United Methodist Magi

Even though most of our nativity scenes have them, the Wise Men aren’t usually the most popular characters in the Nativity. My wife, Nanci, has a Nativity set that she got several years ago. The pieces come separately, so for the last few Christmases she has received new pieces to complete the scene. The first year she got the centerpiece: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The next year she got a shepherd, some stars for the background, and even a sheep or two. This year she finally got the Wise Men. That is a little like how we treat the Wise Men in the Church. We get Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we get the shepherds; but, it’s hard to get the Wise Men. Even though they’re usually there at the manger, these three strangely dressed foreigners kneeling off to the side with their presents neatly in their arms and their camels waiting to skip town, sometimes they’re little more than window-dressing on the manger. Most of the time we don’t look to the Magi for any sort of spiritual or practical insight. Yet, today is Epiphany Sunday, a time we set aside once a year to remember their place in the story of Jesus Christ. I believe there is a lot more to the Wise Men than meets the eye. In fact, I think that we have a lot to learn from them, especially as United Methodists.

Everyone who has joined the United Methodist Church has taken membership vows signaling their commitment to be disciples of Jesus. When my family first transferred our membership to become United Methodists we had to respond to this same question, “As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries, by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service?” We said we would, and like everyone else who has ever said these words we didn’t give a single thought to the Wise Men as we said it. Yet, I think they serve as a perfect model to remind us of the magnitude of what we agree to when we commit to join the Church. We promise to faithfully participate in the Church’s ministries with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service – the same four things the Wise Men offered Jesus. Let me explain.

These foreign mystery men pop on the scene not long after Jesus’ birth. It is very likely that these Wise Men (or Magi) were royal priests from Persia (which we know as Iran). In this era of history, the birth of those destined for greatness was said to be accompanied by signs in the stars and heavens, and these men were highly regarded for their abilities to interpret just these sorts of things. Like many people who eventually end up in the Church, the Wise Men were seekers. They were people who weren’t happy with the status quo of their lives, and as a result searched in the only way they knew how for answers to life’s deepest and most important questions. Each night they searched the stars for any evidence of the mystery of the divine, and looked desperately for any spark that might help answer their most profound questions. One night as they examined their star charts and astrological tables, they saw something different. It appeared that there was a new King in Israel, a different kind of King than the world had ever known, one who would deliver his people. So they packed for the trip, and began a journey to be in the presence of this one to see if he was the answer. That’s what we promise to do when we agree to support the Church with our presence. We agree that there is something worth finding each time the Church meets to announce the Gospel, and we agree to simply be here. The Wise Men were the same way. They knew there was something worth finding in the presence of this newborn King and no distance or inconvenience could keep them away.

Once they arrived, they went through the streets of Jerusalem asking everyone where this new King was to be found. Obviously, they thought, such a miraculous and monumental birth would be common knowledge. Yet it seemed as if no one had heard anything. It appeared as if Jerusalem was going about business as usual. King Herod, who had been appointed by the Roman authorities as the official King, was still in charge. Of course, he wasn’t even an Israelite. In fact, he was an Edomite, one of the cultures most hated by Israel. So when Herod’s informants reported there were foreign dignitaries in town looking for a new King, he immediately sensed trouble. Like everyone else, he had heard the common hope for a King from David’s line, and if this had truly happened, his reign was in serious jeopardy. So he called for his Jewish cultural advisors. “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” he asked. They reminded him of the prophet Micah and assured him that it was clear that it would happen in Bethlehem.[1] So he called the Wise Men and sent them to Bethlehem under the pretense that he wanted to worship this new King. When they entered Bethlehem, led by the star, they entered the house where Mary and the child were and knelt down in worship before Jesus. There at the feet of Jesus, they embody our promise to support the work of God in the Church through our prayers. Prayer is both spoken and unspoken, but it can also be more than words. It can be the very posture we take at the feet of our Lord, like when we kneel when receiving Holy Communion. The Wise Men are a picture of the believer kneeling in humble prayer. When we enter fully into the life of the Church, we promise to submit our hearts, minds, and lives to Jesus in prayer.

They then offer Jesus gifts fit for royalty: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Over the years, Christian interpreters have attached a great deal of symbolic meaning to each of these gifts, but at their very simplest they are gifts fit for a king, the best money could buy. When we enter into a committed relationship with Christ and join the church, we promise to give Christ nothing but the best. We promise to offer Christ gifts fit for a king, and the most profound and personal gift we have to give is the gift of our lives: our time, our talents, our skills, and our wealth. The Wise Men were wise enough to give Jesus the very best, and we are truly wise when we do the same.

After their gifts, the Wise Men reached a point of decision. Who would they serve? Were they going to serve the King appointed by Rome (Herod) or the King appointed by God (the Christ Child)? Were they going to go back to Herod and report they had found the threat to his Kingdom or were they going to serve Christ and leave unannounced? We face these exact same moments of decision. Are we going to follow Jesus without fear, or are we going to continue to wait because of fear or hesitation for whatever reason? The Wise Men made their decision in service to Christ and left without responding to Herod. In spite of the possible consequences, they refused to serve the “so-called King” Herod, and served the true King Jesus. When we promise to support the Church with our service, we make a decision and a promise to God. In our membership vows, we commit our lives to choosing the true king over any other pretender. We commit our lives to choosing Christ in situations when any other choice might be safer or comfortable or more acceptable. That’s true service and it’s the commitment and promise we make.

Unfortunately, we never hear anything else about the Wise Men in the bible. They ride off into the sunset and are never seen again. It’s enough to make us wonder about the decisions they made once they returned home. Did they continue to live out this pattern of commitment to the new King? Did they try to share their experience with others and become witnesses to Jesus? The bible doesn’t answer this questions and I think I know why. We’re called today to answer these questions with our own lives. We’re called to finish the story of the Wise men. Our lives with Jesus are not over just because we answer yes to following Christ by supporting the Church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. We’re asked to continue to live in this four-fold promise of discipleship. We’re also called to invite everyone we know and love to help us finish the Wise Men’s story. Today each one of us has a choice for 2008. We can continue to live in commitment to Christ and the church through our presence and gifts, or we can choose to live only for ourselves. We can choose to follow Christ into new avenues of service and commitment or we can choose to be satisfied with resting on our laurels. I know the choice I want to make, I know the choice we most need to make, and I believe I know the choice we all want to make. In 2008, let’s commit to live up to the vows we’ve made, let’s decide to really follow Jesus, and let’s invite others to join us on this journey. When we offer this as our Epiphany gift to the Christ Child, God will continue to be powerfully in our midst, and will constantly challenge and transform us in the New Year ahead!


[1] Micah 5:2