Month: January 2016

On Magi, Christianity, Islam, and why ALL really are welcome at the manger…

Preached on 1/3/15
by Kyle Durbin
apologies for format…

As many of you know, I worked full-time through college and a portion of seminary as a retail manager at a chain of watch and clock stores in Maryland, DC, and Virginia. It was during this formational time in my life that I learned the nuances of retailer-customer relationships, and how to gently correct simple statements about popular watch companies, such as: “Bulova” is a type of watch. “Bolivia” is a country. “Seiko” is a type of watch. “Psycho” is a person who probably has no need for a watch. And wearing a “Citizen,” watch does not actually make you a United States citizen, as a matter of fact, that company is based out of Japan.
By my senior year in college, I had moved up the retail ranks of the company and was managing multiple locations. In September of 2006, I was asked if I’d feel comfortable taking on an additional store, in Columbia, that would be closing soon. As a result, I got to learn some of the tricks of the trade when it comes to a “Store Closing Sale.” For example if I had difficulty selling items from popular companies at 30% off on a regular day, I could attach a big “Store Closing Sale” sign, and sell ten times as many of the same watches at only 20% off, thus substantially increasing the stores profit with little to no effort whatsoever. Also, if discontinued product has been sitting in a warehouse for five years because it’s been impossible to move them, if you ship them to a location that has giant, “Store Closing Sale” signs, they will sell like hot cakes. You didn’t actually think you were getting a good deal on Black Friday, did you?
As the store was nearing its final days in December, I was simultaneously helping out with my local youth group. We had our annual holiday gift exchange coming up, much like the gift exchange our youth group will be participating in tonight, and I had made quite a bit of extra money in commission based on the store closing sale, so I asked the owner, Jake, one evening while we were closing up the store what deal he could give me if I bought about 15-20 of our clearance watches as gifts for my youth group. He responded with one incredible act of generosity. “Take as many as you want,” he said, “consider them my Christmas gift to you, your church, and your youth group.”
This morning, we celebrate a different act of generosity, as we recognize the Epiphany of the Lord with the arrival of the wise men bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In truth, while these fabled figures may have indeed been “wise men,” they probably were not kings, and despite what the song says, we don’t know if there were three of them, only that three gifts were presented. The actual word used in the Bible was not “kings” or “wise men,” but was the greek word for “magi,” the same word where we get the term, “magic.” So why “magi?” Well, interestingly enough, that term, “magi,” is found consistently throughout both the Old Testament and the New Testament of the Bible, except in every other location, it is translated as either “magician,” or “sorcerer.” However, once the first European translators got word that “magicians” and “sorcerers” may have been present at the birth of Jesus, (the same guys whose professions are forbidden by Torah and the same guys who are consistently the bad guys in the Old Testament stories of Israel, the four Gospel accounts, and the book of Acts) the translators decided they knew better than Matthew, and so, they went with the word, “wise men,” instead of “magi,” – the only time this choice was made in the entire Bible.
So what is a “magi?” It turns out that word, a when used as Matthew does in his Gospel, almost unanimously refers to followers of the ancient middle-eastern religion known as “Zoroastrianism,” that is, followers of the philosopher, “Zoroaster.” Zoroastrianism was a type of mystic, philosophical religion and its leaders, known as “magi,” were practitioners of astrology and alchemy. I did a little more reading, and found that “magi,” is actually a Persian word for Zoroastrologers, and as it turns out, Zoroastrianism was a leading world religion for over 1000 years. Cyrus the Great of Babylonia, the same empire that forced the Israelites into exile in the Old Testament? He was a follower of Zoroastrianism. The Persian Empire that conquered Israel during the age of the prophets, and their King Nebudchanezzer who threw Daniel into the Lion’s Den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into a furnace of fire? They were all Zoroastrians. These are literally the bad boys of the Hebrew Bible, so it’s understandable why early translators may have been hesitant to include them in our beloved nativity story.
But it gets better. History tells us that from roughly 600 BC to 650 AD, Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the…wait for it…the Iranian empires! What happened in Iran and throughout the Middle East during the 7th century that would have spelled the demise of any other dominant religion? Well, this middle-eastern prophet known as Muhammed, influenced by the judo-christian texts, the stories of Abraham, the teachings of Jesus, and Zoroastrianism, and writing during a time of immense tribal warfare, released a book known as the Quran and this new religion, known as Islam, literally took the Middle East by storm and spread like wildfire. What does this mean? Well, I won’t go as far as to say that former Iranian president Ahmadinejad, or current Iranian president Hassan Rouhani are modern day magi, and I certainly won’t suggest that these individuals represent a modern form of Islam that would have been comfortable bringing gifts to the Christ child who would grow to become the symbol of Christianity, but I will say this. If the Nativity story took place today, and “magi” or “religious leaders” from the (middle) east came to pay homage to the new born savior (just as they did in the Gospel account of Matthew read this morning), odds are they would not be zoroastrians, they would be Muslims. And just like last week’s sermon, here is where things get tricky.
This is the final week of our Advent and Christmas sermon series, “The Gospel of the Outcasts,” and if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past several weeks, it’s that God chose some decidedly unexpected people to make some decidedly specific theological statements throughout the nativity story. First, there was Elizabeth and Zechariah, moral and social outcasts according to the standards of their time, gave birth to prophet John the Baptist, and the Son of God, Jesus Christ, himself. Then, the shepherds, poor economic outcasts relegated below the social ladder were invited to be the first to witness the birth of the newborn king. Next, Joseph, stepfather to the Christ child, was forced to become an immigrant and a refugee, embracing a brand new form of outcast status for the sake of his family and the gospel. And as we recognized on Christmas eve, Jesus Christ was the biggest outcast of all, which makes you think…it’s almost as if every actor in the nativity story was included for a reason! And just when you think God has all the bases covered, Matthew throws a curveball with what has come to be known as the “adoration of the magi.”
