The Magi and God's Grace
Sermon #252 St. Martin’s #10 (Riverway #3) 1/2/22
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
`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.'"
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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." 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Wind & Compass
Where are you in relation to somewhere else, anywhere else, in fact? It is a question that we take for granted as modern people with Google Maps, but for ancient people to answer this question definitively it took thousands of years.
The long journey to get a reliable map of the world with precise directions began as early as the 5th century B.C. when Greek scholars dropped their belief that the earth was a flat disk that floated on the waters and rather concluded that the earth was a globe.
Plato and his contemporaries adopted this theory purely on ascetical grounds. Since they thought a sphere was the most perfect mathematical form, the earth must also be that shape as well. From there the Greeks couldn’t help but play with the symmetry of the globe, subdividing it in many different ways, and neatly encircling it with parallel lines.
The father of modern geography, Claudius Ptolemy, built upon these early thinkers in the second century A.D., and his work can still be seen on maps today. The grid system that he created remains the basis of how all maps are still laid out – somehow he created a calculation that could reliably take what was on a globe and lay it out flat without all the distances being distorted.
He was the first to popularize and may have even created the terms latitude and longitude. He oriented his flat maps with north at the top, and east at the right side of the page—things we now just assume when we look at a map (98). So even Google Maps is indebted to Ptolemy.
But even deep into the Middle Ages one might have a map but had only a few references to help them know which direction they were going. Along with the sun by day, and the stars by night, you also had the winds that would give you a hint of where you were going.
The Ancient Greeks used the term “wind” so much while sailing that it became synonymous with the word “direction.” The great seafaring kingdoms like Portugal and Venice later used maps that indicated the direction of the winds instead of the cardinal directions of North, South, East, West because they were not yet well established.
But the problem still remained: where were you in relation to somewhere else? You couldn’t be 100 percent sure. The sun is in a different place in the sky depending on the season, looking to the stars required complicated calculations and a clear sky, and the winds varied by region.
The answer for absolute direction finally seemed possible once explorers began using a magnetic compass – first brought from China by traders. It truly opened the door for Christopher Columbus and others to begin exploring the far reaches of the known world because they could be confident that they were following the same latitude the entire time.
But there was one problem with the compass: “Since the inexplicable power of a magnetized needle to ‘find’ the north [seemed like] black magic, common [sailors] were wary of its powers” (221). Many thought that the lodestone, which gave the compass its power to lead a ship in the right direction, may have come from Satan himself.
And so, many wise ship captains kept a compass hidden away in their pocket, only to look it when they were out of sight of their crew. It was this little use of “magic” that ensured they knew where they were going, and guaranteed they could find their way back home.
Using what seemed to be a form of dark magic to get where you needed to go is also a theme in our gospel this morning. Though the Magi didn’t use a compass, they instead looked to the night sky to lead them.
They noticed a star at its rising, from their observatory somewhere in Babylon or Persia, and felt compelled enough to follow the star thousands of miles to Jerusalem. These star-gazers, or ancient astrologers, were also thought to be magicians (the first four letters of the word “magician” is “magi” after all).
But in our story they are also mysterious figures of faith, they appear in twelve verses of the Bible, never to be heard from again. We aren’t quite sure where they came from, where they went, or whatever happened to them after this encounter with Jesus. As quickly as they appear, they fade away from the biblical narrative.
And when thinking about it that way, it is pretty odd that they are in this story about Israel’s Messiah at all. They have no connection with any of the people involved, no reason to be in that part of the world; they are, for all intents and purposes, lost and somehow just wandered into this story.
But they are not the first people who mysteriously walked into a story of the Bible with an immense amount of faith, only to then fade away. Actually throughout the Bible appears a handful of mysterious figures of faith.
You may remember in Genesis that Abraham meets a man named Melchizedek. He appears in only three verses, but in that short amount of time we learn that he is the king of Salem, he then presents Abraham with bread and wine and blesses him.
Strangely enough this seemingly “nonbeliever” is also called a “priest of God Most High,” though Abraham and his family are the only known “believers” of God on the earth…and then just like that, Melchizedek disappears.
