They're all right there, aren't they? If you don't believe it, just come on over to my house, and you'll see them in the ceramic Nativity scene my three children painted when they were small-Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, a sheep and a couple of cows, and three Wise Men, accompanied, of course, by their camels. It's a scene with which we have all become familiar.
And, as you know, there's always a star over the manger. The Wise Men, as we have come to know them, are referred to in the Greek as Magi. The Magi were a priestly class among the Persians. And here in Matthew, the term designates astrologers, probably from Babylonia, perhaps, some suggest, from Egypt or Arabia. But like astrologers do, they have noticed an important sign in the heavens, and they have followed that star to the place where they worship one who, even in infancy, is called a king. And speaking of kings, there's nothing to indicate that the Magi were kings. Later Christian tradition, under the influence of Psalm 72 and Isaiah 49 and 60, comes to refer to them as kings, which is why the guys in my children's Nativity set are all wearing crowns. And I guess you noticed that Matthew never tells us how many there were. But since Matthew mentions three gifts, later Christian tradition came to identify three kings; and in the late sixth century Armenian Infancy Gospel, the Magi are even given names-Melkon or Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar. (Schweizer, p. 38 and Hill, pp. 81-82)
So these men saw a star. In the ancient world, the occurrence of a star or a constellation of stars was often associated with the birth of a notable person. So having seen the star that Matthew says heralds the arrival of Messiah, having interpreted that star as astrologers do, the Magi go to worship, to pay homage to the child they refer to as the king of the Jews.
No big shocker that Herod is not pleased. It has always been the case, and I am afraid that it will always remain the case, that the presence in the world of that which is most godly evokes the resistance of that which is most insidious. It is an inescapable spiritual truth that when tender grace bursts upon the scene, the harsh forces of selfishness array against it. And so like a roach scurrying for a dark place when the light is turned on, Herod frantically plots to destroy the tender but mighty One who threatens his throne.
He begins by inviting the Magi to a secret meeting. One thing I have learned is never to trust secret meetings. "Go and search for the child," Herod tells the Magi. "I want to worship him, too." Herod is a liar. He intends no worship. He intends to pay no homage. He has no gifts to offer. He intends only to exploit the Magi, to use them as pawns in the hidden agenda he secretly and darkly wishes to advance. "When you find him," he says to them, "get back to me so that I can worship him too."
And so the Magi leave Herod, the threatened one; and they follow the star until it stops over the place where the child was. And Matthew tells us, in a verse that almost leaps off the page, that "when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy." And this is where I want to spend some time digging around today.
I can promise you that when the Magi experienced that joy, they were struck by contrast. They were struck by how different that joy felt from the feelings they had experienced in that secret meeting with Herod. One felt so right. The other felt so wrong. The joy they felt when the star stopped was the inner confirmation that they had arrived at the place. Anytime we experience that kind of deep joy that is God's gift, then we know that we are where we are meant to be.
Have you ever had such a moment? Sure you have. Stop and call it to mind. A moment when things seemed to really line up for you. A moment when you felt so at home in your own skin, so at one with yourself and everything, that you knew the place at which you had arrived is the place where you belong. A moment when you can say, "This is me. This is why I'm alive. This is who I am. This is where I am meant to be." A moment when the star you've been following stops and you find yourself overwhelmed with the joy that comes from being you. That's the moment I wish for you. That's the moment God wishes for all of us. And what I also wish for you is that all of your moments could be characterized by that kind of joy. In the new year to come and in whatever years may follow for us, what if all of life could be the delightful experience of being flooded by and overwhelmed with joy? That joy happens, when like the Magi, we find ourselves at the place where we can freely and truly be who we really and truly are. Where is that joy place for you?
That's not as easy a question to answer as it may seem, because our lives are often not characterized by such joy. Our lives often reflect something other than the experience of being overwhelmed with joy? Why is that?
I have a thought. There are lots of people-I confess to you that I have been one of them-who live out of something other than the Self God has given as gift. And anytime we live out of something other than the Self God has given us, we are literally living beside ourselves, and there's not joy in that. Let me say it this way. Joy comes when we live from the inner Self that is of God and not from the outer expectations that come from the world.
