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Three Wise Men came from the East…

January 4, 2014

Three Wise Men came from the East. These weren’t Jews, but they were still considered wise. Other translations refer to these as Magi, probably Zoroastrian priests all the way from Persia or modern day Iran.

This is strange because these Magi were priests from the area of Babylon, the place of the Jew’s captivity and exile. So these strange priests of a foreign religion must have made quite an impression on the Jews. They must have entered into their mythology as truly wise men from a time of oppression and fear.

So the Magi were wise and they came from Babylon. This says something very important. It says that God’s wisdom is not limited to the Biblical people of God. It also hints that the promises of God are not limited to the Jews either. The promise of the promised holy one, Jesus, is there for everyone, if only they have the wisdom to see. But I digress. I need to step back a little.

Now a few months ago I was in London. I went to Westminster Abbey for a special service. I must admit, I wasn’t particularly impressed with Westminster Abbey. It seemed like a store room for statues, … Oh yes, and there was a big church attached … but don’t worry about that … look at all the statues a… all the signs of national glory and pride. I may not have appreciated the building but I did appreciate Justin Welby’s sermon, warning of the idolatry of buildings… but that is a topic for another day – another digression. They seem everywhere today.

The really memorable time was afterwards in the British Museum. In that very different building there was an exhibition on Zoroastrianism. It was only a small exhibition which was a little incoherent and disjointed but powerful nonetheless. This religion of the Magi was an ancient religion but also one that is very much alive today. There are believers in Iran, and also in India where they are know as Parsis. There were pictures of modern Zoroastrian priests. I could look into the pictures, into photos even, and wonder – did the Wise Men that visited Mary look like these men looking out at me? I stared and felt drawn back all of those years. The clothes and the rituals were so alien to me. As alien as those Magi must have been to Mary and Joseph.

I think back to that day and those two buildings and I it is true that God never ceases to amaze me. Every time I think I’ve got him pinned down he gets away. That is what took the ancient Jews by surprise – God showed the Messiah to foreigners, even the priests of their former captors – But they missed the point.

I went to London, but it wasn’t a famous church building that inspired me; it was a secular building. It was those ancient artefacts that brought me close to God and what he had done, and what he does now. It was those artefacts of a foreign religion that brought me close to Christ.

Thinking about Westminster Abbey and that exhibition at the British Museum I was reminded of a very important truth. A truth that the Wise Men had been shouting out to me from Scripture for years, if only I could hear better.

This truth: That God is so much bigger than me. God is so much bigger than my understanding of the Bible. God’s plans and love are so much greater than anything that I can even try to imagine. And perhaps most shocking of all, God doesn’t need to ask my permission about who he speaks to or through!

I was taught a lesson about generosity and good neighbourliness by a Muslim neighbour in Middlesbrough. God could have used a fellow Christian from Church – but most of them were too busy arguing about women priests. I needed to learn these lessons and God chose someone from a different faith to teach them to me. My neighbour didn’t do much. He didn’t need to. He was generous in giving when we travelled around the centre of town carol singing. He was a good neighbour by befriending us, and sharing a meal or two. It’s amazing how a few smiles and a little care go a long way when you’re living in a rough neighbourhood, with burglaries, prostitutes and a murder one Christmas in the alley behind our row of houses.

But then, is a Muslim reminding me of something fundamental to my Christian faith any less shocking today than a Zoroastrian priest from Babylon coming to tell the Jews about their Messiah. Most Jews didn’t listen, one even tried to kill the child. They didn’t listen to the men from a foreign religion and, as a result, they failed to recognise their eagerly awaited Messiah.

I could have refused the friendship of my Muslim neighbour and … well I don’t know what would have happened. I may still have remembered about generosity and neighbourliness but then again I might not. I could have lost my self in the arguments and hatred that surrounded talk of women priests in that Church. I could have lost sight of my fellow Christians as being my neighbours and of my need to be generous even though I disagreed. I could have stuck to my narrow view of how God ‘should’ speak to me, and lost sight of Christ altogether.

So I remember the Wise Men, the Magi of Iran, the Parsis of India. I remember that God can and will speak to me in unexpected ways, even ways that shock my Christian sensibilities. I need to remember so that the next time he speaks in an unlikely way I may just hear, listen and, just possibly respond.

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