On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. The, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Her’od, they left for their own country by another road. —Matthew 2:11–12
I’ve always thought it fortuitous that we encounter the Wise Men on the twelfth day of Christmas, the Day of Epiphany, Tuesday, January 6, just at the turn of the New Year when we are all making our New Year’s Resolutions, determined to become thinner, smarter, kinder, soberer individuals.
We know next to nothing about the Magi, certainly a lot less than we pretend to know. We pretend to know that they traveled via camelback from the Far East to Bethlehem, but Scripture mentions no beasts of burdens, and some renderings, for instance on the cover of the bulletin this morning, picture them on horseback.
We pretend to know that there were three of them, but that is just a guess based on the number of gifts they presented to the baby Jesus. There might have been two, or twenty. We pretend to know their names: Melchior, an old man with white hair and flowing beard; Balthazar, middle-aged and black as pitch; and Gaspar, young, beardless, and Asian.
It is the Day of Epiphany, you see, Epiphany which means ‘appearance’: the revealing of God’s very self to all humanity. Every race, every color, every culture, every faith, will kneel in Bethlehem to offer gifts and oblations to the newborn King.
We don’t know exactly who they were or what they did for a living. Artistic renderings–the bulletin cover is a good example–often picture them as kings from the east, with royal headgear like crowns or silky turbans, but this is a supposition imported into the story from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who’d promised 500 years before the birth of Jesus, “Arise, shine, for your light has come…nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising…A multitude of camels shall come to you…and they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Matthew doesn’t actually mention any kings; Matthew calls them Magi, an ancient Persian word which needs no translation; you don’t have to ask where the English words ‘magic’ and ‘magician’ come from.
English translations from the King James to the New Revised Standard Version in your pews most commonly render the word Magi as ‘Wise Men,’ which is not the oxymoron many women think it to be.
For Christmas, someone once gave us a ceramic plaque which reads “If there had been three Wise Women, they would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts, and there would be peace on earth.” Maybe, but let that pass for the moment.
It’s always helped me to see these Persian dignitaries as a combination of the Greek Magi and the English ‘Wise Men.’ That is to say, they were sort of a cross between magicians and scientists, sort of a combination of astrologers and astronomers.
I see them as NASA astrophysicists who read both the journal Nature and The National Enquirer–for the horoscopes. They spend their working shifts behind the eyepieces of gigantic observatories with thick, perfect lenses and wide-open apertures collecting pinpricks of precious light from the farthest edges of the universe, or polishing the miraculous mirrors of the Hubble Telescope, or landing robots on Mars or on comets, or detonating missiles on the surface of the moon to find water, or hurling hydrogen protons at nearly the speed of light down tracks that are 16 miles around at the CERN particle accelerator in Geneva just to see what interesting new stuff pops into existence, but at the end of the working day they head to the local tavern and introduce themselves to the comely blond at the other end of the bar with something like “Hi, I’m a Sagittarius; what’s your sign?”
That’s what these Magi are. When they saw that odd, brilliant stellar phenomenon in the western sky–what was it? A comet? An exploding supernova? The confluence of Jupiter and Saturn?–when they saw that gleaming luminescence ablaze in the western sky, they just knew that Something or Someone among or beyond the distant galaxies was trying to get their attention, and so off they hoofed the 600 miles across trackless desert wastes to Jerusalem and eventually to Bethlehem.
You know what they were? They’re the linear ancestors of Coop and Murph from Interstellar. Have you seen the film Interstellar? The earth is dying and someone needs to find a new home for the human race. Coop is a former NASA astronaut and Murphy is his 10-year-old daughter, and strange things are happening in Murph’s bedroom. Books jump randomly and inexplicably off the shelves and dust arranges itself into shapely symmetries. Ten-year-old Murph thinks it’s a ghost, but her father Cooper eventually figures out that Someone or Something from among or beyond the distant galaxies is trying to get our attention. “They,” he calls them. “They’re trying to speak to us. They’re trying to tell us something. They’re trying to show us the way home.” “They”. Who’s “They”? I’ll skip The Big Reveal for those of you who haven’t seen it yet. It turns out not to be God, but it is Someone from among or beyond the distant galaxies, and “They” most certainly are a Messiah. And Cooper is off on his harrowing interstellar adventure.
