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Worship and Sermons
January 3, 2021

“The Outsiders’ Perspective”  Isaiah 60:1-6  •  Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14  •  Ephesians 3:1-12  •  Matthew 2:1-12

The big idea:  God uses outsiders like the Magi to help us see his truth in Jesus Christ. 

Application:  Stay open to the voices of outsiders who may have a perspective on God’s truth that will help us know Christ better.

        This past week, we had the opportunity to visit my alma mater, the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware.  I was amazed at how both the town and the college have grown.  Much of the campus, however, was just like it was when I was a student there in the 1980s.

We saw the football stadium, the fieldhouse and the soccer fields where I played as a freshman.  We saw the dorm where I lived on the old part of campus.  It’s modeled after the University of Virginia and is every bit as pretty.

We saw the library, where I probably did not spend enough time, and the Deer Park Tavern, where I probably spent too much time.

As an English major, the highlight for me was Memorial Hall in the heart of the old part of campus.  That’s where I had most of my classes, including the most important one of them all:  Shakespeare.

There are lots of reasons to love Shakespeare - his unrivaled use of language, his poetry, his plotting, his authentic and powerful treatment of universal themes - but for me, the most compelling aspect of Shakespeare’s writing is his characters.  And of all his characters, the ones I find most interesting are the fools.  

Feste in Twelfth Night; Falstaff in Henry IV, Pompey in Measure for Measure, Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream – and the list goes on.

Shakespeare based his fools on a long tradition of colorful court jesters, a tradition that goes back to Roman times.  In Shakespeare’s day, they wore outlandish clothing and crazy hats.  They sang, played musical instruments and told stories.  They performed acrobatics.  They juggled and told jokes, often at the expense of well-known and prominent people. 

But they were much more than mere entertainers.  The fool was the only one who could speak truth to the king with impunity.  He was not part of the royal system of courtiers who spent their days trying to curry favor with the king.

The fool was usually a perceptive peasant or quick-witted commoner who could recognize fundamental truths that others either could not or would not see.  They brought the perspective of an outsider who could see truth and was willing to name it.

        That outsider perspective is exactly what the Magi bring when they come calling at King Herod’s palace.  They were outsiders in more ways than one.

        First of all, they were foreigners, probably from Parthia which is in modern day Iran.  They spoke a different language.  They followed different customs. 

        They were religious outsiders, too.  They were not Jews.  They were pagans. The magi were followers of Zoroastrianism.  Their religious practice involved a mixture of astronomy and astrology.  They spent much of their time looking for divine omens in the skies.

        The star they saw signified to them that a new king had been born.  And the movement of this star led them to Jerusalem.  Naturally, their conclusion was that a new king of the Jews had been born.  And that’s what they announce to Herod.

Herod’s first reaction is fear.  And the people of Jerusalem knew from experience that when Herod felt threatened, heads rolled.  Herod was a paranoid and ruthless political animal.  He even had his own wife and sons executed because he feared they were a threat to his reign.

        The thing I have been wondering this week is why Herod was not already aware of this new star.  Jews paid attention to the stars, the same way other Middle-Eastern cultures did.  Herod had councilors who presumably were aware of this new star in the sky.

When the Magi tell him what it means, Herod immediately connects it with the birth of the Messiah.  We know that, because that is what he asks his chief priests and scribes to research. 

But why did it take these cultural and religious outsiders to alert him to the momentous birth signaling the fulfillment of God’s plan for the redemption of his people?

Then it hit me.  This is what God intended all along.  After all, God has a long history of using outsiders to further his purposes.

God used Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, to protect the spies sent by Joshua to Jericho.  God used Ruth, a Moabite widow, to care for her mother-in-law Naomi.  Through Ruth’s marriage to Boaz, she became Jesus’ direct ancestor. 

And in the New Testament, it is striking how often Jesus uses outsiders as examples of those who recognize God’s truth and cooperate with God’s plan.  Some of his most vivid examples are Samaritans, who, from a Jewish perspective, may be the ultimate outsiders.  Jews hated Samaritans, but obviously Jesus didn’t.

