Isaiah 60: 9-22
Mathew 8: 5-13
‘Mission to the Gentiles’
May I Speak in the name of the Son, to the glory of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
We have just celebrated the feast of the Epiphany, and at our crib in front of the altar you can now see that the Three Kings have arrived bearing their gifts to the infant Jesus. But who were they and what is the significance of their appearance in Mathew’s Gospel.
Our Three Kings or Magi who bought to Jesus their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were in fact wise men who came from the land of Persia, which we know today as Iran. They would have been treated with great suspicion by the Jews in those days as the Jewish nation had spent long years in exile in the region that the Magi came from. They were also followers of another religion, which is called ‘Zoroastrianism’. This embodied the teachings of its founder, Zoroaster. Centuries before the Jews under Abraham began to believe in monotheism, he taught that there is only one God, called Ahura Mazda. Under him there were two opposing forces, those of good and those of evil. Its followers were taught to join in this struggle firmly on the side of good against the forces of darkness.
So far so good. Zoroastrians tried to predict the future by studying the stars; what we call astrology, not to be confused with astronomy, and by working magic, which is why they were called ‘magi’. Yet for all the differences between culture and religion their studies led them to believe that they would find the fulfilment of their hope in the baby Jesus.
So the message of the Epiphany is that God is not only solely interested in one race or religion, God can, and does, use other religions to bring people of all nations to worship God as He is found in Christ Jesus.
The first followers of Jesus were called ’apostles’ which translates as ‘missionaries’. The early disciples were the first Jews to accept that they had a duty to share this revelation of what they had learnt of God with other races. The Epiphany season is a time for thinking about evangelism: sharing the good news, fist with our near neighbours, but ultimately to the ends of the earth. This will involve many races and religions. The Gentiles of today! We must assure the followers of other religions that, like the Magi at the time of Jesus birth, the best things in their religion can lead them to the feet of Christ.
So how do we do this? Not by wading in with criticism, or cutting off the heads of those who refuse to believe, but by following in the foot steps of St. Paul by getting to know them as friends. We must first explore their culture, and help them to see Jesus not just as some foreign interloper but as one of them. Find out what we have in common. Treat them with respect. Remember, as we heard in our second lesson tonight, when Jesus was approached by one of the pagan officers of the hated Roman army of occupation, and his reaction to the story about obedience and faith to one’s superiors that this soldier demonstrated, that he said to his Jewish disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness’. So be prepared to be surprised.
One of the problems is that culture and religion tend to get mixed up. Does loyalty to the Jewish God involve slavish adherence to Jewish culture? Jesus argued with those whose religion consisted solely of the Sabbath laws and the food laws, with no place for love. St. Paul had to insist that Gentiles could be Christians without adopting Jewish culture. Is there any way in which different races in the world today can combine firm religious faith with flexibility about cultural traditions?
I wouldn’t presume to solve these intractable problems in one sermon. Bur surely there must be a way forward, in which we all respect everybody, welcome their different cultural traditions, and enjoy the wealth of insights that can come from living among people from many different cultures and backgrounds. But all the while remaining true to our own faith in the revelation of Jesus Christ as our Saviour. But importantly we need to distinguish and keep apart our faith from our culture. We mix them at our peril. Our culture like all cultures in the world is constantly changing, in my life time it has changed so much that my parents would struggle to fit in to the world we now live in. So, the changes over the centuries since Jesus walked amongst us are almost unimaginable. The only thing that does not change is our faith in God and the Word of God as handed down to us in the Holy Bible, that never changes.
Perhaps the answer to the intractable problem can simply be found by following Jesus’s great commandment: ‘That you love one another, as I have loved you’. Now that is a world worth imagining! Amen.