The life Of Fear v. The Life Of Adventure

Journey of the magi

“The Journey of the Magi” (1894) by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French painter and illustrator, 1836-1902), oil on canvas,

From a Meditation first given at Quaker Hill Baptist Church in Connecticut on January 11, 2015:

Christians are celebrating yet another cholesterol-laden holiday: The Feast of Epiphany, which commemorates the arrival of the Magi – traditionally called The Wise Men – at the home of Jesus. Eastern Christians also remember the Baptism of Jesus.

Their story, found in Matthew 2:1-12, clues us into a characteristic about God and illuminates the contrast between two kinds of lives. There’s the life of curiosity, which leads to adventure, discovery, and growth; and the life of fear, which sees nothing but threats and leads to crisis after crisis.

The question for us, of course, is this: Which life do we want?

We can begin to ask that question even as we think of God’s characteristic in this story: God invites the un-invitable. The first-century Israelite would have anathematized the magi for at least three reasons: They were not Jews; they performed practices the ancient Israelites would have (rightly) found repulsive; and they came from the East, a region dredging fear in the national mind.

And yet, God invited them to the doorstep of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.

Once again, we find God inviting the outsider, the stranger and the sojourner. He invites the un-invitable. That bolsters me whenever I feel deplorable and repulsive. This story tells me that God views me and all others through the eyes of grace. He’s reaching into our world an inviting us into his world. And it challenges us: Do we dismiss others as repulsive outsiders? God views them through the eyes of grace as well.  He reaches into their world and invites them into His world.

The waters get really muddied when we grasp that God is not condoning the magi beliefs or activities. Those beliefs and activities remain repulsive, but the magi themselves are not. Even more confusion comes when we find that they have something to teach us. The magi in the era of Jesus viewed their surroundings with curiosity, which brought them into the life of adventure, discovery, and growth. They did not live in fear, which sees nothing but threats and leads to crisis after crisis. Such was the lifestyle of Herod and his minions.

We’ll wade our way through these muddied waters as we examine three of the story’s characters.

The main character is a two-year-old toddler, born in a town about six miles from Jerusalem. Jesus is the ultimate adventurer. He could have remained in Heaven as the pre-incarnate God and viewed the world from afar. He could have seen the war, poverty, racism, child sacrifice, sexism. sexual immorality, and power-mongering, and said: “Heaven is my home and there’s no place like home. I’m staying home.”

But he chose the adventure – an adventure leading to more adventure. Jesus chose a downward adventure so we could climb into an upward adventure. He chose the adventure into a sinful world so we could be citizens of the kingdom of heaven.  He mingled with all us repulsive outsiders and invited us to his world.

Herod, otherwise known as Herod the Great, is the story’s second character.  He was forged, cast, shaped, fashioned, and molded in crisis.  He was born in a world of crisis; he lived in a world of crisis; he saw only crisis.  Everyone was a potential enemy.  Thus, he lived a life of fear that inevitably brought on calamity. We can even sympathize. He was half Idumean, meaning that half his ancestry lay with the neighboring kingdom of Edom.  Jews viewed him as a repulsive outsider, so he walked in a world of plastic smiles.  Those who fawned over him also hated him.

Rome authorized him to reign over Israel in about 37 BC, but he could not govern from Jerusalem for the first three years of his reign. A people known as the Parthians had invaded from the East and taken over the land, which means his reign was birthed in crisis and nurtured in fear. He did everything he could to protect his position. He murdered his wife; he murdered two of her sons; he murdered her mother; and he murdered his own eldest son. Caesar Augustus, the Roman ruler at the time of these events, said that it would be safer to be Herod’s pig than his son.

We’ll group the magi into one and call them the story’s third character. They came from the east, from the region of Israel’s historic invaders. Paintings invariably portray three old men bearing treasure chests, but the Gospel only describes three gifts. We don’t know how many men there were, nor do we know their age.

The term, magi, had been once used of a cast of priests in the region now known as Iraq. They were a loosely knit group by the time of Jesus, fascinated by dreams, astrology, magic, and books with mysterious references to the future.  They were thought of as wise, so “wise man” is not an inaccurate designation. Verse two shows us their interest in astrology because they sought the night sky for answers: “Where is the one who has been born the king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

Which is why these un-invitable magi were so un-invitable. The biblical writers frowned on the astrology of that era. It saw the Earth as the universe’s center. Plants were living powers. The sun, moon, and stars were objects of worship. Such beliefs were abhorrent to the first-century Israelite and meet disagreement from Christians today.

That’s why verse two reaches out and grabs us.  God placed a star in the sky, knowing full-well that the un-invitable magi would be looking up. He dangled it there, inviting the un-invitable out of their world and into his world.  God communicated to them in terms they’d understand, knowing the importance of doctrine and knowing that their doctrine was far from His. But he also knew that they were open to the possibilities. They were open to the signs of God and the voice of God and the ways of God.  They were curious.  They were adventurous.  They were not bound by fear.

God invited these un-invitables into His adventure and they accepted his invitation.  They launched a caravan that would take them out of the land of false gods and into the land of the true god (like it or not, the Bible does distinguish between true and false and good and evil and right and wrong). God was not compromising with false beliefs. He was reaching into their world but he was not leaving them there.

Such are the rewards of the life of curiosity.

Herod shows us the consequences of a life of fear. Verse three says he was greatly troubled. I understand that. It also says all Jerusalem was greatly troubled. I understand that as well. These mysterious wise men were from the East, the land of the dreaded Parthians and Babylonians and Assyrians, empires that once swallowed Israel and exiled its inhabitants. They were talking about a new king, which could have sparked fear of rival monarchs and impeding crisis. But such fear blinded him to the potential adventure: the magi spoke of the Israelite Messiah, not an Eastern despot. They were the first Gentiles whom the Messiah reached. He was, after all, meant to be a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6).

This fear, understandable as it is, propelled Herod into acts of self-protection that brought tragedy.  He assembled the priests and teachers and discovered the Messiah’s birthplace, Bethlehem. He met with the magi themselves, thinking he could use them to get at that child. In short, he prepared himself for the crisis of a usurper. He missed the adventure of the Messiah and the implicit message of the magi: Non-Israelites – including Idumeans – were now welcome.

The magi did pay homage to Jesus.  They heard from God again and did not report back to Herod.  The king, blinded by fear, tried to solve a problem that was not a problem: He had the babies of Bethlehem killed. His fear of crisis brought an act of desperation – an act for which he would be known through the millennia.

Such are the consequences of a life dominated by fear.

So the question lingers: Can we abandon our fears and go for the adventure?

Fear isolates us at our battle stations as we ready ourselves for conflict and antagonists. We forge alliances but shield ourselves from genuine friendships. The adventuresome risk love. They long to discover what lies beyond the hills; the fearful worry about enemies in the next valley. The adventuresome prepare for difficulty; the fearful run away from calamity and foster crisis in their attempts to flee it. Both the adventuresome and the fear-full see the same thing, but they pose different questions and perform different actions and get different results.

Let’s step off the platform of fear. Let’s climb onto the platform of curiosity. Look and see Jesus as he ventures downward, into a world of un-invitables. He meets us where we are and guides us into an upward adventure. He’ll escort us out of our confined and limited world and bring us into his vast and expansive universe.

 

 

 

 

 

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern

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