“Foreigners or Family?”
January 07, 2018
By John Partridge*
Isaiah 60:1-6 Ephesians 3:1-12 Matthew 2:1-12
Since this is the beginning of a new year, let’s take a moment to be introspective. Let’s take a look deep inside of ourselves. Over the past month or so we’ve discussed the idea of “us” and “them” a few times and we’re going to touch on that one more time today as well. And so, the question I want you to consider is this: who in your life is “the other?” Perhaps if you are a college educated person with college educated parents, “the other” is a person who works a blue collar job for an hourly wage. But if you are a blue collar, union member from a long line of union members, then maybe “the other” is someone who wears a tie to work every day in some high rise building downtown, or in New York or some other big city. Maybe “the other” person is a CEO, or a multimillionaire, whose job, and entire lifestyle is really more than you can even imagine. Or maybe your life has been mostly comfortable and “the other” is a homeless person who is so unlike you, and unlike your life’ experiences, that you can’t even imagine how they got there or what it must be like to call a little spot under a bridge “home.” Many of our families have been living on this continent for so long that we have no idea what it’s like to be someone who was born somewhere else and immigrated here or who has moved here temporarily on a work visa. In many places that I have lived, and I imagine that this area isn’t terribly different, I knew people who had never left the county they were born in, and quite a few who had never been anywhere outside the state of Ohio. For them, “the other” can often be people who travel or almost anyone who has come here from Texas, or California, or somewhere else, especially those who have come here from another country.
Think about who “the other” might be for you. Who is it whose life, and whose life experiences, are so vastly different that yours, that you have a hard time understanding the things that they do, how they act, the choices that they make, the things that they like and dislike, and who they are as a person?
Who is it that is so different from you that you can barely imagine having a conversation with them, let alone consider the possibility that one day you might be friends?
Now, keep that person in mind as we consider our scriptures for today, which is Epiphany, the day that we celebrate the coming of the Wise Men.
We begin once again by reading from the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 60:1-6 where we hear these words…
60:1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip.
5 Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
Isaiah writes of a time, in the future, when God’s messiah would come and the entire world would rejoice, bring gifts, and bring praise and worship to God. From our side of history, we take this for granted, but in the time of Isaiah, and up until the coming of Jesus, Israel was God’s chosen people. God had made a covenant with Abraham and it was only his family that had a relationship with God. In order for other people, or other nations to worship Israel’s god, they had to come to Israel and to her temple, and worship there. In order for them to follow God and to have a relationship with him, they would have to be circumcised (at least the men, obviously) and become practicing Jews, but in order to be a practicing Jew, it was necessary to make occasional visits to the temple to make sacrifices and to celebrate holy days. While people from other nations occasionally came to faith in Israel’s god and converted to Judaism, it was fairly rare. For the most part, the people of Israel considered foreigners to be “the other.” Israel was “us” and everyone else was “them.” Hundred of years had passed since women like Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba had converted to Judaism, but even though they belonged to the genealogy of King David, they were still referred to as Gentile women. Gentiles and foreigners were always “the other.”
This is one reason that Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy that breaks with tradition and includes five women (women were rarely, if ever included in official genealogies), three of whom were foreigners and Gentiles. From the beginning, Matthew makes sure that his reader understands that the thing that God is doing is not limited to men, or even limited to the nation of Israel. And then we come to Matthew 2:1-12, where we hear about the coming of the Wise Men.
2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
A great deal can be said about the coming of the Magi, but for today it is enough to point out that this is exactly the beginning of what Isaiah was talking about. Foreigners, Gentiles, people who were clearly “the other” came to Israel from a distant country rejoicing, bringing gifts, and bringing praise and worship to God. Just as Isaiah had said, “the other” was being invited in. Two weeks ago, I talked about outsiders who were invited in. These were people like the shepherds, people who technically belonged but who, for the most part, lived on the fringes of society. But the Magi are an entirely different class of outsiders. These aren’t people from the family of Abraham who had taken a bad path, or who smelled bad, or who were cast aside because they were poor, or even because they were unclean, the Magi were totally outside. The Magi were never a part of God’s covenant.
They… were never… us.
In Ephesians 3:1-12, Paul explains just how dramatically, and earth-shatteringly radical and important this really was.
3:1 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—
2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
Paul’s message is that with the coming of Jesus, the Gentiles are now not only welcomed into the Temple, but are adopted into God’s family as co-heirs with Israel, members of one body, one church, and one people.
For almost everyone in Israel and Judea, everyone who was Jewish, and everyone who worshipped Israel’s God, the Gentiles, more than anyone else, had been considered to be “the other.” While shepherds, prostitutes, and even those that collaborated with the enemy like tax collectors, and half breeds like the Samaritans, were considered to be aliens and outsiders, they at least had some connection, however distant, to the family of Abraham. But the Gentiles were the ultimate outsiders. They were completely outside the family of Abraham. They weren’t Jewish at all. They had never belonged. As much as Israel admired King David and King Solomon, and even though they looked forward to a King that would come from David’s royal family, they still considered women like Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba to be Gentiles and outsiders. Despite converting to Judaism, despite marrying into the family, despite worshipping Israel’s god, and despite being the matriarchs of one of Israel’s greatest families, they were still thought to be “the other” because they were foreigners.
But both Matthew and Paul are very clear that the coming of Jesus changed all that.
With the birth of the Messiah, Jesus, there is no longer anyone whom we can consider to be “the other.”
The most ‘other’ outsiders that existed had not only been invited in, they had been adopted as brothers and sisters. And not only were they adopted, they were included as equal in God’s inheritance, co-heirs with God’s chosen people.
As followers of Jesus Christ, there is no longer anyone that we can think of as “the other.” Not the rich, not the poor, not the educated or the uneducated, not city people, not country people, not blue collar or white collar, union or non-union, well to do or homeless, and not American, immigrant, or foreigner.
There are no longer outsiders.
There is no longer anyone that we can call foreigners.
There is only… family.
And Paul says that, as the church, God has given us the mission to make sure that everyone hears the story of Jesus, and feels like family in the church.
In this New Year, let us resolve to be that kind of a church.
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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646. These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.