In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
I think I’ve been unfair to the magi on Epiphany. I’ve often referred to them as tea-leaf reading, chicken-bone shaking, fortune tellers from the Psychic Hotline.
That may not be true.
Matthew is likely actually describing priests of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, which was the official religion of the Persian Empire before Islam. One of the key components of this faith was using watching, plotting, and paying attention to the movement of the stars. It was, in fact, the most advanced science of the time.
Think about what that would mean. In Matthew’s gospel, there is no manger and no shepherds. The first people to acknowledge the newborn king of Israel are these magi—non-Jews following a foreign religion. And the birth of Jesus was revealed to them through science quite apart from faith or scripture. These are the ones who go and worship the Christ-child. Not Herod, who was the ruler of all Israel. Not the chief priests and scribes who through scripture advised Herod of the place of Jesus’ birth, but missed the relevance of this newborn king.
No, the only ones who show up are these Zoroastrian scientists. Hardly what one would expect! There was a newborn king of Israel, yet no one in religious or political authority in all Israel knew anything about it! Matthew’s point is that the birth of Jesus is truly good news for ALL people!
Now, I’m the first to encourage everyone to be serious about spiritual growth. There are lots of ways to do it and we should. But it’s not like there’s some mystic secret to enlightenment or a particular path to God. GOD finds a way to connect with you. If God could find Zoroastrian priests in Persia through their science and stars, then God can certainly find you.
The magi were passionate about the science of stars. So that’s where God found them. What are you passionate about? That’s likely where God will find you. Is it books, movies, sports, bicycling, writing, nature, or even science? Matthew is making the clear point that God comes to you where you are. It’s like an Epiphany!
One fault of the institutional church is that we’ve convinced the world that God only works in the ways that the church can control: Prayers(especially old ones other people wrote); the Bible (especially when interpreted in a way the church says is correct); Sunday worship(especially when it has the right music); or social justice (especially when it benefits causes endorsed by the church).
There are a couple of problems with the church controlling the ways God can come to people. If God only comes to us in pre-approved ways,
- It limits people outside the church from recognizing God present and calling them.
- It limits the church from recognizing God present and calling us.
Don’t get me wrong. The church has good reason to recognize God’s presence and invitation through prayer, scripture, worship, and justice. Because God is present and inviting through these things! We know it, we’ve witnessed it, we can testify to it. But Matthew’s magi would seem to indicate it’s wrong to think that God is limited somehow to these.
Take a minute and think about what you love to do most. What excites you, that you’d stay up all night talking about? What are you passionate about? What matters to you? . . .
That’s where God is likely to reveal God’s self. That’s often where the invitation will come. Follow that star, whatever it is.
I want to add here, that if that’s true for us individually, it’s also true for us congregationally. If you were to summarize LCM’s passion as a community, you’d probably come up with something about care or compassion. We excel at that. Why wouldn’t God, then, be present with us there? Why wouldn’t that be an important way where God invites us to come and see Jesus?
This matters, because whether it’s affected you individually or not, this congregation has really gone through a very difficult year. We’ve grieved more in the last 12 months than we ever have in our history. But I’ve also watched more compassion shown in the last 12 months than I’ve ever witnessed before.
Matthew writes that God comes to us where we are with what we know and what matters in our lives. The science of stars for Persian priests, and compassionate care for this congregation.
Make no mistake, God has come to us in our compassion for one another. God invites us to meet the Christ-child in the care we express together.
Christ has come. God is present. With the magi, today we experience this as good news for all people. God comes to us where we are. It’s like an Epiphany!