Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Cast of Christmas: Sages

They gazed, I have to imagine, with intense curiosity toward the night sky, captivated by what they saw. This was no ordinary night. The constellations, the planets, the heavenly bodies were all in line to speak mysteries to them. Beneath the velvet heavens, a fire worshipfully crackled and spat before their feet. Normally, the Magi would be torn between the two: the truth defended and revealed by fire, or the potent influence of the skies. But tonight there was no contest. The Magi served in the Parthian court, a class of advisors, diplomats, even priests. They were, oftentimes, astrologers; they were, at times, arcane occultists. Some in the west called them magicians, conjurers. But this band of Magi saw themselves as scholars – researchers of the heavens and the earth, deep thinkers, meditating on the lore of the past and the shadowy shimmerings of the future, using all their ritual and intellectual skill, their wisdom and their studies, to quest after the secrets beneath water and flame, the script of spirits in the skies. They longed to serve truth rather than deception. And they were loyal to the rulers of Persia, and served in the king's court, as their distant grandfathers had served King Darius long ago, in the days of a troublesome rival 'wise man' called Daniel.

But their minds that night were not fixed on trivia of history, but on the sign in the sky. To astrologers like the Magi, it was a message as clear as a book. A king was born in the west, a great king, a king worthy of respect and honor, a fitting recipient of a diplomatic mission to whatever palace housed the young one. But the sign in the sky said nothing about Rome; it indicated the land of the Jews, the kinsmen of that Daniel. The Magi recalled that the fathers and their fathers' fathers had seen signs in the fire, telling them of the birth of a perilous king, a conqueror out of Greece named Alexander – and they had been right. That was a bold sign.

But looking at the sky that night... this band of Magi couldn't help but wonder... Newly born, and already with the proof of kingship? Could this king be the final king, the one spoken of in the texts they'd studied? Could this be the One Who Brings Benefit? The one promised to come and raise the dead, promised to come defeat the armies of evil, promised to come burn wickedness from the earth in a trial by fire, promised to make the world wonderful at last? Could this king be the Savior written of in the books?

After thorough deliberations, after investigating all other possible meanings, the Magi confirmed their hope. In the morning, when the court assembled, they surely brought their petition before Farhad, shah of shahs, a cruel man and yet a weak king, debased before Rome on account of his scheming Italian wife. Nonetheless, he gave them their desired commission: a diplomatic mission, with riches from the court treasury, toward the province of the Jews in the land of the Romans, to seek out this king. Perhaps this newborn king would answer their questions. Perhaps this newborn king would teach them some valuable wisdom. Perhaps this newborn king would bring them benefit after all, and show them how to be “redeemed from their mortality.” And so, thanking the Wise Lord, they assembled a caravan and embarked toward where this 'star' steered them. Surely by this, they thought, the Wise Lord would make them wise.

And aren't we all looking for the same thing? To be made wise, and know our way around this world? To have our questions answered? To see evil defeated and justice vindicated? To be relieved from death and redeemed from mortality? To see the world made pure and beautiful, and to enjoy that benefit and salvation ourselves? The Magi were many things, and it isn't surprising our Bible translations these days often refer to them as 'wise men' – after all, they were scholars from the east, devoted to truth and the service of a God whom they knew as the 'Wise Lord.' Throughout the centuries before and after their day, there have been many 'wise men' looking for real understanding, trying to unravel the universe or stand in awe of its bare-faced mysteries – the likes of Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zoroaster, Buddha, Nagarjuna, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hume, Camus, and vastly more. Many of them left behind records of their thoughts and reflections as they tried to love wisdom – and there are some valuable books there.

We may not write the books of wise men, but we ask the same questions that have animated those philosophers: What's the world like, deep down at the bottom? How does it work? What am I, and what am I for? How do we know those things? How much do we know, and how much can we know? What is truth, anyway? Are these things, these ideas, going anywhere? In light of all that, how should we be living? Some of us have more personal questions, questions about how to balance our desires, how to find health amid the chaos, how to face the confusion and the noise. In the end, we want to know: How do we find, and how do we get to, what it's all about? How do we answer the questions, and how do we reach what we're looking for? And I'd like to suggest this morning that following in the footsteps of this band of Magi might be helpful to us after all.

First, the Magi followed the star. When they reached Jerusalem, they said, “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). For the Magi, this 'star' was a sign in the sky. It was God acting in nature to speak their language. Theirs was a flawed idiom; astrology was, and is, a load of bunk, a big bushel of road apples. The Magi were pagans – but God stooped to speak in a way these pagans could understand, with a sign. They merely took note of what they could already discern with what they already knew and understood. For us, the evident signs God leaves us might include cosmic wonder, purposive order, moral obligation, and human dignity.1 They might include the canvas painted at a sunset or the intricacy of a flower on a spring morning; might include the clear hand of Providence in history; might include the unshakeable call toward something greater, something truer, something more just and right; might include the many forms and specks of truth in what we already accept and admit even before we've met the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth. But the Magi learned that what Daniel taught was true, that there is a God in heaven who “gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who understand” (Daniel 2:21). God placed his sign in the sky for the Magi, so that those who studied could understand its meaning; God has placed his many signs throughout the world, pointing us the same place, for every star “proclaims the work of his hands,” every star “pours forth speech” and “reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2).

