Have you ever set out on a long journey, and when you arrived at your destination, realized you were in the wrong place?
That’s what happened to the wise ones from the East in today’s gospel reading. But let’s start from the beginning. Around the time of Jesus birth, there were astrologers in the East, likely in Persia or Iraq, who observed a new star in the night sky. They understood this to mean that a child had been born as king, and so they set out on their westward journey across the desert to seek for the child and to pay him homage. Now this wouldn’t be an easy trip. It would be a long, challenging journey through difficult terrain, a trip that would take months. And as they loaded up their camels with supplies for the journey, they also brought along various scrolls that would help guide them on their way.
One of the texts that the magi would have consulted would have been the Hebrew scriptures, the collection of scrolls that we call the Old Testament. And after diligently pouring through the scriptures they would have found the same texts that we heard in our readings today. They would have read Psalm 72, which tells of a great king who will be born in the land of Israel, a king who will rule righteously, a king who will rescue the poor and bring peace. This sounded like the king they were searching for, the one for whom the star had risen. But where would he be born?
As they continued to search the scriptures, they would have come across a poem addressed to the city of Jerusalem by the prophet Isaiah which proclaims to the city:
“Arise, shine: for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn. A multitude of camels shall cover you. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.”
“Aha!” the magi exclaimed. It is to Jerusalem that we must travel, to greet the child who has been born king. Where else would you expect the new king to be born? Jerusalem was the capital city, the city of kings, the political and religious centre of the people of Israel. Its temple was famous throughout the ancient world. It was a city of great buildings surrounded by thick walls. Surely this was where the new king would be born.
And so they traveled across the great desert, spurred on by the knowledge of where they were heading. And when at last they saw Jerusalem, that great city on the hill, lit up by the rays of the morning sun, “surely,” they would have said, “surely we have reached our destination”.
But when they went in through the gates, and up to the palace of the king, they were just as surely disappointed. They were looking for a child who had been born king, one who would rule in justice and bring peace. Instead they found King Herod, an old man who was frightened and suspicious, a corrupt puppet king of the Roman Empire who preserved his rule by playing one faction off against another, not a righteous king but a ruthless one who would slaughter children if necessary to preserve his throne.
The wise ones had arrived at their destination, but they soon realized that they were in the wrong place. But at least they had the sense to ask for directions. “The child we are looking for, the one who is to be the king of the Jews, the Messiah, where is he to be born?”
King Herod called all his scripture scholars together and they too searched the Hebrew scriptures until they found another passage, this one from the prophet Micah:
“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”
Bethlehem was only a day’s journey from Jerusalem, but it might as well have been another world. It was a small, dusty peasant village, a place where the land was so poor that raising sheep was the main form of agriculture. When the magi arrived in Bethlehem, they must have been disappointed. Who would ever expect to find a king there? And yet they entered the tiny village, and found a little hut made of clay brick, and inside was a mother with her child.
And it is here that the magi that they truly were wise: in the midst of that humble setting, in the midst of the poverty, in the vulnerability of a mother and child who were probably terrified when these strangers came to their home, the wise ones were able to recognize the One whom they were seeking. And they paid him homage, offering him their precious gifts, and then returned to their country by another road.
This is the journey of the magi, a familiar story that we remember each year as we celebrate Epiphany. Are there any lessons that we can draw from their journey? Well, I think that there are.
The first lesson from the journey of the magi is this:
When you see a star, follow it!
As humans, we are meant to journey. It’s what we were made for. So when you see a star, don’t just sit there, get up and get going. Sometimes we might be talking about a real physical journey, a trip that takes us somewhere. At other times we’re talking about our life journey, the spiritual journey that all of us are on. When the magi saw the star, they were proactive. They got on their camels and off they went. We should do the same. Maybe an example might help. How many of you would like to have a better relationship with someone, with your spouse or your sibling, or your child or parent? Well that’s a star. Now, how many of you actually did something about it during these Christmas holidays. That would be the first step of the journey. When you see a star, follow it.
But don’t go empty handed. Take a travel guide on the journey with you. It might be a companion who knows the way, or like the wise ones, it might be a book. It might even be the same book that the magi used, the Bible. Don’t assume that you know it all, or that as you journey you’ll figure out the way on your own. Wise people learn from the wisdom of others. On your spiritual journey, learn from others who have walked the path before you. Take a travel guide with you and use it. That’s the second lesson.
The third lesson is pretty straightforward: When lost, ask for directions. Now I know that this might be more difficult for some of us than for others. When the magi arrived in Jerusalem and realized that they were in the wrong place, they didn’t just turn around and go home, nor did they travel on blindly. Instead, they asked for directions. Whenever you journey, you head into the unknown. From time to time, you will get lost along the way. When you do, ask for directions. Sometimes that might mean asking fellow travelers, sometimes it might mean asking those who have passed that way before you, sometimes it might mean prayer. When lost, ask for directions.
A fourth lesson from the magi’s journey: Have the wisdom to recognize what it is you’re looking for, even if it doesn’t look like you expected it to. The magi had the wisdom and the humility to see the glory of God in the child Jesus, even though they saw none of the kingly trappings that they were expecting. We need this same wisdom on our journey. One example of that we hear a lot about is the search for happiness. Many of us are searching for happiness, and we have a lot of expectations about what happiness will look like. We might expect it to look like a good job with a good salary, a four bedroom house in a good neighbourhood, a family with two kids and a dog and an indexed pension. But if we’re too focused on our own expectations of what happiness looks like, we may not recognize it when it shows up in a mud brick hut with a dusty floor. We could say the same about our search for God. Have the wisdom to recognize what it is you’re looking for, even if it doesn’t look like you expected it to.
The fifth lesson from the magi? On your journey, offer gifts. Journeys aren’t about getting, they’re about giving, giving of yourself, giving the very best you have to those you encounter on the way. All that we are, all that we have is a gift from God, and it has been entrusted to us for a time so that we can offer it as a gift to others.
And the final lesson that we can draw from the journey of the magi is this: If you find what you’re looking for, don’t be surprised if you have to return home by another road. Our life journeys are meant to be transformational, they are meant to change us, to bring us closer to the person that we were created to be. It is this capacity to journey, this capacity to be transformed by our experiences that makes our human lives so exciting.
And there you have it, six lessons for the journey, courtesy of the magi from the east. May God bless you richly on your journey.
Homily: Epiphany, Jan 6 2019, St. Albans
Readings: Mt 2:1-12; Ps 72; Eph 3.1-12; Is 60:1-6
Based in part on:
Herbert O’Driscoll, “Kingly Presence” The Christian Century, December 27, 2003, p.18.
Walter Brueggermann, “Off by Nine Miles”, The Christian Century, December 19-26, 2001, p. 15.