Let me give you an example. Many people in this culture are following stars that they intuitively know will never come to stop at any place they could ever call home, but they try to follow them anyway. Many in this culture are in a frantic and feverish gallop to have all the things the culture says represent success and happiness. But after getting all that, I hear people say, "I'm not happy in this job. I feel like a rat on a wheel. But I have this house and the second mortgage and all the other stuff I'm up to my eyes in debt to pay for. I've always been told that when I got all this, I'd be happy, but I'm not." I've heard that before. There's no joy in that, because that's living from the world's outer expectations and not from the inner Self that is of God.
Some of us never have such experiences of joy because we live under the burden of the expectations other people have of us, which keep us from being able to align with our real selves. "I feel like I'm living for everybody else. I've lost me along the way." I've heard that before. And so lots of people live lives of fragmentation because they try to find their center in everyone else they are trying to please rather than within themselves. No wonder people are so dizzy. Their center is out there, in a million different others, with a zillion different expectations; and they live dizzying lives of spinning from one false center to another.
The Magi were overwhelmed with joy, because they realized, they recognized, that they had arrived at the place where they were meant to be, the place where they were most themselves, the place where they could say that they were at home. They had arrived at the place where the divine and the human meet. They had arrived at the place where heaven and earth come together. "Yes, this is it." The joy they experienced confirmed that.
But at that moment, the Magi had a decision to make. You see, as soon as they stopped and bathed in the delicious joy that confirmed their arrival at the right place, they remembered their secret meeting with Herod, and they knew that they had to decide what they would do with what he had asked. And at that moment, they were caught in between their joy and their fear. After all, it's not every day that King Herod the Great asks something of you. And if you don't do what he asks, you could be in trouble. It's not a good thing to cross a fearful and threatened King.
We all know what it's like to be caught between our joy and our fear. "Every human being has both sets of forces within. One set clings to safety and defensiveness, hanging on to the past," moving in a backward direction, "afraid to grow, afraid to take chances, afraid to jeopardize what [one] already has, afraid of independence and freedom. The other set of forces impels [one] forward toward wholeness and uniqueness of Self, toward…confidence in the face of the…world" (Abraham Maslow, Toward A Psychology of Being).
And so the Magi, like every one of us, had a decision to make. They are in a free choice situation, between the joy of the King and the fear of the king, and they had to choose between the delight and joy of one and the anxiety and fear of the other. They had to choose between the forward movement of one and the backward movement of the other. In that way, they mirror what is true for all of us, afraid to grow and afraid not to grow.
Well, verse 12, the verse that closes this story, may be one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible, because it is a verse of hope and courage and life; and as I sat with this passage, this is the verse that opened up the whole experience of the Magi to me. "Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road."
The Magi refused to go in the direction of their fears. Through the language of their dream, which is another way of saying that through their own God-given, inner voices, they chose life and growth and joy. They trusted their own inner experience of joy, even if that experience flew in the face of the power and authority and expectations of the world. They went in the direction of the Divine, even though Herod wanted them to go in another direction. They did that because that inner joy, the inner joy they experienced, is worth trusting and worth following and worth building a life around. That inner joy you experience when you're who and where you're meant to be is the still, small voice of God, beckoning you to live and move and have your being in the Self God has given you and not in what the world expects.
Herod has a thousand faces. He is alive today in anyone or anything that leads you away from being overwhelmed with the joy God wants you to have, the joy that comes from being who you really and truly are, where you really and truly want to be, and doing what you really and truly want to do. I know what it's like to capitulate to Herod. I also know what it's like to be flooded by joy. And I think I'm finally learning that any fear I have of Herod is not worth comparing to the delights of trusting my inner experience of joy that is the gift of God and moving courageously, confidently, in that direction.
That's what God wishes for you. I do know it's a tough move. Herod's pull is strong. But on this Sunday of Epiphany, when once again we watch a few stargazers offer some gifts to the child who is a king, perhaps we can recognize as well that the Magi bring a gift today to you and to me. What they bring is the gift of their example. It's the example of saying "No" to Herod and "Yes" to Christ. It's the example of saying "No" to fear and "Yes" to joy. It's the example of saying "No" to the painful past and "Yes" to the joyful future. It's the example of trusting your joy enough to build an entire life around it, whether the rest of the world understands and approves or not. And if we can receive that gift, then out of the experience of our lives joyfully lived, we will be more fully and richly able to offer our own gift to the Christ child. And I can think of no gift that would grace him more than for us to trust and to live each day in the joy that is the reason he came in the first place.
Let us pray.
God, you are the giver of true joy, joy that the world cannot give and cannot understand, through the light of Christ's coming, help us to know and to live our joy, the joy that is both your gift to us and our gift to you. Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.