It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that we are at the end of yet another year? In the past 12 months, as Noblesville Friends, we’ve strengthened our connection with our local community; we’ve had a number of new people join us for worship; we’ve continued to have vibrant, thoughtful, spirit-stirring discussions as we explore of the book of Matthew together. We’ve had workshops that deepen our ability to care for one another, and we’ve had Quaker conversations about living our faith—by way of our Friends testimonies==on a daily basis. We’ve prayed for each other when times here hard or uncertain and celebrated together when times were good. And we’ve had some great events==our ham and bean supper and the Christmas Candlelight service most recently.
And that’s not even the whole of it. We’ve done a lot in a year. It may be tempting to think—especially if you’ve attended here for decades—that the work of the meeting continues on, same old, same old, year after year. But really, God is always taking us somewhere new. God’s energy is creative energy, continually helping us to live with more light, share more love, be an increasing force for good in our homes, our meeting, and our community.
Our scripture reading today is all about God doing something new, taking magi on an unexpected journey, leading them by a star they’d never seen before, toward a new and miraculous event in human history. Even though some nativity stories place the three wise men in the stable with the holy family and the shepherds that first night, that’s not the way Matthew says it happened. Some scholars believe it was likely weeks or even months before the magi found and presented their gifts to Jesus. They first noticed a new star—the Star of Bethlehem—on the night he was born, and then they traveled to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod caught wind of this, he was alarmed (and most likely, threatened and jealous) and called for his priests and teachers. He wanted to know what was prophesied about this so-called king. He then questioned the magi to find out precisely when the star had appeared, and no doubt turned on the charm, hoping to convince them that he, too, wanted to go worship the child. Luckily, the magi were better judges of character than Herod knew. Of course, they also had some divine assistance.
The scripture tells us that once they were back on the road, the magi found the star again and they were overjoyed. It led them to a house, Matthew says—not a stable—where they saw the child and his mother Mary. They opened their treasures and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And when it came time for them to return to their country, God warned them in a dream not to go back by way of Herod. Instead, they went home by another road.
There are many things in the story of the magi that we can’t really know for sure. For one thing, scholars aren’t certain there were actually three of them. Matthew tells us three gifts were given, but some traditions teach that there were as many as 12 magi traveling to find the Christ child. And although they are often called “the three kings,” there isn’t any evidence at all that the magi were actually kings or diplomatic leaders of any sort. Theologians think it’s more likely they were scholars—perhaps priests who were well versed in astrology—from Persia and Babylonia. And the timing of their travels could have happened right after Jesus was born, but some researchers place the journey at a time when Jesus would have been close to two years old, about the same time Herod set the mandate that all male children under age two in his kingdom were to be killed.
And in different religious traditions, a wide range of stories have grown up around the travels of the magi. In an ancient resource written around the year 500, the magi were mentioned by name—Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar—and they were described as being of different nationalities and representing different ages (Caspar was the oldest, at 60, followed by Mechior, at 40, and Balthazar, then only 20 years old).
There’s much we just can’t know, in this day and age, about what, where, when, why, and how the story of the magi unfolded the way it did. But there are several things that are indisputably clear in this story:
- The magi were inspired by something new—something, perhaps, they were watching for.
- They acted on their inspiration by going to Jerusalem.
- They trusted the leading of the star.
- They brought their best selves—and the best gifts they had—as they came to worship the Christ child.
- They were changed forever, and, believing a dream from God, they went home by another road.
The magi were watching the heavens, perhaps anticipating a change or expecting the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy—that’s why they saw the star. Or perhaps they were just doing what they regularly did, carrying out their routine responsibilities, when they were surprised by the light of the star, beckoning them closer, telling them to pay attention, stay awake, watch closely. It makes me wonder how we too might be surprised by God doing something new among us. Maybe something inspiring will come up in monthly meeting for business, or one of us will get a new project idea, or something will stir in a conversation with a Friend. The star is still shining—we just need to watch for it in our regular, everyday lives.
Right after the magi saw the star, they acted on the vision they were given and left for Jerusalem. They knew what they’d seen. They didn’t ask others to confirm it—they didn’t engage public opinion–they simply asked where they would find the Christ child. Their asking, of course, led to palace intrigue and raised Herod’s ire, but no matter, as soon as they were back out on the road, the gleaming of the star reassured them and pointed them in the direction of joy.
It seems almost like an unwritten force of nature that when we prepare to try something new, change an old pattern, launch out on a new path, there is some kind of push back, a counterforce urging us to stay the same, stay small, stay safe, stay in the known. This push back might come from our circumstances or maybe from people around us. They could be people—like Herod—who have their own reasons for resisting our ideas, or they could be folks who love us, who feel uncomfortable and a bit anxious about all this talk of change.
Sometimes it’s our own internal struggle to decide that keeps us stuck in inaction. We can feel inspired toward something new, and then after a few discouraging thoughts, we give up even before we begin. We’re hearing this on social media right now as people weigh out whether to make New Year’s resolutions or not. Some experts say, “Don’t make any resolution that makes you feel bad, because you won’t keep them anyway.” Others say, “Skip the diet; eat more chocolate.” I think rather than more rules and expectations, what we need is a vision, a dream of the way God would have us go. Which direction leads us to more peace? Which choices help us live with love and grace?
The star continued to lead the magi and then stopped over the house where Jesus and Mary were staying. Matthew tells us that when the magi saw the baby, “they bowed down and worshiped him.” We don’t get a lot of description here, but we can imagine the scene. The sense of love and awe in the air. The peaceful, serene expression on the baby’s face. The light in Mary’s eyes. The magi, dressed in the garments of fine scholars or priests, dusty from the journey, bowing low before this tiny Lord, speechless, maybe tearful, overcome with reverent wonder.
After this long, seeking journey from their native land, first to Jerusalem, and now, to Bethlehem, the magi brought their whole hearts, their whole lives to this moment when they meet the Christ child. This isn’t a moment they could have rehearsed; they wouldn’t have had a clue what to expect. Nothing like this had ever happened to them before—being in the presence of Emmanuel, God-with-us, in the tender, innocent being of a tiny baby. And knowing—just knowing, in their heart of hearts, that God was doing something entirely new. We don’t know how long this sacred moment lasted, but no matter how brief it might have been, their one-to-one encounter with God simply must have changed them forever. That’s why they went home by another road. That moment of living grace changed everything, and with the help of a dream from God, they could see clearly now which path to follow into the whole rest of their lives.
It makes me wonder how our own worship experience could change if we approached it with the same awe and wonder that the magi felt that day, after their long journey, as they drew close enough to look into the face of God. What if we, dusty and tired as we are after a lifetime of trying to live right, just allow ourselves to be filled with awe and wonder that we too have the opportunity to be in the presence of the living God? The air might feel very quiet—or electrified. Our hearts might be warmed within us, our spirits settled, our minds at ease. We might find ourselves changed, living with a sweetness, a safety we recognize, embraced by an everlasting Love that will not let us go. That kind of worship encounter will change us and bless us and lead us not only into 2019 and also, home by another road—a road of beauty and peace, the whole way illumined by the presence of the One who came to be with us as the light in our darkness, our prince of peace.
As we head into 2019 together, let’s keep our minds and hearts open to new and closer encounters with God in our worship life. Let’s be willing to be changed—joyfully and continually–by God’s light as it appears in our meeting and in our lives each day. Our familiar ways have served us well, and we will always honor and preserve our tradition as Friends. But God is also and always doing something new. And we might just be the magi in our generation to see it.
- Matthew 2: 1-12