"What Brought The Magi?"

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – January 5, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12


    This morning we are going to discuss what caused the three mysterious astrologers to visit Bethlehem.  We are also going to consider what was accomplished by their visit and how their gifts may have influenced the possibility of our being here this morning.   

    Astrology is an interesting field.  Today, we still have people that refer to themselves as astrologers and they have a substantial number of clients that seek their advice.  Some of you may look up your astrological sign in the newspaper that encompasses your birthday to learn what the stars have in store for you in the immediate future. 

    In ancient Persian, astrologers were consulted in the same way that the advice was sought by Hebrew kings from their prophets.  As happens in many fields, astrologers developed their own specialties.  Some specialized in forecasting future events in people’s lives.  Some advised merchants about the direction of their businesses. Still others became spiritual advisors and healers.   

    One of the curious elements in today’s scripture lesson is that astrologers from as far away as India, China and South America saw the same event in the sky around the time of Jesus’ birth.  Why were only three from this distinguished group motivated to travel to Bethlehem? 

    We are going to speculate that the three that made the trip to Jerusalem and later to Bethlehem were from those who specialize in spiritual areas of life.  The three would not have been motivated to travel from Baghdad (which is near the ancient city of Babylon) to Bethlehem because another baby had been born who could rise to become a king.      

    The suspicion is that these three men knew that a child was entering the world that would change the direction of human history.  This intuitive belief was the probable cause of their decision to explore this possibility. This hunch was also what caused them to bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 

    When the three came seeking directions to the birth place of this child king, they noticed that King Herod and most of his lieutenants were upset by their inquiry once the ancient prophet Micah named Bethlehem as the town.   Before they left Herod’s court, the three knew their search for the baby had ignited a fire-storm of anxiety among those in Herod’s court.  They may have known from this reaction that they had placed the baby in harm’s way.

    What can we take home with us this morning from this event?  The three men came to Bethlehem, found baby Jesus, left expressions of their generosity with the family and then vanished, never to be heard from again.  What did these men model that modern Christians often miss?

    Today, when people are led to Jesus Christ for the first time, many of them linger around him, worship him and spend time praising his name.  The focus of such believers remains on Jesus and what Jesus did for them.  While this is commendable, this was not what Jesus asked his followers to do. Jesus wanted believers to scatter all over the world and sow their verbal and behavioral seeds among others.   (Matthew 28:19)

    One afternoon, I was working late on repairing the front doors of my former church when a mechanic came to do major surgery on the office copier. He was way behind schedule and wanted to finish that evening.  Upon completing his work, he discussed with me everything that he had done and explained why the work was necessary.  He asked me sign his work order.  As I was doing so I noticed that he had drawn a fish at the bottom of the document.

    I said, “Ah, the fish!”  He said, “Do you know about the fish?”  I said, “Yes, I do.  During the years of Christian persecution, the sign of the fish was a symbol that was recognized only by those who knew its meaning.”  He said, “I have not heard such recognition from anyone in a long time.”  I am sure he assumed that I was a church handyman.  

    He continued, “For me, the fish is my sign to God that I have done the best work I know how to do on your copier.”  I asked him where he went to church.  He said, “I am Egyptian and I belong to a Coptic Church near my home.”  He said, “It is so nice to find a brother who understands.” 

    He was taking his faith into the world and doing so as a technician that worked on healing copiers.   Every time he repaired an office machine, he was witnessing to his faith even if no one noticed.  This is what the three astrologers did.  They visited Jesus as an infant and left without anyone outside the family knowing.  What is amazing is that someone did notice.

    They could not have known that the gifts they left at Jesus’ crib side were destined to supply the needs of his mom and dad as they fled into Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.  It never occurred to them that 2000 years in the future, we would be singing a Christmas carol about them at the end of our service. They would never realize that their generosity created the tradition of people giving gifts to one another around the birth of Jesus. 

    In his book entitled, Letters to Marc About Jesus, Professor Henry Nouwen of Boston University School of Theology wrote:

The people of the world often desire publicity, celebrity status, popularity and gaining the maximum exposure for themselves when they engage in acts of compassion.  God, however, appears to prefer to work in secret.  It would do well for people to follow God’s example.  In God’s infinite mind, the things that really matter seldom take place in a way that people will notice. The spread of God’s creative behavior and attitude patterns all over the world comes mostly from unknown people that do their work quietly and without fanfare. Notoriety is not something they seek.  Perhaps the greatest saints are those that remain anonymous!

    This was the model left for us by the three astrologers.  They accomplished what they set out to do and never realized what they left behind.  The only reason we know about these three men is because someone talked about it and the story of their appearance was circulating at the time Matthew’s Gospel was being written.  

    This same model appeared when Jesus observed a widow dropping two copper coins into the Temple treasury.  He was teaching his disciples a lesson on financial generosity. Jesus said, “I tell you that she put in more than all the others.”  He knew that with the gift of those two coins, she had given away all the money she had left.   (Luke 21:3)  We do not know her name but every Christian in the world knows what she did.

    This may be one of the ways Jesus’ teachings were spread. We oldsters used to refer to this way of communicating as the grape vine.  What Jesus could never have foreseen is that some of his followers would remember his teachings and stories and still others would preserve them in writing for future generations – all before printing presses, movies and a book called The Bible.

    The other morning I watched how a story unfolding in today’s world gained wide social recognition even though such attention was never the intention of any of the participants.  A woman walked out of a Florida Wal-Mart with a cart loaded with groceries without paying for them.  The police were notified and she was apprehended as she was transferring the groceries from the cart to her car.  The arresting officer listened to her story.  The woman claimed that she had three children at home that had not eaten in days. 

    Before making the arrest, the curious officer wanted to check the accuracy of her story.  The two drove to her home in the officer’s cruiser and the policewoman found her three children at home where there was not a single thing to eat. That officer paid for the woman’s groceries.  Upon learning what the officer did, the Wal-Mart manager contacted the media because this was a human-interest story that had to be told.  Since it was Christmas, the story made most of the Florida channels.  We saw it here in Bermuda.    

    The officer and the mother were both interviewed.  The mother had been trying to find work in her field for months and she literally had run out of money.  She was desperate.  She had to feed her children even if that meant that she would be arrested and her children would be taken from her.

    Someone watching the story on television called the police station to find out more details about the woman. The police could not disclose anything to the caller due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.  However, when he told the police who he was and that he intended to offer the woman a job that paid a living wage, they cooperated.

    Wal-Mart dropped the charges.  She accepted the new position being offered and the story ended well.  This story unfolded as it did because a mother risked the unity of her family for the sake of her children.  She was prepared to vanish in the  legal system just as the astrologers vanished when they left Bethlehem.  She was not aware that anyone noticed or even cared.

       As was mentioned last Sunday, one third of the world’s population is Christian.  The spread of Jesus’ life and teachings happened because for thousands of years, average people loved one another in its many forms.  Love is contagious and easily spreads from one generation to the next.  No one really knows or cares about who may be watching.

    Who knows what might have happened to Jesus, had those astrologers not left their gifts?  Perhaps the three really were one of those invisible lynchpins in history that connected the unfolding of Jesus’ life to how he influenced humankind’s destiny. We know the story of what happened only because someone noticed and remembered. 

    Today, we have hindsight to connect the dots.  We are here, experiencing our worship service because the Magi helped Jesus to survive his childhood.  We never know how insignificant events are connected.  Perhaps Professor Henry Nouwen has it right -- “In God’s infinite mind the things that really matter seldom take place in a way that people will notice.”

Now it is our turn to keep the Jesus’ truth visible in our lives.  God will do the rest.