“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” ask the wise men of Herod, “We observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage”.
It’s a familiar story, of course. We are so used to hearing it that we perhaps miss how odd it would sound to us nowif we were hearing it for the first time. “We observed his star at its rising”? Just imagine if some foreign ambassadors turned up today at Buckingham Palace or 10 Downing Street and announced that they thought a change of government was in the offing because they’d seen a new star. They’d be thrown out on their ears, and questions would be asked about how people so obviously deranged had been let in in the first place.
But King Herod doesn’t question the idea that God might communicate with the world through the stars, and neither would anyone have done at the time. This was an age in which it was taken for granted that the world was full of divine messages. Anything out of the ordinary was taken to be an omen of some sort. Rulers depended on those who could read the signs so they could make decisions. There were many different sorts of divination. If you knew what you were looking for almost anything could be significant. Different sorts of omens needed different sorts of skills though.
There were augurs, who studied the flight of birds. We talk about the “inauguration” of a new leader or a new project. The word comes from the practice of reading the flight of birds to find the right moment for that new beginning. There was the haruspex, who studied the entrails of sacrificial animals for messages. Ailuromancers studied the movement of cats; there were messages in that too apparently. And cleromancers cast lots to decide what the will of the gods was.
This sort of divination wasn’t just a pagan practice. After the ascension of Jesus, the eleven surviving apostles cast lots to choose a replacement for Judas Iscariot who had killed himself. They didn’t think of it as gambling, like the National Lottery. It was a way of letting God speak to them, giving him the final choice.
Today people would think these were very dodgy ways of making decisions. There is plenty of superstition around, of course, but we don’t tend to believe that these are rational ways of making our minds up. In Jesus’ time, though, this was science. People genuinely thought divine forces communicated with them through birds and cats and entrails and stars.
All this leaves us with a bit of a problem when we come to today’s Gospel story. We know that stars are huge and far away. We know what they are made of and how they are formed, and we know that it has nothing at all to do with the birth of babies on earth. So what are we to do with this tale of the wise men? Should we simply regard it as a quaint relic or quietly ditch it?
You’ll be glad to hear, perhaps, that I don’t think so. This story might not be able to tell us anything about astronomy, butit can still tell us something about life and ourselves and God, if we will let it.
There are two things, in particular, which I think this story communicates, across the great gulf of 2000 years of scientific development, two things these wise men tell us which are still as wise now as they were then.
The first is that the wise men understood that they were part of something greater than themselves, and we need to know that just as much as they did. The world didn’t begin and end with them. They looked outside themselves, beyond themselves for wisdom. They paid attention to the universe, not just to their own preconceptions. They noticed things, things that others didn’t notice. They noticed one new star among millions in the night sky. And that meant that they were also able to notice one new baby among the millions around them too. In a sense, they were wise precisely because they knew they weren’t, because they knew that they didn’t know it all already. They expected the universe to surprise them. They knew it was infinitely stranger than anything they could comprehend.
They challenge us to be aware of our own tendency to miss things that aren’t in our immediate field of view. They challenge us to question the assumption that we have it all worked out already, or we could have if only we were clever enough and worked hard enough at it. They challenge us to be on the lookout for new things, different things, things that disturb us and shake us out of our complacency.
“Look, listen, pay attention,” say the wise men to us. “If all you ever see are the things you’ve already seen, what might you be missing?”
The second thing they tell us follows on from that. Noticing the star was important, but the wise men didn’t just notice it. They also believed that God might speak to them through it, because they were open to the possibility that he might speak to them through anything, and so it had the potential to change their lives in some way.
That familiar Epiphany carol “We three kings” calls the star of Bethlehem a “star of wonder.”
We use the word “wonder” in two different ways. We use it to describe things which are extraordinary, beautiful, great – wonder- full things - things that impress us. But we also use it in the sense of “I wonder”. It is a questioning word. “I wonder why”, “I wonder what would happen if…” we ask. Whether the wise men were right or wrong to believe that the star was a message from God, it prompted them to ask the questions they might not have otherwise asked. They already knew of the prophecies about a promised leader, who would bring in a kingdom of peace and justice. The star spurred them on to dare to believe that the dream could become a reality, and that they could be part of that kingdom.
The “star of wonder” triggered the questions, “where?” and “who?” and “how do I get involved?”
We are told that after they had seen Jesus, the wise men “went home by another road”. That’s not just a geographical statement; it’s a spiritual one too. When Matthew wrote the story of the wise men he was writing for the first followers of Jesus, whose lives had been turned upside down by the message of the Gospel. Their lives had taken “ another road” too. They’d been led out on a journey they had never expected to make as they followed Christ. It might not have been a star that had first caught their attention , but it could have been something just as random and unexpected, and that is true today too.
People regularly talk to me about the turning points in their lives, moments when they have found themselves taking a new direction in life. Sometimes those turning points can seem quite bizarre when they look back; odd coincidences, strange dreams, chance remarks, words glimpsed on an advertising hoarding that would normally be quite ordinary, but somehow seem to sing with meaning at that precise moment. They are sometimes quite embarrassed to talk about it, wondering if it isn’t all just the product of an over active imagination. But the fact is that whatever they have experienced, it has started them thinking about things they know they needed to think about, started them off on a journey they are glad to have made. Whether we believe this is the voice of God, or just a bubble of wisdom rising up from our own depths, these moments can have a huge effect.
The message of the wise men is that there is a lot we can do to help us be tuned into those moments when they come. Reflective living is a habit we can embed in our lives if we choose to, and it can put us in touch daily with strength beyond our strength, wisdom beyond our wisdom, and love beyond our love. Prayer and Bible reading are an important part of this, but it’s also about developing the habits of those wise men; the habit of noticing what is around us and expecting what we notice to make a difference to us. In a distracted and distracting world that’s not always easy, but it is something we can learn and practice.
How often do we fail to notice the landscape around us as we hurry through it, taking it for granted, failing to notice its beauty, and its scars? “Look again!”, say the wise men. This world is the gift of God to you, the only world you have, irreplaceable, yours to care for and to share, not to own and exploit.
How often, when we are out, do we see the people around us in the crowd just as bodies standing in our way? “Look again!”, say the wise men. And when we do, what do we see? We see a woman worrying about getting to her job on time, fearful that if she doesn’t she will lose it, or an employer, weighed down by the knowledge that he’ll have to make staff redundant, or a teenager, feeling awkward and insecure and covering it up with bravado, or a child, bewildered and overwhelmed by a world that seems huge to them. When the eyes of our hearts are opened we realise that every nameless face in the crowd is a child of God, just as we are, loved by God and of infinite value to him, and that makes all the difference to the way we treat one another.
Epiphany means shining forth, revelation. I don’t believe that God puts stars in the sky to communicate with us, but I do believe that God’s light can shine forth from the heavens, and the earth, and the person standing next to us, and the hidden corners of our own lives if we have eyes to see it. And I believe too that God’s love is revealed in the rich variety of his creation, love which can transform us just as as it did the wise men in that ancient, baffling story which we celebrate today.