Faith United Methodist Church
January 5, 2014
Epiphany Sunday
Rev. Krista-Beth Atwood

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

Prayer of Illumination:

May we, like the Magi, have a star to guide us on our journey to find the one who will truly set us free.  May this time of worship bring us closer to you, that the good news of the birth of light and love will transform our lives.  Amen.

SermonA Messiah for Outsiders 

Have you ever felt like an outsider?  Maybe it was your first day in a new workplace or school, when everyone else knew each other but no one knew you.  Maybe it was when you moved to a different state (or country even) and encountered different foods and different ways of speaking.  Maybe it was the first time you came to this church and were singing unfamiliar songs and seeing unfamiliar faces.

I grew up in a small town, went to the same small church from the time I was an infant, and attended one school that housed K-8th grade.  I didn’t know what it felt like to be an outsider until I started high school.  Coming from small town, we were sent off to the larger towns around us to go to high school.  There were three different high schools we could go to.  I went to Edward Little High School in Auburn, ME because they had a good marching band.  My small town friends weren’t so interested in marching band and chose one of the other high schools to attend.

On the first day of marching band practice ~ before school even started ~ I walked out on the football field to a sea of unfamiliar faces.  Most of the other students had grown up in Auburn and gone to school together for years.  They all knew each other, but I didn’t know anyone.  After practicing for the morning, we took our bag lunches to the bleachers.  Holding my flute and my bag lunch, I approached the bleachers tentatively, not sure where to sit.  Then, out of nowhere, one of the color-guard girls ran up to me and asked me to sit with her.  She introduced me to her friends who soon became my friends; Joelle the clarinet player, Beth the saxophone player, Ryan the trumpet player, Dave the trombone player.  That’s all it took.  I was no longer an outsider.  I fit right in.

The Magi ~ or Wise Men or Kings as we call them ~ were outsiders to the extreme.  The Scripture tells us they came from the East.  They likely had come from Assyria, Babylon or Persia.  If we look back at our Biblical history we will see that each of those empires had been hostile and waged war against Israel.  These men from the East were outsiders likely to raise suspicion riding into Jerusalem on their camels.  Yet ride they did, right up to King Herod’s palace to ask directions to where they might find the King of the Jews.

Can you imagine riding up to the King’s house and saying, “We know you are the king, but we are looking for the real King of the Jews.  Do you know where we might find him?”  Herod was known to be a jealous and arrogant king, even to the point of killing members of his family to solidify his reign.  The Magi were lucky he didn’t execute them on the spot.  Probably the only reason he didn’t was because he wanted to know what they found.  “Go,” he told them, “and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him bring me word so that I may also go and worship him.”  We know from last week’s reading that what Herod really wanted to do was kill the child.  While the kings of the East sought to worship Jesus, his own king sought to murder him.

Thankfully we know how this familiar story ends.  The Magi found Jesus and, indeed, worshipped him.  They gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Impractical gifts for a child, but gifts fit for a king.  Then, being warned in a dream, the Magi ditched Herod and headed back East by another road.  Joseph, after also being warned in a dream, took Jesus and Mary to Egypt before Herod could make good on his threats.  And thus ends what we traditionally think of as the Christmas story.

So why are the Magi, these Wise Men, these ‘Eastern Intellectuals’ (as Walter Brueggeman calls them) so important to our understanding of Christmas?   Well, for one thing they give us a place in the story.   Up until their arrival the story takes place within the story of the people of Israel.  The main characters ~ from Mary and Joseph to Elizabeth and Zechariah and even the Shepherds ~ are Jewish.  It’s an insider’s story.  The Magi show us that Jesus reaches beyond the bounds of nation and religion to all the world.  We gentiles are more like the magi than any other characters in the story.  As David Lose wrote for the Center of Biblical Preaching, “The arrival of these wandering astrologers signals that the reach of God’s embrace is broadening considerably, that there is no longer ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, but that all are included in God’s plan of salvation.”

Unfortunately, even today, there are outsiders to the Christian message.  There are those who do not feel a part of God’s salvation story.  There are those who can’t believe that the story was truly meant for them.  The Magi tell us that all are welcome and all belong.  And it is now up to us ~ the original outsiders ~ to communicate God’s message of salvation for all.  This requires us to consider how we might have limited the message of the Gospel?  Is this truly a place where everyone ~ even the Magi with their camels ~ would feel welcome?  And how can we open up the story on behalf of the whole community of insiders and outsiders alike?

As Kate Huey put it in her Lectionary reflections, “We strangers from a distant land and far-off time want to kneel with the wise ones from the East in awe and joy for the gift before us.”  God comes in unexpected places to unexpected people.  When we give too much power to labels like ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’, we might just miss what God is doing.  As I learned on the first day of marching band ~ and many times since ~ the labels ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ only have as much power as one is willing to give them.  Thank God for those Wise Men with their bold questions and smelly camels.  Directed by God, they were the first ones to point out that we all belong.  May we, modern day Magi, do the same.  Amen.