When we tell the story of the Magi – or the wise men, the wise people – who have also been called the Three Kings – we often tell it as the last scene in the Christmas story. We’re still in the stable. Mary and Joseph have arrived in Bethlehem only to find that there is no room for them in the inn. Mary gives birth to Jesus, and lays him in a manger. The angels tell the shepherds, and the shepherds come, and the angels come, and then, then the Magi arrive with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Our telling of the Christmas story takes the basic birth story from the Gospel of Luke (the manger, the angels, the shepherds), and weaves in elements from the Gospel of Matthew (namely the Magi). You can think of it as a scriptural mash-up. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we are clear about it. This has become part of our tradition – the way wehave come to tell the story. The story we tell at Christmas is the story of the amazing good news of Jesus’ birth, and how that was experienced in ever-expanding circles of humanity and the heavens – by Mary, and Joseph, and angels, and shepherds, and wise folk – and then in this midwinter, this year, again, by us. God with us. In a stable in Bethlehem, yet again today, and always.
But Epiphany – which we officially celebrate on January 6 – reminds us that it took the Magi a while to get there – to make their way to Jesus.
We have Christmas on December 25th when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, and then we have the Twelve Days of Christmas, and thenon January 6, on Epiphany, we celebrate the arrival of the Magi – and their experience of God “made manifest” in Jesus. That’s what Epiphany means – to be made manifest. God made manifest in Jesus.
Now, I guess that I’ve always known that it took the Magi more than those 12 days of Christmas to get to Jesus. But in my reading for this sermon, I found scholars who point out that it may have actually taken as long as two years. Two years for the Magi to get to Jesus! I had no idea. If you look at the textual evidence and other historical evidence, it had to have taken them at least 60 days (that’s the quickest they could have gotten there), but probably closer to 2 years – so Jesus would no longer have been a baby; and they were no longer in that stable.
I never knew. [Mind blown]
And that makes me wonder – What else don’t we know about the Magi? Because here is all we really know: The Gospel says that there are an unspecified number of Magi who see a star in its rising. These Magi understand the rising of the star to announce the birth of a king; and so they set out to pay homage – to worship. They show up at King Herod’s court asking questions about the star and the birth of a king. King Herod panics and tries to get them to track down what could be a rival king. Herod and his advisors send them to Bethlehem. The Magi follow the star – maybe to Bethlehem – and they find the child Jesus, with his mother Mary, in a house. The Magi experience Jesus and are filled with joy. They pay homage – they worship – and they give him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And then, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they go home by another way. That’s what we know. That’s it.
Here’s what we DON’T KNOW about the Magi:
· We don’t know exactly what these Magi are – we know that Magi are not kings. To call them “wise men” or “wise folks” is more accurate, but pretty general – they are probably astrologers and scholars.
· We don’t know where they are from – probably Persia.
· We don’t know their religion – except that they are not Jewish; they are Gentile – they are outsiders from somewhere, who are the first to worship Jesus.
· We don’t know how many of them there are. It doesn’t say “three” anywhere in the Scripture. We just know there are more than one, because Magi is plural.
· We don’t know their gender. They don’t all have to be men.
· We don’t know if they come from the same place. They could. Or they could have seen the star, each in their own land, and set out to follow it on their own, and then met up along the way – all of them following the same star, and coming together in one journey (I love the poetry of that).
· We don’t know for sure how long it took them to get to there.
· We don’t know where they found Jesus – just that they found him in a house, not a stable.
You see, when we tell the story of the Magi, we begin with what we don’t know.And that is right and fitting. Because that’s where the Magi begin this story too. The Magi begin with what they don’t know.
The Magi see a star at its rising – a star that they have never seen before – and they wonder at what they don’t know: What could this mean? And they set out on a journey toward what they don’t know – into the unkonwn – to find out more – to experience more-fully something that is entirely beyond everything they have known up until now.
This isn’t a story where folks know where they are going, and they are given a map that shows them exactly how to get there. It’s not Google maps. It’s also not a story where the birth of Jesus is announced and explained to them. This world of Matthew is different from the world of Luke. In Luke, God sends angels to bring strange greetings and glad tidings of great joy. They tell folks what is happening. In Matthew, God comes to them in the night, offers light from a distant star, some companions for the journey, direction from a dubious despot, and warnings in a dream.
This is a story where the Magi are led by what they don’t know. They see a star at its rising. They wonder: “What this could mean?” And they set out on a journey to learn more – to experience more. They follow the light of the star, and take the first step – and then the next – each day, light enough for the next step. Together they find their way – in their questions, in their conversation, in the strangers they meet along the way, even in a dream – and always, by the light of that star. Each day, one step closer toward what they don’t know.
Educational theorist Jack Mezirow says that this is one of the primary ways that we learn – by encountering and then engaging what we don’t know. Mezirow says that we move through the world, at any given moment, with a worldview that is based on what we’ve experienced up until know. And then we encounter something we’ve never encountered before – a new bit of information, a new question, a new experience, sometimes a disorienting experience – something that can’t be explained completely by our current world view – by what we know now.
And so we engage what we don’t know. We gather the resources to figure it out. We gather a community. We take it apart, along with our current world view. We look at it from every angle. And then we put our worldview back together in a way that makes sense – and then we act – we take the next step – we move forward with a more robust way of encountering the world.
Until we encounter the next thing we don’t know.
The Magi find their way moment by moment, step by step – venturing out beyond what they’ve come to know up till now – venturing toward what they don’t know – focusing in each moment on what they can see in the light for the next step.
