I used to have a Hebrew professor who would give us a passage in the Hebrew. We were to translate it and then interpret it. I gave this one sermon, which was just outstanding, I thought. And the class also greatly enjoyed it. The professor smiled approvingly after I was finished. He then said these words, which I shall never forget: “Mr. Milton, this was a tremendous sermon. Too bad your translation and interpretation are completely wrong. But don’t let the truth of the Bible from interfering with your sermons Mr. Milton!” Ouch. Well, I think about that when I think about the legends of the Magi and then what we actually have. First, while there were, indeed, three gifts, there is nothing in the Scripture to indicate there were three Magi.
On the other hand, there could have been! So much for “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” I still like to sing it. But I always think of my Hebrew professor when I do! Another thing is that while the Magi must have come before Jesus was around two years old, for Herod found out about this and order the massacre of infant boys under two, it is almost certain that the Magi did not come to Jesus as a new born.
But enough of that. They did come after Jesus was born and there were three gifts and maybe three Magi. But we don’t preach what is not there, but what is there.
TS Elliot wrote in his Four Quartets: “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.”
The presence of these unexpected visitors to the birth of Jesus is a hint at what God was getting at in the Incarnation. What is so unexpected about these visitors? What makes them so unique to this story? What is the message of the Magi to us today?
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod, the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
‘ “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”’
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way” (Matthew 2.1-12 ESV).
Introduction to the Sermon
In 1967 at the height of racial tension in this country, Stanley Kramer made a movie about a young black man, portrayed by the distinguished actor Sidney Portier, who was engaged to a young white woman, portrayed by Katherine Houghton. The tension of the movie was not just that they were going to be married, in a culture struggling over civil rights for all, but that the woman had invited the Sidney Portier character to her parent’s home without ever telling them that her finance was black. The movie won an Oscar, and the movie’s name was “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The theme of the movie may have been uncomfortable, but it had a powerful message.
“Guess who’s coming to dinner” could be the title to sometimes in my life—not over race relations, but over the questions of why would God bring certain people into my life? And what was the message He was trying to get to me? For instance, when God brought a boss I used to have into my life, it was a big “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” moment. You see, I had enjoyed a boss who was my real friend. He was encouraging, tender towards the things of God, a supporter of me and the way I did things. But God brought a new boss into my life that was just the opposite of my previous boss. He was anything but encouraging, did not go to church and did not like Christians, and did not like the way I did things. “Why is this guy in my life?” is what I was thinking. But you, know, while he was an unexpected visitor into my life, and I would have never imagined him showing up in the movie of my life, in the end, my boss pushed me to excellence that I would not have achieved without him, he forced me to live out my faith before an antagonist and my boss became a Christian. And when I was unsure about “leaving a career to follow call” he encouraged me to go into the ministry. This unexpected visitor in my life ended up having a message from God for my life.
Have you ever had any “guess who’s coming to dinner” moments in your life? Where God sends unexpected visitors into your life? Where God challenges you in new ways through people, you would have never placed in your life yourself, if you were in charge? Maybe some of you have some unbelieving bosses in your lives today. Maybe some of you are going to have some antagonistic relatives in your lives this Christmas season. Maybe you are going to be at an office party this week, and you are going to have to deal with that unexpected person that has showed up in your life that you just as soon would not be there.
Maybe the unexpected visitor in your life is a struggle you have never dealt with before. Maybe you have always had it easy in school, but now, this professor that you never expected has come to you and things are hard. I have talked to some blended families who have told me, “I never expected that I would have to learn how to be comfortable in my own home, but I am having to learn how to live with strangers, and it is hard.”
“Guess who is coming to dinner?” In Matthew, we could ask, “Guess who’s coming into the kingdom?” Because, of all the Gospel writers, Matthew is the usually considered the most Jewish. Yet it is in Matthew that come to meet these strange, odd, unexpected visitors to the Christmas story called the wise men, or in the Greek, the Magi. Time magazine this week, in an article on the events surrounding Christ’s birth, quoted a New Testament theologian who said that the presence of the Magi at the birth of Christ was like Iranian Ayatollahs having a convention in Nebraska. They just don’t seem to belong in the picture!
