We human beings have always been fascinated by the night sky. Right from the very earliest moments of civilisation we’ve been over-awed by the stars and planets and given names to the constellations and tried to work out what they mean. As modern city-dwellers we miss most of it - in fact I was intrigued the other day to hear that the organisers of the Sydney New Year’s Eve skyshow included a representation of the Southern Cross in the finale because although it can be clearly seen across the southern hemisphere it’s too faint for most Sydneysiders to see. It seems to me somehow significant that in this superficial age the signs in the heavens that most stir our excitement are the products of our own cleverness.
We do of course still get impressed by the natural variety. One of my favourites happened just a year ago - on 30 November 2008, to be precise, when the whole of the southern hemisphere looked up to see a giant smiley face in the night sky – a rare conjunction between Venus, Jupiter and a three-day-old crescent Moon that looked for all the world like God winking at us. Whatever it meant, this apparition seemed altogether too cheerful to be bad news. In the ancient world, comets were routinely thought to be divine announcements of important goings on, and astrologers developed precise - if not particularly scientific - systems of interpretation which of course are still consulted today by people trying to find Ms or Mr Right.
So Matthew’s story of mysterious visitors from the East, following some sort of object in the night sky that behaved unlike any star or comet in history - leading them across the desert and over the Judean countryside like some sort of camel’s pace satellite navigation system before finally coming to rest over the roof of a house in Bethlehem - Matthew’s story of the magi tells us that we are in the vicinity of great and wonderful events, the birth of one who, if we are to call him a king, calls into question all merely human political power, puts in the shade all human claims to pre-ordained greatness. It’s also – it seems to me - a story that verges on cheekiness, a story that pokes irreverent fun at the mythology of the Roman invaders of Matthew’s homeland. The world superpower back then had a whole range of gods, and made a sort of secular religion out of treating its emperors as gods, much as we do with pop celebrities and footballers. In fact, the current emperor, Caesar Augustus, actually had as one of his titles, “Son of God, Saviour of the world”, and according to official legend a new star had burst into the skies to greet his birth.
My New Testament professor, Bill Loader, points out how many different threads from the Old Testament are woven into Matthew’s highly symbolic story of the magi coming to worship the baby Jesus. The wise and mysterious visitors from the East, from the direction of Mesopotamia, of Judah’s traditional enemies Assyria or Babylon, or even of Eden itself, reflect a long tradition of Israel’s hopes that the nations of the world would come to worship God on Zion. This is part of the generous prophetic strand of the Old Testament, for example Micah and Isaiah, who both speak of swords being beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks and that the nations will come together in peace to learn of God. In our readings this morning we get two glimpses of this tradition - Isaiah’s vision of gold and frankincense being brought as homage, psalm 72 that speaks of camels and kings bearing gold as gifts. Matthew - who clearly knows his history - would have been aware of the political delegation from the East that visited Herod the Great around 10BC on the completion of his great city of Caesarea Maritima, he would have known of the great comet of 12BC – more importantly he would also have known the stories of the Old Testament, for example in the book of Numbers where the pagan prophet Balaam testifies that a star would arise from Jacob. In short, Matthew wants to tell us that Jesus wasn’t born just to be a Jewish messiah, but a messiah for the whole world. And so he tells us this story about strangers travelling long distances to check out the signs for themselves.
Interestingly, for such wise men, they seem to have been a bit naive. Go figure - they pull into town, into Jerusalem, and they ask King Herod the Great, the puppet king installed by the Romans around 50BC, if he’s heard anything about the real, God-anointed King who seems to have been born hereabouts. With considerable understatement, Matthew writes that Herod was agitated about the news that he had some competition. And what he does next underscores that he, Herod himself, knows what the difference is, because when the travellers ask him about a new king he turns to his advisors and asks them straight off where the messiah is to be born. Herod in other words is acutely aware that real power comes from God, but that his own just comes from Rome.
And straight away the religious leaders come up with the right answer – in Bethlehem – not from the seat of power but from the place of humility. Matthew isn’t just thumbing his nose at the Roman authorities with this story, he’s also having a go at the religious leaders of his own people who had been waiting for the birth of God’s messiah – God’s anointed one – for hundreds of years, and when it finally happens, either don’t get it, or even worse, do get it but are too afraid, too in cahoots with the secular authorities, or too in love with their own power and position to acknowledge it. You missed the baby, Matthew is saying, and you also missed the man. Because the stories of Jesus birth aren’t primarily about baby Jesus, they are about the Jesus his followers knew as a teacher and healer, the Jesus who would eventually be crucified under the facetious sign “King of the Jews”. As writer Scott Hoezee puts it, the story is ultimately about "the reach of grace … (reminding us that) the Christ child who attracted these odd astrologers to his cradle would later have the same magnetic effect on Samaritan adulterers, prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracised lepers”.
And, says Matthew, you lot missed the signs that heaven itself was ablaze with. The people who for hundreds of years had seen themselves as waiting faithfully for the fulfilment of God’s promises missed the moment when it happened because they were too afraid, too stuck in tradition and self-interest, unable to recognise the utter consistency of the new with the history of God’s faithfulness in the past. The very people who should have recognised the signs were too busy with their religious rituals and power games to see that God had come near to them.
But some strangers didn’t miss it. Looking for a sign, attentive to the world around them, in tune both with the ancient wisdom and the contemporary world, they recognised and responded to God’s initiative. The star itself was not the epiphany, the sign is not the experience, the signs of our times just prompt us to be attentive, to be intelligent, and to respond with love – and the signs of our times can reveal that the God we worship is not confined to a dusty book or a received tradition. The magi teach us the value of intuition and the imperative of being open to change, of allowing ourselves to be disturbed and redirected. When they got there, the magi worshipped, and then Matthew tells us, they went home by a different road. The experience of the Christ-Child is meant to change us, to direct us to new opportunities and new ways of being faithful. Above all, we’re not meant to come to the manger and just stay there.
So the question that the story confronts us with is: who are we? Are we among the faithful religious people who don’t get it, or who refuse to get it – or are we travelling with the magi, have we been sensitive to the signs of the times and have we followed them to an epiphany of God’s presence in the world? We know the right answer – we know which group we should be travelling with but – deep down – we also know how hesitant we are to imagine that God’s dream for the world might actually be happening, that we are being challenged to notice and respond to something new. People keep coming among us with new messages from God, having seen new signs, new patterns. Sometimes we’re too busy to notice. Sometimes we’re too afraid to consider it because it’s so different from what we’ve always done in the past. Sometimes we just don’t like the messenger, they’re too confronting, too abrasive, too unfamiliar.
The Eastern Church has an interesting Epiphany tradition. Each year, the priest blesses a piece of chalk and then writes on the doorway of the church the symbols “20+C+M+B+10”. It’s a message to any wise people who might be passing – in the tradition of the ancient Church the magi were given names – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar – C+M+B – a message that says to any passing bearers of divine insight, “come in here in 2010, you’ll be welcome. We’re ready to listen. This year, we’re ready to be changed and challenged. This year, we’re ready to believe that God might just come among us in ways we haven’t thought of yet. This year, we’re ready to welcome strangers on the off chance they might take us home by another road”.