“Welcome for the Outsider”

Epiphany of the Lord

January 3, 2016


Text: Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12


          Matthew’s Gospel tells us there was much consternation in King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem the day the magi showed up at the door, asking “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east, and have come to honor him.” For one thing, there was no baby in the palace at the time. For another, these magi were not Jews. They were outsiders, Gentile astrologers from far away. In addition, Judaism has never had much use for astrology. It is rather a marvel that they were even taken seriously.

          But then, Herod was not all that devout a Jew himself. I imagine a highly devout Jew would have had a difficult time serving as a puppet king who reigned at the behest of the Roman emperor. Herod also seems to have been a bit paranoid. Of course, it has also been said, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you”, and Herod may have had good reason not to feel secure in his position. At any rate, when Herod got wind of the magi’s inquiry, he sensed a threat to his own power. He was aware of the prophecies about the coming Messiah, the king who would one day make Israel great again, so he gathered the religious leaders and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. They responded with Micah’s prophecy that he would be born in Bethlehem. So Herod secretly called the magi, found out when the star had appeared, then sent them to Bethlehem to find the child and report back to him. Of course, that plan got foiled by a dream telling the magi to go home without reporting to Herod. Herod responded by attempting to get rid of this new king by ordering the slaughter of all the boys under the age of two in and around Bethlehem. Of course, God had already sent an angel to warn Joseph in a dream that Herod was seeking Jesus’ life, and the Holy Family had fled to Egypt.

          I wonder what Mary thought and felt when these strangers from faraway places arrived at the house where she, Joseph, and the Christ Child were living in Bethlehem. It must have been an amazing experience to watch a group of distinguished-looking foreigners kneel before her little boy to honor him, and then give him expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We do not know what words were spoken between them, if any. All we know is that they came, knelt, gave, and left.

          Both Isaiah and our psalm today tell of people, even rulers, from far lands coming to Israel, bringing gifts in tribute to God’s Anointed One, the Chosen Ruler, the Messiah. They would come because they recognized God shining through this Chosen One. They would come because they would learn of this ruler who rules with justice and righteousness, who is kind and fair to the poor and needy. These foreign peoples and their gifts would be welcomed as they came to honor this king and the God this king served.

          All these foreigners who are mentioned are described in the Bible as Gentiles, which is the term used there for anyone who is not Jewish. Gentiles were generally regarded as outsiders to God’s people and God’s promises. Yet in today’s Scriptures we have a different story—a story in which outsiders are welcomed into the presence of the Lord, bringing their worship and their gifts to God.

          In the stories of Jesus’ ministry, we note that he developed a growing awareness that the reason he came to earth was bigger than just Israel. Although at first he said he came only for the “lost sheep of Israel”, he had a number of encounters with Gentiles, such as the Syrophoenician woman whose child Jesus healed and the Roman centurion whose slave he healed, in which he discovered genuine faith in God outside the boundaries of the Jewish people.

          After Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and after the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, the first Christians also thought of themselves as being an exclusively Jewish movement. But then God guided Peter to the house of a Roman centurion named Cornelius to tell him and his household about Jesus. They believed, God’s Holy Spirit came upon them, and Peter saw that if God chose to do this, he needed to baptize them, welcoming these Gentiles as part of God’s people in Christ. God guided Philip to approach an Ethiopian official (another Gentile) traveling through the desert, and Philip shared the good news of Jesus Christ with the official. The official believed, and Philip baptized him.

          The Apostle Paul further developed the idea that God accepts Gentiles. He understood that the Good News is that God has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile and has made all who trust in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, members of one body and equal inheritors of God’s promises. Paul asserts that this was God’s secret plan all along, but had waited until the time of the early church to fully make it known. In Christ, God has chosen to welcome the outsider as part of God’s people.

          There is in Christian history a rich tradition of welcoming outsiders. Benedictine monks for instance, are taught to welcome all guests to their monasteries as if they are welcoming Christ. And throughout the centuries the church has provided sanctuary and refuge for outsiders who otherwise would have been in harm’s way.

          Unfortunately, there is also within Christian history an exclusive streak that rejects outsiders. There are people among our co-religionists who seem to believe that being Christian somehow makes them superior to those who are not, and have used that attitude to discriminate against outsiders. For instance, for most of the 2000 years Christianity has existed, many who called themselves Christians discriminated against Jews, treated them with contempt, accused them of being Christ-killers, and in some cases, killed them. They did this in spite of the fact that Jesus, his disciples, the Apostle Paul, and all of the heroes of the Old Testament were Jews.

          Sometimes Christians with an exclusive streak have directed their contempt at other Christians. Some of us are old enough to remember when there was a lot of distrust between Protestants and Catholics. That has only subsided in the last 50 years or so. Today it seems like the contempt and distrust is between so-called conservatives and so-called liberals, often within the same denomination. I wish we Christians would quit defining ourselves and each other by using political terms. When we use political terms to define ourselves, we mock the truth that we are one in Christ. Jesus himself told Pontius Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world. It is not to be defined by human politics.

          At present in this land there is once again a movement against welcoming outsiders, especially immigrants from Latin America and Muslims. The criminal actions of a few such people are being used as justification to exclude all.

          As I look at exclusionary movements throughout history, both in the church and in society, I see one common element in all of them is fear. Fear of what is different. Fear of the stranger. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being harmed. Now a certain amount of such fear is understandable. But we belong to a God whose word to us is “do not be afraid”. That’s what the angel Gabriel said to Mary right before telling her she was to be the mother of God’s Son. That’s what the angel told the shepherds when he announced to them the birth of Jesus. And the magi, when warned in a dream not to follow Herod’s orders to return to him with a report on where they found the Christ Child, chose to obey God rather than fear Herod.

          The story of the Epiphany, the coming of the Magi, demonstrates God’s welcome for the outsider. Indeed, the central truth of our faith is that Christ died and rose again to bring all people, insiders and outsiders alike, into relationship with God as one people. This faith also calls us to welcome the outsider, the stranger, the outcast, those who are different than we are, with the hospitality of Christ. We live in a time when many of us find that hard. But it is the way of Christ. God grant us the grace to follow his way.


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