Magi and Mission

Epiphany is a season of the Church year, running from the 3rd Sunday after Christmas until Lent. It’s all about celebrating the living and active God who doesn’t play by our religious rules. Instead, He is missional and incarnational. At Epiphany, we celebrate common grace and salvation as verb, and we rejoice in Christ being revealed to every tribe, tongue, and nation of the world… not just “the chosen ones”.

Traditionally, the season begins with the story of the wise men coming to see Christ. The wise men (or magi as the NRSV translates it) were probably from the near east (Persia/Babylon area), and they were learned men, astrologers, and magicians.

Magi

Magi, priestly caste in ancient Persia. They are thought to have been followers of Zoroaster, the Persian teacher and prophet. Professing the doctrines of Zoroastrianism, they practiced a ritual that involved pouring libations of milk, oil, and honey over a flame while chanting prayers and hymns. Gradually, the religion of the magi incorporated Babylonian elements, including astrology, demonology, and magic. (The word magic is derived from the word magi.) By the 1st century ad, the magi were identified with wise men and soothsayers. Thus, the biblical magi who came from the East to worship the infant Jesus (see Matthew 2:1-12) were regarded as wise men.

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Matthew 2.1-12 records the story.

2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem 2:2 saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 2:3 When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. 2:4 After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 2:5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, “for it is written this way by the prophet: 2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are in no way least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 2:7 Then Herod privately summoned the wise men and determined from them when the star had appeared. 2:8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and look carefully for the child. When you find him, inform me so that I can go and worship him as well.” 2:9 After listening to the king they left, and once again the star they saw when it rose led them until it stopped above the place where the child was. 2:10 When they saw the star they shouted joyfully. 2:11 As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 2:12 After being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back by another route to their own country.

Matthew 2.1-12 (NET)

The thing that strikes me about this passage is that God put a star in the sky to lead these gentiles, these astrologers, these men of another religion, these pagans… to lead these wise men to Christ. See, usually, the expectation is that people need to come looking for Christ, on Church terms. Go read a book by so and so, come to a Church service, stop believing whatever it is you believe and come on “our” terms, so that we can show you Christ.

But God shatters that line of thinking as he places a star into view the “pagan” astrologers, people who govern their lives not by God’s word but by the placement, movement, and formation of stars. In doing this, God is declaring that no language, no religion, no people are out side of his arm’s length, and that he will move into there turf, placing signs where they are bound to see them, that thy might be led to Christ.

But, how did these Magi know what the star that showed up was all about? How did they know this was the star signaling the birth of the King of the Jews? God provided not only the sign for them to see, this star in there astrological playing field, but also the interpretation.

Many, many years ago, when the people of Israel were coming out of the land of Egypt… when they were becoming the people of Israel, God spoke through another gentile, another “pagan”, foretelling the coming of Christ for the world to hear.

The Story of Balaam is found in Numbers 22-24. Balaam was some sort of diviner, someone who spoke to the various god’s and delivered there messages to the people who hired them. The king of Moab was a bit freaked out because the Israelites had had a huge military victory against the Amorites, and the Moabites didn’t want to be destroyed as well. So, they hired Balaam to come and curse these wandering folk for them. Balaam comes onto the seen, has a “come to Jesus” moment involving his ass, and ends up blessing Israel instead of cursing them.

One of the oracles he spoke (Numbers 24.15-19) was a prophecy about the star and the King of the Jews who was to come.

‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not close at hand. A star will march forth out of Jacob, and a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the skulls of Moab, and the heads of all the sons of Sheth. Edom will be a possession, Seir, his enemies, will also be a possession; but Israel will act valiantly. A ruler will be established from Jacob; he will destroy the remains of the city.’

Numbers 24.17-19, (NET)

It was from this prophecy that the Magi knew the star that had risen was for the one born King of the Jews. God provided the sign and means to understand the sign (and this is the crazy part) completely of His own doing. I mean, completely: there was no action or aid or use of the Israelites, no trace of the people of God at all.

This is missio Dei, the Living and Active God on a mission in action. Reaching out to all peoples, every tongue and every tribe… reaching out to them where they are at in a manner that is familiar to their lives… reaching out with signs and offering understanding of those signs that they might follow the markers and find Jesus! These signs never circumvent Christ, for saving faith, this hope of salvation that we have, is based solely in the person of Christ. Apart from Christ there is no way to God, there is no hope. But… how many roads lead to Christ?

God put a star in the sky to lead some Persian astrologers to Christ. What has he put into the “sky’s” of the people in your city, your work, your neighborhood, your family? There are sign posts everywhere: movies, nature, history, books, anthropology, art, TV, news headlines, music… there is no field in which God is silent. Likewise, there is no people group God is not trying to reach.

Too often, there is a notion among the people of God that without us, the lost will never find there way to Christ. Truth is, the only way we can point people to the person of Jesus is by building on the stars God has already placed in someone’s sky. God does not need us, but he chooses to use us (as he uses all things) to try and bring all humanity to Christ.

Perhaps, instead of asking “How can I show these people Christ”, we should be asking “What are the stars these people have seen? Where is the road to Christ they are being shown? And what, O Lord, can I do to illuminate and point your work as I travel with these people to worship Christ?”

QUOTATIONS DESIGNATED (NET) ARE FROM THE NET BIBLE®
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