is it that you can be in the epicenter of spiritual influence and expertise and miss what’s happening around you? Sounds like Washington, DC, doesn’t it?
Matthew says that Herod called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law (verse 4) and asks where the Messiah would be born. This is the entire religious brain trust of Jerusalem that Herod assembles. These are the rocket scientists of faith. If anyone should know the answer to this question, these are the guys. They tell Herod in Bethlehem in Judea (verse 5), as was prophesied, and they quote the prophecy, while totally missing that the prophecy has been fulfilled. This group is testimony to the fact that you can know certain facts without having an understanding of the facts. The magi, in comparison, knew nothing of the prophecies of the birth of the Messiah, but they knew of his birth; the religious leaders and teachers, who knew all the prophecies, knew nothing of his birth. The magi have a gift of insight into spiritual matters that the religious leaders themselves did not possess.
I have been reading a fascinating book – The Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. One of the things researchers are asking is, why are some people more attuned to spiritual matters than others? Why is it that some people have an innate interest in spirituality while others never seem to think about anything spiritual? It’s an interesting question, but I’m not sure it’s one that science can answer.
But it does cause us to consider the question of spiritual awareness. How could this group of learned scholars – the religious leaders and the teachers of the law – miss such a momentous even that took place in their own backyard while the magi – who begin their quest far removed from these events – are the ones with the knowledge of the birth of Jesus? The magi, along with their other gifts, bring the gift of spiritual awareness.
We live in a world very attuned to the material – the things that can be touched, and seen, and measured. We are seeing such a growth in this kind of materialism that matters of the spirit are being pushed more and more to the fringes of life. But the spiritual longings of society are popping up all around us, even while society moves away from the spirit. I have a theory, and it’s just a theory, but it’s one that I’ve been thinking about for a while. My theory comes from movies, especially the genre of superheroes. Superhero movies have had a long, successful run at the box office. I keep wondering why these movies haven’t run their course. You know why I think they remain so popular? Because while there has been a move away from matters of the spirit there is still a very deep spiritual longing in our society, and movies about supernatural characters express that longing. As I say, it’s just a theory.
Spiritual awareness is a gift that has to be nurtured, and nourished, and fed. And in our fast-paced, material world, it is very difficult to nourish a sense of spiritual awareness. The magi had that gift.
One of the most interesting facts about the magi is that they were outsiders. The magi were not from Jerusalem; they were not even from the nation of Israel. They were from much further east, probably Mesopotamia or Persia. All the other characters in this passage were insiders. Herod was an insider; the religious leaders were certainly insiders; the teachers of the law were insiders. They belonged there; this was their territory; everything was happening on their turf. The magi, though, were from far away, from a different country and an alien culture.
It is no small matter that magi from another nation and another culture came in search of Jesus. Though the magi were in Jerusalem, as outsiders they would have been denied entrance into almost any part of the Temple, but they were welcomed to come and worship Jesus. This is a prophetic proclamation about the ministry of Jesus, which was very much about inclusion. Jesus always welcomed the outsiders – he welcomed the tax collectors, he welcomed the lepers, and he welcomed those labeled as sinners.
There are churches, unfortunately, that specialize in exclusion. Some churches develop rules about who is welcome to worship and even make lists of the people they believe are acceptable to God and those who are not. Those are the churches that think they get to be the gatekeepers for the kingdom. But the people and the groups they want to exclude are those who are welcomed to come to Jesus, just as were the magi.
In the 14th chapter of Luke’s gospel Jesus tells the parable of the great banquet, where the invited guests turn down their host and the host tells his servant to go out and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame (Luke 14:21). The gospels give us example after example of Jesus throwing open the doors of his kingdom to invite in those who had been rejected by the religious leaders. The gift of inclusion is one of the most important gifts.
The magi gave away as gifts what most people were trying to gain for themselves – gold, certainly as a measure of financial security. Frankincense and myrrh have medicinal qualities, so they were giving away something that brought health in a world where there were so many threats to a person’s health and well-being.
But the magi, by worshipping Jesus, were demonstrating the importance of worship by giving away. The core act of worship is the act of giving away – giving of ourselves, our time, our resources, our love – to God.
We associate Christmas with giving, and rightly so, and the tradition of that giving comes from the centrality of worship at Christmas. Even in our larger society, the idea of giving of one’s self comes out of the Christian tradition – this is a gift that is given to us and to the world at large.
In a world that is becoming more and more about the self, it is a practice that we have to continue. It can be hard to be about selflessness and giving in a self-centered, self-absorbed world, but that is the essence of what we are called to do.
I like the way Mother Teresa said it, in a poem on the wall of a
hospital in Calcutta, India. She paraphrased a poem by Dr. Kent Keith in this way –
People are unreasonable, illogical, self-centered—love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives—do good anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow—do good anyway.
What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight—build anyway.
People really need help, but may attack you if you help them—help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth—give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
The gifts of the magi are gifts that are needed as much today as ever; perhaps they are needed even more today. May we share them freely.