But God is always inviting unexpected people and events into our lives to wean us from unconcern for others, selfish isolation, self-sufficiency, and supposed control. He is forever upsetting our preconceived notions of who is in and who is out of the kingdom. He is always stirring up the pot to reveal that His grace was greater than we ever imagined. He is always turning things upside down, always bringing us to face Him by shaking our world. And I believe that God speaks to us today through unexpected visitors—the Magi.
What is the message of the Magi to us today?
The First Message: God Wants to Reveal Himself to all Religions
First, the term Magi means—not wise men—but magicians, astrologers. They were pagans from the Orient. Perhaps they were practitioners of a sort of proto-Zoroastrianism or another ancient Eastern religion.
The Wise Men, as they are called, were not very wise in one sense after all. They were magicians, sorcerers from the East. Some have suggested that they came from Persia or modern day Iran. Some say from modern day Iraq and some same from Arabia. The text does not say anything except “Magi from the east.” And we do know from both the account in Scripture and from archeological evidence and ancient literature that astrology was a widespread practice in the ancient world. What is most unexpected about these astrologers, these magicians coming here is that the Bible says that God hates and will punish sorcery and those who practice magic. There were times when God’s own people followed the very practices that we see in this passage. For instance, Manasseh did this in 2 Chronicles 33, and we read:
2 Chronicles 33.1, “Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-five years. 2 He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, following the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.”
Well, what did Manasseh do that brought God’s wrath upon him? We read in verse 3:
“He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had demolished; he also erected altars to the Baals and made Asherah poles. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them.”
And in verse 5 we read:
“In both courts of the temple of the LORD, he built altars to all the starry hosts. 6 He sacrificed his sons in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practiced sorcery, divination and witchcraft, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the LORD, provoking him to anger.”
So, the unexpected visitors who came to find Jesus did what God hated. Paul wrote about such people who practice these things in Galatians and there we read:
“ The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft…” (Gal. 5:19-20).
And Paul goes on to charge: “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
All through the Bible in cases too frequent to mention in this message, God condemns the very kind of thing that these men practiced. So, what gives?
God was up to something. God in Christ was going to reconcile the world, and that meant that the world, which had turned away from God and turned to idols, were candidates for God’s salvation.
And so, Paul and Barnabus, on their first missionary journey encounter those who practice such things but we, not their response. Turn in your Bibles with me to Acts chapter 14. There we see how God, through Paul, reaches out to people in other religions:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
Paul shows respect to them by even quoting their own pagan poets, but then turns to proclaim the truth of the One True God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
Paul is just following the Lord who reached out to these pagan Magi. Is what we see at Bethlehem in the case of the Magi? The reverence they have, the wonder they seek, the longing they have in their breasts is now unveiled as a God-given impulse. Religion exists because Man is essentially a religious creature. He needs wonder and awe. But in Jesus Christ, we have God’s response to the impulse. In Christ alone, we have the wonder of wonders that satisfies our longing hearts.
Here, then, is the first message of these pagan, astrologer-magi who were led to Jesus in God’s Word:
- God’s message through the Magi is that He wants to reveal His Son to all religions
- God seeks pagans. And that means God seeks:
- Pagan Caribbeans who may be possessed by the powers of voodoo;
- Pagan Japanese who may be entangled in Shintuism;
- Pagan Middle Easterners deceived by Islam;
- Pagan Indians ensnared by the system of Hinduism;
- Pagan Africans entrapped by the powers of animism;
- And even pagan 21st century Americans caught in the worship of their own polytheistic gods: Entertainment, Pleasure, Sensuality, Greed, Pride, and Power.