A Zen practitioner might liken this to the practice of attention– of being fully present and alive to each moment. In our weekly Transition Support Group, we are reading this lovely book, The Most Important Point, by Zen teacher Edward Espe Brown. Espe Brown describes the practice of attention as looking at the present moment (and only the present moment) and seeing what is there, “tasting the truth of the moment.” He cautions, “Don’t chase after the future. Don’t dwell in the past. Live in the here, in the now.” He explains that Zen and this practice of attention are “to feel your way in the dark” – to embrace the experience of the unknown without the need to control it – and to make our way – like – the Magi. Enough light for the next step. And then the next. Moving toward what we don’t yet know.
Writer Elizabeth Gilbert speaks of this in terms of curiosity. You may know Elizabeth Gilbert from her best-known work: Eat, Pray, Love. She’s also written a book on living a creative life called Big Magic: Living a Creative Life Beyond Fear,in which she urges that we find our life by leaning into our curiosity. Gilbert notes that in living our life, folk often as “What’s your passion?” – but that might be too broad, or too lofty, or inaccessible. She says that the more interesting question is, “What is making you curious right now?” And she says, Go there. Go find out more. Go do something there, and see where it leads you. What new question arises in you? Her point is that curiosity pushes us beyond what we know now – beyond our fear and beyond our sense of limitation – beyond what we’ve experienced so far – into what we have yet to experience, and learn, and become. Curiosity pulls us out into what we don’t know, and then keeps us moving, question by question, clue by clue, step by step.
The Magi looked up into the night sky, saw a star in its rising, and said, “I wonder.” And they followed their curiosity, all the way to Jesus. Their curiosity was a gateway to Epiphany – to experiencing God made manifest in the midst of us. And they never would have experienced it if they hadn’t left home.
This talk of curiosity seems timely as we stand on the threshold of a brand new year, and wonder what lies ahead. In this new-year season of intention setting and resolution making, here’s another tool for discernment: In this moment, what are you curious about? What questions are you bringing into the new year? Those are questions for each one of us, and questions for us together.
Here are some examples of lively curiosity that I see in our life together here – in your life as a congregation.
From my first Sunday, I’ve encountered a critical mass of folks within the congregation who are curious about learning more and engaging the work of dismantling racism. We’ve experienced a growing awareness of the long history of systemic American racism, the many ways that systemic racism is still at work in the world. And for many of us we’ve been humbled by what we don’t know. You’ve followed that curiosity already – and committed to that learning and that work. And this year, we’re planning to dive even more deeply – as we learn more about what an embodied commitment to anti-racism work looks like, and particularly what reparation work might look like. And you’ll hear more about that as the Church and Society Team will leads us this spring in a 6-week learning experience.
Perhaps the most obvious sense of the unknown right now in this community is the pastoral transition. You’re in the midst of something entirely new. For 15 years, you’ve lived life together with Joanne Whitt, and her retirement is a loss deeply felt – and what lies ahead is unknown. What are the questions you’re bringing into that? What’s the light for the next step? And then the next?
Those are questions for us as a community. Each of us brings into this new year our own curiosity in our own personal life. How will we enter the new phases and stages of our own lives? What questions do we bring?
I’ve added something to the bulletin. One of my preaching teachers and mentors, Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr (Pastor Emeritus at Allen Temple), likes to say that no sermon and no worship service is complete unless it offers up “something to do.” So in our bulletin each week there will be space for you to write down “something to do” – as you’ve experienced the word and worship – what one thing is rising up in you to do in the world? This week, you may want to ask, “What questions am I bring into this new year? And what’s then next step? and the next?”
I don’t know about you, but I find some comfort in that invitation to sit in the present moment and to honor our questions. Whatever the question, we don’t have to have everything figured out, we don’t need to know – right now – how it will all work out. The Magi didn’t know where they were going, but they did have to take the next step. They wondered at the star in the night sky, and looked for the light for the next step. The invitation to sit in the moment with our questions and our curiosity honors the enormity of the world and how much we don’t know – andit honors our creative capacity to engage the world, to learn, and to make a life together. It’s how God has made us – to experience the world, to ask the questions, and to make a life together – with each other and with God.
We think of Epiphany as that moment when the star stopped over the house where the 2-year-old Jesus was living – and how the Magi were filled with superabounding joy, and worshipped God – God made manifest in Jesus Christ. Yes. But their experience of Epiphany didn’t start there. The Magi arrived there because they experienced Epiphany in the light for each next step in their journey.
The Magi lived in a scary and sinister world, and one night they looked up into the night sky and saw a star, and said, “I wonder.” And they followed their curiosity – they ventured out toward what they didn’t know. And with each step, they made their way to Christ.
As we enter this new year, may our curiosity lead us into Epiphany. May we experience Epiphany in the light for each next step – God made manifest in Jesus Christ – in each step of the journey – and in the life we live together to bless the world God loves so very much.
See, e.g., Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Working Preacher commentary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4305; Herman Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanity(Crystal Press/Omega Books: San Rafael, CA, 1976), p.68.
This list is from my own reading of the text, but other writers have listed the unknowns as well. See, e.g., Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way(Cowley Publications, Plymouth UK: 1999), p.27. See also, e.g., the various writers in the Feasting on the Gospelscommentary on Matthew, who differ on some of these points, and for varying points of view, see also, Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, v.8 (Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1995), pp.139-145; Ulrich Luz, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew(Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp.26-28, and Herman Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanity(Crystal Press/Omega Books: San Rafael, CA, 1976), p.68.
See Jack Mezirow, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning(Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco: 1991).
Edward Espe Brown, The Most Important Point(Sounds True Publishing, Boulder, CO).
Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Living a Creative Life Beyond Fear(Riverhead Books: NY, 2015)