It’s been a good week for astronomers, this first week of 2019. A few days ago the Chinese landed an unmanned spacecraft on the far sideof the moon, and earlier in the week, on New Year’s Day, NASA scientists successfully flew their New Horizon spacecraft past an interplanetary object which they’ve called Ultima Thule, after the land which the ancient Greeks thought lay at the northernmost end of the world – off the north of Scotland in case you’re interested. This new Ultima Thule is the most distant object that we’ve ever been able to get a close up look at in space – yet.
Those scientific teams haven’t really got much data to analyse yet, so it’s too soon to tell whether either mission will tell us much that is new, but that didn’t stop them being really excited. I expect you saw the scenes on the news of them rejoicing and hugging each other in their control rooms. Whatever the scientific significance of these missions, they were obviously of great human significance to those who were part of them. They’d seen things no one else had ever seen, done something no one else had ever done. They weren’t celebrating lumps of rock as they whooped and high fived; they were celebrating human ingenuity, curiosity and perseverance. Ultima Thule and the far side of the moon were signs to them, and to us, of hope for the future, of new possibilities.
In the Gospel today we meet astronomers from a very different age, but they too found meaning in the stars which went far beyond the mere scientific facts. The Magi in Matthew’s Gospel were probably from Babylon, the place where much of our modern astronomy was born. Babylonian scientists gave us the sixty minute hour, the 24 hour day, the seven day week, among many other things.
They were ardent stargazers, even if they started from a very different set of assumptions to our modern scientists, and had a different purpose when they looked up into the sky. They assumed that what they saw conveyed messages from the gods. In particular they would have taken for granted that if a new star appeared, it meant that a significant person had been born. According to popular legend, stars had appeared when the Roman Emperor Augustus was born, and Alexander the Great, and many others. When a story started with a new star, those who first heard it would have known exactly where it was going. It was going to be a hero tale, with armies and glory and a golden throne. Matthew sets up his hearers to expect this when he starts his tale.
The idea of visitors coming from the East to Jerusalem would have been familiar too. Five hundred years before, the people of Judah had been in exile in Babylon, convinced that their story was over. But the prophet Isaiah told them of God’s promise that one day the situation would be the other way round. Those who had enslaved them – people from this powerful Eastern kingdom – would be queueing up to bring their tribute to Jerusalem. “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” It’s this prophecy which prompted Medieval Christians to turn these wise men into kings with camels to ride on. Matthew doesn’t say anything about that, but his story of wealthy visitors bringing gifts and looking for a king to give them too is certainly meant to evoke Isaiah’s imagery of the oppressors bowing down, just as the people of Jerusalem had once had to bow down to them.
Matthew sets up this story quite deliberately to play into these well-worn, familiar expectations; the star that indicates a royal birth, the destination – Jerusalem – the visitors, representatives of nations that had once oppressed Israel now coming to pay homage and give tribute.
But then, all of a sudden, the story takes an unexpected twist, because they discover that no one in the great city of Jerusalem, no one in Herod’s palace, least of all Herod himself, has any idea what is going on. Baby? What baby? King? What king?
Herod’s Jewish advisers, who are meant to be his own “wise men”, offer the suggestion that the Messiah might be born in Bethlehem, the birth of King David, but, very significantly, not one of them goes to look for themselves. Bethlehem’s only a few miles from Jerusalem. You’d think that they might feel curious. Perhaps they feel it’s too dangerous, though. What if they find this king? Herod is hardly going to be pleased to hear he has a rival. Best to stay well away. Ignorance is bliss.
So the story of the Magi starts with lots of familiar elements, but it ends up being a story of confusion and bafflement, a story which turns people’s expectations upside down. They expected a king like the great king David, a kingdom like the one he’d ruled over, and Matthew sets everything up to play into that. The royal star. The travellers from the East. The precious gifts. And yet that’s not what happens. Instead, the Magi find themselves in an ordinary home, faIling to their knees in front of an ordinary family.
And after they leave, it goes from bad to worse. If we read on a bit, we would find the Holy Family on the run, desperate refugees from Herod’s massacre of the children in Bethlehem. The star is a sign of God’s blessing, but maybe that blessing doesn’t always look the way we expect it to, says this story. That’s going to be important later on because this child will grow up to favour the outcast and the powerless, and will end up dying on a cross, so anyone who is expecting a re-run of King David is in for a surprise.
My guess is that most of us are not engaged in interplanetary space exploration, and never will be. Nor are we likely to be packing up gold, frankincense and myrrh and trekking across the desert chasing a star. But we all have a journey to make. We are all called to be part of God’s work. The summons to that work isn’t likely to appear in the heavens. God’s sign to us is more likely to take the form of an awareness of a need around us, someone who is lonely who we might be able to help, or some wider need in our community which we could answer. Or it might be something in our own lives or family that needs sorting out. Or it might be a hunger for something – meaning, forgiveness, purpose - which nags at us. It might be an inner sense, or the prompting of others to make some commitment that we’ve been hanging back on - to baptism, to confirmation, to ministry of some sort.
Like the star that shone on the Magi, it’s often pretty obvious when we finally acknowledge it. My experience is that people usually know there is something they should be doing, something that needs to change. It’s naming it and acting on it which is the challenging bit. We may struggle to believe that God could really be calling us – surely he means someone else - or, like Herod’s advisers we may feel the journey is too costly, that too much might need to change for us to make it. But if we shut our eyes to the starlight, we miss the joy it leads us to, the awareness of the presence of God in our lives.
When the Magi kneel before Jesus, they don’t just fall down in wonder; they also “pay homage”, we’re told. Homage is a word that shares a root with the French “homme” – man- and with the word “human”. When you pay homage to someone you are putting yourself into their hands. You are saying, “I’m your man, your woman, yours to command” it says. It’s about commitment , about recognising and affirming where you belong, and who you belong to.
The Magi thought they would be paying homage to a king when they set out. That’s why they took the kind of gifts a king would expect and headed for the palace. They didn’t expect to be paying homage to a carpenter’s son. And yet there they were, putting themselves, lock stock and barrel, into his hands convinced that he was the only one they could give their trust and loyalty to, just as later, people will put their lives into the hands of the adult Jesus, following him through hardship and death, yet finding in that commitment, joy and purpose and true belonging.
Matthew tells this odd, incongruous story because he wants the people who hear it to lift up their heads and see the star which shines for them, for us, the star which represents God’s call to the journey he has for all of us, a journey he wants us all to take into greater love, compassion, justice, deeper faith, stronger community. Unlike those space missions we heard about this week, this journey really isn’t rocket science. It’s about seeing where God is at work around us and joining in. But the simplest things to understand can be the most difficult to put into practice, and as the Magi found, the journey can be challenging, leading us to people and places that weren’t in our plan, disrupting the script we thought we were following for our lives. God’s promise is, though, that it will be full of unexpected blessing and transform us utterly.
Whether our journey this year is to Ultima Thule and beyond, or just around our own backyard, in the orbit of our own family and neighbourhood, may we embark on it in faith, walk it in the company of Christ and one another, and find at the end of it the same overwhelming joy that the Magi did.