I am at Dover Plains UMC this morning (Location of church) this morning. The service starts at 11 and you are always welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday, Epiphany Sunday, are Isaiah 60: 1 – 6, Ephesians 3: 1 – 12, and Matthew 2: 1 - 12.
I suppose that I have some sort of kinship with the Magi in today’s Gospel reading. After all, they were considered the scientists of their time and my training and professional career have been areas of science. And at some point in each of our lives, we have encountered Christ and it was and continues to be an encounter that changed our lives.
Now, to be sure, we would call the Magi astrologers today but we often fail to realize that they were the ones who made the observations and asked the questions that allowed astronomy, chemistry, and physics to develop. Our view of what the Magi did back then is very much linked to our view of the world today. In fact, our view of the great scientists of the past, such as Isaac Newton, is predicated on our thoughts today and not on what they were doing back then. We see Isaac Newton as the developer of calculus and classical physics but either forget or don’t know that he was also an alchemist of the highest order. And many are not aware that much of Newton’s writings were actually religious in nature. But, by the same token, Newton’s beliefs as a Christian ran counter to the orthodox view of his day, so it is most likely that this information wasn’t easily passed down from one generation to the next (see “A Dialogue of Science and Faith” for further information on 18th and 19th century scientists and their beliefs).
But, to the point of the Magi, while we understand that there is no relationship between the movement of the planets and stars and our daily lives and we have to wonder about those who perhaps still do, we also have to understand that the Magi sought to find relationships between what they saw in the evening skies and what was transpiring in the world around them. And what they saw and what they knew could only allow them to conclude that something special and unique somewhere in a country to the west of their homeland was occurring.
And, just as their scientific worldview was tied to the times in which they lived, so too was their political worldview. And logic dictated that if a new king was born in a land to the west, this child must be have been born in a royal setting. And protocol demanded that any visitors seeking this new king must first call upon the old or present king and congratulate them. In this case, that meant visiting with Herod.
Those verses in Matthew that describe the encounter of the Magi with Herod and his court suggest that the political and religious authorities were not prepared for this moment. And it begs the question, “Did they not see the same signs?”
They clearly knew the prophecies because they were able to tell the Magi that Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem. But why were they surprised? Could it be that the status for each one of them was so linked to Herod that they were afraid to say anything? Was their own personal status so dependent on the status quo that they were blind to the changes occurring around them?
True revolutions occur when the powerful are blind to what is happening to the people and are more concerned with their own position and status than they are with the people. And a revolution began that day. We would not see the outcome of this revolution for some thirty years or so but it is clear that it began the moment the Magi told Herod that a new king had been born.
It began when the Magi returned home. It began when the angels told them to return home by another route. When you look at a map of the Middle East, you can see that there are alternate routes from Israel to Babylon. The same is true for Dover. When I look at a map of the area, I can see at least four different ways to get to this church every Sunday; the only difficulty is that I haven’t figured out the best and most logical way to get here or go home in case of bad weather.
But that may not have been the case with the Magi. It may be that they took the same route home that they followed when they sought out the Christ Child, though they clearly avoided contact with Herod on the return journey. But their return was a far cry different than they may have thought it was going to be because of that encounter with Jesus.
I have come to the conclusion that they would not have traveled as far as they did to worship a newborn child and then gone home and said nothing. How could they have not said something! This child that was before them was, according to all the signs, to be the new king and yet He was born in less than a noble setting. The angels sang to this child and shepherds were the first to be told; what king on earth could say that?
These were individuals who spent all their lives studying the skies, analyzing what they saw, and then made conclusions. When the angel warned them about returning to Herod, it could only have confirmed what they saw. So how could they keep quiet?
There is that passage in the Old Testament reading for today where Isaiah speaks of the people smiling on their return to Israel after years of exile in Babylon. Interestingly enough, we presume that the Magi returned to Babylon after traveling to Israel. Clearly, the people of Israel were smiling upon their return. Could it not be said that the Magi were smiling as well when they returned home?
And why should they not have been smiling? Their lives would have changed just as much as the Israelites’ changed? In a world of trouble and strife, the Magi and those they encountered would have known that their lives had been changed by the encounter with the Christ Child in Bethlehem.
To return home and do nothing would be to have written off the trip as a waste of time. And I really don’t see how they could have done that. Unfortunately, in today’s society, there are a lot of people who do just that; they come to church on Sunday morning, sit passively for the hour or so that the worship takes, and then they go home. And if you were to ask them, they would tell you that it was probably a waste of time but they didn’t have anything better to do so they came anyway.
But we came here today, I hope, just as the Magi did so many years ago seeking the Christ Child. It is that encounter that will change our lives and change the lives of the people we meet, if we let it. Paul writes to the Ephesians about how his encounter with Christ changed his life and how he was doing things that he never thought possible.
He speaks of the mystery of Christ and how it is explained to all those who are open to the ideas. Everyone gets the same message but not everyone is open. But he also points out that everyone who does hear and does receive the message is given the opportunity, in a manner perhaps unknown, to tell others about what has happened.
And that is where we are at today. We may very well go home by the same route that we came to church; we may very well do the same thing tomorrow that we have always done on Monday. But this time, this time, maybe we will encounter someone who needs a little encouraging or is searching for something and this time, you will have the answer to give them. This morning, you are given the opportunity to return home another way, not as who you were when you walked in the door this morning but as one who has encountered the Christ Child and has allowed the Holy Spirit to transform and change your life. It is a decision that you have to make.
The Magi had to return home but they did not have to return home silently and quietly. We have to return home as well; we can try it by another way as well.