If Mary and Elizabeth showed us social outcasts being included in the story, he shepherds showed us economical outcasts being included, and Joseph showed the inclusion of national outcasts, then by having magi from the east arrive from the east, bearing gifts, Matthew completed the phrase the angels proclaimed in Luke’s second chapter, “Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people.” For Matthew, if the gospel is supposed to be “good news” for “all people,” it actually has to include, “all people,” and that includes people of different religions as well, even the religions our culture has identified as “the bad guys.”
And yet, just as the earliest translators refused to included “magi” in the original nativity accounts, all across the world today, and especially in America, self-identifying Christians refuse to accept that our Muslim sisters and brothers might possibly be included in this good news, or that the Gospel we proclaim may just mean that the grace of Jesus Christ truly has been poured out for all people, whether they call God Yahweh or Allah. No, just like the original translators of the Bible, who went with the term, “wise men,” so many of us simply substitute “terrorist” for “Muslim,” because, after all, they’re the bad guys, they couldn’t possibly be loved by God!
There are currently over 1.57 billion muslims in the world, comprising over 23% of the global population and making Islam the second largest religion in the world today, behind Christianity, and the fastest growing religion on the planet. In the United States alone, there are already 7 million Muslims, so good luck to all those politicians that think they can somehow keep Islam out of America. Now, many of these politicians are making the declarations as statements of national security, proclaiming that Islamic strength in any way, shape, or form, is an imminent threat to the United States of American. Statistics, meanwhile, tell us that of the almost 2 billion Muslims in the world, anywhere from 50,000 to 250,000 may be affiliated with the terrorist organization ISIS, with at least 90% operating only inside of Iraq and Syria. To put that in perspective, that means that of the total Muslim population in the world, 0.0125% are affiliated with ISIS. Throw in ALL terrorist Islamic organizations, and the number barely even scratches 1%. And yet, somehow, through fear and propaganda and insecurity and a whole lot of hate speech from a whole lot of powerful individuals in our country (many of them Christian) many well-intended Americans can’t help but equate Islam with terrorism. Meanwhile, Christianity, a religion founded on the love of God through Jesus Christ for all people, has been responsible for terrorist organizations such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the National Liberation Front in India, and the Ku Klux Klan right here in the United States, right here in Shady Side. Many of the same people who claim the Quran is a book of violence based on specific passages, while claiming the Bible is a book of peace, ignoring the fact that the entire book of Joshua (among others) is essentially just one big jihad in order to claim a promised peace of land where people were already living, are the same people who claim it’s their God-given duty to spread Christ’s love through bombing abortion clinics, vandalizing black churches, and assaulting Muslim taxi drivers. But somehow, we’re the good guys and because of 0.0125% of Muslims associated with terrorism, Islam is entirely a religion of bad guys.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you run out and join a mosque or convert to Islam, as your pastor, I wholly profess my belief that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that following our Lord offers the best avenue to abundant and everlasting life. But part of my belief in Christ includes following the very words that Christ taught us, words like the ones made famous in his Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5:43-48, “43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” If our “heavenly Father” loves “everyone,” shouldn’t we be doing same? “Hate” is not compatible with “Christianity,” and you can not love your enemy while simultaneously discriminating against them, no matter how politically motivated your intent may be.
One thing I forgot to mention about my old boss, Jake, who gave 20 watches as Christmas gifts to my Christian youth group. His last name is Z-. He is a devout muslim, who respects central the teachings of Jesus Christ, and strictly adheres to the five pillars of Islam: faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca. He is actively engaged in interfaith dialogue and social care programs assisting the poor and outcasts of our society, regardless of their religion. Last month, in December 2015, after the shootings in San Bernardino, his mosque in Manassas, VA received the following phone call, “We are checking…[who]…was killed in California. You all will be sorry. You all will be killed.” I can’t say that caller was a Christian, but I can say there are a lot of Christians living in our country today that share that rhetoric, and that’s not only sad, that’s scary. That is not what “good news…to all people,” looks like.
This is a glass from a set my former boss, Jake Z-, gave me one Christmas as a gift from one of our higher watch lines; 100% fine Austrian crystal. On Thursday this past week, Christians and Muslims alike throughout our country anxiously awaited the ball dropping in Times Square to officially bring in the New Year. Many throughout the world raised champagne glasses as toasts were made. Today, using United Methodist sparkling cider, I make a toast in honor of my friend Jake, a muslim who helped bring Epiphany and the adoration of the magi to life for me, and a man I believe is truly loved by Christ, regardless of his religious persuasion, because he is a man that truly knows how to love as Christ loved us. This New Year, as we embrace the “Gospel of the Outcasts,” may the “good news” we proclaim truly be “good news for all people,” and may we honestly and unabashedly be the love of Christ for all the world to see. Oh, and if you need a watch battery, might I recommend you support the Fashion Time kiosk, still located in the Annapolis Mall, they’ve got a great owner. Amen.