What the Wise Men Can Teach Us About God

ma_or_kc_magi67

Journey of the Magi; Inquiry of King Herod (Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;  and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’

 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ After listening to the king, they went on their way.

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” Matthew 2:1-12

I’ve been thinking a lot about these Wise Men, often called the Magi or the Three Kings. Over the past 2,000 years, plenty of theories and legends about these men have circulated throughout the Church. In the Western Church, there is a legend that their names were Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, and that they were respected scholars. It’s been long-claimed that Melchior was Persian, Caspar was Indian, and Balthazar was Babylonian. Syrian Christians claim the names of the Magi to be Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. Ethiopian tradition calls them Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater. Armenians believe their names to be Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Meanwhile, Matthew never tells us their names, the number of these wise men, or their actual vocations. There is just about no indication that they are kings, though the Greek word magi (μάγοι) apparently may indicate that they were of a higher, priestly caste.

So what do we know about these men?

Not much. They were from the East. We don’t know if that means they were Persian, Babylonian, Indian, or something else completely. We don’t even know what religion they were. Many, such as the Swedish religious scholar Anders Hultgård, convincingly argue that these Wise Men were in fact Persian Zoroastrians, but again, that is never mentioned in the text. What seems evident enough is that they were not Jewish. They had to ask Jewish people about the scriptural prophecies on the messiah’s birth. They called this man, this baby, the “King of the Jews.” They even followed a star to find Jesus, which sounds awfully astrological to me.

And yet, these non-Jews, perhaps Zoroastrian, perhaps amateur or even seasoned astrologists, looked for Christ, found him, and worshiped him. They never converted to Judaism, they never articulated that this child was God or even Savior, but they knew they had to honor him. And today we venerate these men, often as saints, despite the fact that they never knew about the atoning sacrifice of Christ and never claimed to worship the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Not that we know of, at least.) And yet God led them to this baby, not to be evangelized to, and not to convince them of some doctrine or perform some saving ritual, but so that they may honor him and, I think, experience his presence.

It seems to me that these men knew God. Matthew tells us that God even spoke to them in a prophetic dream as they left Christ, warning them to not to return to the blood-thirsty Herod. God was pretty serious about talking to these men. Even though their religious practices and beliefs would not be considered orthodox by the Jews of their day or even modern Christians, God was with them, for them, and used them. It seems that God even used their own religious system, which in many ways was incompatible with Judaism, to do this.

This is shocking. And I think it’s part of the gospel.

In fact, it makes a lot of sense that God’s arrival on Earth in Christ would be kicked off with an invitation to these men. It seems to me that this was a glimpse into the heart of God. Paul reveals in 1 Timothy 4:10 that our God “is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.” This Savior is the Savior of all people. This good news is good news for all people. I even think this extends to those who do not identify as Christian or even as a Theist.

In Acts 17:16-34, Paul preaches in Athens among philosophers and worshipers of various gods, and appears to commend them for their religiosity as something fascinating and respectable. He boldly claims that their altar and worship to an “unknown god” is truly the “God who made the world and everything in it.” The God proclaimed by Paul “does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” He goes on to say that God “is not actually far from each of us, for in him we live and move and have our being.”

Jesus was prophesied to be Emanuel (Matt. 1:23)or God with us. The new covenant of Christ, revealed through his incarnation, his ministry, his death and resurrection, and even through Pentecost, make it clear that God is with usall of humanity, all of creation. It was the Church, the followers of Christ, who knew very early on that the Spirit was truly poured out on all people (Acts 2:17).

There is an inextinguishable hope for all people in Christ. 

I am confident that it is through Jesus that we can most perfectly know God and most fully inherit the abundant life he offered (Matt. 11:27, John 1:18, 6:37, 14:9, 2 Cor. 5:19, Col. 3:3). That being said, my pursuit of Quakerism has given me the courage to state something I’ve long known but also been hesitant to say out loud: there truly is that of God in everyone.

I have several friends who have left behind Christianity because of the toxic culture in the Church and their inability to have faith in the Christian God, and often any god. Some of them have turned to Buddhism, others dabble in self-help and New Age books and practices, while others have given up an active pursuit of spirituality. Most of these folks have come out of their de-conversion more fully themselves and I would even say more Christ-like. No longer are they hindered in their ability to love and accept others because of their church’s dogma, no longer are they trapped in a culture of condemnation and a phobia of anything academic, and they have found the freedom to ask hard questions and be true to themselves. I think I can see Jesus in that. I would dare to say it is a move of the Spirit.

After all, the life of Jesus illustrates that God will do anything to redeem all people, even if it requires meeting us where we are at and entering into our mess. If you can believe God is in the mess we call Evangelical Christianity—which so often looks like a rigid moralism rather than a spiritual path and which so often contradicts the message of Christ by advocating for violence, nationalism, and capitalism—then it can’t be too hard to accept that God is even working among those who do not know or believe in Jesus Christ.

It is because I believe in the Lordship of Jesus, the incarnation, and the atonement that I can declare that God is in and with all people.

Not only can I declare it, but I can see it and experience it.

