Epiphany- follow that star!

It is a very interesting passage we have here before us in the Gospel of Matthew. Men came to Jerusalem from somewhere in the East. We don’t know from where- perhaps Persia, or Arabia, or somewhere else, we don’t know.

The song we often sing on this day proclaims “three kings”, but Matthew doesn’t actually indicate that they were kings. Though, perhaps someone could have mistaken them for kings based on the gifts they carried. In the story of the magi later Christians heard an echo of Isaiah 60:3,6b 

“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn ... They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD".
 Likewise, in Psalm 72:10-11 
“May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service”.
 In the magi, they saw the gentile nations coming to bow to the Jewish Messiah. 

They are called “Magi” in the plural, but “Magus” in the singular. It is a word that that has a few definitions and can refer to a practitioner of occult magic, to someone who divines the future, to an interpreter of dreams (like the prophet Daniel), or to those who study the night sky. A magus was a mysterious person, with mysterious knowledge of things hidden to ordinary people. It is from the Greek word "magus" that we get the word “magician”. Magus can also be correctly translated as ‘sorcerer’, or as ‘wise man’. In the world of the Magi the cosmos was an interconnected whole. If something important was happening on earth, that would be reflected in the heavens. If an important king died or was born, they would expect to see some sign of it in the stars (if you know where to look). Adding to the mystery, the Bible warns about consulting astrologers, diviners, and magicians. Dream interpreters seem to be the exception.

The star itself is also mysterious. We really don’t know what the Magi were looking at when they saw the star. Craig Chester, an astronomer for the Montaray Institute of Geophysics and Astrophysics, has stated that every astrophysical event between 7 and 1 BC has been proposed to be the Bethlehem star (source: Darrel Johnson). We don’t know if they were looking at a supernova, or a comet, or at some configuration of the planet Jupiter and Saturn. The star seems to move and then stops. This led some early church commentators to say that it was actually an angel that led the Magi.

The Magi are out to find the one born King of the Jews. Such visits by Magi from the East have been recorded. For example, the ancient historian, Pliny, records that the Roman Emperor Nero received such guests in 66 AD. So, such an event is not unheard of. …. When looking for a Jewish king, they would naturally be led to Jerusalem and the cruel King Herod, who was actually a descendant from Edom and was placed in power by the Romans (hardly the rightful heir to the throne). He was so paranoid about protecting his throne that near the end of his days he had three of his own children executed for treason. … The Magi found no newly born king in the palaces of Jerusalem. Instead, 6 miles away, in the town of Bethlehem, in humble conditions, Matthew says they found the child they were looking for.

When reading this passage, many preachers have used their imaginations to fill in the gaps. “Three” Magi have been imagined because there were three gifts, but Matthew says nothing about how many there were except that there was more than one. The three Magi were even given names by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century. One was “Melchior” and was an old man with white hair and long beard. “Gaspar” was young and beardless with a ruddy complexion. “Balthasar” had dark colored skin and a big beard. The multi-ethnic group was believed to represent the Gentile world that would also benefit from Jesus’ saving action, along with the Jews.

Early commentators also put theological weight on the gifts given to the baby Jesus. Gold, they said, was a gift worthy of a king. Frankincense was a kind of incense offered in worship and so was a gift worthy of a god. Myrrh was a spice used to anoint a dead body and prophetically points to Jesus’ death on the cross. This isn’t wrong, but, Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, were also valuable gifts that might be given to any king, especially if the Magi were from Arabia where the gifts would be more easily obtained.

Here we have these mysterious strangers drawn to the baby Jesus by something they called a star. After meeting the cruel and paranoid Herod greedily clutching at his throne, they are led by the scriptures to an unexpected place to meet the child born king of the Jews. With exceedingly great joy they recognize him as the one they are looking for, and worship him (an action not unusual for polytheistic gentiles meeting an important king). They then open their treasure chests to give little Jesus gifts fit for a king. They are warned by a dream to avoid Herod on their return journey.

I have to say that I find this passage mystifying, but I think it touches me on level that makes it hard for me not to see myself in the story. Like many teenagers, I had rejected Christianity. Like the magi, I was searching for some sort of spiritual truth. I imagined that there was some sort of power in the moon, sun, and stars. I was never quite satisfied. This meant that I drifted. I was always looking for another path. Another theory. Another philosophy. Another something that would bring me some hint of hope that I would find what would satisfy my soul- that would make me feel at home on this planet, and in my own skin.

Like the Magi, I once saw a star. It was an experience I had in a bar. I had just arrived with a few friends when I was overwhelmed by a feeling I can only describe as love, but it was of a different order entirely. I felt it rush over me from out of nowhere- it rushed out to everyone I could see. It was a love that was equal towards everyone, and it was intense towards everyone.

That experience was my star. Somehow, I knew that that love was the meaning of life. To live in that love would be heaven on earth. I chased that star trying to understand it. I wanted to experience it again. I had other experiences, but that particular experience began a journey for me.

Like the Magi I continued chasing the star, but it was leading me to unexpected places. Like the Magi I was led to Scripture. I picked up the Bible and opened it to Matthew. … King Herod was there in my mind as well. There was a suspicious, arrogant voice within me that would have been happy to do away with the child- I was not seeking Christ, but that is where my star was leading me. … But, Herod didn’t have his way. I read Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount and I saw the beautiful world Jesus wanted to build. I looked at the face of Jesus and I saw the Incarnate God of love. Jesus spoke about loving enemies. I read about Jesus forgiving those who were unlovable, and even loving those who were killing him by asking God to forgive them. Then I reached the first letter of John chapter 4 where it says, 
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 Jn 4:7-8)

The star I was chasing was my unexplainable and overwhelming experience of love- and Jesus made sense of that love. Like the magi I had followed the star and it led me to a little child in his mother’s arms. Love incarnate.

This room is filled with magi. You have been called from strange places. You have sought happiness and when the pursuit of happiness failed perhaps you turned to dulling the pain or boredom. But, there was something that pulled at you- telling you that there is meaning to life. You have felt the pull of the star. Perhaps it was late at night and you had the overwhelming urge to pray. It might have been joy that overwhelmed you and filled your eyes with tears while you watched the sun set. You might have been walking somewhere, or reading a book, or listening to music, when suddenly that something swept over you from out of nowhere. Suddenly, all is okay with the universe. You rest assured that you are loved and are held in the powerful hands of One who will never ever let you go. There is meaning. There is truth. And words can barely touch it.

Maybe you have been feeling that tug lately. Don’t ignore it. Don’t resist it. Follow it. Do anything you possibly can to follow it. Be drawn to that calm place, where you can be still with that child. Leave the work that has to be done, leave the ‘just one more thing’ that has to be done, Leave your comfort zone, leave your homeland and travel to the baby. Find peace there.


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