The same is true for the pagan magician Balaam, in the Book of Numbers, who can’t help but bless Israel when he is supposed to curse them, and he even foretells of the coming Messiah.
And in the story of Jonah, moments before he is eaten by the great fish, we see him on a ship that is being pummeled by a severe storm. It is the gentile sailors who profess faith in God, while Jonah (God’s most reluctant prophet) continues to defy God’s command to go to Nineveh.
Throughout the Bible, God has used people outside of Israel, outside of the family of faith, to be extraordinary examples of God’s limitless grace and action.
The Magi are no different. They fall in line with these mysterious figures of faith whose only purpose in the story is to show the people of Israel that God is doing something much bigger than they first thought; that in fact, God is using rogue kings, pagan prophets, salty sailors, and star-gazers from the East to fulfill Habakkuk’s prophecy that “the [whole] earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14).
The whole earth: both Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female will be able to receive the blessing that the Star in Bethlehem foretells. This Child, unlike any other, is for all people, no exceptions.
The Magi are not outliers in this story, they didn’t just stumble into this scene haphazardly, but they are the first indication in this gospel that God’s grace extends far beyond the bounds of the Temple Courts in Jerusalem, or even the borders of the Promised Land. If anything, it appears that the religious elite (the priest and scholars) were dumbfounded that these pagans proclaimed the good news of their long-awaited king’s birth to them, the experts!
If the Magi were disoriented being in a foreign land, and not knowing where to go with this good news. Herod and the chief priests were also disoriented, having missed the most important news that ever happened right in their own backyard.
And so, I want to look at our initial question in that same spirit. Where are you in relation to somewhere else, anywhere else? What is leading you and where are you going?
As a priest, the most frequent conversation I have with people is trying to help them discern how God might be moving in their life. I can’t tell you how many people I talk to who have a genuine interest in growing in their faith, but they just don’t know the next step. If anything, many of them feel like they don’t know enough, or are not good enough, or aren’t religious enough to take that next step in growing in their faith (whatever that may be).
And every time I have this conversation with someone I can’t help but smile because I’ve realized something before they have. While they’re focused to figuring out which Bible study to join, or what C.S. Lewis book to order, I know that God is already working in this person more than they realize.
You see, you can’t just conjure up the desire to draw closer to God, as if it were a magic trick. No matter hard you try, it’s not you doing it. You can’t force it because it is always a gift of God. The very desire to seek after God comes from none other than God himself.
Yes, the Magi were led by a star, but in fact, they were led by God’s grace. It was his grace that stirred in them the desire to leave the comfort of their home and make the long journey west. It was his grace that led them to Jerusalem where they opened the Scriptures that then led them to Bethlehem. And it was by his grace, that when they encountered Jesus, they couldn’t help but worship him.
The question isn’t: Is God doing something in my life? But rather: What is God doing in my life? How is his grace shaping me as a person? How is it leading me into a deeper union with him? How will it lead me to a place where I can worship and adore him with all of my heart and soul and mind?
We might even say, “I’m am being led and I didn’t even know it.”
And if God is working in me, then I must assume that he is working in every other person as well. Yes, the people around me in worship this morning, but also all of those people “out there” – outside of the church walls, even those who appear pretty far from the gospel.
How might those people, who I consider “different” or “acting like pagans,” be like the Magi to me? How might God use them to reveal himself in a new and powerful way?
The story of the Magi is a story of outsiders teaching the insiders about God’s grace.
It is a grace that transcends all human boundaries and preconceived notions. It is as limitless as the night sky and more vast than the fathomless ocean. Its depths have not been fully plumbed by the human imagination, nor has its implications been fully lived out.
And yet, as John the Evangelist said, “Out of his fullness [God’s fullness] we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16).
Maps and compasses and even stars can be helpful, but it is God who will lead us to himself. All we must do is follow in light of his grace.
Year C. 2nd Sun. of Christmas. Mt 2:1-12. The Discoverers, Daniel Boorstin. Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner. Picture here.