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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In scripture, they are known as the Magi. You know them as the three men in glittering velvet robes and fake beards in the living nativity, sometimes with a live camel in tow. Bearing gifts, they traversed afar, following yonder star through the back of the sanctuary down the center aisle in the grand crescendo of the Sunday School Christmas program. Unfortunately, it’s seems it is far easier to smile at them then to take them oh, so seriously.
Simply consider your typical Epiphany humor. “Why did Mary turn down more gifts from the Magi after the first three? Because she decided that it was myrrh, than enough.” Or what would have happened if it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.
Intrigue and mystery has always swirled around these colorfully dressed foreigners. Where did they come from? St. Matthew writes, “from the East,” or more poetically, “from whence the sun rises.” Most historians believe they were members of a stately, religious caste from Persia who had studied the Jewish prophetic writings of a coming Messiah among the descendants of Israel who were still living there from the time of the Babylonian captivity. And who were they exactly? Kings? Wise men? Sorcerers? Astrologers? Scholars state they were Zoroastrians, a well-educated group in Persian society who practiced natural sciences, most importantly astrology.
As early as A.D. 200, the church father Tertullian argued that the Magi, while astrologers by trade, were truly to be considered kings. The Protestant reformer, John Calvin, on the other hand, felt strongly about anyone who would label them as kings. “Beyond all doubt,” he said, “they have been stupefied by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at their gross ignorance.” And I always thought that Luther had a sharp tongue. According to scripture, the Magi arrived at the home where Jesus and Mary were, and did not question whether Jesus “needed” their gifts. They offered instead what they believed and trusted that they needed to give to him: “Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who is mortal; and incense, as to one who is God.” They were changed by meeting the Christ Child in Bethlehem. The Magi, whether kings, sorcerers, astrologers or wise men understood who Jesus was and who he would grow to be; and they worshipped him, and they were changed by meeting the Christ Child.
My friends, how you look at the story of the Magi and their journey, whether you see is as the final episode in the Christmas story, a fairy tale sage of the ultimate game of trivial pursuit, or as a paradigm of the Christian faith, has a lot to do with how you look at the possibility of change in your life. A high school friend of mine recently posted an anonymous saying. “There are 3 C’s in Life. Choices, Chances, Changes. You must make the choice, to take a chance, if you want anything in life to change.” I would add a 4th C- Christ. Often in life, we think that if the outside world would change then we could change. The story of Epiphany and the Magi, however, reminds us that often the greatest hurdles in life come from within. But I believe that when we meet Christ, change occurs. The question is what you do with the choices you make each day to take a chance and to make changes in your life. That is what Epiphany is all about.
This morning, let me share with you three thoughts drawn from the story of the Magi and the Star. First, God often comes shrouded in mystery even to wise men and women, so you have to make a choice. Second, wise men and women face just as much danger in this world as the poor and lowly, but you have to take a chance. And third, having met Christ wise men and women should always be prepared to go home by another way, for when you meet the Christ Child change will occur.
First, consider the choice of the stars you follow. Most likely, the Magi weren’t the only ones in the Middle East who saw the star, but they may have been some of the very few who raised their eyes to the heavens, and were curious enough to make a choice. It is an odd commentary on life. We often make do with looking at the ground, and are content with our gaze not looking up over the horizon. It may seem to be enough to have your health, a little money and a bit of entertainment. But the Magi were not satisfied with “just getting by.” They kept looking up to the heavens and following the path of the star.
Pope Francis recently said of the Magi, “If you want to find Jesus, (if you want to meet the Christ Child,) you have to overcome your fear of taking risks, your self-satisfaction and your indolent refusal to ask anything more of life. You need to take risks simply to meet a Child.” Mind you, those risks are worth the effort. Why, you may ask. When you find the child, when you discover his tenderness and love, you also rediscover yourself. And it all begins by making a choice. Francis added a contemporary interpretation as well “Many …who raised their eyes toward the heavens may not have chosen to follow the star to Bethlehem, because it wasn’t as bright as others.”
