Looking to a New Year: Stepping out into the Unknown

This blog posting is the text of a sermon entitled ‘Stepping Out into the Unknown‘ preached by me on 4th January 2009.
My text is Matthew Chapter Two, Verses Nine to Ten:

 “When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

One bible commentator once made the observation that there are few passages in the entire canon of scripture that have received more diverse interpretations than this one.  Both the scholarly and popular debates concerning this passage revolve around its historicity; in other words, does it relate to an actual event, subsequently recorded by the writer of Matthew’s Gospel, or is it simply a fictional story told to get across a purely theological message?  Some commentators have made the point that the history versus theology debate provides us with what is, in essence, a false dichotomy.  There is, in reality, no need to choose between historicity and ultimate meaning because the writer of Matthew was concerned with both.  He recorded history, not simply for the sake of it, but rather he drew on the factual to illustrate and to inform the theological meaning that was at the very core of the event itself.  One of my favourite New Testament commentators, William Barclay, made essentially the same point, although he did it much more eloquently, when he said of this passage:

There is not the slightest need to think that the coming of the Magi to the cradle of Christ is only a lovely legend.  It is exactly the kind of thing that could easily have happened in that ancient world.

The Characters

So with the historicity of the event established, we can look in more detail at how the writer of Matthew told the story, and what this tells us about the message he wishes to convey.

When you have a moment, re-read the entire passage, Matthew Chapter Two, Verses One to Twelve, again.  When you do this you’ll hopefully see that the writer of this Gospel was adept at story telling.  He presents us with a number of contrasting characters as the narrative unfolds, and he does this in such a way as to hold our attention, to increase our sense of anticipation until finally, the climax is reached and the baby Jesus is found with his mother, Mary.  The text doesn’t tell us explicitly what this scene was like, but the language used suggests a picture of great tenderness – the baby, held tightly by his mother, surrounded by the quietness of the night.

But back to the characters for a moment.  A quick reading through the text reveals that there are a number of characters woven into the narrative: we have King Herod, the ‘wise men’ (or the Magi) and “all of Jerusalem.”  And it doesn’t end there because on top of that we have the chief priests and the scribes and we also have Mary.   All of these characters serve the purpose of drawing our attention to the focal point of the story: the child Jesus; the Incarnation; the ‘Son of God’.  And in the lead up to that climax, we have the figure of King Herod, a deeply flawed and vicious character, a man who was paranoid and thought nothing of having his wife, mother-in-law and three sons murdered.  We have this figure, the epitome of evil, contrasted absolutely with the epitome of truth and light that is the infant Jesus.  And into that mix we have the enigmatic ‘wise men’ or Magi.  And it’s these elusive figures that I now want to turn to for a few moments.

The Magi first appear in history in the Seventh Century B.C. as a tribe of the emerging Median nation.  Their influence quickly spread to encompass the Babylonian, Persian and Parthian empires. The Magi were a hereditary priesthood, and as such they often possessed great political power in the areas they inhabited. So they were clearly people of some consequence, although as time went on they relinquished their ambitions for power and prestige and instead devoted themselves to the pursuit of holiness.  In doing so they developed skills in philosophy, natural science, astrology and the interpretation of dreams.  Perhaps the mention of astrology at this juncture seems somewhat jarring in relation to the New Testament narrative, so let us return to the words of William Barclay by way of explanation:

“In those ancient days all men believed in astrology.  They believed that they could foretell the future from the stars, and they believed that a man’s destiny was settled by the star under which he was born.

It was only later, In Hellenistic and Roman times that the Greek word magoi (translated into English as Magi) was corrupted into a common noun meaning “magician”, “sorcerer,”  “juggler” or “astrologer”.  We see the ‘derogatory’ use applied in the Book of Acts to refer to Elymas and Simon.  But we needn’t dwell too much on the negative connotations applied in Acts as we consider the role of the Magi in the second chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew.  Because here they fulfill a very important role and they teach us something infinitely valuable as we journey through life; and I’ll pick up this strand of thought again in a moment.  But first, let us consider why these men came to Bethlehem in the first place.  We know that it was their ‘vocation’ to study the stars; that was what they did; they were professional astrologers. But we don’t know what calculations they made and we cannot tell what star they saw.  We don’t know if they had familiarized themselves with the Jewish literature extant at that time and found in that a clue about what was to come – all we know is that they set out from the East to find a king.  And that’s exactly what they did.

 What do the Magi Teach Us?

As we think of the Magi, we can legitimately ask ourselves what they might teach us.  We can ask ourselves: ‘what is God saying to us by using the Magi in the way that he did?”  And there are, of course, a number of answers to these ponderings.  We might say that there is meaning in the contrast between the eagerness of the Gentile Magi to worship Jesus and the disinterest of the Jewish leaders.  And that is of course a very valid point.  But we might also say that the Magi teach us something about the value of having faith and journeying into the unknown.  And it’s this latter point that I want to explore now.

The Magi took a risk, albeit a calculated one.  They ventured out into the unknown with all of the uncertainty that went with it.  What if they’d embarked on a ‘wild goose chase’?  What if they’d wasted their time and nothing was found?  What if they’d got it all wrong?

I wonder how many times we ask ourselves the same questions as we set out into new and uncharted territory?  How do we cope with uncertainty as we cross the threshold of one year and into the next? Think about this New Year in particular.  It seems that the only thing that’s certain about the new year is that there will be widespread uncertainty!  Uncertainty in terms of how the violence in Israel and Palestine will play out; uncertainty as to what will happen in the Afghanistan and Iraq; uncertainty as to how the myriad of problems in Africa will evolve; uncertainty as to how the economic crisis will manifest itself both here and abroad.  With every new day the economic forecasts seem to become gloomier and gloomier.  Indeed our own Prime Minister, in his traditional new year message, has warned that the new year won’t be easy for the UK as it deals with the global economic crisis; the challenge facing us all is enormous.  So there’s uncertainty all around.

The Magi went into the unknown; they faced it and they conquered it.  They had faith in something, whether it was in their own abilities or the arrangement of the stars.  We on the other hand have something much more concrete – we have faith in Jesus Christ and his unchangeable nature.    As the Christian mystic Teresa of Avila once wrote:

 “Consider seriously how quickly people change, and how little trust is to be had in them; and cleave fast unto God who changeth not”. 

God is trustworthy; God fulfils his promises; God is always there. And with that knowledge and deep Christian faith there is no need to fear change or uncertainty in our lives.  There is no need to worry. ’Worry’, as I understand it, is from an Anglo-Saxon word which means ‘harm’. Now of course there are times when we feel anxious because we either suffer actual harm or we anticipate it, and this can be a good thing because it spurs us into activity (the so called ‘flight or fight response’).  But there are times when prolonged anxiety, or worry, has a very negative effect – it stops us from achieving our true potential; it clouds our vision; it grinds us down.

So to conclude, our text for today, with it’s journeying Magi stepping out into the unknown, can give us strength, hope and encouragement as we enter this New Year.  The Magi had a simple goal – to find the king – and they did just that – and nothing has ever been the same since that pivotal moment in history.   Now we have unfettered access to what they found – we have Christ around us, within us, before us, behind us, above us and beneath us.  This is the only certainty we need as we face an uncertain world.  And as we do this, we can do no better than to mediate on a phrase Jesus himself uttered on many occasions during his earthly ministry: “Do not be afraid”.


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