Sermon for 01-01-12: “Journey to Bethlehem, Part 5: The Magi”

"Adoration or the Magi," Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337)

We conclude our sermon series “Journey to Bethlehem” by turning our attention to the Wise Men, or magi. These royal astrologers followed a star from Persia to Bethlehem in order to find the newborn king of the Jews.

Do you believe that God still gives signs today, which draw people to Jesus Christ? Have you ever considered that God may be calling you to be a compelling sign to others?

Sermon Text: Matthew 2:1-12

The following is my original manuscript.

Occasionally, when my children were babies, I had the privilege of giving them a bottle in the middle of the night and feeding them. While I was feeding or rocking them to sleep, I would listen to a syndicated radio show that comes on in the middle of the night called “Coast to Coast.” Some of you know this show. It features guests and callers who often talk about UFOs—including Area 51 and Roswell and various conspiracy theories purporting to show how aliens from outer space have visited our planet, and our government has covered up the evidence. I wish I could suspend my disbelief and buy into these conspiracy theories because it seems like fun! It’s fun to speculate about intelligent life on other planets, although scientifically it seems very unlikely. It’s fun to speculate, for example, how aliens living trillions of miles away are reacting to the Beatles now that the radio waves from the first Ed Sullivan Show appearance are reaching them.

Looking for alien life over the past hundred years hasn’t just been for kooks and crackpots and eccentrics. It has been the subject of serious scientific inquiry. One government-funded project has monitored outer space for alien radio frequencies—so that we might, for example, tune into whatever TV or radio shows aliens on other planets are watching or listening to. So far, no luck. But there are serious people out there, even now, watching the stars and waiting for potentially world-changing news.

In a way, these UFO watchers are doing the same thing that the magi were doing in today’s scripture.

Who were these magi? They were probably Persians, from what is now modern-day Iran. They probably practiced a religion known as Zoroastrianism, which is still practiced today by at least a small group of people in the Middle East. They were the astronomers of their age: They were experts on the stars and the motion of the planets. That’s why this Star of Bethlehem, whatever it was, probably wasn’t like the star described in “Do You Hear What I Hear?” It wasn’t something that just any average layperson would notice. But for people like these magi who made their living studying the stars, the Star of Bethlehem would have been very significant. Like our modern-day UFO watchers, the magi scanned the night sky, looking for cosmic clues and signs—only not about signs of life on other planets or events happening trillions of miles away, but events happening right here on earth. See, these magi were also astrologers. They believed, along with many ancient people, that events in the heavens foretold important events on earth—like, for example, the birth of a new king of the Jews.

Jews living in the first century, by contrast, including Matthew himself, would have regarded the field of astrology as pagan hogwash. And Matthew isn’t telling us that it’s now O.K. for us to consult horoscopes and psychics and Tarot cards for clues about our future.

What he’s telling us by including this story of the magi is that God loves the whole world, that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for the whole world, that Jesus came for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. God wants to reach everyone in the world with the good news of salvation, even these nonbelievers from a faraway land. By giving these magi a star, it’s as if God were translating the gospel into a language that they could uniquely understand—“So, do you try to read the stars for important news? Let me give you the best news of all. Let me point you to my Son, the Good Shepherd who came to seek and save the lost.”

If this is true, however, then it follows that God did not give the magi this heavenly sign as a way of reassuring them that they were all right just as they were; that their religion and their faith was just fine, so long as they sincerely believed it and didn’t hurt anyone else. No! God gave them this sign so that they, too, could find Jesus and be saved. As Peter said in the Book of Acts: “Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.”[1]

This is not a popular or politically correct message in our day and age, but it is the only message in the Bible. One modern objection to this idea is that it would be unfair or unloving of God to condemn people for failing to believe in Jesus—it’s unfair or unloving of God that people would go to hell who haven’t received the good news found only in the gospel.

My response is that people stand condemned and bound for hell not because they fail to believe in Jesus but because they’re sinners, and their sin has separated them from a holy God. Sin is the problem. It’s not a problem that God created, but it is a problem that God, out of an incomprehensible love for us, sent his Son to solve. In other words, the coming of Christ didn’t create a problem for people who failed to believe in him; it solved a problem for people who through faith would receive his free gift of forgiveness, grace, and eternal life.

In his painfully funny and candid spiritual memoir Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller describes his experience auditing classes at Reed College in Portland. Reed is where Apple founder Steve Jobs went for a semester or two before dropping out. Its academics are stellar, but Miller called it the most famously “godless” college campus in America. He was part of a tiny campus Christian organization, who worked to be witnesses in a hostile environment. In one part of the book he describes a girl he befriended and fell in love with at the college (he was always falling in love). Like so many others on campus, she was an atheist. He talked to her frequently about the Christian faith and urged her to give Jesus a try.

For a long time, she resisted until one night when, for the first time in her life, she felt the weight of a burden that she couldn’t even describe. She said she felt an overwhelming sense of guilt over the evil she had done and felt a strong need for forgiveness. She became painfully aware of the many ways she hurt other people and herself. She needed forgiveness, even though she wasn’t quite sure from whom she needed forgiveness or how to receive it.

