Monday, January 5, 2009

Thoughts on Epiphany

This past Sunday was Epiphany Sunday, and Tuesday, Jan. 6, is the actual day of Epiphany. Epiphany celebrates the visit of the Wise Men to Jesus. Below are some thoughts on the Wise Men (or Magi) and the famous Star.

The Visit of the Magi

That Star of Bethlehem has fascinated people for 2,000 years. What’s also fascinating is that these pagan gentiles from the East would make a long trip to see the Jewish Messiah. How is it that that they would know about the promised Messiah, or even care? Obviously they had considerable knowledge, because they were very explicit when they showed up in Jerusalem and asked (Matthew 2:2):

“Where is the baby who was born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” NCV

The Magi knew this “King of the Jews” had recently been born, and they felt compelled to come and worship him. We, knowing what he has done on our behalf, should feel even more motivated to know, love, worship, and serve Jesus.

The Magi-Who Were Those Guys?

The word “Magi” (plural) or “Magus” (singular) is the root of our word “magician.” A “Magician” in those days was a holy man, such as a pagan priest, or an astrologer – not somebody who pulled rabbits out of a hat. For example, magicians are mentioned regarding Pharaoh’s dream:

In the morning [Pharaoh’s] spirit was troubled; so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh. (Genesis 41:8, NRSV)

We also read about pagan magicians in Babylon in Daniel 2:27-28a:

Daniel answered the king, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries…” NRSV

From what we know, these Magi were most likely astrologers from either Persia or Babylon. Since they were pagans, how would they know about the Jewish Messiah, and why would they care about his birth?

To answer that question, we have to look briefly at history. There was a large number of Israelites scattered throughout the Middle East. This was because most of the Israelites had been forced out of their home-land, first by the Assyrians, and later by the Babylonians. Only a handful of Israelites ever returned to their homeland – the rest stayed in Jewish enclaves scattered throughout the Middle East. Because of this large number of Jews in the region, their sacred Scriptures became known by pagan holy men. Most likely these Magi had studied the Hebrew Scriptures, so they knew of the promised Messiah.

These Magi correctly understood that the Messiah was coming into the world to bless all people, both Jew and Gentile. So when the Magi saw specific signs in the sky, they knew this was a message from God that the Messiah had recently been born. These signs were so compelling that they traveled to Jerusalem to find this special baby who was to bless the world. If the Magi were so motivated, we also should be enthusiastically following the guiding light of the Holy Spirit.

The Star-What Was It?

How do we explain the star, which was so revealing to the Magi? The star is a mystery, but we have some hints that might help to explain it. Of course it might very well have been a supernatural event, since this star seemed to move as we read in Matthew 2:9:

After the wise men heard [King Herod], they left. The star that they had seen in the east went before them until it stopped above the place where the child was. NCV

Because these Magi were most likely astrologers, the star may also have been a conjunction of several stars and planets. Since the universe moves with mathematical precision – which shows God’s orderly plan – we can go back and recreate the night sky at that time. Sure enough, there was a conjunction that would point to a momentous event for the Jews. This conjunction involved stars, planets, and constellations that would be meaningful to astrologers who were also familiar with Hebrew Scriptures. This in no way endorses astrology, but it shows that God can use any means to communicate with us. So let us always be alert to what God is communicating to us, which today is mostly through his Word, the Bible.

Concluding Thoughts on The Visit of the Wise Men

I the story of the Wise Men and what immediately follows, we see both joy and sadness, good and evil. We see the goodness of the wise men, who inconvenienced themselves to make the long trip to worship and give presents to the Christ child. We see the evil of King Herod, who was jealous and paranoid. We see the joy of the wise men finding the Christ child, as we read in Matthew 2:11b:

They bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their gifts and gave him treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. NCV

We see sadness in that Mary and Joseph had to literally run for their lives in the middle of the night to save the Christ child from Herod after being warned in a dream. Matthew 2:14 tells us:

So Joseph got up and left for Egypt during the night with the child and his mother. NCV

Of course all of this shows that Jesus – even from infancy – wasn’t immune from the trials and tribulations of life. We, too, aren’t immune, as we’ve seen, but we can be encouraged because God is with us. Just as the angel warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt for safety, God will help us and guide us through whatever we are facing. God does provide as well. For example, I’m sure Mary and Joseph – who were poor – used the gifts of the Magi to finance their trip to Egypt. Most likely they lived off those gifts until they could get established in Egypt and Joseph could set up his carpentry shop.

We have to remember that unlike New Year’s resolutions, which are here today and gone tomorrow, God is with us forever. So let us remember to look to God as we read in Psalm 46:1-3:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, and the mountains quake with their surging. NIV

So let our prayer for 2009 be what the psalmist prayed in Psalm 40:17:

Lord, because I am poor and helpless, please remember me. You are my helper and savior. My God, do not delay.

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