Friending Jesus

Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind the insiders what they’ve got. Question: When was the last time you went to the Woodruff Arts Center? Or took the Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad? When was the last time you visited the King Center or went to the World of Coke? It was probably the last time you had guests in town, wasn’t it?

Elizabeth and I lived in Chicago for seven years. The only time we ever went to the top of the Sears Tower was when our families came to visit. Seven years we lived there, a quick ten minute train ride away; and we probably went there three times.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind the insiders what they’ve got.

That’s the essence of the lesson from Matthew this morning. There are two competing theories about where these Magi are from. The word “Magi” is a Persian word, referring to the Zoroastrian priestly class. And the three gifts – the gold, frankincense, and myrrh – never appear in Biblical literature together, but were common Persian temple sacrifices. On the other hand, the text we read from Isaiah talks about Midian and Ephah and Sheba, all regions of Arabia. The phrase “the East” in Scripture usually means “the other side of the Jordan River”. And frankincense is native to the Arabian Peninsula.

Whatever the reality, whether these visitors to the Christ child are Persian or Arab, in the eyes of the Jerusalemites, they ain’t from around here. It was every bit as unimaginable then as it would be today: Persians and Arabs paying homage at the feet of a Jewish infant.

Let’s back up the story a little bit. For four hundred years the people have been awaiting Messiah. All the learned scholars of Jewish Scripture had deciphered the texts, ready to read the signs. They knew what to look for, and where to find it. Out of the blue, these foreigners come to Jerusalem looking for an infant king. Herod, who is a mere figurehead king, holding onto his pitiful power so that the Romans can continue to rule, consults these scholars: “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

“Bethlehem,” they tell him. And they even recite the text from Micah, something about this little town of Judah who will bring forth a ruler.

Four hundred years they’ve been waiting for Messiah: yearning, pleading, hoping, begging, waiting. And as soon as the possibility arises that the Messiah is here, all they can do is tell Herod how to MapQuest Bethlehem. Meanwhile Herod, supposedly the protector of his people, decides that this Messiah person must be wiped out! Why would they do this? Why wouldn’t they go with the Magi, pay homage themselves, and welcome the Messiah for whom they have waited so long?

I do want to give these folks the benefit of the doubt. I’m guessing that this wasn’t the first time that Herod or the religious scholars heard these claims. The “boy who cried Messiah” was probably a pretty familiar occurrence around Jerusalem. In the modern day city, in fact, there is an illness called “Jerusalem Syndrome” whereby visitors to the holy city become so overwhelmed with the emotion of being in the place that they become convinced that they are the Messiah, or Jesus returned, or the rightful heir to King David. In the ancient longing for deliverance, it is fairly likely that Messianic claims were a dime a dozen.

But I don’t want to let them off the hook too easily. After all, the text lets us know that all of Jerusalem was terrified. If this kind of thing happened regularly, it’s doubtful that it would have thrown the whole city into panic. Instead, there must have been something markedly different about this time. Foreign visitors, priests of another religion, had come at the beckoning of the heavens themselves to meet the Savior of another tribe, another nation.

It causes me to wonder if this has more to do with the fact that Herod and his coterie of scholars and functionaries have everything to lose. If these Magi are right, if they have read the stars correctly, then it won’t be long before Herod is replaced by the rightful heir to David’s throne. And all of the knowledge that the scholars have accrued – and the power it has brought them – it will soon become completely irrelevant. We are no longer waiting for Messiah; Messiah has come!

Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind the insiders what they’ve got. But that doesn’t mean that the insiders will pay attention.

What does that mean for us? Is there something for us in this lesson of the Magi who seem know the truth more readily than those who ought to grasp it? Could this be a warning for those of us inside the church to pay closer attention to what those we have considered “outsiders” have to say?

We live in a radically changing culture. This is a familiar refrain in my preaching, I know. The place in society for churches like OPC is up for grabs. The days are long gone when you can simply build a church in a neighborhood and expect people to show up because you have opened the doors.

And folks, we are not alone in this challenge by any means. The size of a church doesn’t matter a whole lot. The only thing a larger community gets you, it seems, is a little more time. In a way, we have been like those religion scholars sitting in Jerusalem, hanging onto the minutiae of religious life, with our own language of narthexes and intinctions and benedictions while the world outside has ceased to care what we have to offer, more eager to scan the horizon for heavenly signs that might point them to a living, breathing, yet vulnerable reality of God at work.

I come to you with this not as one of the Magi, but as a fellow Pharisee who sees a world that is very unlike the world I knew as a child. I am unsure of what is to come, but I am convicted of two things: it won’t be like it was, and it will be in the hands of God.

I don’t have a magic star to point to as a guiding light; but I am convinced that OPC is a unique community, one that can ride the waves of a changing world, be changed by it faithfully, and come out stronger and more committed to the ministry Christ has called us to.

It has been a few years since we started using the tagline “the community is our congregation.” But the truth is that this self-identity is in the DNA of this place. For 62 years OPC has lived by this conviction, seeking to make this little corner of God’s world a better place.

And the ability to adapt is particularly remarkable. When I talk to colleagues in ministry about the creativity and openness about OPC, they are stunned. By way of example, I relate one story that happened about a year after I arrived here. It was All Saints Day, and we decided to sing “When the Saints Go Marching In” in worship. Not only were we singing a hymn that wasn’t in the hymnal, we were doing it with drums! As I stood at the door shaking hands, Ralston Woods – some of you remember him, I’m sure – greeted me in the line: “There was only one thing wrong with that song…” I braced myself…“It was too short!”

You do know that churches split and ultimately collapse under their own weight over things we have done without much fanfare at all. Drums? Guitars? LCD projectors? Coffee in the Sanctuary?

And that leads me into what I love about this church the most: you are not people convinced that we’ve got it all figured out. We may have some glimpse of it, but we are more likely to struggle through it together, knowing we don’t know it all, but willing to try and figure it out. Especially in the world we live in, that’s a kind of Christian community that is desperately needed!

And I’m also convinced that it is this collective wisdom which is going to help us read the signs in the sky as we continue our journey toward a thriving faith in a world that is, much like Jerusalem, terrified at the possibilities.

We have posted a congregational survey online. And as you do, I especially invite you to read the initial letter from the Session. It gives a concise summary of our current situation and how we can find our way forward. We will also hold a town hall forum three weeks from today on January 29 immediately following worship.

Above all, I invite your prayers for our church – not for our own sake, but for the sake of our calling as God’s people. At times like this, the temptation can be strong to turn inward: to treat surveys as customer service evaluations, to circle the protective wagons against “them”, whoever “they” might be. Instead, I trust that we are being nudged to keep an eye out for the Magi. May we have the wisdom to hear them!