Long before Coop and long before NASA, the Magi had their own harrowing interstellar adventure.
And that’s why I love running smack dab into the Magi the first week of January every year. I mean, think about who these guys were. They were faculty members at the University of Babylon; they sat in endowed chairs in the astrophysics department; they had tenure; they’d published instead of perished.
And let me tell you something: there is nothing more settled and complacent and self-satisfied than an academic with tenure; there is nothing more comfortable than knowing that you can never for any reason get fired unless you abscond with a million-dollar grant from the Ford Foundation or start sleeping with a graduate student.
What made these tenured professors give up what they were doing to travel 600 miles across the desert to the hick town of Bethlehem to discover this new baby king? Must it not have been the crucial awareness that they weren’t finished yet, that they didn’t know everything there was to know, that there was yet more meaning and magic and mystery beneath the cold, hard facts?
You know who Max Planck is, don’t you? Max Planck was born in Germany in 1858, into a long line of professors and theologians. As a child he was an accomplished musician. He could sing, he played the piano, the organ, and the cello; he composed operas.
But he was also mathematically brilliant, so he decided to go into physics. His family and his mentors tried to talk him out of it. “Why would you go into a field where everything is already discovered and sewn up tight?’ his family wanted to know. “There’s been nothing new in physics since Isaac Newton,” his advisors told him.
As a professor at the University of Berlin around the turn of the twentieth century he was doing boring research on the relationship of light, heat, and matter. Over in the States, of course, Thomas Edison had recently found a way to make electric lighting a practical possibility, and the University of Berlin thought Professor Planck might help Germany make a killing in the lighting industry, but Dr. Planck starts messing around with atoms, and he starts tugging on a loose thread in the fabric of electro-magnetic theory and before he’s finished he’s discovered quantum theory and upends the whole field of physics.
Light, heat, energy, are not waves but particles, he said. Or maybe not exactly particles but discrete packets of energy, or maybe not. A hundred years later no one really knows exactly what’s going on in the physical universe at its most elemental level. Nothing left to discover in physics, indeed!
No one really knows what’s going on in the universe, and this is true at infinitesimal and at astronomical dimensions. In order to be a scientist today, you have to be a Magus; you have to believe in magic.
Don’t you think that the Magi who traveled 600 miles from their comfortable endowed chairs at the University of Babylon to the hick town of Bethlehem in search of magic, majesty, mystery, and meaning are lineal ancestors to scientists like Max Planck, who kept tugging at loose threads and asking their silly, childish questions because to them the world didn’t look all neat and tidy and sewn up tight?
Well, so what, right? Not many of us are astrophysicists. I’m not. Are you? Still, you can see where I’m going with this. Science is not finished yet. Knowledge is not finished yet. You’re not finished yet.
Maybe this is a sermon for the middle of life. Maybe this is a sermon for someone who’s 50 years old. There is somebody here who’s reached a plateau in life and is wondering what to do next. There is somebody who is bored and tired of life itself. George Bernard Shaw said, “Most people die when they’re 30 and are buried when they’re 70.”
There is somebody here who thinks he’s mastered his craft, there is somebody here who think she’s finished with her exploration into the self or the spirit or God. There is somebody here who needs to go back to school to learn a new craft and put her vast God-given talents to work on behalf of a hurting world. There is somebody here who needs to pull the plug on a dying and dysfunctional relationship. There is somebody here who needs to euthanize an obsolete and shameful prejudice. There is somebody here who needs to stop nursing an ancient grudge against someone she used to love over something they’ve both long forgotten.
It’s a New Year. It is the season of Epiphany, the revealing of God’s very essence to all of humanity. Bring your gifts to Bethlehem, and then go home by another way.
“People like you and me never grow old,” wrote Albert Einstein to a friend late in life. “We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.”