Unexpected Inclusion of the Gentiles
Ephesians 3: 5-10, Matthew 2: 1-12
Unexpected Inclusion of the Gentiles
There is a lot that had to happen for us to get the story of the wise men. Sometimes I don’t think that we understand all that had to happen here. First things first, we see that God sends a message in the stars to tell us the messiah has come. Then we have wise men from the east, astrologers in the land of Persia, that are looking for the message; they’re looking into the stars ready to receive it. They receive the message. They understand the message. All that is necessary.
But all that doesn’t matter if they don’t act on the message. You see these are wise men from the land of Persia, which is in modern day Iran. In order to act upon this message, they are having to load up camels and go from Iran through Northern Iraq, through southern Turkey, through modern day Lebanon or Syria area, and down into the center of Israel: Jerusalem. This is a long journey for probably six months on camel back, maybe longer. That is not a simple thing to do for a message from the stars, but they do it; they act upon the message and they leave for Israel.
But God is not done sending messages. Next we have a message that when they arrive in Jerusalem they’re looking for the king, so they arrive in Jerusalem and they inquire: “where is the king of the Jews to be born?” And all of a sudden they get a new message. This message comes from scripture: the chief priests tell them, “well, God said the the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, which is a little town just down the road over there. There is nothing special about them, but you’re welcome to go if you want to.” They get this message, and they listen to this message, and they respond to this message. And when they arrive in Bethlehem, God gives them the location of Jesus, and there they pay homage. There are many messages that God shows the wise men in the story that ultimately lead them to the ability to worship the Messiah. But if any of those messages are not acted upon, then we wouldn’t have this.
Furthermore these messages would have been severely unexpected. It was not the way I’m sure they expect things to go. These are Persian astrologers that these messages are sending her to pay homage to a great king. And they were expecting to one day see that there would be a great king born, to see that message in the stars. I doubt they expected that it would be from so far away from Persia though. This is not being told to go see a great king next door to them where they are, but rather to go to Judea; a backwater forgotten land that they had conquered the people who conquered the people who conquered this land centuries ago. And God says to go there for a great king. Not what they expected I’m sure.
Now, I will say it is possible that these wise men we’re actually Jews. We know that there was a community that was settled there. We know that from the book of Esther. They would’ve come from the area where that community was; where Mordecai and Esther were, Esther became queen of Persia; so we know that there were Jews there. But if these were of Jewish descent, they probably were not practicing Jews; after all we don’t have much astrology in Jewish practice. And also they would definitely have been considered outsiders by the people of Jerusalem. These are gentiles, whether they were Jewish decent or not, and I don’t think they would’ve anticipated that the sign of a birth of a God or very powerful king would direct them to Jerusalem. I’m sure they would’ve anticipated a location closer to them; or at least directing them to a powerful location, like maybe going to Rome or something like that.
We can see this in action because the star directs them to Judea and the first place to go is the palace. They don’t just start asking around on the streets, they go directly to the palace expecting this to be in a place of power. And here is another unexpected way that God talks to them through this: Jesus wasn’t in the palace, the palace didn’t even know he had been born. There wasn’t pomp and circumstance around this birth. That would’ve been unexpected to them. God was telling them, “I am not normal. I am not going to do this in the normal way. This is not going to be like what you would expect from humans. When I come, I’m coming to be with the poor and the marginalized and the ones society doesn’t accept.”
And while that would’ve been surprising for them, they remain open to God working through them; open to being led by God, and they accept these surprising turns of events. And furthermore, after being ordered by the king to come back to him and tell him where the Christ child was so that he too could go and worship, they receive another final message from God saying “don’t do that.” And they disobey the earthly rulers in order to follow the Godly ruler. They may not of understood, but they did not believe themselves to know more than God, they simply accept the new direction that they were getting, confusing as it may be.
Now we have to remember that they’re not the only ones getting new and unexpected messages. The wise men also were a new and unexpected message the Jewish people of that time, especially the leaders. The Jewish leaders expected that the Messiah would be only for the Jews. Now if you look in the Old Testament, scripture clearly tells them otherwise. There’s plenty of passages where God is saying that all the nations will come to worship at my temple. But they were overlooking those and focusing in on the exclusive passages, and they believe the Messiah would be only for them.
Yet here come some gentiles that show up seeking to worship the messiah. They have been told that the messiah has been born and they want to worship the Messiah. And yet the Jews, the Jewish leaders have received no messages about the Messiah‘s birth. What is going on here? Why have the Gentiles have received a message that the Messiah was born and not us? Well you might be able to guess why they hadn’t received the message. The message was in the stars. And in all likelihood God is not going to be able to send a message in the stars to Iran without it also showing up in Israel. The Jews had not received the message that the Messiah was born because they weren’t looking for it. They would’ve been able to see that same sign if they were looking for it. This arrival of the Gentiles to come and worship the Messiah was the first in a very quick succession of messages from God to the Jewish people to say, “it’s not all about you. Those Gentiles, those people you call others, I care about them too.” And God would send that message in quick succession time, and time, and time again. Salvation was open to the Gentiles as well.
The Jews are also receiving a message here to look outside the power structure of the Roman empire that they had become so comfortable with. This also is simply a reminder, but they still receive a message with the wise men. The wise men hear that the messiah will come from that little backwater town just down the road, but they got that message too. They read it to the wise men. They’re being reminded that the Messiah‘s not coming from Jerusalem, he’s not coming from Caesarea, the capital of the region, he’s coming for a little bread baking town just down the road.