The star over Bethlehem may not have dazzled or overwhelmed the crowds, but the Magi had discovered in a star that gently invites. And so they made a choice. Interestingly, in the Orthodox Church that do not speak of the star as an astronomical event at all. The star is not some of “meteor” or “shooting star” that promises success, wealth and fortune only to quickly fade away and “mislead rather than lead.” No, in the tradition of the Eastern Church, the star is a light of personal revelation. It is a reliable and constant light that “takes you by the hand in life and accompanies you” to Christ’s peace and joy… as it did with the Magi.
Second, Albert Einstein, one of world’s greatest minds, once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” It is that mystery, that wonder, that capacity to dream, that we celebrate today. The Magi followed a mysterious star that they believed would lead them to a newborn king. In the ancient world, the occurrence of a star or a constellation of stars was often associated with the birth of a notable person. So having seen the star, the Magi set off to worship him. In scripture we read that the Magi followed the star until it stopped over the place where the child was and “they were overwhelmed with joy.” The Magi knew they were in the right place. They had arrived at the place where the divine and the human meet. They had arrived at the place where heaven and earth came together. “Yes, this is it.” And they “fell down and worshipped him.” That is the wonder of the star. God comes to us and guides shrouded in mystery. And the Magi took a chance with the Christ Child.
There are many today, however, who are too scientific and mathematical to take such a chance and place their trust in mystery. They prefer their faith to be logical and rational. It should be nicely ordered, with regular rules and judgments. There is no mystery needed. Indeed, if there is mystery, it cannot be trusted. I wish they had read another of Einstein’s writing. “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. I prefer the latter.” You have to take a chance.
Finally, be prepared for change- even a change you may not have anticipated. The Magi faced as much danger in their world as the poor and lowly. It was no surprise that King Herod was troubled by the visit of the Wise Men, as was all of Jerusalem. Herod was a tyrant who feared the loss of his throne. He frantically plotted to destroy the poor newborn king who threatened him. He began by inviting the Magi to a secret meeting. “Go and search for the child,” Herod told the Magi, “that I may pay him homage.” Herod had no gift to bring. He intended only to use the Magi for evil. But when they went to Bethlehem, and found the child, they were changed.
At that moment the Magi had a decision to make. You see, as soon as they stopped in that place of overwhelming joy, they remembered their secret meeting with Herod, and they knew that they had to make a decision. At that moment, they were caught in between their joy and their fear. Should they trust the mystery of an elusive star or the order of a king? What would you do?
My friends, remember there are only 3 C’s in Life on the path to that 4th C , Christ. “Choices, Chances, and Changes.” You must make the choice, to take a chance, if you want anything in life to change.” In those moments, of danger, you must reach beyond this world for hope and trust and choose. You have to take a chance – you have to make a commitment before all the evidence is in – before the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted. We do not know that the Magi ever saw the resurrected Jesus. They did not see the Lord in his ascended glory sitting at the right hand of the Father. The home they visited was not a royal drawing room. The Virgin Mary was a young peasant girl. Joseph was a village carpenter. But led by their hungering for knowledge and truth, sustained by God’s mysterious revealing star, they made a choice, and took a chance, and committed themselves to the tiny Christ Child. And they were changed.
The Magi did not simply drop off their gifts, they left as new men. They became faithful worshipers of Christ, and would disobey the order of King Herod in his own land, and return home by another way. It is a word for each one of us. Having met Christ, you can choose the way of hope, over the way of fear.
Traditions claim that the Magi were so strong in their belief in the Christ Child that they abandoned the traditions of the Zoroastrianism, and waited for the reign of Christ to begin. They were baptized in their old age by St. Thomas on his missionary journey to India, and they were willing to embrace the martyrdom that was often the fate of the Christ’s earliest followers.
It is said, Life is a journey of choice, chance and change. The Magi knew that truth more than others. It is my prayer this new year, that you might become more and more like the magi of old…. searching, seeking and following the radiance and brightness of God. My friends, as we begin this new year, let us commit ourselves together to meet Christ again and again. For at the journey’s end you too will meet a Savior Christ who knows you, and loves and cares for you, more than you know yourself, and who will offer you his overwhelming joy to comfort and change you all your days. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.