One of the things I’ve come to regret over the years is that I never took an Astronomy class in college. What I know about the stars and constellations is remarkably little. Oh, I can pick out the Big Dipper, Orion’s belt, and on a good night, even Cassiopea perhaps, but I barely take notice of the moon or stars and if I know that a planet appears in the skies some night, it’s only because I happened upon that information in the course of the day. It’s really quite remarkable, in a way, that the whole of the universe, everything beyond my immediate plane of existence, remains mysterious and utterly unkown. I do have an app on my iphone that plots the skies for me given my current location. The trouble is, I rarely remember that I have it, and when I do, I’m usually somewhere where the light pollution makes seeing anything above us impossible, or I’ve got no reception so it can’t find my location.
My guess is that for most of us the night skies are at most a curiosity. We pay them little attention. We are well aware that such has not always been the case in human history, that the skies have been full of portents and a source of endless fascination for human beings. The idea of some connection between the motions of the planets and stars and our own lives has been a powerful one throughout history. It is no accident that the magi come from the East, from Babylon or Persia, where astrological interest was especially strong and the zodiac was first developed. By the way, from its earliest verses, there is a powerful critique in the bible of the notion that our fates are governed by the stars. When God creates the stars, planets, sun and moon in Genesis 1, the text makes clear that the planets and stars only help orient the seasons and the calendar, and that the sun and moon only rule over the day and night.
The story of the wise men has become for us little more than a cute children’s story, an explanation for why we give gifts at Christmas and perhaps evidence of the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth. We conflate Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the nativity, so that the wise men appear with the shepherds at the crèche. When we do all that, we extract this story from the larger narrative context and ignore the overall arc of Matthew’s story. The star that guides the magi is a magical touch and most of us scoff, at least to ourselves, when we read every Christmas time those articles that try to link the star of Bethlehem with some ancient astronomical phenomenon.
To better understand Matthew’s purposes in writing the story this way, it’s helpful to go back and look at one of the biblical sources on which he drew. As you listened to the first reading from Isaiah 60, you should have noticed the parallel with the story of the magi. The Isaiah text was written at a very interesting time in Jewish history. It probably dates from after the end of the exile in Babylon, when those who had been carried off to Babylon after Judah’s defeat were permitted to return to their homeland. They had finally seen their dreams of a return fulfilled. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with dreams, the reality they confronted was rather different. They had to rebuild a city and a temple, rebuild lives and an economy. There’s a lot of evidence that life after the return was difficult. There was much poverty and struggle and there was a great deal of disillusionment.
It was in the midst of this disillusionment that the prophecy we heard this morning was proclaimed:
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you … Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn … the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you …
And for Matthew, the key passage: They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
In spite of a rather depressing reality, the prophet paints a picture of a glorious future for Jerusalem as a center of commerce and power, a wealthy capital that attracts people from all over the world. Matthew’s story confirms that prophecy in a way. Here are wise men from the east who come to Jerusalem in search of a new ruler and god. When they get to Jerusalem, they go to the obvious place, obvious at least to them—the ruler, Herod. They go to the center of power and wealth. But there they learn that they were wrong—that the initial allusion to Isaiah 60 was a misreading of the text. Instead, Herod’s advisors pointed them to another text and another town: to Micah 2 and to Bethlehem.
The contrast between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is crucial for understanding Matthew’s intent. The magi come to Herod. He may have been something of a figurehead, even a puppet of Rome, but he wielded immense power over Roman Palestine. He amassed great wealth and spent lavishly on a vast renovation of the temple, on palaces for himself and on cities throughout the region. He had a notorious reputation for ruthlessness. The magi came to him because he was the focus of power and wealth and they assumed he would know about a new ruler. But they were sent further to Bethlehem, to a small town, nine miles distant from Jerusalem, in some respects, they were sent to a different world. And they came and worshiped the Christ child.
But Herod’s power continued to loom ominously over the scene. The magi were instructed not to return to Jerusalem by to go home by a different road. And Herod slaughtered the innocents while the holy family fled to Egypt for safety.
The ancients sought meaning and purpose in the stars. That’s what drew the magi to their studies. That’s why they noticed the new astral phenomenon and sought to follow it, to discover what it was all about. They were curious, wondering, and they sought answers. They were open to new possibilities, new journeys, and when they thought they reached their destination and learned the truth, they were willing to travel another nine miles in search of the correct answer and the ultimate goal of their journey. They found the Christ child and worshiped him.
I’m pretty sure that the magi had no idea what they would find when they set out on their journey. I’m pretty sure they had no idea where their journey would lead them. They had some ideas, and those ideas and preconceptions led them to Herod and to Jerusalem. But they were willing to learn even as they journeyed, they were open to new ideas, and willing to travel further.
I like to say when I welcome visitors to Grace Church that we are glad they have joined us today, glad that their spiritual journey has brought them here for however long they may join us on our journey. For we are all on journeys, we are all seeking encounters with Jesus Christ. Most of us come by ordinary means, through parents and loved ones, through years of attending church, participating in the liturgy, studying and reflecting on scripture. Sometimes, some of us come by very different paths. Some journeys begin with questions or with doubts. Some journeys begin with unknown, perhaps even imperceptible desires and longings. Some journeys begin with stars.
We may not know where we are headed, what we are looking for. We may not remember where we’ve come from or know quite how we got here. But here we are. We’ve converged from many paths and many directions and many of us will go our separate ways from this place, either today, or in the near future. And chances are, like the magi, we will travel on by a different road than the one that brought us here.
May this Epiphany be a reminder to us of the wonder of journeys, of the great diversity of reasons we are here and the great diversity of questions that have brought us here. May this Epiphany be an opportunity to listen to the wonderful journeys of others, to rejoice with others in the stars and questions that have brought us here and have brought us to God. May this Epiphany be an opportunity to wonder in amazement at the Christ child who was born for us and for our world. May this Epiphany be a time for us to worship and with the magi, to pay him homage.