The Epiphany of our Lord
A star shines in the night sky. A sign. Primordial. Change is afoot! The established order is shaken, is turned upside down. So then…who is up and who is down? Who is in and who is out? The appearance of the star is good news and great joy to some. For those, however, who congregate in shadowed corners, the light of a star shining in the night is not good news.
The coming of the Wise Men shakes Herod’s foundation. Their appearance should also shake us…except that we have become so accustomed to their presence. For us, it’s not quite Christmas with the Magi and their gifts.
Yet consider… Yes, they are Gentiles and that shook the Jewish foundations. But more to the point, they are outsiders! They’re from the east, from Babylon! Nothing good ever comes from Babylon! Who knows what sort of god or gods they worshiped in Babylon! Yes, in our unreflective assumptions we figure they’re a pious bunch, men of faith like us. But there’s not a word of that in the Bible. They may have been men of Babylonian faith or no faith.
What’s more…they’re astrologers. No, not astronomers, men of science seeking to learn how the universe moves. Astrologers, men who watch the night sky for signs and omens about the future—good or bad. These astrologer-Magi tell fortunes, personal and national, based upon the movement of the stars…the signs! These Wise Men are an ancient version of the Psychic Hotline.
What’s more, God plays their game. God gives them a sign, an astrological sign, because these Magi are star-gazing astrologers. At the time of this Magi journey, around the time of the birth of Jesus, a rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn took place within the constellation of Pisces. This happens every 805 years! Now in Babylonian astrology, Jupiter is the king‘s planet and Saturn is the shield and defender of Palestine. That these two planets should come together, is a sign that there is something about a king in Palestine. But that these two planets should conjoin in Pisces signified a Palestinian king of cosmic significance. So whatever that star was, whether a planetary alignment or a supernatural phenomenon, the Magi got the message!
Now that God could or would use Babylonian astrology to get these Magi packed and moving to Judea can be an unsettling thing! Does this mean that God condone astrology? Don’t count on it…yet His ways do baffle us.
Then the Magi appear. Then they’re gone. They didn’t hang around to learn more about Jesus. They didn’t establish a Babylonian Magi mission congregation in Bethlehem. They don’t ask Jesus into their hearts. They worship Him. They offer their gifts. They pack up and go home. And we never hear about them again.
Yes, tradition going back to the earliest centuries of the Christian faith gives us their names (Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar), and other details, such as, that they are buried at the cathedral in Cologne, Germany.) But Biblically all we can say is that they came, they saw, they left. That’s unsettling!
Were they saved? Would God go to all that trouble and not give them eternal life? We can’t say! And that unsettles us even more.
We prefer to be able to say! Who’s saved; who’s not. Who’s in; who’s out. We lay our foundations based upon what we hold to be determinative. In some Christian traditions its membership. If you’re a member—with us—you’re saved. If not…well, you know where you’re going. For some Christian traditions it’s experience. If you’ve had some sort of awakening, you’re saved. If not… For others it’s the praying of a specific prayer. If you pray it, you’re saved. If you haven’t, you’re not. And we Christians can be very, very efficient by methods formal and informal, spoken and unspoken, at making sure people know whether they are in or out, whether they are up or down.
So if nothing else comes from this text of the Magi visit, then at the very least we should feel ourselves shaken. The coming of these curious Wise Men ought to shake us enough to crumble the foundations we have laid; shake us enough that we see stars! The star! The Light who is the true Light.
It’s not ours to say who is in, who is out, who is up, who is down. That is God’s business. Our calling is to shine!
It is a fascinating paradox in the Bible that while Jesus is called the Morning Star, the Light of the world, so too is Satan. Satan is called Lucifer before his fall; the morning star, the son of the dawn. Isaiah records, “You said in your heart…‘I will make myself like the Most High,’ but you are brought down.” “Is this the one who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble?”
In other words, there is a light that is satanic and The Light which is true. There is a Lucifer-light that makes itself like God, determining who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down. And there is the True Light who draws all nations, all people to Himself. That satanic light shines brightest when it shines on me. The true Light shines from the King, the crucified and risen Christ.
This, then, is the greater gift of Epiphany. As Isaiah declares: Arise, shine, for your light has come. Not, “arise, build walls and shades to create dark corners where the in-crowds can gather in dark secret.” No. “Arise, shine.” That is, be who we now are: Christian, people of the light of Jesus Christ. Arise, shine. As we believe, so let us live!
Christ is our light, therefore we live as people of light…not people of the dark shadows. Christ is our hope. Therefore, we live as people of hope not dark despair. Christ is our joy in all sorrows, our strength in all weakness, our humility in all pride, our thanksgiving in every gift—our Light, our true Morning Star. So then…we live as such people.
Now, to be sure, as Garrison Keillor has famously said, “If you’re doing a good job being the light of the world, you’re bound to attract some bugs.” Well, so be it…it’s God who decides which bugs will be saved, which will take time, and which will never come to faith. (Beelzebub, the Lord of the bugs, he just consumes them!) We stars of the Morning Star, we shine, because we have been shined upon in Christ.
Now all of this can be very unsettling if rules and regulations, if walls and paradigms, and sorting bins marked “in” and “out” are most important to us. They were to Herod…so he was disturbed by the Magi visit.
But when the Light of Christ has shined in our darkness, when He has called us to walk in His light…that can be very freeing. We now see that God does the sorting—in/out, up/down. We simply shine—that is, we go into all the world making disciples by baptizing and enlightening, that is, teaching the things of Christ, our Morning Star. We shine because we have been shined upon in Christ. And nations will be drawn to that Light—whoever they are, however they come.