Elephants, Magicians, and Kings



the magi

king herod


Elephants, Magicians, and Kings. That is what today’s sermon is about. I bet you haven’t heard these three things mentioned in the same sentence before. I promise there is a method to my madness, though after my children’s sermon today you may be having your doubts.   Let’s start with Elephants shall we.

I want to tell you a modern parable. Timothy Keller, in his book The Reason For God: Belief in An Age of Skepticism lays this parable out pretty well. It goes as follows,“Several blind men were walking along and came upon an elephant that allowed them to touch and feel it. “This creature is long and flexible like a snake”said the first blind man holding the elephant’s trunk. “Not at all-it is thick and round like a tree trunk,” said the second blind man, feeling the elephant’s leg. “ No, it is larger and flat, “ said the third blind, touching the elephant’s side. Each blind man could feel only part of the elephant-none could envision the entire elephant. In the same way, it is argued, the religions of the world each have a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole elephant or claim to have a comprehensive vision of the truth. “ (Keller, pg 9). But this modern parable has some obvious problems as Keller points out. To quote Keller;

“This illustration backfires on its users. The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?” (Keller, pg 9

In other words, as Keller points out, “How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?” (Keller, 9)

The Elephant in the room, the thing that we as a society don’t want to talk about, is that we have tried to push the elephant out of the room, and yet we desperately want there to be an elephant in the room. In other words we have tried to push God out of the public square, we have created a spiritual vacuum of sorts. But as Jesus points out in Matthew 12:43-45, if you cast out an unclean spirit, and set up a clean house, yet have nothing to fill it, an even worse spirit will come along and mess you up even more than you were before.

The “unclean spirit” that the modern world and the post modern world has tried to cast out is the “religious spirit” Religion, is Latin, for “to bind again”. The idea is that religion is meant to bind people who were once lost to God. What tends to happen though is that religious people, bind people up with burdens to heavy to bear, as Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing. We limit Phariseeism to ancient Jewish rituals, but we Christians have just replaced Jewish rituals with our own. Religious people are functionally concerned about the Truth. They believe in an absolute Truth. And that’s okay. Jesus believed in an absolute Truth, and that is that He is the incarnation of the Truth, the way the Truth and the life. The problem becomes that religious people forget that God has called us to worship him in Spirit and in Truth. Spirit is that innate connection, that goes beyond reason, that connects us to God, and connects us to each other.

You can tell when you come into a church that may preach the Truth but has a mean and unwelcoming Spirit. Deep inside you may know they are probably right, they just rub you the wrong way. You feel guilt and shame, you feel like the Truth is so high above you, there is no hope for you. You feel controlled and you feel bound. You feel no freedom of conscience. You say the words because you are forced to but there is no room to just belong, to have space to encounter the Holy Spirit. This was perhaps the downfall of teaching religion in public schools and having the State endorse one particular religion. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with the interpretation of the Constitution for an absolute separation of “church and state”. In fact the term “separation of church and state” isn’t even a phrase used in the Constitution but a term Thomas Jefferson used to his letter to the Danbury Baptist. This is the same guy who came up with his own version of the New Testament, a version where he cut out all the miracles. Jefferson, the Enlightenment, Rationalists, and Atheists, are generally reacting against what a mentor of mine would call “churchianity”, a faith more centered on an institution, on rules and regulations, than on the living God. A faith with a religious, a closed spirit, that simply rubs people the wrong way and tries to control them. The result is that our culture rejected the Truth because it was not accompanied by the life giving Spirit of the one true God. Our culture has embraced secularism, which is a Latin term which means, “of this age.” This view says there may be an elephant in another room, and you are welcomed to speculate about that in your private time, but this room, this time, we are focusing on what we can see and feel with our five senses, and the instruments we have created to enhance those senses. We have functionally created a spiritual vacuum. This vacuum provides both opportunities and dangers. The danger is that people may come to follow spiritual paths that present an open and welcoming spirit but do not lead to the Truth. The blessing is it allows Christians to release into the vacuum a real, God Honest, Elephant, the one true God. My friends, I don’t know why you have come to church today, what you are expecting to happen. But I have come hoping that we can release a pachyderm of epic proportions. I am reminded, of the story of Modoc, a circus Elephant who got loose from her ropes in Wabash, Indiana, on November 11, 1942. Modoc promptly went on a four day rampage across Wabash county, managing to break into a drug store, throw a clerk around with her trunk, and devour all the stores salted peanuts in the process. The Elephant was eventually captured. But my point is, it doesn’t matter if you’re blind, when a real elephant is running through your town you will know.

