Summary: A Sermon for the Sunday of Epiphany. The Wise Men invite us to follow in our faith-journey to encounter the Living God, made known to us in Christ Jesus
Text Matthew 2:1-12 ‘Star-gazers and Jesus-seekers’
I guess we are all familiar with the stars – the stars, that is, that we see printed in our newspapers, written in ‘Teletext’, and on the Internet. Our horoscope, I mean, by which some people seek guidance for their lives, and seek to predict what will happen (to them and their loved-ones) and when, and by whose hand. The question, “What star-sign are you?” is one that we may well be asked quite often, especially as an ‘ice-breaker’ by someone who doesn’t know us very well (and would perhaps like to know us better!). Indeed, it is so often assumed that EVERYONE reads their ‘stars’ that, if we respond “I don’t know” to the question as to what star-sigh we are, that either we’re thought to be joking, or it is a source of great surprise (or even disbelief!) by the one asking us.
It is the job of astrologers to ‘read’ the stars, to ‘map’ the constellations at the time of our birth which (they would tell us) determine our character and personality, and through which our future happiness, health and prosperity (or the reverse of these things!) can be predicted. Astrologers may even tell us that the fortunes of our nation – even of the world – can be foretold by ‘reading’ the stars in the sky.
Personally, I pay no attention to horoscopes, and I take the predictions of astrologers and the like with a ‘bucket of salt’ as we say! I do not believe that my life, your life, the life of our nation – our world – can be predicted by consulting and interpreting the relative position of stars in the sky. I do not believe that everything in life is fixed and unchangeable, according to the position of and relationship between the stars in the sky at our birth. I believe that there is more to life than this – much more! I believe that we can influence the outcome(s) of our own life, and the fortune of our nation – and of the world. For if life is so fixed, so unchangeable, so predictable, so controlled by the movement of the constellations and galaxies of stars in the sky, we might as well sit around and do nothing, since what is going to happen will happen (good or bad) regardless of our hopes, aspirations and actions. “What will be, will be” as the old song goes. It’s all so fatalistic!
We might well wonder, then, what the story of three astrologers is doing in the Gospel of Matthew. For astrologers they were, priests of a ancient Persian mystical sect (in the Greek, ‘Magi’). Their pagan religion set great store by reading and interpreting the ‘signs’ of the skies, by which (they believed) they foretold the rise and fall of great people, and predicted great and disastrous world events. That later translators of the gospels felt uncomfortable with the idea of pagan astrologer-priests approaching and paying homage to Jesus, the Son of God, is seen in the way that they are often described as ‘wise men’ or ‘kings’. ‘Wise men’ who had seen a star rising in the eastern skies, which they had interpreted to indicate the rise of a new king.
In that time too, astrologers were widely recognised for their skills in reading the signs of the skies, foretelling world events like the rise (and fall) of great rulers. It was all, people believed, part of the predictability of human and world life; all part of the fixed and unalterable nature of human destiny, as it was ‘written’ in the skies.
What, then, IS the story of the three Magi doing in the story of Jesus’ birth, according to Matthew’s Gospel?
What Matthew’s Gospel tells us – emphasises – in the words of the Magi, is that the star they had followed was a NEW star, for a NEW king! That many people today say that their new star was, in fact, a comet, is unimportant to the story. It was a NEW star that had appeared in the sky, thereby shattering the old security, the safety, and the predictability of their astrological art. It was a NEW star that had never been seen before, it shattered the fixed, unchangeable map of the stars – and thus the nature of human destiny. For the Magi, the NEW star spoke of the rising of a NEW king, who would bring great change to the lives of all people. The appearance of this new star seems to have convinced them that the event it announced was so world-shattering, would have such a profound impact on human fortune and destiny, that they decided to follow the star and witness to the event itself, in person.
For the Magi, this was an end to their belief that everything and everyone’s life was fixed, unalterable and predictable because of the position or movement of the stars. Rather, the NEW star spoke of an Event, a Person, in whom great change for humanity and for the world would be made possible. The new star spoke of the possibility of newness and surprise in the world, in human life. It spoke of a new, universal king, whom the three astrologers traced by following the star westward. They eagerly sought this new king of a foreign dynasty and they found (to their surprise) the baby Jesus born in such humble surroundings, in the midst of poverty. Here they paid their homage, and lay at his feet their wealth, prayers and compassion (gold, frankincense and myrrh).