Second, the Magi learned that the star didn't tell them the whole story. It sent them, first, to Jerusalem; but once there, they had assumed they would find this newborn king, the one who, unlike the Roman appointee Herod, had been born king of the Jews,” in a palace there. They had no inkling of elsewhere, 'til Herod asked the priests and scribes to fill in the blanks from the special revelation of God through his prophets, pointing toward the Judean town of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6). The star was a valuable sign to pagans on a quest for wisdom, but it couldn't get them the full way. God's signs in nature, God's impressions on our reasoning powers, all our many ideas and speculations, our experiments of trial and error, our thoughts and reflections – they may well get us part way, but there's further to go. We need God to explain in scripture what we're missing. The stars may proclaim God's handiwork and reveal knowledge, but “the law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making the simple wise” (Psalm 19:7). And that's the next step.

Third, the Magi – unlike Herod's priests and scribes – actually took action. The scribes knew where to find the Messiah, but they didn't go to him. But the Magi put on their boots and their hats and headed out the door. The search for wisdom didn't begin and end in their armchairs back in Persia, or their laboratories, their studies, their fire temples or homes. They weren't content to just know about where to go; they had to actually go there. So they followed the star to Judea, and they set out to follow the prophecy to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:9a). If we want to find the answers to our questions, the solutions to our problems, we have to do the same: we have to be actively responsive to God's signs and God's scriptures. And note that, after setting out for Bethlehem, the star didn't abandon them; now, equipped with special revelation, the star takes on a new meaning and leads them six miles south, to the very house where Mary and Joseph are living (Matthew 2:9b), letting them share the same “great joy” once announced by living stars to a band of perplexed shepherds some time earlier.

Fourth, by taking action on both the sign and the scripture, the Magi are blessed to encounter and recognize the Wisdom of God. They had gone in search of a newborn king. But they found, no mere king, but Christ. And we read that “Christ Jesus … became to us wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30), because Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). When God's Wisdom personally cries out in the Book of Proverbs, talking about predating the depths and the mountains and the hills, the one speaking is Christ, the Wisdom of God. And the Magi meet him. They recognize who he is: that the God who gives wisdom to the wise had become, not just a God in heaven, but a God on earth, a God in Bethlehem. So they worship (Matthew 2:11a). They find in him a confirmation of everything true, everything good, everything beautiful in what they had already learned in their studies and their lives; but they discover in him a world larger, stranger, brighter than they ever dreamed. All because they entered the House of Wisdom, and found “a Savior, who is Christ the [Wise] Lord” (Luke 2:11), the Wisdom of God made flesh (John 1:14). And they no longer encounter wisdom as a distant and impersonal thing in the pages of books, nor as a mystic force underlying the elements, nor as a far-off divinity; they meet Wisdom face-to-face, in flesh and blood, at the climax of their quest. So do we, as we take our questions and problems on a quest that inevitably leads us to meet the Wisdom of God in Christ.

Fifth, “opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11b). The Magi came as a diplomatic mission, with treasures to bring – which all proved so small, one should think, in the light of Wisdom. But they offered it anyway, not just a tribute to a king, but submerging the best they had, the best they could give, into the life of Wisdom. They took their treasure, and they devoted it to Wisdom.

Having done that, sixth, “they departed to their own country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). Not only did they take a new route, but they went as new Magi, new wise men, new people, new lives. Having encountered Wisdom and placed all their gifts into him, things could never be the same again. They had met the Sufficient Reason, the First Cause, the Unity, the Supreme Good... the Way, the Truth, the Life. They had held hands with the Answer; they had brushed the Solution's hair; they had kissed the feet of the Logic of God, by whom and for whom all things exist, and by whom the world is being made wonderful, though the new creation be born in labor pains (cf. Romans 8:21-25).

In tracing the same path as these ancient 'wise men,' in acting on the signs and scriptures that point us here, we have the opportunity to encounter the Wisdom of God in person. And we bring him our gifts – gifts, not today of gold or frankincense or myrrh, but of the product of grain and grapes. But the gifts we render to Wisdom, to Christ, he renders back to us, transformed, into something else, something higher and more transcendent than all the stars, something more mysterious than all puzzles but more reassuring than all resolutions.

At this table, he offers us a taste of redemption from mortality, into the Best Truth of a world made wonderful. And Wisdom has built this house and cries out, “Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:5-6). Whatever your questions, whatever your problems, whatever your opinions and your reflections, come to the cradle, come to the table today; you need follow no distant omen or encrypted clue to get here, for there is no more uncertainty about where to get wisdom, where to find Christ. He is here. He is here. Let us have communion with Christ, the Wisdom of God. He is here.

1 - See C. Stephen Evans, Natural Signs and the Knowledge of God: A New Look at Theistic Arguments (Oxford University, 2012).

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