January 6th 2019, Pastor Galen, Epiphany Sunday
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12
Today is Epiphany Sunday, the day that we celebrate the pronouncement of the Good News to the Gentiles, as represented by the story of the Magi, or Wise Men, who came to worship the baby Jesus. The Bible doesn’t provide a lot of details about the background of these Magi, but there is a tradition going back over 1500 years that one of the Magi was named Balthazar.
Since we don’t have much background information to go on, I’d like to do something a little different this morning — I’d like to invite us to use our creative imagination to enter into the story of Balthazar, and to consider together how and why Balthazar and the other Magi were prompted to come and worship the baby Jesus. I hope that you will indulge me for the next few minutes as I attempt to fill in some of the gaps, and to imaginatively retell the story of Balthazar and the other Magi.
Balthazar was always fascinated by the stars, even from a young age. When he was little, he used to sneak out of his bedroom at night and climb up onto the flat roof of his house so that he could have an unhindered view of the night sky. Even before he was introduced to the concept of constellations, Balthazar noticed patterns and shapes and configurations of stars. He saw the outlines of animals, people, and a variety of living creatures, and even gave specific names to his favorite ones. He also noticed the way that the stars moved and shifted their positions in the sky as the seasons changed.
As an adolescent, Balthazar was hand selected along with numerous other youth to be taken to the King’s palace, where he received specialized training in science and mathematics, language, history, and literature.
There Balthazar was introduced to the more formal study of the stars — what we know today as the fields of astrology and astronomy. Balthazar’s fascination with the stars, combined with his amazing intellect and almost photographic memory made him a quick learner, and he soon rose to the top of his class. What was most striking was his almost uncanny ability to make associations between current events and the formations that he noticed in the stars. Often it seemed like he could even predict events before they even happened.
It was in this academic environment where Balthazar was first introduced to the writings of Daniel, one of the most famous Babylonian Magi, who had lived about 600 years before him. Daniel was an Israelite who had been brought to Babylon as a young man and educated in the language and literature of the Babylonians. Daniel quickly rose to prominence in Babylon because of his ability to interpret dreams and provide cosmic and supernatural explanations for the current events and realities of his day. Daniel had also made a number of predictions that had not yet come to pass, which became a source of much fascination for the young Balthazar. In particular, Daniel had predicted that there would be someone with the appearance of a man who would be given divine authority and power and who would be worshipped by all nations and peoples of every language (see Daniel 7:13-14).
Balthazar was captivated by this idea that there would be someone with the appearance of a person who was granted divine authority and who would be worshiped by people of every nation. He wondered who this person might be, and whether Daniel’s prophecy might finally be fulfilled in his lifetime.
Balthazar shared his musings with a few close friends in the academy, and they too became interested in this particular prophecy. Together they began to theorize about where and when this person would appear and how these events might unfold. They drew upon the various fields of study that they were engaged in, including literature and history, and yes, even their study of the stars. Balthazar and his friends searched far and wide in the various historical and literary documents available to them in the palace’s vast library, and eventually they stumbled upon a handful of other prophecies written by several contemporaries of Daniel – fellow Jewish prophets who also seemed to predict the coming of a divine being who would draw followers from people of every nation and language.
Balthazar and his friends began to watch the stars closely for any sign that this these events might be close to fulfillment, and they made a pact that if and when the stars aligned in such a way that made it clear that the promised one had come, that they would attempt to search for and seek out this person so that they could be among the first from among the nations to pay him homage.
Years went by, and Balthazar and his friends graduated from the academy. They were among the top of their class and so it wasn’t long before they were elevated to the positions of Magi in the kingdom, not too different from Daniel and his friends of old. As Magi, one of their roles was to monitor the sky closely for any important signs and to provide advice and counsel to the king accordingly. But even as they rose in prominence and importance in the kingdom, they never forgot the pact that they had made, and they continued to keep a lookout for any sign that the promised one had arrived.
And sure enough, their patience and steadfastness paid off. One day they noticed something different in the night sky, something that could only be explained by supernatural intervention. Something that indicated to them that the time had finally come, that the promised one who they had been waiting for must have finally arrived.
As scholars, they were cautiously overjoyed. They hoped beyond all hope that they were correct, that their careful calculations were indeed accurate. Yet they didn’t want their emotions to cloud their judgement, so they tried to hold back from celebrating until they actually received confirmation that their assessment of the heavenly omens was indeed correct. In order to do so, they had to follow through on their commitment to search for and find the promised one. They had to see him for themselves. They had to know for sure that he had arrived. And they had to worship him.
