Someone is always looking for the star. They want light from God. They are looking for salvation from the darkness they feel and the darkness pressing in on them. These seekers are always odd, since most people are just calling darkness light and having a fight if you contradict them. But quite often these odd people have stories written about them, because they find the places the star leads them.
The story of the wise men is a story about odd, light-seeking people. The prophecy of the star at the birth of Jesus is found in Numbers 24:17. The magi who were looking for Jesus knew about this prophecy. In their Persian libraries they maintained the Jewish scriptures and had access to the works of the great Jewish wise man, Daniel, who had reached the higher echelon of the profession in Babylon. So the wise men looked for the new born King of Israel because they read it in the scriptures and acted on what they read.
I want to be like one of the magi. I want to be good at seeing the signs. I want to keep looking for the places where Jesus is being born. Since they already had all the writings, I suppose the wise men could have enjoyed sitting in Babylon or somewhere in Persia reading about the interesting things that might happen in places they’d never go while eating pomegranates after work — I could be eating M&Ms and watching the Eagles. Instead, they wanted to be on site. They wanted to see God born. If I walk around Philadelphia with their attitude, there is a good chance I will see where the light is resting too.
The Greek word for the wise men is μαγοι, (magi). It is from this word that we get our word magician. At that time Matthew was writing about the wise men who saw “his star” rise “in the east,” the boundary between those who attempted to sway the spirits and those who performed what we might call science was blurred. For instance, early chemists were often alchemists, people trying to change one substance into another (usually into gold) by all sorts of methods, including incantations, but also including methods that we would recognize today as experimental chemistry. Similarly, these magicians from Persia who came to find Jesus could probably be referred to as scientists in a broader sort of way. People say there were three magi, but there could have been two or twenty-five. There were three gifts mentioned in the account in Matthew, however.
The star mentioned in Numbers 24 was prophesied by an unusual character, called Balaam. Balaam seems to have been a sort of traveling soothsayer, and could be considered a distant professional relative of the magi who came to Jesus’ house. He was based at Pethor, which is not only near the River Euphrates, but is also close to Babylon. Back in the day, Balaam was contracted by the King of Moab, Balak, to curse the Israelites. The Israelites were moving through Moabite territory on their long journey to the Promised Land and the king wanted them to keep moving. The Israelites were not going to settle in Moab, so the Moabites had the opportunity, as had the Edomites and Amorites before them, to show hospitality and enable them to go on their way. But, like the others, the Moabites displeased God, only they did it by hiring Balaam. The account of what happened to Balaam — how he was commissioned, how he was warned about his behavior by God, how God rebuked him by making his donkey talk, and how every attempt he made to curse the Israelites simply led to them being blessed — can be found in Numbers 22 through 24. In one of Balaam’s attempts to curse the Israelites, he ended up speaking the prophecy the wise men learned:
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. (Numbers 24:17 KJV)
In one sense, the prophecy applies to Israel itself, particularly with reference to David’s conquest of the Moabites. But the concept of the scepter, a symbol of kingship, refers not only to David, but to David’s greater son, and refers back to Genesis:
The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; And to Him shall be the obedience of the people. (Genesis 49:10 KJV)
This passage from Genesis refers to the coming Messiah, to be descended from Judah. By inference, we can say that Numbers 24:17 also refers to the coming Messiah. The wise men seeking the newborn king probably knew about Balaam’s oracle. Maybe Daniel himself made the connection for them, since he also prophesied about the Messiah (Daniel 9:25-26).
More than how they arrived at their conclusions, I am impressed by how the magi applied their wisdom. They not only knew that the star and their studies meant something, they knew what to do. Then they did it. They took off for the place the light led. In a very real sense, they went to attend to the birth. That’s the kind of knowledge I want. The world does not need more people eager to fight for their thinking to be ascendant. But the world does need more people who are eager to see what God is doing and cooperate with what is being created. The wise men did not know if they could prove their point. But the proof they already had pointed them in the right direction. They had the courage to take their provisional knowledge on the road and to let their wisdom be subject to change. Such knowledge requires trust in God, but they went with it.
I want to be like the magi. I want to attend the births. I want to be in the places the light is breaking in and breaking out. I want to follow the Savior even if that sometimes means I don’t know exactly where I am going.
People need to be saved; everything I learn keeps pointing to that reality. They are being enslaved and trained by godless powers or by powers taking the place of God. But they are seeking and I can cooperate with what is being born in them. What shall we do?
1) Believe that the Savior will be born. That begins with believing Jesus, God-with-us, was born, of course. But there are many poor places in Philly right now where Jesus is being born, just like John says. John’s nativity story skips the history and goes straight for the wisdom: Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:12-13).
2) Go find out where the Savior is being born. So often we try to create a birth moment, or we think we are sent to impregnate every moment. We call that being missional, as if we were the actual incarnation, not just carrying the Spirit of God with us. We are important, but we can get a bit grandiose. The wise men were more likely to have been raggedy, unaccepted-by-the-establishment types, certainly not like three medieval European kings, searching back alleys and stables for something the powers were trying to kill. Rather than assuming we are supposed to find time in our busy schedules to keep the world filled with light, I think it is a better ambition to go find where the birth happening and be wise enough to assist with the birth.
3) Give your treasure for what is prospectively going to happen. Again, so often we are saving our treasure to apply the grand strategy we feel responsible to actualize. We hoard our stuff as if we know what’s coming. Or at least we hoard our stuff because we are afraid we know what is coming. The wise men had some valuable stuff to invest in a baby. Joseph probably used it for the family’s escape to Egypt. No money invested in God’s dream is wasted. Nothing you give to assist in the birth of Jesus goes unused. Either your heart gets better or the light gets brighter. Either your own chains get loosened or someone else stays out of spiritual or physical jail. Someone is always looking for the star. Help them.
2 thoughts on “Someone is always looking for the star: Seeking with the Magi”
Thanks, Rod, for the chance to nerd out on some cool scripture stuff!
I did a lot of thinking about the magi these past couple of weeks as I was preparing to lead art direction on the 4th sunday of advent. I also equated them in my mind with “scientists”, experts of knowledge but with a kernel of faith at the bottom. I read their journey as a testament to Jesus’s place as the answer and root of such quests; just as all roads lead to Rome, all endeavors to “seek”, whether it manifest as a search for “knowledge” or “truth” or “reality”, will lead to Jesus.
But I love how you emphasize the important aspect of the Magi’s story: they took the journey. They probably could have stayed in Babylon to write about it, keep silent about Jesus’s coming, or even denied it. But they went to worship him, the took a perilous and uncertain journey into foreign territory, and even had to tip toe around the powers that be (Herod) in order to make it safely (and they did so because they listened to their dreams!). This journey may have meant an end to their scholarly project, but they weren’t afraid to let go and let their careers be fulfilled.
I think my story and many of my friends’ stories are really similar to the Magi’s. We kind of “come form the east” with reference to where Jesus is: born among the poor and outcast. We’re over-educated citizens of an empire who love to seek knowledge, or even have jobs where we are supposed to navigate complex systems of information. And I have definitely found my journey to come worship him – metaphorically in my life, or literally at church and now at PM! – challenging, uncomfortable, and perilous.
Nice. Thanks for sharing.