We began this year’s Christmas series today, and we’re calling it “Christmas at the Margins,” because we’re going to see that all the people who were involved in the birth of Jesus were people “at the margins” of society. People who the dominant Jewish culture at the time viewed as “other,” as “strange,” as “outsiders,” as “not wanted” and we’re going to explore the outsider status of some of these folks to see what it teaches us about God and what it teaches us about our call. What this means for us – especially those of us who are part of the dominant culture in America, is that we are called to look for the ways God shows up among people “at the margins.” We need to be willing to put aside the comfort of living within the confines of our own culture to go out of our way to embrace people at the margins, and humbly look for ways that God might teach us and shape us through our relationship with people at the margins.
Greg read a familiar passage from Matthew, asking us to pay particular attention to these strange people called “the Magi”:
Matthew 2:1-12: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men (magos) from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
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.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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.” 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
Greg noted the significance of this prophecy from Micah 5:2, where the prophet specifies exactly where the Messiah would be born…a minuscule town in nowhere-sville named, Bethlehem.
Greg said, “The NRSV translation (my favorite translation) says that “wise men” came from the east to honor the baby Jesus, in fact, almost all English translations say this…but the thing is, Matthew doesn’t call these people “wise men.” If he had wanted to call them wise men, the original Greek would have the word “wise” and “men” in it – but it doesn’t. In the original Greek, Matthew calls them magos which refers to Magi, Magi is related to our word, “Magic,” (because Magi originally practiced magic and divination) but at the time of Jesus, the word was most closely associated with astrology and other occultist ways of divining knowledge. And in Persia, it referred primarily to astrologers (people who believed they could gain esoteric knowledge about future events by studying the stars) – so these Magi were astrologers.”
On top of that, we know that the dominant religion in Persia at this time was Zoroastrianism
(a dualistic religion that believed that in two equally powerful gods, one good and one evil, and they believed the human beings are caught up in their eternal conflict, though there is some evidence that they believed the good god will ultimately prevail).
Greg suspected that English translations are inclined to translate magos as “wise men” because they assume Christian readers of the Bible might be offended by the suggestion that God would invite pagan astrologers to the birth of king Jesus, and that “wise men” sounds much more sanctified and appropriate than “astrologers,” doesn’t it? But if you translate the passage accurately and admit that pagan astrologers were invited to the birth of king Jesus, it might look like God is condoning astrology – and that can’t be true, because the Bible several times explicitly condemns astrology. Yet, here we have it, God invited magos (Zoroastrian pagan astrologers who believed in two gods) to king Jesus’ first birthday party.
However it came about, and despite the fact that these folks believed in two gods and spent their life engaging in an occult practice that the Bible considers sinful, God invited them to bear witness to the birth of king Jesus – these are the last people that we would have expected to be invited to the birth of the Messiah-King Jesus…and they’re certainly the last people first century Jews would have expected to be invited to the birth of the Messiah-King.
Yet there they are. Zoroastrian astrologers, not “wise men.”
This clearly reveals is that God is not a parochial God.
By “parochial,” I’m referring to the fallen human tendency to assume that God belongs exclusive to US, not THEM; that arrogant self-serving assumption that we find throughout history – including the history of the Christian Church that:
- we have an exclusive claim on truth
- we know all there is to know about God
- God is on our side, not your side
- God fights for our country and our religion and against any country or religion that dare oppose us
- we have all accurate info about who God is and what God will do and who God will and will not use
- God lives in our nice and tidy box.
- we’ve got God in our theological box, our religious box, our nationalistic box, our racial box
It’s this arrogant, parochial, self-serving assumption that would have led most Jews in Jesus’ day to assume that God would never invite Zoroastrian pagan astrologers to the birth of the Messiah-King…
…but guess what? HE DID.
It appears God doesn’t live in that box.
And if there is anything we learn about God as he’s revealed in Jesus Christ, it’s that God doesn’t live in anyone’s box.
The truth is that the God revealed in Christ is a box-demolishing God!
Everyone in Jesus’ day assumed that the Jewish Messiah would hang around with righteous, holy, respected folks, but Jesus says, “sorry, but God doesn’t live in that box!” He instead reveals a God who loves and gravitates toward Tax Collectors and Prostitutes and others who were the most judged in Jewish society. Everyone in Jesus’ day assumed that the Jewish-Messiah would obviously favor Jews, who were God’s chosen people, over Gentiles, who everyone regarded as far from God…but Jesus says, “sorry, but God doesn’t live in that box!” He instead praises the faith of a Roman Centurion, whom Jews despises, over the faith of anyone in Israel.
Then he holds up a Samaritan, whom Jews despised, as being a better neighbor than the most respected dignitaries in Israel, and he respects and brings Good News to a Samaritan woman who’d been married five times and sends her away with joy.
Jesus reveals a box-demolishing God!
And the box-demolishing God loves to work in and through people that are outside everyone’s box. AND we are called to not only believe in, but to follow and imitate this box-demolishing God. We are called to look for God to be at work outside the box of our assumptions and expectations
It means that while we theologically disagree with Zoroastrian pagan astrologers, we have to remember that God is at work in their heart, and for all we know, it might be that our box-demolishing God has invited them in on things that he is doing, even momentous things like the birth of the baby Jesus, that we have not been invited into.
… and it just might be the case that God wants to use them to teach us something that we don’t know about and to shape our character in ways that we need to be shaped.
Because while we are blessed to know Jesus and to have a personal transforming relationship with Jesus:
- we don’t have a corner on the market of truth
- we don’t have God in a box
- we can’t claim that we are in no more need of having our character shaped into the likeness of Christ.
…we tend to like our boxes, that’s why we have them.
We tend to be more comfortable hanging out with people who look like, behave, talk like, think like, pray like, and eat the same kinds of foods as us.
…and the way other people look and behave and talk and think and pray and eat may strike us as strange and make us uncomfortable. Not only that, but one of the most common ways people try to feel worthwhile and secure is by thinking their box is superior to others. So they don’t just view people outside their box as “strange,” they judge them as inferior. They’re often so used to doing this they don’t even notice it.
We played an interview clip of a woman named Toke from Nigeria, whose husband passed away and migrated to America and lived in homeless shelters with her three children. Toke has a degree in chemistry and taught in Nigeria for 20 years before coming to America, and when she came to America, most assumed she was a paraprofessional at best – not a teacher. She shared how Woodland Hills Church has enveloped her into our community and helped her get on her feet in this country and this community. Her children have grown up and gone to college and have wonderful jobs. Greg explained the lack of dignity in the homeless shelter that she had to live in, and the word from God he got to find them a home in 24 hours. He found them an apartment the very next day. Greg described how seeing that miracle has been one of the greatest he has ever witnessed, but even more wonderful, is the strong dependence on God she taught him through her friendship during the last 13 years.
You might think those strange pagan astrologers have nothing to teach you, and you might think that foreigners – in this case, homeless Nigerians – have nothing to teach you as you go about your daily life, but it turns out they have a front row seat on the birth of the Savior that you claim to follow.
But you’ve never see it if you don’t get out of that box.
We’d better learn to appreciate people who are different because if you don’t, we aren’t going to be very comfortable in heaven.
We’ve got to make a choice. Either we make Jesus Lord of our Life, which means we commit to following the box-demolishing God, or we make our box and our tiny comfort zone Lord of our life.
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