Jesus opened my eyes to his sweet presence everywhere. For so long I was numb to that presence, that air of reverence, that breath of God, outside of the ministry of Christians-that-I-mostly-agreed-with. But the longer I’ve been walking with Jesus, I’ve come to discover how wicked that “us vs. them” version of the gospel was and I came to discover God’s presence outside of worship services and Christocentric settings. I came to know the presence of God as I watched my agnostic brother-in-law holding my nephew, as I delighted in the Hare Krishna devotees chanting on the street, and in long late-night conversations with elderly Moonies. I came to know that God was truly with us; all of us.

The Incarnation in the Absurd

Screen shot 2013-04-17 at 2.31.27 AM

When I was first exposed to a charismatic worship service, I experienced a bit of sensory overload. The shouting, the lights, the blowing of the shofar, the rapid speaking in tongues, the bodies twisting and falling over… it was all new and, to me, a bit much. Over time I learned to deal with flags, the arms raised and bodies swaying, and I even came to admire it and eventually participate in these forms of worship. That said, there was a long while where I could not help but judge the wackier practices and expressions of faith taking place. In fact, I still probably do judge these things. The “fire prayer” specifically annoyed me a great deal. For those foreign to charismania, this is when somebody lays hands on an individual and repeatedly declares “fire.” I dismissed it as manipulative and a futile attempt at prayer (and spirituality).  Yet I saw people fall down, shake, and weep as the chant of “fire, fire, fire” came out of the mouths of those ministering.

Now, the fire tunnel was even more of a joke. If you’re not familiar with fire tunnels, the picture above illustrates what they look like. A train of people go through a tunnel of those offering “ministry,” and hands are briefly laid on people for prophecy and prayer. Often those ministering simply yell “fire!” And again, I would see people very visible affected and moved by this experience. People would come out of the fire tunnel basking in the love of God, sometimes with uncontrollable laughter and other times in quiet tears.

Despite seeing all of this, I still could not help but think that these sincere, good people were obviously imbalanced.

I remember a few nights where I looked across the sanctuary and saw people laughing. I was genuinely disgusted by what I perceived to be irreverent and the result of either a mental illness or of a demon. One day, though, in all my doubt and cynicism, I found myself laughing for over 30 minutes during ministry time, having what old school Pentecostals would call a “glory fit.” I felt consumed by joy and overcome by the love of God.

After many months of worshiping alongside charismatics, I began having more and more emotional, strange, mysterious, and mystical experiences. My judgement towards the phenomena associated with Toronto Blessing and “river churches” started to die down, as I found myself laughing, weeping, shaking, and even struck completely still by God. I kept finding myself humbled by having the value of what I judged proven to me by the Holy Spirit herself.

Though I kept having my concept of discernment obliterated by the Holy Spirit, I still held on to as much cynicism as I could. Yes, I speak in tongues—and I even shake from time to time in prayer—and I have laughed in the Spirit and fell over before—but no, no, no, that ‘fire’ prayer is still ridiculous. As much as I felt so convinced of this, and as silly as the whole fire tunnel thing seemed, I jumped out of my seat when a fire tunnel was forming during one night of worship. Perhaps I was testing God, or perhaps it was a push from the Spirit, or maybe I just wanted to experientially know that this was nonsense—I have no idea, but I joined the train into the tunnel. A few people shouted five to ten word prophecies over me, and some laid hands longer than others to pray something coherent, but then I reached an old sweaty lady and she quickly laid hands and she prayed that goofy prayer: FIRE! As she shouted, immediately my body started getting warm and I began trembling. My knees grew too weak to remain standing so I jumped out and laid on the floor. A modesty cloth was immediately placed on my exposed navel as I twitched away with a heart swollen with love.

I encountered God through an absurd medium. The woman who was praying for me was dripping makeup on me as she passionately cried out to God a simple prayer. More drops of sweat came off her face than words out of her mouth. Perhaps she was authoritatively imparting grace into my life, or perhaps she was interceding on my behalf, but whatever she did worked. I met God in the sweat, in the shouts, in the absurdity.

There is something profoundly incarnational when God peeks through these silly things. These moments are so intensely human and yet, somehow, divine. I would think that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t waste her time on these bizarre attempts to know and experience her, but maybe she does value the wacky ways we approach her. Maybe all our ways of approaching her are kind of wacky. There’s a lot of pretension and arrogance and hard-heartedness in so many  of our prayers and maybe she’s just so excited to have some willingness, some yielding, some raw love, that she can handle a little bit of our ridiculousness.

There is something about such clumsy devotion that reveals the Incarnation so clearly. I’ve had similar experiences in the Society of Friends, as Friends so often give vocal ministry that, to me, reflect this union of Humanity and Divinity in Christ. Now, I’m not talking about that thought-provoking, poetic, and polished message that could make an excellent podcast, but I’m talking about that eccentric, sometimes hard to follow, and most definitely goofy message that you cannot deny is from the heart and even the Spirit of God. You may be listening and growing impatient with what seem to be tangents but find yourself at the end of the message with a heavy silence, finding the Seed in you growing, with a few rising queries that you cannot help but lean into.

I cannot help but think of Mary Magdalene’s odd devotion to Christ in John 12, as she poured expensive ointment on his feet and washed them with her hair. How bizarre, how strange, and even irresponsible. Judas Iscariot called out Mary for her irresponsibility, but Christ affirmed Mary’s devotion. He was thankful, even if it was ridiculous. I’m confident that Jesus revealed the heart of God in his acceptance and delight in the oddness of Mary’s lavished love. I would even say that I’m confident that God accepts and delights in our own goofiness.