A man I have grown close to in personal correspondence is one of our missionaries Phil Parshall and his wife, Julie. Phil and Julie minister to Muslims. Phil tells me of the struggles he has to minister to these people. He is frequently rejected. But he and Julie live among them, take the hits and keep going. And the reasons? He loves them. He loves them in spite of the sin he sees, the fraud he sees in their religion, their inability to keep the legalistic impositions made upon them, the hatred that brews against Christians, and the sad consequences of their own brand of paganism. But he loves them because Phil Parshall and Julie have experienced the love of God in their own lives. Thus, the God who drew Magi, pagans, to Himself, drew Phil Parshall to himself…and Mike Milton…and you. And thus, we have a God who loves us while we are still in our sins and leads us to see His glory while we are still in our paganism.
This is a God that is not finished with our world today. I think this passage has powerful implications for our world and our lives:
We need to look at our world as a harvest field of pre-Christians, not despised pagans. We need to look at our God as a God who is not interested in keeping our faith to ourselves. Our mission is our life. We are called to be taught and taught to be sent. To reach the world of pagans and unbelievers is our calling. We need to see that God sovereignly rules the world so that the enemies of Christ today may be evangelizing America tomorrow. Or, we need to believe that God is not finished with our nation yet. That God may send revival—and may He do it soon—and lead our people back to the Manger. We need to see that God can lead me back to Himself despite the foreign gods that have come into my life.
Well, that’s the first message of the Magi: God wants to reveal Himself to all religions.
The Second Message of the Magi: God Wants to Reach Out to all Races
Matthew is written to Jews. His introduction is different than Mark or Luke or John in that Matthew focuses on the Old Testament prophecies concerning Messiah. He wants the Jews to know that the Joshua they sought was the Joshua who had walked among them. But in spite of this—no, I think because of who he is writing to—Matthew also stresses that the salvation that has come through Jesus Christ has come for all.
The problem of “just us few and no more” was a perennial problem with the Jews. They forget that God chose them not because they had something to offer Him, but that it was His pleasure to use them to reach the world. The worldwide mission of God was always being brought back into focus by God as He dealt with His people Israel. And, again, the very genealogy of Jesus, shows the presence of Gentiles in his background.
So right amid the coming of the King of the Jews, we meet…Gentiles.
It is a challenge to the reader. Who will you pull for? The King of the Jews, Herod? He seeks to kill Jesus as he killed his own children out of fear that if this Jesus is to be king, he would take his throne. You are forced to identify with pagan Gentiles, who end not only worshipping Jesus but tricking Herod to protect the Infant King.
It is a big moment of God turning things upside down. And the second message is consistently clear in Scripture: God not only wants to reveal Himself to all religions but God’s message through the Magi is that He wants to reach out to all races.
That is not just a message for first century Hebrews, but for 21st Century American Christians in our town. It is a message for me. It is a message that John Wesley got when Anglican officials wanted him to preach within his own boundaries. John Wesley said, “The world is my parish.” We need to remember that: “The world is our parish.” We have no other option.
And we also learn that God sometimes uses those who are on the outside to remind us of just how precious the gift of salvation is. Matthew Henry, writing on this passage, said:
“Those who live at the greatest distance from the means of grace often use most diligence, and learn to know the most of Christ and his salvation.”
The church where I was a pastor in Chattanooga (First Presbyterian Church) was born as an outreach to the Cherokee Indians. Our church through the years had reached out, in the Name of Jesus, to Magi in our community, in our nation, and in our world. Where are those in this community? We must not waver one bit in our generation to shine His light so they can follow His “star” and follow Him home.
We are taught here that God does not want us to patronize anyone, but to evangelize everyone, especially those who are different from us. We should also pray that as so many people of the world are coming to our shores, that we would pray and labor to bring them to Christ right here. We should also ask, “How can we get our hearts ready should God in times to come choose to bring the world, not only into America but into this very fellowship? How do we prepare to receive unexpected visitors? How can we open our hearts to say, “Lord choose us to show the diversity and beauty of your Kingdom right here at our church?”
The Third Message: God Wants to Shake-up the Unconcerned
But what is interesting to me is this: The Magi came to worship the King of Kings and Lord of Lords because they came looking—not for a new precept, or a new power—they came looking for a Person: Jesus our Lord. Pagan Gentiles are looking for Jesus.
