Tag Archives: wise men

Someone is always looking for the star: Seeking with the Magi

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.

Take an Advent pilgrimage: Five suggestions from the main players in the story

smart car in germanyLast June Gwen and I were about to drive into Switzerland for the first time. Siri told me to turn a bit late. I slowed way down and a young man in his company’s Smart Car clipped the back of our Auris as he tried to zip by. He pushed us into the oncoming traffic lane. Happily, there were no cars coming or I might not be here to write this. We were shaken up – and then the German police arrived! The polizist was nice – but he spoke German!

We had one thing going for us, however. We decided a long time ago to take all our trips as pilgrimages. Our definition of a pilgrimage includes welcoming the unexpected or even the unwanted as part of our journey with Jesus. A pilgrimage allows us to see God at work in all sorts of new situations that test our capacity to trust him. We get to prove to ourselves again and again that beyond our ordinary awareness God is present and leading. So we don’t take vacations anymore; we’d rather inhabit what’s happening than vacate.

This is a good day to start a pilgrimage. It is the second day of Advent, the season that begins the Christian year. An “advent” is the coming of something expected. God is coming in the person of Jesus to be God with us. God’s coming as a baby invites us to begin again, ourselves, and go through our own process of maturation until we move though death into resurrection life with Him.

Pilgrim-Hat-e1383838921591Last week many Americans (especially if they were in elementary school) remembered the persecuted separatists from the English Church, called THE Pilgrims, who created a place for themselves in Massachusetts. A pilgrim is a person who goes on a long journey, often with a religious or moral purpose, and especially a journey to a foreign land. The Pilgrims who had the famous thanksgiving feast thought of themselves as those kind of pilgrims. Here’s evidence: After the Mayflower arrived, the first baby born to the Pilgrims who sailed on it was a boy. His parents (William and Susannah White!) named him Peregrine – a word which applies to a person travelling from far away and also means “pilgrim.” When Governor William Bradford wrote about the group’s departure for America he said: “They knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country; and quieted their spirits.”

Everybody in the story of Christ’s coming is something of a pilgrim. The wise men probably come all the way from Persia looking for what their studies revealed. John the Baptist goes into the wilderness and then out to the Jordan River where people journey to meet him and repent. Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem and then to Egypt and back. The shepherds go to Bethlehem to see the Savior and then go all over the countryside to tell everyone about him. Where are you going? God has come from heaven and Jesus is taking first steps as a human and leading through death into life. Are you a similar pilgrim?

Advent is a season for beginning the journey. Some people reading are just getting to know Jesus and every step is fresh and maybe unnerving. More people reading are challenged to begin again, to not stay put, to not let the notables in the well-known “Christmas” story just pass them by.

How do we get started? We have a few weeks to figure that out. I think each of the main players in the story offers a very good example of what to do:

1) Go somewhere. The whole season will be filled with places to go that are not really spiritual places at all — take Best Buy, for instance — perhaps your office “winter holiday” party. Plan at least one event in your season that is like being a wise man searching for the Savior. Take half a day off and call it “searching for the Savior time.” Follow the star like the wise men.

2) Experience wilderness. The whole season is exquisitely designed, these days, to be absolutely fake. We even disguise trees and put them in our living rooms. But you don’t really need to travel very far from Philly before you can see actual stars. Or just sit down in the park and experience the weather. Listen to God in creation like John.

3) Fulfill an obligation. It is a common joke that the season is already so full of obligation that the cool people are all huddled in a bar avoiding it. But submitting to work as someone who must be saved rather than resenting work as someone who is too good for it is good for us. Feeling like you must care for someone else out of your own sense of honor is good. Go do what you have to do like Joseph. Go to your “Bethlehem” and you might unwittingly fulfill a prophecy!

dancing with stars ornament4) Escape. There is no doubt that this season has become a real baby killer (note ornament). It is filled with escapism that needs to be escaped. Maybe you should deliberately skip doing something that you would not do unless expected you to — like making those cookies or going to that thing in New York. Run for your life like Mary taking the baby to Egypt.

5) Go tell your story. Maybe you have no freedom to make a lot of choices or have little money to spend on interesting ways to be a pilgrim. Don’t fret. You can be on a “speaking tour” as you move through your day. Your latest experience with Jesus is worth telling. Move around your own countryside telling about the Savior that is born to everyone, Christ the Lord, just like the shepherds did.

But let’s keep moving. Advent is a pilgrimage. Your inward journey will be greatly benefited if you have outward movement that helps it. If you can manage to not get pushed around by the wacky holiday thing the world does or manage to not just resist that wacky thing, maybe you can experience what the people in the true story are experiencing.

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