In the Gospel of John, for example, Jesus approaches a Samaritan woman at the well.  Not only does he speak with her, but, through their conversation, this woman brings her entire village to faith in Jesus.

And in Luke’s story of the good Samaritan, it is not the Jewish priest or the Levite who come to the aid of the beaten man lying bleeding by the roadside.  It is the Samaritan who does what Jesus commands, loving his neighbor by showing him mercy.

God uses outsiders to advance his agenda.  They often demonstrate more faith than the insiders do.

Friends, the same is true today.  God is still using outsiders for his purposes.  The question is who are the outsiders to you and me?

For example, can those who practice other religions help us better understand Christ and his message?

You bet they can. 

One of the best examples is Mahatma Ghandi, the 20th century political leader and social activist who led India’s movement for independence from Britain.  As a young law student living in London, Ghandi read the Bible. 

Although he remained a lifelong Hindu, he nevertheless became fascinated with Jesus, especially his Sermon on the Mount.  That became the inspiration for his famous non-violent approach to achieving political and social change.

In his autobiography, Ghandi wrote, "It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me. . . It went straight to my heart.”

He also said, “Jesus died in vain, if he did not teach us to regulate the whole life by the eternal law of love.” 

Ghandi was reacting to what he saw when he looked at Western Christians.  He saw a clear disconnect between their manner of living and what the Sermon on the Mount requires of those who would follow Jesus.  Ghandi was an influential voice encouraging Christians to take Jesus and their own scriptures more seriously.

He inspired many Christians, including Thomas Merton, one of the 20th century’s most popular and prolific Christian writers. 

Merton was a Catholic monk who, in the 1960s, became attracted to Eastern thinkers and religious traditions, especially Zen Buddhism.

Through his dialogue with a Japanese writer and Zen Bhuddist scholar named D.T. Suzuki, Merton realized that Bhuddism is compatible with Christianity.  At its core, Bhuddism is about suffering, self-emptying and universal compassion.  Merton agreed wholeheartedly with Suzuki that the most important thing is love.

At a time when Zen Buddhism was becoming popular in the United States, alarming many Christians who saw it as antithetical to Christianity, Merton translated Zen Buddhist ideas into language Christians could understand.  He reminded them that it was a way to know Christ and his message better.

And there are even those within the Christian tradition whom we regard as outsiders.  When I was growing up, I can remember a distinct suspicion among adults I knew that Catholics were not at all like us Protestants.

 But, in seminary, I discovered that the perception of this massive gulch dividing us from our Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ has its roots in the over-heated debates of the Reformation 500 years ago.  And yet, the older I get, the more I realize that Catholics have much to teach us about knowing Christ.

I learned this firsthand 10 years ago when I studied Ignatian Spirituality at Fordham University.  Yes, our polity is different.  Yes, we understand the sacraments differently, but Catholics have pioneered powerful ways of knowing God through prayer disciplines that are simply not part of our tradition.  From our perspective, they may look like outsiders, but they can help us know Christ better and more intimately.

And even among fellow Protestants, there are those we may consider outsiders who can help us know Jesus better.  If you are on the evangelical side of the Protestant household, for example, it’s worth considering that the openness and inclusiveness which progressive Christians hold so dear, might just be a faithful example of Christ’s love, an example from which we can all learn and grow.

And if you are on the more progressive side of the Protestant house, it is worth examining the intentional, explicit Christ-centered focus of those who are more conservative.  Afterall, our understanding of social justice is strongest when it is rooted in the message of self-giving love and compassion for the marginalized that Jesus Christ taught and demonstrated. 

Friends, as you and I complete our journey to Bethlehem at the conclusion of this Christmas season, let’s keep an eye out for modern day Magi, the outsiders who may indeed have a perspective on God’s truth that will help us know Christ better.

Like Shakespeare’s fools, they may be speaking truth that you and I need to hear.  We would do well to listen to them.

May it be so.


Last Published: January 4, 2021 12:24 PM
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