The Magi and Theological Method - A Sermon for Epiphany-eve
Kai krēmatisthentes kat’ onar mē anakampsai pros Hrōdēn,
di’ allēs hodou anechōrēsan eis tēn chōran autōn.
Following the western Church calendar, tomorrow is epiphany. Christians have generally associated this festival with the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem, bringing frankincense, gold and myrrh to the newborn Christ. Careful study begins to clarify for us who these magi were and were not. First, there is no mention of there being three of them, only three kinds of gifts. Maybe there were two, or four, or eighteen. Moreover, we can be certain they were not kings. Magi – think royal magicians here – were probably oriental scientists in noble courts. They may have had priestly and scholarly functions as well as serving as dignitaries of kings. We also puzzle over their country of origin, being generally apo anatolōn (v.1), having seen the star en tē anatolē (vv.2,9). Some have suggested that they came from Babylonia, which would be appropriate, considering Matthew mentions the Israelite captivity there (cf. 1:17). Or they could have been from more distant, Asian kingdoms. What we can say with greater certainly is that they fulfilled the prophecy of Isa 60:3, that “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” The disturbing thing, in any case, is that we know for sure that they were religious stargazers. Astrologers. Pagans.
If I feel a certain affinity with the magi, it has to do with my own religious past. By the age of eleven I had become a practitioner in the New Age. My first religious experience, I recall, was climbing into the branches of a tree behind my father’s office, feeling that somehow all nature was one with God and God was one with me. Over the next few years I adopted the eclectic constellation of beliefs characteristic of the New Age: cultivation of psychic powers, doomsday predictions, earth energies, even a special place for UFO phenomena. All of this I studied religiously.
It is difficult for me to make sense of how all this transitioned into Christianity. At age 14 God revealed Himself to me through a supernatural dream, through someone’s prophetic word, through the preaching of a red-headed college student named Scott Bryson. I found Jesus Christ (or Jesus Christ found me, one might say). Hallelujah! – but how? How had my perverse spirituality been taken over by the Holy Spirit? How had God even used some of my own idolatry as a preparation for the gospel?
Those of you with similar histories will feel the weight of these questions when considering the Magi. While millions of other heathen were left to their own demon worship, these astrologers were delivered from their ignorance by finding Christ. They found Him, moreover, through natural means, through pagan means. They “saw” the star, somehow with their own debased arts tracking down the Christ-child. Various theorists since Kepler have tried to explain the Magi’s success by the postulation of a supernova; or perhaps it was a combination of a three-planet alignment happening sometime around 4 BC. Michael Molnar concludes, however, that the magi’s determination about the star in the east was far more subtle and complicated, that “the star of Bethlehem was indeed rare, but it was so on the basis of a set of complex rules that defy statistical quantification” (Michael R. Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem, 102.) The magi were very specialized occultists following an astrological sign. How strange that God would use a natural event combined with heathen wisdom to lead in the direction of Christ!
Our text makes little of stargazing, however. The appearance of the star has led the magi in the direction of Christ. All well and good. But once they arrive in Israel, God bushwhacks their whole theological method. Notice how in vv.3-6 they have to… consult the heavens? No. They search the scriptures. The chief priests and scribes tell the magi that the Anointed One will be born in Bethlehem, according to the prophet Micah. That’s the first distinctly supernatural revelation from Yahweh. The second has to do with the star, but this time the Lord causes it to do something unprecedented; it “went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was” (v.9). Now God intervenes. Now the star behaves miraculously. Now there can be and need be no calculations. And sure enough, the starlight shines directly upon Jesus, who is God incarnate, who is the revelation of God, full of grace and truth.
Some of you seemed to have come to Christ by “natural” means. You straggled along and somehow came near to Him. Maybe you dabbled in other religions. Maybe you listened to Oprah along the way. Maybe you went through tragic events and received strange consolations. Perhaps you ended up at a church service by circumstance or because of a love interest or just because you were a “religious personality.” But – heed these words – no one comes to Christ unless the Father draws him (Jn 6:44). And when the Father draws a person, He sets him or her on the Christian journey through miraculous rebirth by the Holy Spirit (Jn 3:5; Tit 3:5), through the Word and Spirit. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). We walk along many avenues, but the hearing of the gospel in the power of the Spirit of God is the only way people know Jesus Christ. The only way!
But back to the magi. A third revelation speaks to them. They are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to go home by another way (v.12). Forget the stargazing. Forget the political networking. God has spoken.
By another way! Were every theologian to heed this warning. Instead we have commentaries and textbooks that give us a theological methods that sound, well, too normal, too much like that of the world. I recently picked up a book that claimed that Buddhism is an indispensable assistance for understanding Jesus Christ. More common are western theologians who seem to start on the right path, but in their prolegomena explain that our inborn image of God (interpreted either as rationality or spirituality or immortality) is what gives us natural access to God. They start (and sometimes end) with something other than God’s own self-disclosure.
