By Shane Bennett
Unless you go to a really cool church, Epiphany may have slipped by last weekend without notice. And that’s too bad. The speaker where I went on Sunday didn’t even mention it all (yeah, that was me!) But my friend Chris did, and he agreed to let me borrow liberally from his sermon. Which is good, because the story most of us commemorate with Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi to honor Jesus, is fascinating and chock full of challenge and hope.
Ever wonder how it went down?
There’s Mary, maybe making dinner, scolding Jesus for wearing his diaper on his head and pondering things in her heart, when the nosy neighbor kid from down the street barrels in shouting, “Hey, Mary! Hey, Mary! Hey, Mary!” She turns, raises her eyebrows and waits for the report. “There’s some weird guys and they look rich and I think they’re looking for you guys and I don’t know where they’re from, but they smell funny.” Mary wipes her hands, drops Jesus back into his nappy, and goes to the gate. When she opens it, her hand goes to her mouth. The towel falls to the ground.
Matthew doesn’t tell us what the magi said, but that they were both very happy and very humbled. That evening, with most of the town peeking in, they bowed before the boy, opened the goodie bags, and honored the king they’d journeyed so far to meet.
I like these guys for a few reasons. Not just because they logged a gazillion desert miles to see Jesus, while I sometimes won’t even open the Bible app on my phone!
1. They’re Gentiles.
First off, as far as we know, they were the first Gentiles to recognize who this kid was. They were the first outsiders to honor, worship, and adore the messiah. By doing so, they begin to live out what Paul would later say in Ephesians 2 and 3, that the “mystery of the gospel,” hidden from other generations but revealed by the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, is that through Jesus Christ, the Gentiles have been welcomed into God’s family. The walls of division between Jews and Gentiles have been torn down.
This happens, Paul says, because Jesus “broke down the dividing wall of hostility” and “reconciled us both [Jews and Gentiles] to God in one body through the cross.”
The gifts of the wise men foreshadow that reconciling death of Jesus. They bring gold because he is a king, incense because he is God, and myrrh because it is a burial spice, foretelling Jesus’s death.
2. They brought their unique treasures.
Secondly, coming from “the East,” the gifts the Magi bring represent the cultures and places of their home. Myrrh came from Arabia and Ethiopia. It was imported to Israel. Likewise, frankincense. This is significant as a picture of each of the world’s cultures offering to God their unique treasures. One day people from every tribe, language, people, and nation will worship Christ. They will do that in part by offering back to God the most beautiful aspects of their own culture. We see a picture of this in Revelation 21 where the “kings of the earth bring . . . the glory and honor of the nations” into the holy city. The best aspects, the treasures of every culture, are invited into the kingdom of God and offered back to the Creator who is the giver of every good gift.
What about your culture? What gifts have been planted deep in your tribe? How about in the people group you are working with? Of course it’s easier to point out the flaws of various cultures. Goodness knows mine has some issues: We think we can fix every problem. We’ve taken individualism to amazing heights (At least I have). And we seem to have an insatiable appetite for more and more stuff! On the other hand, I believe God has also knit into American culture special traits and abilities designed to contribute to his kingdom, to be offered to him in worship. Treading lightly here, I believe God has given Americans a deeply rooted sense that things can get better. We believe that suffering can decrease, hope can increase, and that we can be agents to that end.
Perhaps you’ve seen similar giftedness in your culture or cultures with which you’ve worked. I think of the depth and passion I’ve experienced praying with Korean believers, the warmth of family loyalty shared between a Memon mother and her kids, or the great hope and persistence that carries my Gambian friends in search of a safe and secure life in Sicily. The glory of God is reflected in the many thousands of facets of the peoples he has created.
The great missional hymn “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” wraps up with these words, “Let every creature rise and bring peculiar honors to our King.” Indeed. We’ve all been made in the likeness of God, but all with unique gifts reflective of our own place and time and people.
3. They asked the right question.
Finally, I appreciate the magi because their words, though brief, are most important: “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?” Certainly they said more. Imagine the words it must have taken to convince Mary and Joseph that they really could keep the gifts! (And I hope at least one of them played “I’ve got your nose” with Jesus.) But all Matthew sees fit to record is this question: “Where is he? Where is the one?”
Oh how I need to ask that question. Where is the king in my life? Where is the king in this current political climate? Where is Jesus when 65 million people, more than ever before in history, are displaced from their homes?
Even as I ask that question, here is my hope for this new year: That more people from more people groups will ask along with the magi, “Where is the one born king of the Jews. We want to worship him.”
May those of us who know him be on hand to show them.