Monday, January 10, 2011

Worship with the Wise Men

Matthew 2:1-12, Epiphany observed

Among my brother’s youthful adventures was time spent cris-crossing the country with a traveling carnival. For me, that’s just NOT my scene. I don’t like rides anyway, and the traveling variety scare me much more than the theme park rides. I’m not into the food. I don’t like the side shows – they are people, not freaks – and I don’t do fortune tellers, horoscopes, Tarot, palm reading, crystal balls, astrology.

Biblically, the whole fortune-telling thing is prohibited, a way we redirect the trust we should have only in our God. And the stories bear that out:

Peter to Simon “Magus”
Acts 8:20-21 "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God's gift with money! 21 You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God.

Paul to Elymas/Bar-Jesus
Acts 13:10 "You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy

Why talk about carnivals and fortune-telling? These “Magi” were magicians, they dealt in the esoteric, in the spirituality of signs, in sorcery, in astrology. And, the title “Magi” is used for both Simon and for Elymas. Now, the Magi in the Jesus story were probably a cut above the average. They were wealthy enough, or had other indicators of status, to be taken seriously by Herod and, according to the story, “all Jerusalem with him”. But “kings” they were not, and we have no idea how many of them there were. That’s the Christmas carol, not the Bible story. Nevertheless, we’ve got the carol in the service today because the carol is ultimately not about the kings or magi or wise guys but about the gifts they bring and the star they follow.

It is a reminder that the mission of Jesus takes us in unexpected directions, crossing boundaries that may not be comfortable, and that we just might find ourselves kneeling shoulder-to-shoulder with folks that we at first might not accept, but which Jesus is happy to welcome. It is a reminder, too, that we have a lot to learn from the “other” – it was Magi, not Bible scholars, that were looking for Jesus. And it was Magi, not Bible scholars, that found him. There’s no room for pride at the feet of Jesus.

Years ago, I was using MapQuest to get to my destination. But MapQuest, at least at that time, didn’t realize that a bridge was under construction. I ended up having to do a little bit of extra work to get where I was going. A friend of mine used to say that MapQuest could get you into the right church, but not into the right pew. The technology has come a long way, but sometimes we still have to stop and actually ASK for directions.

Notice that about the story. The Magi had the star, they read the signs, they used all their arts, but they could not find the Christ without asking for directions – the faith community – and without the prophets – the Bible. The sign, on its own, was not adequate. Next week, we begin a series of messages on the will of God. But here’s a simple note from this story: Reading the signs isn’t what it is about. You’ll discover and live the will of God through the faith community and the Scriptures – so get into a Sunday School class or another small group where you can dig deeper and learn with others.

Ever received gifts that just don’t fit? Sometimes folks just don’t get it, sometimes they might be trying to send a message. My dad always thought that the neck of a dress shirt should be half an inch smaller than I found comfortable. When, as a youth, I complained about how tight it was, he always managed to stick two fingers under the collar and say, “That fits just fine.”

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh don’t fit with typical shower gifts. But they fit perfectly with Jesus – with who he is and his calling in the world. Jesus is the new King of the Jews, and gold is fit for a king. Jesus is God and Jesus is the Great High Priest, and frankincense is part of ancient worship. Jesus dies for us, and myrrh was used as an embalming oil. It’s what I love about that “We Three Kings” carol – not the first verse, but the subsequent verses as they meditate on these gifts that fit Jesus perfectly.

When they show up at the house, they see Mary and the child and they “knelt down” and “paid him homage/worshiped him”. This act of worship was already changing the world, already calling kings to account, already altering the order of things. What was the act of worship? It was total dedication and commitment. The Greek term for “kneel” here is a word that means, literally, “fall” ... as another carol calls us to “fall on your knees, o hear the angel voices, o night divine, o night when Christ was born”. And the word for “pay him homage” or “worship him” means to – from a kneeling position – bow and place forehead to ground or bow and kiss the ground, kiss the hem, kiss the hand. This word for worship means that once we have humbled ourselves by kneeling, we lower ourselves still further. We abandon ourselves to Jesus.

Unlikely partners in mission
Stopping to ask for direction
Bearing gifts that fit just right
Falling to their knees in worship
Upending the world as they humble themselves

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming
With glowing hearts by his cradle we stand
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming
Here came the wise men from Orient land
The King of kings, lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger
Behold your king, before him lowly bend
Behold your king, before him lowly bend

Abandon yourself to Jesus today. We are using the Covenant Service, based on John Wesley’s 1755 adaptation of earlier services. It is an abandonment prayer for a new year, and I encourage you to kneel as we pray this together. Then, we’ll move directly into sharing together in Holy Communion and I invite you to kneel again at the altar after receiving the bread and cup.

Nadia Bolz-Weber,
Thayer's Greek Lexicon

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