By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 6, 2019
Matthew 2:1–12 (NRSV)
The Visit of the Wise Men
2 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 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.
Have you ever experienced a time where everything around you seemed to be confusing? Maybe it was a math class in high school, or in my case chemistry class in college. Everything the teachers or whoever was in charge was saying just caused greater confusion to the point you could barely listen anymore. I often feel this way. I like to see myself as an intelligent person but there are some things I just do not understand. I am comfortable enough with who I am now, so I do not mind admitting it. It is alright to exist in our world and not know something. In fact, one of the funniest scenes in Sir Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is where Sherlock is in total confusion when his friend Watson explains the concepts of Copernican heliocentrism. Holmes this genius of a man could not grasp the idea of the earth revolving around the sun, for the simple fact that it did not attract his attention. No matter how much he listened, he could not make sense of it and the scene closes with Holmes still ignorant of the concept. We do not have need to know everything, nor do we have to have an opinion about everything. And if something does not really matter, we should not really get ourselves worked up over or preferences.
At times no matter how much, we would like to understand we just cannot, but at times something in our minds click and suddenly things just begin to make sense. I have said a few times over the course of my ministry that my oldest son James is one of the people in my life that lead me to Christ. Yes, I had knowledge before, and if anyone would have asked me if I was a Christian between from the time, I was five to nineteen I would have answered with an affirmation of faith. But there was much about my faith that I did not understand. I had read the bible completely at a young age, there was even one time we had a bible quiz at our local meeting where everyone, children and adults competed with one another, and I won. I had knowledge, but it was not until I held my son for the first time, that the knowledge I had between my ears made sense. James, a minutes old child, lead me to the knowledge of my salvation. That infant, my infant, my son became the conduit of grace for a broken and struggling young man. And in my quest to be the best dad I could be, God revealed to me who I truly was and who I was created to be.
I am a pastor. It is not because this Meeting has asked me to share words of wisdom every week, it is because it is who I am. I cannot do anything else but teach the gospel. Even when I work outside the church there are times I am teaching. Even when I stepped away from pastoral ministry for a couple of years, I was still ministering on a voluntary basis, because that is who I am. At times I wish God would have called me to something else, but I honestly cannot see my life in any other role. Through my son, God provided an epiphany, he revealed myself to me.
I reflect often on that day. A day that will be twenty years ago next week. On that day I began a journey of discovery that was filled with struggle. Every day I continue to struggle, because I know who I am. I know what I have done, I know how flawed I am. Yet I see not other life for me, because on that day I began a journey, not in religious duty but in love and grace. I saw a metaphorical light reflecting in the eyes of a child, and my life was no longer my own.
Everyone has moments like these. They may be life altering events that change the course of our personal history, or they might be simple recalculations within our spiritual GPS systems. But in every life, both for those of faith and those without faith there are moments that become revelations of truth to them. Moments where they become who they are to be, or in some cases they reject who they were meant to be. Those moments if we look back on our lives were days the ancient Quakers would call days of visitation. Days where the divine light spoke into their lives and they made a choice to walk toward or away. Today we interact with one of those days of visitation that occurred among some men from the regions east of Israel.
Last week I mentioned that each of the gospel writers focused on different aspects of the life of Jesus. I mentioned that the Gospel according to Mark did not speak much at all about anything prior to Jesus’s ministry, and it begins when Jesus is approximately thirty years old. The Gospel of John is one that begins with abstract theology of the preexistence of Jesus before the foundations of the world were even created, then again, we see Jesus as an adult at his baptism. Luke and Matthew give us a glimpse of the early life of Jesus. Both give a genealogy, and both speak of his conception and early childhood, but both give us different perspectives. Luke seems to look through the eyes of Mary, while Matthew speaks from Joseph’s point of view. But what is interesting about all the gospels is that it speaks of the same thing, the revelation of God, the good news of God’s kingdom, the incarnate word made flesh to dwell among us.
Luke gave us a glimpse into the later childhood of Jesus when Mary and Joseph lost track of their child and left him to fend for himself for three day at the temple. Matthew give us something different. Only in Matthew do we hear about the early struggles of the Holy Family. Struggles they did not ask for, struggles they probably wished they did not have to endure, yet struggles they embraced because of their faith in God.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” It is important that Matthew included this verse, because it gives us a frame of reference to the actual historical events. This event happened after Jesus was born, during the time of King Herod. We can look up information about this person outside of biblical sources and see that there was an actual king Herod who reigned in Jerusalem during an era of history, from 37 BC to either 4 or 1 BC. This means that these events happened some time during this period. Also included in this verse is a strange word we do not see often in scripture, Magi. The word is associated with the word we know as magic, because that is what these men were thought to have practiced. So, of the approximately eight times a form of this word is mentioned it is referring to sorcery. Most of the uses those are in this chapter of Matthew. When we attach the word magic to it, we automatically connect everything about the word with evil, but these are not evil men, even one of the most revered prophets of the Old Testament would have held this title, the prophet Daniel. The Magi were the priestly class of the Persian empire. They were scholars of that culture. Their careful studies on various topics provide a foundation to many of the scientific studies and discoveries we enjoy today. Without the magi, we would know very little about mathematics, chemistry, and astronomy. The magi were the priests of the religion we know as Zoroastrianism, and without this religion no one would own a Mazda vehicle because we would not have that word.
