Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is Epiphany. That term derives from a Greek word meaning “manifestation” or “to come forth,” the way an insight can suddenly dawn upon us. In the church, it also means the revealing of Christ to the world, not just to the Jewish people.
And the first Gentiles, non-Jews, to acknowledge Jesus as the “king of the Jews” were the wise men, or magi in the original Greek of the New Testament.
In popular usage, we sometimes hear the wise men referred to as “kings.” This practice grew from Matthew’s statement that the wise men paid Jesus “homage,” a phrase that echoes Psalm 72:10, which refers to foreign kings paying homage to Israel’s king (Matthew 2:11).
There is also the line in our reading from Isaiah that speaks of kings coming to the brightness of God’s light. But the Matthew text refers to these visitors only as wise men.
We who’ve grown up with the traditional nativity sets are accustomed to seeing the magi there. And because we don’t have the Jewish background of Matthew’s original audience, we don’t understand how startling and even scandalous their coming to pay homage to one called King of the Jews really was.
As already indicated, they were not kings, not royalty come to visit. At best, they may have been associated with the royal courts of Persia, but even that is not certain. They were the first-century equivalent of those who today write horoscope columns, though in their own land they were probably taken more seriously than we take such columnists today.
Still, they managed to get one thing right.
They had observed a star rising and had deduced somehow that it announced the birth of a child to be the king of the Jews, one who was the royal heir of the promises to David.
In our visualizing of their journey, we often picture them following the star to Jerusalem, but that is not what the text says. It says they saw the star rising (presumably while still in their homeland) and then headed to Jerusalem, which was where they thought this new king might be.
They were wrong, but it made sense that they would go there. Jerusalem was the traditional royal city of the Jews. Thus, since they were looking for a new Jewish king, they would logically assume that he’d be in Jerusalem. So they probably got to Jerusalem based on an assumption.
When they did not find the child, however, they started asking around. News of their inquiries reached Herod, who asked the chief priests and scribes — those familiar with the scriptures — where the Messiah was to be born.
They told him of the prophecy from Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Herod then sent for the wise men and pointed them toward Bethlehem, exacting a promise that they would return afterward and tell him where the child was.
As they headed for Bethlehem, the star then did go before them, stopping “over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9). In other words, the star finally led them to Jesus, but only after scripture narrowed the search for them.
Herod had told the wise men that he wanted to go and worship the child, but in fact, he felt threatened by the wise men’s news (the text says he was “frightened”) — so threatened that he soon implemented the slaughter of the young children in and around Bethlehem (Matthew 2:3).
Here’s how the original Jewish audience might have heard this story of the visit of these wise men: The first outsiders to declare Jesus the Messiah were not kings or prophets but practitioners of the bogus art of star reading. What kind of endorsement of our Messiah is that? These visitors were such bumblers that they tipped off Herod, who then killed a bunch of our children.
Matthew, however, tells this story to help us see exactly how large the circle of God’s salvation is. It is large enough to include even those who are so different from us that we cannot easily identify with them.
Here’s another way to understand this story of the magi. Following a star without the guidance of scripture is something like trying to comprehend God strictly by our reasoning powers and ordinary experience. In fact, there is even a term for that: natural theology. It refers to what we can figure out about God by thinking and observing life.
The problem is, natural theology is never adequate to bring us all the way to God. Reason and experience are important in theology, but they are not sufficient by themselves to get us to where God wants us to be.
When you hear someone say something like “I don’t know much about the Bible or religion, but it seems to me that ....” you are hearing an expression of natural theology.
The thing is, theology is about God, who is infinite, but we are finite. Because of that, reason and general experience cannot take us all the way to the infinite. We are too limited to make adequate sense of God.
Moreover, some theologians point out that sin has corrupted what capacities we have, and thus, any concept we develop about God on our own is distorted by that corruption.
The great 20th-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth actually warned against natural theology. He argued that human reason is shaped by our culture and therefore can lead us away from the Christian faith into beliefs about God that are shaped by the values and assumptions of our particular culture but that do not reflect God’s reality.
Therefore, to be moved closer to knowledge of God as God is, we need more than natural theology; we need revealed theology, something that God initiates, something that God gives through scripture, the church and personal religious experiences.
To return to the magi for a moment, we see from the story that it was only after they heard from the scripture where the Messiah was to be born that the star was able to get them to him. In other words, natural theology and revealed theology came together to bring them to Christ.
Enough abstracts; let’s put a face on this. Pastors are sometimes approached by people who seem to have seen some kind of “star” but have no clear idea of to what it is pointing them. Such folks show up at churches or seek out pastors for help in figuring out where to find the “stable” for which they are looking.
Such folks are like the magi who had traveled as far as they could, based on their star-sighting, but it only got them to Jerusalem, not to where Jesus was. It takes testimony based on the real Jesus of scripture to move people toward the stable where salvation is born.
If any of you are still trying to find God through reason and general experience, let me urge you to take the last part of the journey that the wise men finally did, guided not only by the star of reason and experience, but also by the church’s book, the Bible, which God has given us.
That’s because, in addition to our star-sightings, it takes something from God’s initiative to get us all the way to the place where Jesus is.
Don’t be surprised to find that that initiative is the work of the Holy Spirit through God’s Word in Scripture. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus forever. Amen.