By another way! Any first principle must affirm that we are wholly dependent on God’s grace in order to know Him. Thus we begin with the chief witness to God’s self-revelation: the holy scriptures. God’s word is surrounded by other words, by dreams and visions, angelic visitations and spiritual gifts and remarkable healings. But our most normative encounter with the Living God is through the preaching of the gospel, which has as its source and content and vehicle the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew scriptures push us towards Christ and the apostolic witnesses hearken us back to Him. All the while Psalm 119 shouts this in our ear: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD! Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with their whole heart, who . . . walk in His ways!” We are to walk in His law, in His ways. That means that for all the exegeting and analyzing of the text, we ultimately stand with and under the scriptures, not above them. Both liberal and conservative theologians can err by appealing to a rationalistic or psychological reading of scripture. They can appeal to some sort of natural capability we have as human beings to understand God. Relying on self instead of God’s revelation, however, is an insane arrogance. Would the magi dare go back to the science of astrology after having heard from God directly?
By another way! Ultimately, the other way is Jesus; He is the way (Jn 14:6). He is the “perfect light” to which we are guided. And the gospel is clear that our whole paradigm changes once one comes to Christ. Regardless of may have led to Christ, now everything must come from Him. He is the Alpha and Omega of theological construction. If all things hold together in Him (cf. Col 1:17), shall we not say the same thing doctrinally?
Every other theological pathway is a dead-end, even if it be trumpeted as “practical,” “ecumenical,” “inclusive,” even “biblically scientific.” To have any first principle beside Jesus, the Word of God, is to invite disaster. To make a theological system out of the ways of the world is to go through the broad gate, which is wide and easy – and leads to perdition (Mt 7:13). Going back the way you came is comfortable. But the Herods and Pharoahs of the world will chase you down and force you to recant all that horrible babble about a King being born. They will pressure you, perhaps put you in stocks. They will talk you out of those “esoteric” and “fundamentalistic” aspects of your faith. You Christians are just like the rest of us, no? You love your neighbor and subscribe to commonsense principles, right? You don’t really believe that nonsense about the Messiah, about knowing a special way to God, do you?
We must be courageous and follow the same tracks as the magi. They do not go back to the principalities and powers. They do not go back by natural theology. Like Moses and the Israelites they take a most unusual route; we might even say that they walk through the waters. For they have seen Christ. Being warned in a dream, they go back by another way.
Nonetheless, almost improbably, the magi return to their own country. Having heard and beheld the Word of God, having witnessed the unthinkable miracle that is the incarnation, having encountered such a radically different God, it might seem tempting to go to some other country. Why not leave behind their families, their careers, their old social webs? Why not develop an idiosyncratic religion to worship the mystery in private? Having met Jesus Christ, the beginning and end of the world, why not take up the mantle of an otherworldly mysticism?
The Word of God leaves us no option to hole ourselves up or fly off to heaven. Jesus Christ’s coming was a coming of God in the flesh. “He came to those who were His own,” even if His own did not receive Him (Jn 1:11). If the Revelation of God came home to us, how much more must our feeble witness be directed homewards! This the magicians from the East know. They must go back to the royal courts and confess, however inadequately in their fragile language and culture, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
The theologian’s task – and we all are theologians in some sense – is to return home with a word about God. A good word is hard to come by, you realize, since our language fails to capture the majesty and mystery of God. Having beheld something totally new, we struggle to preach and share with others exactly who this God is. Theology often brings out this failure. Theologians are always asking if the Church’s testimony is sound, whether that word be the Belhar Confession, the book The Shack, last week’s sermon, or what you told your hairdresser you believe about God. This is theology’s critical task.
Nevertheless, theology (like preaching the gospel itself) is contextual. It comes home in provincial language, themes and structures. All good theology is missional theology. For the sake of Christ it is approachable and seeks to address the themes of its day. I think of the magi, or the Ethiopian eunuch, or the glorious diaspora that went out from the outpouring at Pentecost, and how their awe for Christ was paired with a love for their countrymen. They returned home.
Is this not the profound peril of doing theology? In our returning to familiarity, we face the temptation of defaulting to the values and perceived needs of the people. We come under the temptation of honoring even the questionable paths by which we came to Christ, whether by strange religions or, say, the emotional sway of music or the water-tight reasoning of rational apologetics. And how often we preachers praise suffering and death for their supposedly holy powers!
No doubt God can use these methods. He can use a Balaam. He can hearken the magi by a star. He will use the wicked and the ambiguous for His purposes. He will not, however, give His glory to Baal. Woe to us if we mistake the star for the scriptures, or culture for Christ! Woe to us if we concede anything to our false gods and corrupt nature! Woe to us if we return to Herod and our star maps! Theology at its most degenerate becomes a fanciful regurgitation of our previously held values. But theology at its best is a homecoming sent by and from the Christ. If we insist on doing otherwise, let us not pretend that we have not been warned.
The magi remind us of the narrow gate through which we theologians pass: that we return home – but by a different way. By a different way – but truly back home. Let us follow Christ, then, that great Pillar of Fire in the night, who is not without His canvas of starlight.