Keep in mind, she wasn’t what anyone would call a bad person by any stretch. She hadn’t committed any crimes; she was hardly an axe-murderer or anything. She was a nice, normal person like most people. She was probably kinder than most people! But even though she didn’t yet believe in God, she recognized that she was a sinner in need of forgiveness. My point is that Christianity doesn’t invent a problem for which faith in Christ is the answer; the problem already exists, as Miller’s friend discovered. Out of love, Miller helped his friend find the solution to her problem.

Just think: You and I know people who also need to have their sins forgiven.

If Christ is the solution to our problem with sin, it would be incredibly unloving on God’s part to keep this gift to himself—to not give people far and wide, to the ends of the earth, the opportunity to hear it and receive it for themselves. So God gave the magi a sign. And God still gives these kind of signs—a musician may find a sign pointing to God in a beautiful piece of music; an astronomer may find a sign pointing to God in the beauty of the cosmos; a book-lover may find a sign pointing to God in the beauty of great literature. This kind of thing happens all the time. The signs are out there for people who are open to them.

The most important signs, however, are ordinary Christians like, well… Donald Miller. And ordinary Christian people like you and me. In his book The Journey, pastor Adam Hamilton writes: “Just as the angels [in Luke’s gospel] point to God’s call on our lives to be God’s messengers today—demonstrating, speaking, and bringing good news of great joy to others by our words and actions—the star itself points to our role of pointing people of other faiths [or no faith at all] to Jesus. We are meant to be a compelling sign that draws others to Christ.”[2]

Have you followed all the recent controversy surrounding Tim Tebow this football season? I happen to think that if your name becomes associated with praying, then that probably means you’re doing something right! Of course he’s being unfairly criticized and mocked! That sort of thing will happen sometimes when we try to be faithful to the Lord. Go back and read what people used to say about John Wesley, for instance! It happens.

Tebow said in an interview I heard last week that when he was a kid he met Heisman-winning quarterback Danny Wuerffel at his church. Wuerffel was a guest speaker and met people afterwards for pictures and autographs. Tebow said there were, like, 75 people in line in front of him, but Wuerffel still happily gave his time and attention to Tebow and his brother. It made a lasting impression on him. He said that he tries to do the same thing for kids and fans today. “If you can make a difference in people’s lives, that’s more important than anything else”—including winning Heisman trophies and national championships.” And I’m sure he would say it’s even more important than leading your unlikely NFL to a playoff berth, which I hope he does.

Tim Tebow is a compelling sign drawing others to Christ. In my own way, I want to be like that! I can’t do it like Tim Tebow, but I can do it like Brent White. And that’s good enough. That’s all God wants me to do. And you can do it in your own way, too. You can be a “compelling sign.”

In last week’s Christmas Day sermon I had the opportunity to share with the church at large the message about the “75 percent,” and it bears repeating. In fact, I think we should keep talking about it. I think the “75 percent” ought to inspire and motivate and guide all our ministry in this year ahead.

The 75 percent refers to the three-out-of-four people living within a 10-mile radius of our church who never attend a religious service—of any kind. They don’t go to any church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. Seventy-five percent! These people need Jesus. These people need God’s gift of forgiveness, grace, and salvation. These people need a compelling sign drawing them to Christ. And God is calling us—both the Alpharetta First United Methodist Church and our Vinebranch community—to be that sign.

Now I’m perfectly happy with any church who’s faithful in reaching the 75 percent with the good news of Jesus Christ. I don’t care whether it’s Northpoint, Stone Creek, First Baptist, First Presbyterian, St. Aidan’s, Thomas Aquinas, St. James, or AFUMC, but—good heavens!—if three out of four people around here never darken the door of any church, who can possibly say that we’re doing enough? Who can possibly say that our work isn’t cut out for us? Who can possibly say there isn’t plenty more work for all of us churches and all of Christians to do?

We Christians are missing the point if our hearts aren’t burning within us to reach these lost people. How are we not like the very devout priest or Levite walking by the wounded and dying man on the side of the road if we simply ignore these 75 percent and say, “Other people will help him.” We’re not arrogant in thinking that we have all the answers; no, we’re sinners just like everyone else. It’s just that we found the answer to our sin problem in Jesus, and out of love we want other people to find this answer for themselves! Someone said that evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. That’s what we’re doing. The question is, do we love people enough to share Jesus Christ with them or not?

You and I have what it takes to be a compelling sign drawing people to Christ! Will we be faithful?

I wonder if we Christians—and Methodists are especially bad about this—I wonder if we tell ourselves, contrary to today’s scripture, that everyone is O.K., just as they are, with or without a personal relationship with Christ, in order to make us feel better about our own negligence when it comes to being a witness for Christ.

Why don’t we decide this morning that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, this area of our Christian is going to change? Today! That this time next year we’re going to be able to look back on 2012 and say, “I did everything I could—everything God asked me to do—to be a compelling sign drawing others to Christ.” I did everything the Lord asked me to do to reach the 75 percent. Let that be our prayer today. Amen.

[1] Acts 4:12 CEB

[2] Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 122.

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