Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
For some the story of Epiphany and the Wise Men may simply read as the final, wistful chapter in the Christmas story. But for me, there is something more. I love Epiphany and I love the star. I love singing loudly and robustly, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and the “The First Noel.” You see, there is something distinctive and adventurous about the story of the Wise Men that speaks to me, and of course, there is the Epiphany mirth.
For instance, what would have happened if it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men who journey to Bethlehem? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts. Or, “Why did Mary turn down more gifts from the Magi after the first three? Because she decided that it was myrrh, than enough.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but I must confess I don’t feel a strong connection to the lowly shepherds abiding in the fields nor to the heavenly chorus sweetly singing o’er the plain. I do, however, feel a kindred spirit with the Wise Men from the East journeying from afar. Theirs is the story of wisdom, intelligence and mystery.
Coincidentally, their story also fits into my own family tree. While reading the biography of one my great-great-grandfathers, I discovered that as a young man, this Norwegian born theology student worked at the royal observatory on the island of Hven in between Sweden and Denmark with the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. This was in the days before telescopes, but my ancestor had good eyesight and could give the precise measurements Brahe needed for his work. In the 16th century, the tiny island of Hven was the center for science and astronomy. The Danish king himself Frederik II dedicated 5% of the kingdom’s budget to the study of the heavens. Still, the living conditions at the observatory were harsh. Cold winds blew off the waters of Oresund in the night when the measurements had to be taken.
Now, you may be wondering, why was the study of the heavens so important in the 16th century? Well, in the years after the Protestant Reformation, the Church in Rome’s influence over the sciences was waning, and a new generation of scientists was trying to understand the power and the majesty of God’s creation. They asked: Was the world the center of the universe or was it the sun? Was humanity the crowning glory of God’s creation, or was it something else? And so across Europe, the royal courts sponsored astronomers, astrologists and scientists to discover the influence of heavens over all things. Interestingly, 16 centuries earlier, the royal courts of the ancient Middle East sponsored astronomers, astrologists and scientists as well.
I have wondered what led the wise men from the royal courts of the East to undertake this long, dangerous journey to Bethlehem? How did they know about this Jewish prophecy, so obscure that the scribes of King Herod’s court were convened to search the scriptures. And what led them to believe that this particular star was the one that would announce the birth of a great king? That is what we will explore today.
What most people today know about the wise men comes from Renaissance traditions and Christmas carols. Just look at any nativity set and you can recognize the wise men- except for one in a southern town, where the wisemen were wearing fire helmets. Apparently, they were coming from “afire.” But in all other sets, Joseph and the shepherds are indistinguishable from one another, but the wisemen are always seen with crowns. St. Matthew, however, in his gospel never suggests that the wise men were kings. Instead, the apostle intentionally uses the word “Magi” which was the name given to great, powerful men, who were priests and wise men among the Medes, Persians, Zoroastrians and Babylonians. And here in lies the connection to the Old Testament prophecy. 600 years earlier, the Jewish people were taken from their land and lived for the next 70 years in Babylon. The Jewish prophet Daniel had grown to be an old man during that time and had outlived the three kings portrayed in the Book of Daniel. The first, King Nebuchadnezzar had sent Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to the Fiery Furnace where they were protected from the flames. King Nebuchadnezzar had the assigned the prophet Daniel to the high office of “chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.” Yes, Daniel was appointed Chief of the Magi. The second, King Belshazzar held a great feast and drank from the vessels that had been looted in the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple. Suddenly, a hand appeared and wrote on the wall. The terrified Belshazzar called for his wise men, but only Daniel, the chief of the Magi, could read the warning of the kingdom’s imminent capture. After the third king, King Darius the Mede had taken over, Daniel once again faced trials and imminent death as he was thrown by King Darius into the Lion’s Den.
The Magi of the first century would have most certainly studied the lives of the great magi and writings of Daniel and possibly other Jewish writings, just as 400 years later, I can still study the writings of Tycho Brahe and the work of his Norwegian intern. This connection between Daniel and the Magi may help to explain why the Magi expected a Jewish king to arrive in Judea near the end of the first century B.C. It is likely that the Magi followed the star based on their study of the prophet Daniel’s writings. It also explains why they may have been welcomed and feared when they entered into King Herod’s court.
Dr. Craig Chester, Past President of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy adds the following description of the Magi:
Magi often wandered from court to court, and it was not unusual for them to cover great distances in order to attend the birth or crowning of a king, paying their respects and offering gifts. It is not surprising, therefore, that Matthew would mention them as validation of Jesus’ kingship, or that Herod would regard their arrival as a very serious matter.
The Jewish-Roman historian Josephus mentions the visit as well. Indeed, their visit would not have gone unnoticed. It is why all of Jerusalem was caught up in the intrigue. The Magi were such important significant individuals they probably traveled with a very large entourage including soldiers, even a small army for protection.
But ultimately for me, what is most compelling about the Magi’s visit is what happened next when they saw the child with his mother Mary. They were no longer casual observers, or “star gazers” standing on the sidelines. The ancient oriental custom of greeting, especially among the Persian, was clear. Between persons of equal ranks, they kissed each other on the lips when they met; when the difference of rank was slight, they kissed each other on the cheek; but when one was much inferior, they fell upon their knees and touched their forehead to the ground or prostrated themselves, throwing kisses at the same time toward the superior. It is this latter mode of greeting which St. Matthew describes as the actions of the Magi before Jesus. They knelt down and paid him homage. Yes, they worshiped him.
The Magi, however, did not simply drop off their gifts and leave by same way. They returned home as new men on a new path. But they also found themselves in great peril just as Daniel the chief Magi had found himself repeatedly 600 years earlier. Yes, the Magi suddenly faced as much danger in their world as the poor and lowly Jewish servants in Babylon. King Herod the Great was a paranoid, tyrannical ruler who feared the loss of his throne. He frantically plotted to destroy the poor newborn king who threatened him, and the Magi knew they had been ordered to return to him to tell him where they found him.
Regardless of the danger, the Magi, like Daniel knew they had to live with integrity of faith. And in that moment, as they worshiped the Child Jesus in Bethlehem, they knew they could place their trust only in him. The stories of Daniel and the God of Israel had taught them that things can look bleak, but as men of faith, they needed to trust the one whom ultimately belonged. And so was in this child they had placed all their hopes and dreams.
It is just as true today for you and me today. Things happen in this world… things we don’t always understand. Suffering happens. We face trials and times of testing. But we have the promise of God that he works all things together for the good, for those who love him. The enemy may have plans to harm us, but God loves to turn these losses into wins. He enjoys taking what the enemy means for defeat and transforms them into our greatest victories. That is what the Magi discovered in the face of Jesus. They dare to take a chance. It is what God is waiting for you to rediscover again this day.
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. But it is also my hope and prayer that you will trust and take a chance with that this tiny child who will not let you go. He will be the one to help you in the fiery trials of life, to read the handwriting on the wall and to help walk with you binding the mouths of the beast in the lion’s death. This child has that power. That’s what wise men and women for centuries have known and trusted.
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.