In the second chapter of Matthew, verses 1 through 12, we find the story of the Magi. The Bible says it happened after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judea. So, Jesus was born five and a half miles south of Jerusalem. Matthew goes on to pinpoint the date. It was when King Herod sat on the throne. He sat on the throne for thirty-three years, from 37 – 4 B.C. He was appointed to his position by the Roman Senate. Over two thousand years later, he is still remembered for being ruthless and insecure. His insecurity led him to murder many in his family: his wife, three sons, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and uncles. In our reading for today, we learn his murderous ways extended beyond the family. You know what the Bible says.
One day, Magi, Gentile astrologers from Persia or southern Arabia, (both east of Palestine), came to visit Herod. They had been studying the stars and had discovered that God was doing something new. A baby had been born, who was called King of the Jews. They assumed the King of the Jews would be born in the palace. They assumed wrong. The infamous insecure King Herod is thrown into a tirade. His insecurity fuels the loss of more human life. The story does not have a happy ending. It pains me to say it. Using the information received from the Magi about this divine birth, he orders the death of all baby boys under the age of two. However, in the end, the Magi find the baby, now a toddler. (Jesus could have been two years old.)
I have preached this story for years, but it is only recently I discovered something new. It is something I have overlooked my entire life. It is not that Jesus was a toddler, not a newborn. It is not that they were Magi, not kings. It is not the meaning behind the gifts. My new insight was that the gifts were accepted. It is hard to see thousands of years later. Joseph and Mary received the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Think about it for moment. When you accept a gift, you are accepting the gift giver. Joseph and Mary accepted the Magi’s gifts, so they were accepting the Magi themselves. It does not sound so earthshaking now, but it was then. This Jewish couple accepted this group of three Gentiles. That rarely, if ever, happened. At the time of this story, accepting the Magi was, and is, a big deal. Just think about it for a moment.
From the time of Abraham to the time of Jesus, God had an exclusive relationship with the Jews. That covers thousands of years. The Hebrew nation took pride in the fact that they were God’s Chosen People. The purity of their race was important to them. They took pride in their heritage, and they disdained for everyone else. Either you were a Jew, or you were not. That is why genealogies were important to them. In the previous chapter, Matthew proves to the readers, Jews, that Jesus was 100% Jewish. That is why the Jews hated the Samaritans. They were almost Jewish, not good enough. Who were the Samaritans? They were the descendants of former Jews who had intermarried with Gentiles during the exile. Through Jewish eyes, they were half-breeds and hated for polluting the race. The purity of the race is extremely important to the Jews. That is what makes this story so amazing. This Jewish couple, Joseph, and Mary, accept these Gentiles, the Magi. Not only do they accept them, but they accept their gifts. Can I ask you a question? When was the last time you didn’t feel accepted? In the Bible lesson for today, the issue is racism. We understand racism because sadly, it is still part of our world.
I have never experienced the magic of Pittsburgh. Some people see it as a magical place. Some believe, heaven looks a great deal like Pittsburgh. I am not one of them. Don’t get me wrong. There are a few nice streets crowded in between the rivers and the hills. Can I confess something to you? I can never drive into Pittsburgh and not get lost. I am always going the wrong way on a one-way street. It is my experience that modern GPS is useless in Pittsburgh.
Several years ago, I was going to visit someone in one of the hospitals in Pittsburgh. Kathryn came along for company. Not to my surprise, we got lost. I break the stereotype and ask for directions when I get lost. Kathryn was driving, so I jumped out of the car. The closest place to ask for directions was a corner bar. When I walked in the place, it went silent. I do not want to sound racist, but the place went silent because I was the only person of non-color in the bar. I asked the first person I saw for directions. He was helpful. He pulled out a napkin that sat under his frosted beer mug and wrote down some directions. When I walked out, everyone started laughing. Racism is at the heart of that story and racism is at the heart of our Bible story. However, racism is not the only source of the problem. There are many reasons why we don’t accept others. Let me ask you the question again: When was the last time you didn’t feel accepted?
Several years ago, I officiated at a wedding at the Butler Museum of American Art in downtown Youngstown. To be more exact the wedding took place in the new Butler North, who was the former First Christian Church. The congregation had left, and the Holy Spirit went with them. The ceremony was stiff with canned music. My plan was to leave after the benediction, but the father of the bride asked me to stay and say at the reception in the art gallery. I was more than glad to stay, but I had stay about two hours. I called Kathryn and she agreed to meet me at the reception. However, that meant for two hours, I was on my own. I spent most of the time looking at the pieces of art. I tried to talk to people, but no one wanted to talk to me. I was identified as the minister, and no one wants to talk to the minister. I was alone in a crowd. I was not accepted. Have you ever been excluded because of your job? Let me ask you the question again: When was the last time you didn’t feel accepted? You know it is true. Sometimes, we exclude ourselves because we do not feel like we belong.
Personally, I find New Year’s Eve to be depressing, after the great day of Christmas. We always go somewhere to escape the festivities of New Year’s. One year, we went to Annapolis. It was a great trip. We toured the Naval Academy and visited some historic sites. Annapolis was the Capitol of the United States for the first eight months after the Revolution. From Annapolis it moved to Trenton, New Jersey. The last day of our trip we went into Baltimore and toured the B & O Railroad Museum.
The last thing we did was go to a mansion called Evergreen. It was the home of one the B & O CEO’s. The building was impressive, filled with priceless art and collectibles. Our guide tried to impress us with all the pieces. Everyone was impressed, except for one person in the group, me! I just didn’t appreciate the various pieces. Don’t get me wrong. I have been exposed to some of the finest things in life. I have heard some of the finest music ever composed performed by some of the world’s finest orchestras. I have seen masterpieces in some of the finest art galleries in the world. The problem is not a lack of exposure, it is a lack of appreciation. Everyone on our tour appreciated what they were experiencing, except me. Once again, I was alone in a crowd. The guide and the group did nothing wrong. The problem wasn’t them. It was me. I didn’t feel like I belonged. By the end of the tour, people were sharing what they enjoyed the most in the house. Do you know what I enjoyed most? It was a photograph of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941). I really admired his large mustache. It was obvious. I just didn’t fit in with the rest of the group. It is entirely possible to exclude yourself. Let me ask you the question one more time: When was the last time you didn’t feel accepted?
That is what makes this morning’s story so incredible. It is a story of acceptance. A Jewish couple, Joseph, and Mary accepted a group of Gentiles. They aren’t just accepting them. They are emotionally embracing them by accepting their gifts. Here is the Good News for today: You are accepted too. Jesus didn’t just come to maintain God’s special relationship with the Jews. Jesus came so everyone can have a relationship with God. Jesus came so God can have a relationship with you. Never forget it. God loves you so much, he wants to spend eternity with you! Brian Tracy (born 1944) said it best, “The greatest gift that you can give someone is the gift of unconditional love and acceptance.”