The magi come from even further outside the power structure than that. They come from outside the Roman empire. Yet, God seems to be talking to them, God seems to be using them, they seem to be doing just fine. Maybe we don’t need to rely upon the Romans for our safety and our security, but rather we should be relying upon God for safety and our security. If that message wasn’t delivered by the wise men, it should definitely have been delivered by Herod. Because after the wise men disobey, and by the way no punishment for that befalls them, Herod goes and kills every baby in the town of Bethlehem to ensure that this Messiah does not challenge him. I repeat, in an effort to ensure his own life, he kills a multitude of Jewish citizens in a hunt to destroy the Jewish Savior. That should have been a message about what the Roman power structure is good for to the Jewish leaders. This all should’ve been reminders of things they already know, but they don’t seem to remember.
The problem of course is that they missed these messages. They don’t seem to understand any of it. Or if they do understand, they don’t seem open to it. They either are so closed that part of the message does not stick with them, or it just simply goes right over their heads.
I’d like to think that if God is is hitting them so much with the same kind of message that it couldn’t have gone over their heads every single time, so they must’ve gotten the message. But then they don’t keep it, they don’t act on it the way the wise men did; which means that they were either too ingrained in their position to be willing to give it up (maybe Herod will kill the peasants down in Bethlehem, but we’re safe here in Jerusalem so we’re fine. We’re just gonna keep going), or they receive the message and then begin to rationalize it; to argue with themselves about how they they possibly misunderstood the message, or why it’s OK for them to ignore the message. And I recognize that at least I sometimes will do this, to maybe convince myself when getting a message from God that it’s maybe not from God, or that I’m misunderstanding it, to beginning to argue with myself because I didn’t like it. Maybe you did too.
And actually I think there’s more Scriptural evidence that this is the case here. You see, we see them continue to get the message; like I said this is a quick succession of messages from God that they needed to change, that it’s not all about them, that salvation is open to everyone and not just the rich and priestly castes. And the Pharisees and the the chief priests are there for all of them. They’re with John out in the wilderness doing his baptism thing, preaching about a new way and that the Messiah was coming; reminding them of those wise men who came and visited the palace one day. And the Pharisees and Sadducees are there on the sidelines judging, not listening. Or when Jesus actually shows up and he begins to minister and go around, talk and and preach in in Nazareth and Capernaum and Galilee, they go out they try and trap him in his words by asking him the kinds of questions with no answers they had puzzled them for ages instead of listening to him; they try and get them to trip on his own words so that they can discredit him. But then it doesn’t work. He solves the questions that puzzled them for decades. When all that fails, they try and argue with him. And with that fails they try and remove the message. They don’t want to hear it, and so they fight against it and they fight against God. And then 51 days later, it shows up again; standing before the council the form of Peter and John. And they order them to stop. They are doing everything they can to remove the message instead of listening to it and instead of acting on it.
Meanwhile, the Christians are beginning to receive these constant messages from God, and they were beginning to to understand it. We’ll look a little more on what how they they go through that next week. But here, they begin to understand that God salvation is for the Ethiopian Jewish community, and maybe even for the Samaritans, and that eventually they understand for all the Gentiles; that Christ is open to them too. We see that they’ve gotten the message by the time Paul is writing in Ephesians passage that was read today: “it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”. The Christians are beginning to get the message, or the Christians are beginning to get the idea, that God is changing the way things have always worked.
Now just to be fair, it is worth noting that some of the Jewish Council was getting it too. We see glimpses of people perhaps recognizing that maybe something is going on. When Peter and John are before the council is the biggest example of this: one of the members of the council speaks up and says, “you know, every other time there’s been a message we didn’t like it we got rid of it it and it stayed away. This one won’t go away. Maybe we should stop and see if it’s really of God.” They didn’t ultimately come to the conclusion that it was, they continued to fight it, but at least one of them suggested maybe we should stop and think for a moment. And we see individuals: Nicodemus comes at night, not to try and trap Jesus, but to give an honest question. Joseph of Arimathea appears to have at least been somewhat sympathetic to Jesus and risks everything to come in to try and give a criminal, a person who’s been convicted of a blaspheming God, to give that criminal and honest burial. That seems to be someone who is beginning to think that maybe there’s more to this guy, maybe I need to start making amends with my God. And of course there is the story of Paul himself, a Pharisee disciple and one of the the up-and-coming leaders of the of the pharisees, who has that abrupt change on the way to Damascus and becomes a leader member of the church and the one driving this push to the Gentiles. This is the first Christians understanding that God was still sending them a message through the Spirit, through the work of Christ, through the things that were happening around them, even after Easter, even after Pentecost. And they open themselves up to any new message that came from God.
In their time that was about the Gentiles. And for 2000 years God has continued to send us messages, continue to mold us and shape us: shape our beliefs, shape our understanding of the world. And I believe that God still sends messages to us today. The question is: are we open to hearing a new word from God? This week I want you to stop for a moment, to slow down a little bit, to pray; pray for an open heart and willing spirit. But also, I want you to watch the stars, if you will, in your life. Be looking for messages from God. Be open to one of those signs. And then watch yourself, to ensure that you are not trying to argue with God, but that you do what you hear the Spirit saying. Made that be so with us. Amen.