Reading Magi Story As More Theological Than Historical
2007-12-29 by David von Schlichten
I imagine not addressing the historicity of the magi narrative in any major way, at least not in a sermon.
I might say something like, "There has been endless debate over the years about how much of this story is factual. I don't know. Regardless of how much of it really happened, the story has come to us in this form. The question, then, is, 'What does this story teach us about God?'" Then I'd go from there.
I probably have parishioners who doubt the historicity of the tale (I sure do), but I also have parishioners who believe every word of it. Either way, we Christians can ponder the theological significance of this delightful and beautiful story.
I have what I call the Ethel Test. Over and over I ask, "Would Ethel benefit from my message?" Ethel is my average parishioner: blue collar, senior citizen, not well-educated, has a hard life, average intelligence. When Ethel hears this story of the magi, she more believes it than does not, and she reverently and earnestly wants to know what it has to do with her. Historical demythologizing confuses and upsets Ethel. She either doesn't understand it or does not want to.
Perhaps your congregation is different, Dean. Context informs proclamation, as you know.
I tend to save more complex historicity issues for Bible study, where we can get into a careful discussion (Ethel is more receptive to historicity questions in Bible study). Even there, however, I tend to conclude with, "Regardless of what really happened, this is the story that God has given us, so let's go with this."
Am I being reductionistic?
Thanks for your effulgent and sage input, Dean. I look forward to more from you. It's great to have you blogging with us.
Trying to see the light as a wise man, I am
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Stars and Such
2007-12-28 by Tom Steagald
Dean... I like Annie Dillard's question in For the Time Being. As I recall it goes something like this: "Does anyone believe that God created the universe for the sole purpose of spangling the night skies above Bethlehem?"
I love that imagery, remembering that when my own children were born I would have given them the world, or remade it for them, if I could have. How that intersects with your concerns I cannot say--and maybe it does not at all, if you take her question as sentimental (as I do not). But it is an interesting querie all the same.
For my part, I try to interpret poetry (and indeed, whatever else it is, the Magi story is a poetic) but shy away from too much dissection and explanation (mindful of the old joke about the lab frog). Moderns may prefer the latter, but I suspect many post-moderns resonate with the "surplus" of meaning such a text can provide, as indeed you have demonstrated in your post.
Paul's reflections on the baptism are crucial--baptism as a sign of obedience, a prefiguring of the cross, and a sign, as the other Paul will put it, of our own deaths. I have long thought that Jesus taking his sinless place with the repentant--both in conjunction with John's ministry but mysteriously in distinction from it--is the first and lasting basis of what Jesus calls "all righteousness." Each of them in their own place, as it were.
January 6: The Magi
2007-12-28 by Dean Snyder
Matthew 2: 1-12— I announced weeks ago that I am talking about the magi on January 6, so there is no way now to escape this story. So I have been reading the commentaries.
W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann are amusing in the way they spin their discussion of the story’s historicity in The Anchor Bible commentary. "This account of the visit of the magi to Bethlehem has on the face of it all the elements of historical probability," they write, "and yet at the same time elements which appear to belong more plausibly to parable."  Elements?Donald Hagner in the Word Biblical Commentary (which is my favorite commentary series) acknowledges "the widespread hesitancy concerning the historicity of this periscope," but hedges by saying "there is no insuperable reason why we must deny that the tradition used by Matthew is historical at its core."  Is he really suggesting that this story is based on a factual event or is his point more subtle?
In contrast, the Swiss scholar Ulrich Luz is refreshing: "Our story is a legend told briefly and soberly which does not conform to the laws of historical probability." He adds, "The interpreter confronts the problem how he or she is to deal with a narrative whose historicity is improbable." 
The preacher has the same problem. Our people are intelligent. Whatever else I say about this lesson, I feel the need, as I do with all the nativity narratives, to acknowledge that these are post-resurrection stories meant to convey the truth of a people’s experience of Christ rather than historical biography. How can I do this in a way that is neither heavy-handed nor reductionistic? It is a constant problem.
I am convinced that it is liberating for most of our folk to know that we know this is a fable – a meaningful fable but nonetheless a made-up story. We are not really asking them to believe in astrology, navigational stars, dreams that literally communicate messages from God, or an understanding of prophecy as foretelling. We live in credulous times and some of our people may believe in some or all of these things. We may half believe in some of these things ourselves. But I, at least, feel the need to make sure that people understand that believing in these things is not a requirement of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
I don’t particularly want to preach about whether the story is factual or not, but I do not inadvertently want to communicate an expectation that my hearers take the story literally, which it seems to me is all too easy to do.
While I am talking about reservations, let me also confess my nervousness about Matthew’s anti-Judaism. Whether he himself was Jewish or Gentile, his anti-Judaism permeates the Gospel and appears already in this story. By all accounts, the Jews of Herod’s time hated Herod and the idea that they would share in his fears about the birth of a new king (Matt. 2:3) is nonsensical. They would have been ecstatic.
The contrast between the star-gazing Gentile magi seeking a newborn king simply to worship him and bring him gifts and Herod’s petty agenda of preserving his power and privilege is delightful. It is a shame that Matthew’s need to take potshots against the Jews whenever he gets the chance pollutes this story. I guess the best strategy is to ignore this and keep the contrast where it belongs – between the crass and manipulative power of Herod and the alluring power of the child toward whom the heavens and the scriptures draw all humanity.