And this tells me God’s greatest message in these unexpected visitors:
God’s message through the Magi is that He intends to use the unexpected to shake up the unconcerned.
This may be the greatest lesson for me, personally. It was a problem for Jonah when God called him to preach the Gospel to his enemies, the Ninevites. It was the problem for the first-century church when certain teachers could not tolerate that entire new Gentile converts coming into the Church without adhering to Old Covenant rights.
This teaches me:
- I cannot just think of a God who is only for me, for my nation, for my people, but a God who is for the world.
- I cannot accept God’s grace in my life without being concerned for my neighbor next door and around the world.
Some of you know that I have a background in the study of Albanian, though Naval Intelligence (And to all Army and Air Force vets, no, Navy Intelligence is not a contradiction in terms!). Well, I did some mission work in Albania within weeks after the Iron Curtain fell in that tiny Balkan nation. And I will never forget preaching in a town in Northern Albania not far from Kosovo. We had obtained permission to preach in an outdoor location, at what we might call the town square. I finished preaching a message from Romans, and I invited the overflow crowd to come and take literature from my British friends who were with me on this trip. But suddenly, we heard sirens! And I looked over the crowds to see that the local police had encircled us. One of the officers made his way through the crowds and came right up to the platform where I was and told me in Albania, “You and your party are to go with me. This is by order of the chief of police for this city.” My British friends, who were very concerned, looked at me and began asking me, “What did he say?” I told them. And they looked even more concerned. “I thought you had permission?” I begin thinking, “Did I communicate properly? Did I miss something?” “Yes,” I said, “We have permission.” But one by one, we were loaded into that bus and off we went through the crowds and on our way to meet the chief. They took us to the only hotel in the town, the place where we were to stay that night, which surprised us. But we learned that this was not only the hotel but the only café in town and served as the headquarters of the police as well as the local hang out for teenagers and farmers and rogues and anyone else. Well, we were escorted into the café portion of this old run-down hotel, and there we saw this very large round table. And sitting there were these Albanian policemen and at the head of the table was a guy who looked like Robert De Niro. Everyone was drinking Turkish coffee, and I remember as I stood there I looked at the old man next Robert De Niro. He was toothless and was stretching his tongue, like one of the millions of sheep in Albania, to scoop up the sugary sweet coffee sediment at the bottom of the demitasse cup, and he was looking at me with his piercing blue, deep-set eyes. I thought to myself in that instant, “He looks to me like he is a spectator about to enjoy the American preacher being squeezed and then devoured, bit by bit, by his Python boss. This is not going to be fun.”
But as we entered “Robert De Niro” stood up and they all stood up at attention. Robert De Niro said, “I am chief of police. Welcome to our town.” I thought, “this is a nice welcome right before he executes me.” We understand you are preaching here.” I was just about to protest that I had obtained all the needed permission when he went on. “Please, I have gathered all of my men and many others from our humble village have come here to learn something. We are all Muslims. But we are here to ask you: will you tell us about this Jesus whom you preach?”
The single most important thing they wanted was what the Magi wanted and what I believe every religion and every race is drawn to: the wonder of Jesus. He is a wonder that theologians and scholars of the day missed, He is a miracle that intimidated earthly powers, but He was the desire of the heart that caused foreign astrologers to bow and worship.
What a perfect time, on this Sunday during Advent, for you too to bow down and worship Him.
There is a message in this passage: if you have become complacent with the Christmas story, let the Magi lead you, the searching of world religions stir you, the desire of all the nations, move you: to return to the most beautiful, most stirring, most amazing feature of our faith: Jesus. Let us make much of Jesus. Let us focus our faith on Jesus. Let our assemblies be centered on the worship of Jesus. Let our theology find its center in Jesus. Let us be about world missions to broadcast the name of Jesus. Let us love Jesus.
You see, it just may be that the most unexpected visitor to our Christmas this year is Jesus. And wouldn’t that be magical?