Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,
I’m currently reading a well written biography on the life and work of Leonardo DaVinci. DaVinci, as many of you know, was a 15th century Italian painter. His most famous painting is the Mona Lisa.
By all accounts, Leonardo was a creative genius. He had one problem though. He lacked the discipline needed to complete his paintings. One of his more famous incomplete works is a piece called “The Adoration of the Magi”. (Keep picture up for a bit)
There’s a lot going on in this picture. DaVinci’s initial concept had twice the amount of characters. But he had to scale that down for practical reasons.
What I most appreciate about this painting is the flow. If you look closely, the work revolves clockwise around the Christ Child. The Magi are in the inner ring. One is getting a good look. The other is in awe. And the one on the left side is bowing in adoration. Together, with quiet Joseph in the background, they form a clockwise moving circle around Mary and Jesus. And as you move out from the the centre, you notice that the flow continues. The whole complex scene revolves around Jesus. Even Mary is part of that clockwise flow. Do you see how her head is tilted.
I appreciate DaVinci’s creative design, because I think it helps to capture the essence of this story. The presence of the magi in Matthew 2 is a clue that God is up to something big in Christ. The nations are coming. Those who seek truth are coming. This Hebrew boy won’t simply be a local Messiah. The world is coming to him and the world will revolve around him.
This was foretold in Isaiah 60.
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you….
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
Of all the characters in the Christmas story, the wise men are definitely the strangest. We’ve grown accustomed to them in our nativity sets and pageants. But, in reality, they are three strange dudes who shouldn’t be there.
We call them the wise men. But that’s not their true identity. These men are magicians. Oriental scientists. Sorcerers. They probably mixed potions for a living, or wrote the horoscope section of their local newspaper. And they definitely spent their evenings staring up at the stars. They believed that there was a relationship between the movement of the stars and the meaning of life on earth.
You can just imagine Mary and Joseph standing wide-eyed and speechless in the doorway of their Bethlehem home. What were they to do? Let these strange men into their home?
From an Israelite perspective, these Magi had three strikes against them.
First of all, they were gentiles. Unclean people.
Secondly, they were idolators. They foolishly looked to the creation for power and direction, instead of looking to the creator. A big no-no in Old Testament law.
And thirdly, they came from enemy territory. From the East. From Babylon. Israelites didn’t like Babylonians. Years earlier, the Babylonians had levelled their temple and carted them off as slaves.
What were Joseph and Mary to do?
The Hebrew Scriptures told them that they were supposed to be hospitable to foreigners. But the Hebrew Scriptures also told them to have nothing to do with those who practice the dark arts.
What would you do? I mean, imagine if three witches from Toronto showed up at Eli’s baptism service today. “We saw a star. We’d like to see your baby? Can we hold him?”
We’d probably lock the doors and start praying for spiritual protection.
But the Magi didn’t come to cast spells. They came to worship.
How did they get to Bethlehem?
Well, it all started with a star. Something new. A bright light arising.
The stars were the Magi’s speciality. So clearly they saw something extraordinary, or else they wouldn’t have set out on their long journey.
But I’m curious to know how they made the connection. How did they make the move from a new star to a new King in Israel. I wonder if maybe they had a copy of the Old Testament laying around in their library of religious scrolls. I wonder if they read Numbers chapter 24: “A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel.”
We don’t get a window in the Magicians discernment process. But we do know that it started with a star.
Its amazing, I think, that God used something familiar to the them, in order to reveal himself to the them. God graciously enters the Magi’s frame of reference. He’s using the stars to get them to think beyond the stars.
I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that the starts lead these men to Jerusalem. Psalm 19 says: “The Heavens declare the glory of God. The Skies proclaim the work of his hand.”
God reveals himself through creation. This is why human beings are fundamentally and unshakeably religious creatures. We can’t help but search for things to extol. We can’t help but wonder what the stars have to do with us. The Magi won’t be the last people to be led to God via the stars.
The Canadian scientist Hugh Ross went on a similar journey. He built his first telescope at age 16. And even though he wasn’t raised in a religious home, he was quickly converted to the reality that the universe has a creator. From there he was lead to the scriptures. And from the scriptures he was lead to Christ.
Scientist/theologian, Alistair McGrath went on a similar journey as well. It was his study of material reality, mixed with his reading of C.S. Lewis, that lead him to believe that his atheism rested on shaky foundations. Eventually, he found in Jesus, a logic that held the world together.
The stars led the the Magi to Jerusalem. But they didn’t find Jesus in Jerusalem. In order to make the move to Bethlehem, they needed a little help from the Hebrew scriptures.
Once in Jerusalem, they went right to the Palace. A logical place to begin when looking for a new King. “Where is the child who is born king of the Jews?” They asked.
King Herod was disturbed by this question. Unlike the Magi, he wasn’t to thrilled at the prospect of there being a new King.
So, for unholy reasons, Herod summoned the Bible scholars and teachers of Israel.
“Where is the Messiah to be born?” He asked.
“In Bethlehem, in Judea” they said. That is what is written in the book of Micah.