And so with the permission and blessing of the king, they set off on the journey of their lives. They didn’t know how or where it would end, they didn’t know how long they would be gone, but they knew that this was something that they had to do, not just for themselves, but for their people. And so they set off with not only provisions for their own journey, but also with gifts on behalf of their whole kingdom – gold, and frankincense, and myrrh — royal gifts for someone worthy of their utmost honor and devotion.
Now, whether or not this is how the journey of the Magi was initiated I don’t know. Again, the Bible doesn’t provide us with many details regarding who these Magi were or how they knew about the coming of the Messiah other than that they had seen a star. But the rest of their journey is laid out pretty precisely in Matthew’s account of the Magi’s visit to baby Jesus. The Magi stopped first in Jerusalem, where they inquired to King Herod about the birth of the new king. King Herod was of course upset by the suggestion that a new king had been born who would replace him, but he managed to conceal his anger.
Herod called together his religious advisors, who were able to identify the location of the Messiah’s birth according to the ancient prophesies – Bethlehem, only six miles south of the capital city of Jerusalem. Herod directed the Magi to find the child and to report back to him once they had completed their mission, under the false pretenses that he too would like to worship this new king. The Magi did indeed find the Christ child. They worshipped him, and offered him and his family gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and so they returned home by another route in order not to alert King Herod to the precise location of the child.
Good News for the Magi
Now the truth is that we really don’t know how exactly how the Magi connected the dots to understand that the star they saw in the sky was related to the good news that the Jewish Messiah had been born. We really don’t know how much the Magi knew about the Jewish faith and tradition to begin with.
But I find it fascinating to consider the possibility that the Magi had read the prophecies of Daniel. Daniel was an Israelite who had been taken captive by the Babylonians and had became a well-respected advisor to the king. In Daniel chapter 4 verse 9, King Nebuchadnezzar referred to Daniel as the “chief of the magicians,” where we get the term Magi. And so I think it is extremely possible that Daniel’s prophesies were revered and preserved not only in the Jewish religious tradition, but in the Babylonian religious tradition as well, and I think it’s possible that these Magi would have had access to the writings of the prophet Daniel.
But above all of that, what I find most fascinating about all of this is that God would choose to reveal the good news of Jesus’s birth not only to Jewish shepherds abiding in the fields, like we saw in Luke chapter 2, but to Gentile magicians and astrologers from another nationality and culture altogether. God wanted the whole world to know and experience the joy of the Messiah’s birth. And not only did God reveal this good news to the Magi, but God did it in such a way that they could understand, in a way that was relatable and comprehensible to them. God made it so abundantly clear to them, that they were moved to go to such great lengths to actually come and worship the new king.
Good News for our World Today
And so what are the implications of this story for us today? Well, I believe that there are many people in our world today who are seeking truth and knowledge, and they’re searching in all manners of different places to try to understand the nature of the universe.
I think there’s a misconception that the majority of people in our society are not interested in faith or God. But although growing numbers of people are not actively involved in a church and would not consider themselves religious, many people do think a lot about the supernatural and divine. We don’t have to look very far to see that some of the most popular tv shows, books, and movies deal with the mystical, with life after death, with the divine, or with magic. And many people are fascinated with astrology and philosophy, with spirituality and with meditation. Even many people who don’t believe in God or attend church want to know if there is something else out there, they want to believe that there is a greater purpose and meaning to life. They want to live for something beyond themselves.
I work on a daily basis with college students, and being around young adults in the academic environment, I’m always struck by their insatiable desire to understand the way that the world works. So often they draw together the various things that they’re learning from their various academic disciplines, and they seek to apply that knowledge to try to understand the world that we live in and the nature of the universe.
Although these various methods may not be the most direct ways to experience and learn about God, I find it comforting to consider that God can reveal truth to people even through the most unexpected means and in the most unexpected ways. If God can use the stars to announce the good news of Jesus’s birth to Magi, then perhaps God can speak to people through science or philosophy or mathematics or even popular movies, books and tv shows today. And although I think that our culture’s obsession with the supernatural and mystical is so often misdirected, I do think that this reveals an openness to the divine that perhaps we as followers of Christ could leverage in our attempts to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with those around us.
Good News for Us
This morning we, like the Magi of long ago, have seen and experienced the Good News that Jesus has been born, and we have come together to worship Him. In a few minutes we’re going to gather around the Lord’s table to break bread together and to share the cup, as we remember and reflect upon the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus paid so that we could know God. As we do so, I want to invite us to remember anew the beauty and the wonder of the reality that God became flesh to dwell among us, and the amazing fact that God desires people of every nation and background to know and experience this Good News. May we, like the Magi, experience overwhelming joy at the remembrance of this good news, and may we too offer all that we have and all that we are in worship of our King!