God With Us
God With Us
Emmanuel, God with us. What does that mean?
How is God with us and perhaps more poignantly, who exactly is God with?
Is it me or is it you? If it’s both of us, what happens when we are at odds with one another? As we explore our relationship with God these are among the questions that can arise.
However, we must also consider the impact that having God with us makes on our lives. In Matthew 2 we are introduced to the Magi, we experience their relationship with God and gain some sense of how God is with them. Reminding us, that the ‘us’ category is fairly broad.
What can we learn from this encounter?
Scripture: Matthew 2: 1-12
God With Us
Emmanuel, God with us.
But what do we mean by ‘us’? Is it me and you? What about the folks down the street at Calvary Baptist or Trinity United? All the other churches in Cobourg, are they part of the us? Does the ‘us’ include the folks who come for lunch on Thursdays at the Soup Kitchen or those who show up for Bible Study?
How big is the us category? After all, the opposite of us is them! It’s us and them, so who is us? If we aren’t careful ‘us’ becomes an exclusive category.
Does God with us even include us, after all Matthew was writing for the Jewish community in Jerusalem, that’s his primary audience. We are a long way from there, so does God with us include us? Matthew, goes to great lengths to describe who the us includes in God with us.
After Matthew finishes his birth account he introduces us to the Magi. A group of foreigners who would have been so far removed from ‘us’ to those in Jerusalem that the point is driven home. God with us, is a very wide category.
Who were the Three Wise men? They only appear in Matthew’s gospel, for a short yet important visit. Let’s talk first about the things we don’t know and go from there.
Matthew does not name the Magi, but tradition has done this for us.
- Melchior of Persia – Gold
- Gaspar of India – Frankincense
- Balthazar of Arabia – Myrrh
These names arise from a Greek manuscript dated from 500CE and another dated from 800CE. We can speculate that others who have come before us have asked who were the Magi, what were their names, where were they from, why didn’t Matthew tell us more? Out of those questions have arisen answers which may or may not be true.
Some speculate that the Magi, represented the Kings of Yemen, who were Jewish when Christ was born.
The Magi are commonly referred to as the Three Wise Men or the Three Kings. We assume that there were three individuals because there were three gifts. However, in the tradition of Eastern Christianity there were twelve Magi who came to visit. In China it is believed that one of the Magi was Chinese. We know that there were three gifts, we don’t know how many people brought those gifts. Only that it was plural, so more than one.
However, the only thing we know about them is that they studied the stars and that they came from the East. The Good News Translation which Katie read this morning tells us that ‘some men who studied the stars came…’ However, this is more accurately translated as ‘Magi from the East came…’
Magi isn’t a word we use much anymore, outside of talking about this passage from Matthew’s gospel. However, the word implies those who studied the stars.
The Magi were probably not Kings, but we identify them as Kings as we found in our Psalm reading this morning and other passages in the Old Testament, “May all kings fall down before him.” – Psalm 72:11
Let’s take a deeper look at the word Magi. It is a noun and is classified grammatically as masculine. Which is perhaps why they are ‘Wise Men’ or ‘Kings’, but Matthew himself doesn’t specify if they are men or women. The word means astrologer or someone who studies the stars. However, it is believed that the word is originally of Babylonian origin and may have referred to an individual of status, a priest, in the Persian religion.
The religion at that time was Zoroastrianism, a religion which still exists today. The primary prophet for Zoroastrianism is Zoroaster who was miraculously conceived by a virgin. The core belief of Zoroastrianism is that other virgins would conceive divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded. They could foretell these events by reading the stars. Like the Jews, they were anticipating the birth of the true Saviour (reference).
Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, telling them that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah. He introduces the visit of the Magi. When this story was first heard people would not associate the magi as being included in that promise of God with us.
The Magi came to worship the one who is called ‘King of the Jews.’ We won’t see those words, King of the Jews, again until Jesus is before Pilate. It is foreign Magi and a Roman politician who Matthew uses to confirm Jesus as King.
It is easy to romanticize the Magi. To think of them as nothing more than kindly old men who followed a star, found a baby who was a king and offered him gifts. Many of our hymns do this, the one we will sing in a few moments does this. However, the Magi are much more than this.
Karoline Lewis writes, “a story like this cannot be sentimentalized into yet another Christmas program or summarized as suggested advice to follow a star. And, I get how hard this is. As much as I want to cast the Wise Men as just innocent and uninformed responders, they are so much more. They are resisters. They insist that their witness testifies to a truth that will challenge power. That will defy authority. All because they believe in their own experience, their own encounter, their own epiphany. They get that there just might be more to the story than what they have been told. And therein lies the heart of our Christian faith” (reference).
The Magi first visit Herod, but they do not bow down before him. It is only when they visit with Jesus, a baby, that they pay homage to him and offer gifts. They resist Herod and his authority when they travel home by another way. Just as we are called to follow a way, not of this world.
Do we, like the Magi, have the confidence in our own experience of God, of our own encounter with God to resist the challenges and temptations that we find before us and to live out a set of values, a belief in something beyond ourselves?
Are we willing to see, as Matthew tries to tell us, that God with Us is more than a personal connection? Are we willing to defy authority to see God’s justice done and to bring God’s righteousness forth?
When I was younger and in the Boy Scouts, I was told that if I was lost at night I should look for the North Star for direction. Before the modern age sailors would use the stars to guide them. We don’t follow stars because we are blind, we follow them because we trust where they will guide us. I think in our modern age, with our reliance on technology, we’ve lost some of that trust. We have lost the sense of courage and risk that comes in following a star.
It is only by following the star, that we can come to the threshold, find the Christ-child, enter in and proclaim God is with us! Amen!
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.