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.
God moves in mysterious ways...
I wonder how many times we’ve heard that saying? Yet rarely do we really take it seriously. We assume that God moves in exactly predictable ways according to what is written about Him in the Bible. Yet if we were to actually read what happens at face value, rather than interpreting it so that it says what we want it to say, we will find that there are plenty of times when God does not do the expected God-like thing. This Gospel story is a case in point.
In order fully to understand what we find there we need to do a little unravelling of the translations. The men who came to see Jesus at the Epiphany, which translates as ‘The Revealing’ , were not, ‘Wise Men’, and they certainly weren’t three kings, even if the carol is fun to sing. The Greek that Matthew wrote was quite clear that these men were Magi, the word from which we get our English word, Magick. But who exactly were the Magi, and how does their identity affect our understanding of what was taking place at the Epiphany?
Inevitably when we’re dealing with something like this there are disputes about who or what the Magi actually were. Modern research seems to suggest that they were magicians, sorcerers or those who could interpret both the stars and the meanings of dreams, and they probably came from Persia. It seems likely that they were followers of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, a religion whose morality could be summed up by the phrase, ‘Good thoughts, good words, good deeds’, and which followed the deity, Ahura Mazda, in a dualistic religion which focussed on the struggle between order and decay.
Now there are a couple of other interesting pieces of history that link in with this story. During this point in ancient history it was often believed that the births of humans who would accomplish great things would be told forth in the heavens by the stars. Even more intriguingly there were two writers, Suetonius and Tacitus, who tell us that at that time there was an expectation of a world-ruler who would arise from Judea.
I think that it is of particular interest as to what happens next. The Magi, believing that they possess knowledge about the rise of a new king, go first of all to visit Herod. They probably would have presumed that Herod had fathered a new son who would be destined to be his heir. They went to him without guile, but Herod’s response was one of fear, as indeed was the response of all of Jerusalem. A new king, for the city, would mean disruption and bloodshed because of Herod’s reputation.
We know Herod the Great to have been a fearsome and cruel man, and what history so often shows us is that people who work their way into positions of power become terribly paranoid that someone would come to steal their power away from them. We can therefore imagine what must have been going through Herod’s mind when important Magi from Persia come to greet him and meet his non-existent new-born.
Herod, in common with much of that culture, would have taken their words seriously and would have wondered who was going to usurp him. Modern western culture may well dismiss astrology out of hand as being an old superstition, suitable just for the back pages of cheap magazines, but Herod and the people of that time took it seriously.
Herod therefore called together his own chief priests and scribes, only to discover that the prophecies of his own holy book suggest that the one anointed by God to lead the people, for that is the meaning of the word, Messiah, would be born in more-or-less his own backyard, in Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem.
And so the unsuspecting Magi are tasked with finding the new born Messiah-King, and reporting back to Herod when they have done so. But on completion of their journey they receive and interpret a dream, the contents of which we are not told, which warns them against telling Herod the location of Jesus.
Now my reason for loving this story is because of the way in which it turns the tenets of orthodox religion on its head and challenges us to think outside our churchianity box. Let’s think about it for a moment. Herod and his high priests and scribes represent the leaders of the Jewish people and religion, the ones to whom Jesus was primarily called, and yet they are clearly the ‘bad guys’ in the story.
On the other hand we have the Magi who not only come from a foreign land and a foreign religion, but have ascertained the birth of Jesus through astrology, not prophecy or an angelic visit. Now listen to what other Biblical writers say about astrology. This is from Isaiah 47:
Let those who study the heavens stand up and save you,So to Isaiah astrologers are like stubble to be burned up. How about the Magi being sorcerers? This comes from Deuteronomy 18:
those who gaze at the stars and at each new moon predict what shall befall you.
See, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them;
they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame.
No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practises divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, ...For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord... Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.And so I find myself wondering what Isaiah and the Deuteronomist would have had to say about God speaking to the Magi through their own spiritual tools? You see it is very easy for us to find lots of rules and regulations for living in the Bible, and it’s very easy for us to condemn all sorts of practices, something that certain quarters of the Church of England seem very adept at, but then God seems to muck it all up by not adhering to the rules Himself!
So what it is that we can learn from this? What can we understand by this difficult passage?
It seems to me that the main teaching here is that we should never limit the ways in which God may choose to work for good in this world. Whilst Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Magi, was clearly very different from Judaism in some ways, they also had much in common including striving for the moral good, and the battle between order and disorder.
What we find is that God chose to reveal God's Son to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, through a foreign religion that had practices that were not permitted to the Jews. And if that is the case, then it begs the question, where else is God at work in the world outside of the boundaries of what we deem to be acceptable?
It was with a certain amount of trepidation that in the prayers at Midnight Mass I referred to God moving amongst the people of the world, regardless of what name they know Him by, yet this, I think, is the key thing which we need to learn from the Magi, that God is not bound by our rules to only do good works via the church and Christians.
I believe that we have a high calling to provide a spiritual lead in this country, but frankly we have failed in that. Instead of being welcoming and loving; instead of recognising the grace of God and basing our lives on that, we have allowed the face of the Church of England to be described as one that is based morally in rules, rather than spiritually about love, acceptance and growth.
People tell me that the God in the Bible is also about judgement, and yes that’s true too, but the picture is more of judgement on those who did not care about those who needed care. Jesus seemed able to forgive people easily, so why do we feel compelled to take the moral high ground so much?
Our concentration on being correct regarding what we think is right and wrong has made people feel excluded. I might even go so far as to say we might even have lost the right to declare God’s word in our country, and I think it may take some time before we have any respect. We have no one to blame for that but ourselves.
But will that stop God from doing good things here? Of course not! God will continue to move in all kinds of religious and secular movements. God’s Spirit is living and active in this world. She, or He, is known by many different names and to be honest I don’t think God is all that bothered so long as God is able to continue to defeat darkness and bring hope.
God won’t be limited by us. God spoke to the Magi in ways that they could understand. God was present to them within their own tradition. We should never forget that what God did was to tell them of a new king, and they honoured this new king, but they didn’t become Christians, because Christianity didn’t exist, and they didn’t become Jews either. God doing good in the world is not dependent on human labels.
Therefore we should not exclude the possibility that God will speak to others within their own traditions. Indeed this, I think, is one of the primary reasons for the interfaith movement; that in understanding what others believe, we may better understand our own beliefs and our vision of God may grow.
So when you see good things happening in the world around you, and yet they are not being done in the name of Christ, do not dismiss such things but celebrate them: God is bigger than our religion and longs to do good, and so if he could do so via magick, sorcery, dream interpretation and astrology two thousand years ago, then why should he not do similar things now, or anything else that he chooses to do to make himself known and increase the good in the world.
Of course I would prefer that good things happen in the name of Christ because it is my belief that the most complete revelation of who God is, is found in the person of Christ and his nature. But I refuse to limit God to only doing what we think he should do.
So may we celebrate the presence of God in our world and get involved. And in doing so may we all be able to make 2013 better than 2012. Amen