The magi were priest, they studied many things and they used interpretations of these things to encourage and advise their rulers. The prophet Daniel was one of the chief magi, even though he practiced a different faith. He worshiped the Hebrew God, yet the people of Persia recognized that his wisdom was true. And if you were to investigate the faith of the magi you would find that there are many similarities between the faiths.
If we continue to read, these magi traveled to Jerusalem for a reason. They saw a star, and they determined that this star announced the birth of a Jewish king. I mentioned that the magi gave us foundations to the modern science of astronomy, or the study of stars. These scholars studied the stars, they knew what the exact position of stars would be at a given time and could tell when things like an eclipse would happen. They are not the only ancient people that could do this. Ancient Egyptians, Gaelic Druids, and even Native Americans studied the stars, and many of these star gazers were leaders of their various religions. The difference between astronomy and astrology is what people do with the knowledge they gain from observing the stars. One is a observes starry skies and records and predicts what might happen with those bodies in the future, the other is the belief that those stars can dictate and predict what events will happen in someone’s life.
The interesting thing is that these magi saw something, and they knew that this even spoke of the birth of a Jewish king. They saw a light, God revealed something to these gentiles and they responded to the light that they were given. These magi may or may not have had true salvation, but God used them to reveal something to us.
I recently watched a documentary about on man’s research on this subject. The man’s name is Rick Larson. This man is not an astronomer, but he uses the tools of astronomy to find what he calls answers. In his research he finds what he would say is Bethlehem’s star which was the convergence or conjunction of Jupiter and Regulus. Regulus is one of the brightest stars and part of the constellation Leo the lion. And in the cosmology of the Zoroastrians Regulus is the dominate of the four royal stars and Jupiter is often seen as the king of the planets. When Mr. Larson used star gazing software and traced it back to ancient Babylon in 3 BC and he found what he thought was what they saw. Jupiter wrapped around Regulus three times, and then Jupiter and Venus came together nine months later. He goes on to observe that Jupiter appears to stop in the night sky over Bethlehem on December 25, 2 BC. All these things in the cosmology or the understanding of the world of the magi say Jewish king. And I understand his point.
But there is more to the word star. The magi said that they observed his star rising. Rising can mean birth or beginning. But from the understanding of many ancient cultures the stars represent deities or messengers of the gods. With this understanding we could also conclude that these scholars might have seen something other than a star in the night sky, maybe they like Joseph were visited by an angel. Maybe this angel in some way revealed to them what the movement of the stars might mean, and they responded. I mention this because Joseph was visited by an angel in a dream and revealed to him the origin of Mary’s child, and Joseph responded. Angels visited the Shepherds in the fields of Judea and told them about the child’s birth in the Gospel of Luke, and it is possible that maybe God revealed the light also to the Gentiles of Persia.
I do not know what the Magi saw. I am intrigued by all the interpretations and research that people have made in this area. What I do know is that people saw a light and they responded. A king was born to the people of Israel, a child of Abraham from the tribe of Judah, through the line of David. And this nation, to whom this king was born, was to be the light to all nations. God is not only for the Jews, they were simply the people that God chose to make the revelation through, God is for all the nations. And we see this epiphany occurring when scholars from Persia see a light and respond by bringing this king gifts of Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
This story takes me back to my own journey through life. At one point I wrote a spiritual autobiography of my life. This is a discipline where you prayerfully reflect on your life and consider where God was and what your response to God was during every stage of your life. You consider who was with you along the way and how they influenced the choices you made at that moment. During this discipline I saw that God was working in my life all along the way. Working through my great grandparents, grandparents, parents, school teachers, and Sunday school teachers. I saw that God was present during the death of my sister, and even during the poor choices I made in my time of deep grief, he was revealing love and grace. The bright light that shown in the darkness was reflected brightest through the eyes of my son. And at that moment I chose to follow a path revealed by God.
We have knowledge, and we have opinion. We have confusion and we have ignorance. At times nothing makes sense and at other times everything makes sense around us. There was a time where God wrote the gospel in the starry skies and that bright light told scholars from the east to go and worship a king in a country not of their own, from a faith not of their own and they followed the light. It might not have made sense, but they responded. The child that they honored with their royal gifts, grew in grace and wisdom, and he marveled the teachers when he was only twelve. He obeyed his parents and worked along side his family until he was thirty. At that time, ancient middle aged, he made a career change and entered ministry, where he showed us what life with God should look like. He called people to follow him, to take on his lifestyle and he taught and showed us a holy rhythm of worship, prayer and service to others. This teaching threatened the leaders of his day and like in the days of Herod all of Jerusalem trembled because the teachings of Jesus challenged the commonly held beliefs, so they judged him, convicted him, and executed him. He lived to bring God to man, he died to take man to God, and on the third day he rose from the grave to prove that he had the power over our greatest fear death. This was all revealed for all to see, Jew and Gentile, man and women, children and adult, slaves and free. This life is available to all people, and all we must do is respond. Who is that child, who is that man, who is Jesus?
In this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, let us reflect on the light that revealed to those Persian priests, let us reflect on our own journeys through life and see where the light might be in our own lives. Let us then make a choice, do we respond to the revelation before us and follow Him or do we stay trusting our own opinions? Who is Jesus to you?