Here is my thinking at this point: I have an impulse to acknowledge explicitly the mythological nature of the story in my sermon, to talk about it being a post-resurrection parable, to talk about the messages that the story is trying to communicate – that Jesus Christ transcends ethnicity, culture and religion (as the early church was learning so dramatically and surprisingly at the time the Gospel was being written), that Jesus’ appearing has global and even cosmic meaning for them, that all nature and history point toward him, that his truth makes fools of all despots and earthly power-mongers, including the despots and power-mongers oppressing the early Christians (and the despots and power-mongers inside our own souls and psyches).
I am leaning toward saying that, while the story of the magi is a theological fable that Matthew or other first-century Christians composed, it was true in a way that transcended mere factually. It was prescient, for indeed people would come from the east ... from the east and the west and the north and the south ... to worship him and to bring him gifts.
People’s understandings of the heavens and the meanings of the stars and the meaning of dreams and the significance of Scripture would change as science and philosophies evolved, but all these things would still point people toward Jesus and his truth. Herods would still try to usurp and co-opt those who were seeking him to turn it to their political advantage, but Jesus would still elude those seeking to either manipulate or destroy him.
My favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quote is this: "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."
I don’t know about astrology. I tend not to take it too seriously, but I do believe the stars and all of creation have within them a bent toward justice, inclusion and love that is woven into the fabric of the universe.
I don’t know whether God speaks through dreams, but I do believe that our spirits, even deep within our subconscious selves, have within them a bent toward justice, inclusion and love.
I don’t know whether scriptures foretell literal future historical events, but I do believe all the world’s scriptures reflect a bent toward justice, inclusion and love.
I do believe that neither the crassest despots nor the most manipulative power brokers will be able to destroy or overcome this bent within the human soul and within the soul of the universe.
Dr. King’s quote comes from a speech entitled "Our God Is Marching On!" He delivered it at the end of a bloody march that began at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The speech was known in the civil rights movement as Dr. King’s "Jonah in the belly of the whale" address because it came at such a difficult time.
At the end of the speech this is what he said:
"I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again.
This is what Matthew’s story of the magi is saying, too. No matter whether you are a hardcore empirical scientist or a new age believer, there is within Christ a truth that will draw all peoples to itself. It is a truth woven into the fabric of creation and written in the stars. It is a truth stronger than all the world’s powers of destruction and hate.
What do you think, dear colleagues?
 W. F. Albright and C.S. Mann, The Anchor Bible: Matthew, vol. 26 (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1971), 13.
 Donald Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 1-13, vol. 33a (Dallas: Word Books, 1993), 25.
 Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7; A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985), 132-3.
 James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 230.
Coming Guest Bloggers
2007-12-28 by David Howell
Paul Wilson (see below) is already giving us some stimulating ideas for the texts on January 13. We look forward to more thoughts from Paul. Paul is regarded as one of the top homiletical minds in the world.
Our guest blogger for the texts on January 7 will be Dean Snyder. Since 2002, Dean has been the senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church, a diverse congregation in Washington, DC, committed to inclusion and social justice. He formerly served on the staffs of United Methodist annual conferences in Maryland/DC and Pennsylvania and as a pastor of Philadelphia's downtown Arch Street United Methodist Church and Tioga United Methodist Church, a primarily African-American congregation in North Philadelphia. He has preached in settings as diverse as Sunday morning worship at St. Paul's Cathedral in London and the annual conference sessions of the United Methodist Church of Liberia. Foundry Church's growth during the past several years has been as the result of the growing presence of young adults in the congregation.
Rina Terry has shared with us a recipe for Winter Salad of Warm Red Lentils. I want to try that. More recipes are coming soon in the Divine Cuisine. Rina has also reviewed Water for Elephants in the Book Review section. There are also several sermons for December 30 in the Sermon Feedback Cafe. Go to Homepage and Share It! Remember that anyone can submit to Share It! or to the Homiletical Hot Tub. Just click on the submit button.
Furthermore, subscribers have access to more than 50 articles and sermons each week.
Grace and Truth
2007-12-26 by Tom Steagald
I am thinking of preaching this Sunday on the Prologue, and especially the phrase, "full of grace and truth." I am not normally inclined to parse a phrase, but I have had some pretty painful confrontation of late with a church member, and a former LUTHERAN of all things, who really seems to believe that Law is stronger than Grace. She is full of truth, as it were, but not so full of grace. Of course, my encounter with her--my suggesting that her attitude was akin to the Pharisees after all--led me to a deeper introspection... I am wondering how often in my own life I am more a symbol of truth than of grace.
Of course, the other could be argued as well--that there are some who are so full of grace, so-called, that there is no concern with truth at all. I am reminded of NT Wright's dictum that when the God of biblical faith is, as it were, dethroned, the result is not that people do not believe in anyting but that in fact they will believe in anything.
But if Jesus is full of grace and truth--neither without the other--there must be some sort of call for us as his followers to be of the same, dare I say it, ousios as he. Of one substance with the Savior. Jesus was clear on the commandments, did not come to set them aside; he quoted the scriptures. But he was gracious. He made inclusive use of orthodoxy, as it were.
Anyway, that is how my thinking is working at this point. I do think that such ruminations are informed by textual and historical questions such as we have had tutorial on this week... but wonder how the grace/truth diad inform the questions.
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