With this information in hand, Herod returned to the Magi and shares it with them. But he does this secretively, because he doesn’t want others in Jerusalem to hear of the Magi’s quest. He’d like to keep this story under wraps. He’d like to dispose of this new born King. More on Herod’s reaction to Jesus next week.
So the star led the Magi to Jerusalem, but the scriptures, as interpreted by the community of faith, are needed to complete the journey. As with Hugh Ross and Alistair McGrath, the stars took the Magi to the scriptures. And the scriptures took the Magi to Christ.
From general revelation to special revelation. From Stars to scripture. Here in Matthew 2, we have a mini but complete theology of revelation.
But the penultimate form of revelation is the Christ Child himself.
When the Magi arrive in Bethlehem, they don’t thank their lucky stars or worship the scripture that led them to Bethlehem. Instead, they bow down and worship the boy himself. And then, in gratitude, they offer him the best that their culture has produced. Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.
What is it that they saw in Jesus? We don’t know.
Maybe, like DaVinci they saw the one around whom the world revolved?
Maybe they picked up a copy of the scroll of Isaiah in Jerusalem, and on their way to Bethlehem they read chapter 9:
“The people walking in darkness; have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.”
Or maybe, since they were seekers of truth, they found in Christ, the light that illuminated life itself. The logos. Wisdom incarnate.
We don’t know what they saw in Mary’s child, but we know that they found what they were looking for. And they worshipped.
Last week we learned that God is at work in the world, and that he invites ordinary people to join him in his mission. People like Quiet Joseph and Faithful Mary.
This story, the story of the Magi, reminds us that God is also at work drawing men and women into a joy-filled, worshipful, relationship with himself.
God meets these astrologers in the stars. He invites these strange men on a journey of discovery. He brings them in contact with the word and the faith community that holds the word. And finally he draws them to his son. The idolators become worshippers of the one true God. The foolish men, become wise men.
The same story repeats itself again and again through history.
I was listening to an interview on YouTube the other day. My colleague, Pastor Paul VK, was interviewing a young man on his youtube channel.
Pastor Paul has become kind of famous over the last year. His videos on Psychologist Jordan Peterson have gone viral. Not a few youtube watchers have come to re-evaluate their faith based on Paul’s commentary of Peterson’s work.
This particular man’s spiritual journey began when he started to use psychedelic drugs. On a few of his trips, he had significant spiritual experiences. They were so significant that he came to believe in God
And then, while in University, he started watching Jordan Peterson’s lectures on the book of Genesis. Then he started watching Paul VK’s commentary on Jordan Peterson’s lectures.
And now, he’s enrolled in membership classes in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
It all started with an acid trip. From Peyote to Peterson, to Paul, to Jesus.
For the record, I don’t think psychedelics are necessary a good first step towards a relationship with Jesus. But for this person, God met him where he was. Just as God met the Magi where they were.
God works in mysterious ways. He overcomes barriers to bring people together. He breaks down walls in order to unite us with Christ and each other. In Matthew’s gospel, the first people to worship Jesus are enemies of Israel, Idolators from the east.
What I appreciate the most about the Magi, is that they had the curiosity and the courage to actually set out on the journey.
There were probably other Magicians in Babylon at that time. They probably saw the star too. But they didn’t pack their camels. Who knows why? Maybe life got in the way.
But these three Magi were hungry for the truth. Hungry enough to do something about their hunger. Hungry enough to ask to seek and to knock. Hungry enough to leave their home and set out on a journey. Hungry enough to submit themselves to the Hebrew scriptures, and to trust that they could lead them to the King.
I know that many of you hear today are committed Christians. You took the journey to Bethlehem a long time ago.
But others of you here, perhaps, are in a time of searching. You’re scoping out the heavens. You’re searching for ultimate truth in science or philosophy or love. I encourage you, don’t give up the search. Keep reading, keep asking, keeping seeking, and keep knocking.
The truth is worth it.
I’m thankful that your journey has led you into the walls of this Christian Community. I hope that we can point you the way to Bethlehem.
And for those of you here today who have already found Jesus, I have two encouragements for you. Firstly, I invite you to continue to make your way to Bethlehem in order to worship and offer your gifts.
Too often our vision of Christ gets blurry, and our devotion to him gets watered down by the cares and concerns of life. Isn’t it interesting the no one from Jerusalem joined with the Magi on the last leg of their trip to Bethlehem. Jesus came to his own, but his own did not recognize him.
Advent is a time to have our vision clarified. We need to focus not just on the word, but on the one that the word illuminates. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. The one through whom all things were created. The one around whom the world revolves. May your love for him and your curiosity about him be rekindled this Christmas.
That’s the first encouragement. And the second is…. How can you be a friend to those who are searching. If three witches from Toronto were to show up at your door, how would you engage them?
The truth is that the Spirit is drawing men and women to Jesus. He uses creation. He uses the word. He meets people where they are. He uses you. Ask questions. Share your own story.
Who knows? God may use your friendship and steady presence to be a signpost along the road that leads that person to Christ in Bethlehem.