Encounters with God are almost always unexpected. Even people who might be expecting to meet God find themselves meeting God in ways that they were not expecting. Consider the prophecy in today’s passage from Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (Isaiah 60.1) If you had asked any number of people in first-century Judea what the fulfilment of that prophecy might look like, I’m sure that they would have given you a great many ideas. Some would have said it’s about the Messiah, some would have said it’s about the end of things. I don’t think any of them would have said that the prophecy’s fulfilment would start with the birth of a child to an unwed mother in a small, dark stable in Bethlehem. I don’t think anyone would have guessed that. And yet, this is exactly how God chose to make that beginning.
God’s appearances, God’s speaking to us, God’s revelations to us very seldom happen in the way we would do it if it were up to us to plan such things. The Magi in today’s gospel reading have traveled a great distance to come to Judea. They’re looking for a king and they’ve been following a star that appeared in the sky. The Magi are people who pay careful attention to what Creation is saying to them. This is almost certainly part of why they are called “wise”. Creation, being the work of God who made all things, can tell us about God’s work. Unsurprising, that. Any time you or I make something, whether it’s writing, a speech, or baking, it says something about us. Even if we all follow the same recipe, each version will come out a little differently because we all have our own ways of doing it. The way God made Creation tells us something about how God works and, as a result, we can learn something about God by paying attention to Creation.
As a very young person I grew up in the country and spent some time on farmyards. I remember being told that if it looks like a pleasant and clear day, but all of the livestock are huddled in the shelter and you can’t hear the birds singing, it’s probably time to go inside. The animals probably know something you don’t. It’s often true that animals huddled in a shelter and birds gone silent are good signs that a storm is coming, probably quickly. Creation has wisdom to share with us if we’re willing to pay attention.
The Magi pay careful attention to what Creation is telling them. While watching the sky they see a star that wasn’t there before and they notice that it’s moving. The Magi deduce that this is part of a prophecy that will lead them to a king. The new star in the sky is part of how the fulfillment of that prophecy will be accomplished, so they set off following the star to meet the new king and they take with them some truly expensive gifts.
Gold is expensive, just as it is today. It was a culturally appropriate gift to offer someone as important as a king. Frankincense is both a simple and a complicated thing. At its core, it’s just sap from a particular bush, but is incredibly labour-intensive to harvest and process to the point where you can readily store and burn it like incense. It’s a bit like real maple syrup, that way. A simple product that is still a lot of work to make. This is why frankincense was used mostly for religious and state ceremonies. Frankincense is an expensive thing used only in the most important places, to honour gods and emperors. Myrrh oil, the third gift, smells lovely. But it’s an expensive product and used in the ancient world to prepare dead bodies. It smells pleasant, it helps to preserve the body of the dead person, and it’s a way of honouring the dead by covering the body in something precious and beautiful. The Magi are not bringing trivial things with them. They have gone to trouble and expense to procure and carry with them these gifts that they intend to give to the new king when they meet him. This journey and the meeting are very important to them.
We don’t have much record of what the magi thought when they arrived at the place where the star had stopped. I’m not sure—and I’m speculating—that the Magi expected to find the king in such an utterly ordinary and mundane setting. A child at home with his parents, the father a carpenter from Nazareth, and the mother a young woman named Mary. Certainly not the image that first comes to my mind when someone says “king.” The Magi were probably expecting something much more like Herod’s palace. Which, of course, they had visited but knew that Herod was not the king that they sought. Herod was a frightened and vindictive man, hardly a king at all. Certainly not one to which they were being led by a new star.
Regardless of what the magi thought, they stuck around long enough to discern that this child was, in fact, the one they were looking for. And so, they offered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They made homage, they adored the child Jesus, and they went home. They met the king they journeyed to meet; they gave gifts and they were received by the family and the child. I don’t think it was anything like what the Magi thought they were looking for, but they paid close attention and recognized the revelation when it was offered them.
God very seldom shows up or works in the places and ways that we would expect as humanity. We’re very prone, as humans, to wanting to come up with lists and categories and rules for how things work. I think the impulse for this is a good one: We want to understand the world around us. Coming up with ways of understanding different kinds of metal or groups of plants and animals can be very helpful, useful, and is important to our survival. But sometimes we forget that we are not the ones who make those lists and categories. We are the ones who observe them and make note of them. It is God’s Creation, after all. My housecat resembles a lion not because I noticed that they’re both furry and have four paws and whiskers, but because God decided that housecats and lions should resemble one another.
I think the Epiphany story, this visit from the Magi to a place that they were not expecting but which they were wise enough to discern was, in fact, the place they were looking for, is an important lesson for us. Christmas is a season full of stories about miracles. One of the greatest of these miracles is the completely unexpected and seemingly impossible way in which God chose to join the divine nature to the human nature in the person of Jesus Christ. He wasn’t a great king, wasn’t a military leader. Didn’t show up with a great natural disaster or any kind of drama or bombast, but was born very quietly in a stable to be seen by his parents, some barn animals, and later some shepherds who came to see, having been summoned by angels.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Isaiah 60.1
I think the wisdom of the Magi is another miracle in the Christmas season. Their capacity to realize that this tiny child wasn’t what they expected in a king, but really was the king they sought, is a miracle and a lesson for us. We, as people of God, are called always to be listening, watching, and paying attention to the places where God chooses to reveal, chooses to make known, the divine self to us. Our calling is not to tell God where the acceptable places or methods for those revelations are.
It’s entirely possible that you will learn something, realize something, recognize something about God that you didn’t know before in a place like this, in a church. It might be in the music, it might be in the liturgy, it might be in the preaching, but it also might not be on that particular day. You might also learn something of God in a conversation with someone waiting in line at the post office. You might learn something of God in the way the yarn moves while watching someone knit or the way a stand of trees move in the wind. You might learn something of God listening to the birds and watching the way the livestock move together in their pen. God doesn’t always show up in the places or ways we expect.
We pray on this Epiphany—and all year—that we might be blessed with wisdom like the magi. With eyes to see, ears to hear, and heart’s to know God’s revelations wherever and however God wills them to be found.
This sermon was preached at Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg.