Pagans at the party

January 6, 2011

Growing up in the church, I knew all about the three wise men (although the
Bible doesn't actually say how many magi were there). But I'm not sure I
had ever heard of Epiphany. Like a lot of people, we just had the wise men show up with the shepherds at Christmas. They're still there
with those shepherds at the manger in the nativity set on display in our
living room.

But of course the Nativity story is in Luke and the Wise Men in
Matthew.  While tradition and convenience has joined the two stories
together, the point of Epiphany sometimes gets lost in the process. 
Matthew doesn't actually tell any of the events at Jesus' birth. 
There's a pregnant Mary and an angel visiting Joseph and then a mention
that a baby was born and named Jesus.

Sometime later, perhaps as long as two years later, magi from the east
come because they have seen a sign in the heavens.  These magi seem to
be astrologers of some sort.  Perhaps they are Zoroastrians.  But one
thing is certain.  They are Gentiles and Gentiles who follow the stars
to boot.  And so in Matthew's gospel the first people to visit the young
Messiah, the first to worship him, are about as far from a good Jew as
you can get.  They are pagans, outsiders extraordinaire.  And their
appearance in Jerusalem as they search for a new king frightens the
religious insiders, not to mention the person currently claiming the
title of king.

In Matthew, Jesus' birth is welcomed by outsiders, by pagans, and it
instills fear in those who are heavily invested in the religious status
quo, the political status quo, or both.  But all these years later,
Jesus seems not at all a threat to insiders, while we insiders still
often look down on outsiders.

I'm happy to keep the Wise Men a part of the creche at my house, and it
doesn't bother me at all if we sing "We Three Kings" at a Christmas
service.  But I think we would do well to take the time to embrace the
unsettling message of Epiphany, where outsiders find it easy to accept
the new day Jesus heralds, and insiders fret because they are more or
less happy with things as they are.

May the joy and promise of Epiphany touch you and inspire you to give your all to the King.

Originally posted at Pastor James.