We are all looking for an Elephant, something spectacular, something real, to burst into our lives. That is what our wise men are doing in today’s passage. A couple of times as I have drove around this Christmas season I have seen signs and bumper stickers that read, “wise men still seek him.” While this is a witty saying, it is based on a bad translation of scripture. The word being used in this passage for “wise men” is “magi”. This is where we get our modern word “magic”. The name for these men, which we traditional say there are three, but the text doesn’t tell us how many, can be variously translated, as a Persian priest, magicians, or most probably “astrologers.” Some commentators think they were Jews who had been carried away during the Babylonian conquests, since they seem to have some idea of what a messiah is. Others think they were Persians, or Gentiles, since the text says the come from the East, which is a catch all term for somewhere far away and exotic. Whatever the case, if this story were to take place today we would say that Jesus was visited by New Age tarot card readers, who were quite literally looking for Jesus’ sign (which is the Lion of Judah and the lamb who was slain by the way). The strange thing is the Bible has some pretty harsh things to say about astrology, magic, and witchcraft. The word Magi is used twice in the book of Acts, once in Acts 8 to describe Simon the Magician, a guy who tried to buy the power of God, and another time in Acts 13, to describe Bar Jesus, a Jewish false prophet. Both are not looked upon positively by the Apostles. And yet Matthew basically has these types of folks as the first people to visit Jesus and offer him worship. I have been thinking about this passage for a couple of weeks, and for a couple of weeks I have been thoroughly confused. What is Matthew trying to say by telling us this story?

In this passage God is using what these astrologers know, that being the stars, to point them to the true rising star, Christ the Lord. To use a Star Wars metaphor, these “wise men” where used to “using the Force” but God is calling them to “let the force use them,” and even giving them a name by which they shall call the Force in whom they and we live and move and have our being, that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Triune God.

We have talked about Elephants and Magicians, and now we come to Kings. Notice that today’s passage is not overly concerned about today’s esoteric debates about whether there is a God, of how old the Earth is, how life began, or how many angels you can fit on the head of a pin (the answer of course is 42). The Bible was not written in the spiritual vacuum that we have created today. Nor was Matthew’s Gospel written in the United States, a nation that still enjoys a fair amount of political and economic supremacy. Instead, the Bible was written in a spiritual context that is much like Africa today. Folks in Africa know there are “principalities and powers” that there is a battle going on beyond their eyes that affects their daily lives. They read Paul’s passage on the armor of God in Ephesians 6, and they get it. And politically, Matthew’s Gospel, might be written in our age in occupied France in WWII. A once proud and mighty nation has been defeated, and they are being ruled by a puppet king. The question that this passage raises is not whether God exists or not. What this passage says is there are obviously powers in this world, powers that terrify, powers that seem unconquerable, powers that can cause us to flee from our homes, powers that can cause a great slaughter and death of innocence. In this context, with competing powers, that not only demand our acknowledgment of their existence, but confront us and demand our allegiance, the question becomes whom we shall serve? Will we bow down to the Wisdom of the World, and who the world considers to be worthy of our worship and devotion? Or will we, like the magi, though we may have our doubts, though we may only have a faint inclination of the true desire of our own hearts, bow down before a glorious and yet humble King?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


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