Saturday, October 10, 2015

A leaf from the journal of a theological publisher

I guess in any line of work one invited to lead will now and then gather the team and ask: what do we imagine we are doing? If you take someone who might really rather be reading the ancients reading the Bible and put him in that position in your publishing company, you might get something like thismore of a daydream, perhaps, than a useful business talk . . .


Psalm 1

Blessed is that person
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but whose delight is in the law of the LORD,
and who meditates  on God’s law day and night.

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
Everything that person does prospers.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners  in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish

A Publisher’s Daydream on Psalm 1

Here we work on books, and the book of books is the Bible, and St. Athanasius says that the book of Psalms sums up every other book of the Bible. The first psalm tells us how and why to read the other Psalms, and by extension the whole Bible, and by further extrapolation any other book that draws upon the Bible. So we do well to read this psalm as we sit down to think about our work.
Blessedness, like immortality, belongs to God alone. It is proper to eternity, not history, and does not come naturally to us, caught up as we are in mortal change and chance. And yet our psalm begins asrei ha-ish, “blessed the human being.” This Psalm will tell how mere humans may share the blessedness proper to God alone, how we may share the life divine.
The way to blessedness is the law of the Lord, the torah-instruction of the one whom Moses saw from the bush and on the mountain. Those who would be blessed must delight in this instruction, recite and ponder it by day and night. This instruction appears as such in the five books of Moses, but also in the prophets and the writings, and again also in the gospels and epistles. The torah shows us how to live. So the NRSV pluralizes, “Blessed are those who. . . .” All the moral exhortation of the whole torah applies to the plural us.
In our work-life together at this press, then, let us not become idolaters through loving God with less than our whole heart, mind, and strength. Let us love our neighbors as ourselves. Let us not take from them what is theirs, or even desire to take it. Let us not commit murder through angry thoughts. Let us remember that a cord of three strands is not easily snapped, and so let us find ways to weave ourselves into such a cord rather than work as isolated threads, readily tangled and easily broken. Let us not sit in the seat of the scornful, affronting God by sarcastically rending the flesh of God’s children. Let us be neither suck-ups nor backbiters, but let our yes be yes, our no be no, and all our speech direct, constructive, true.
Let us not sponsor literary prostitution.
It’s all there in the law of the Lord, and we know it well.
But to say we know is not enough. Delighting in the law of the Lord in actual practice lies no more within our grasp than does the blessedness itself to which that law should lead. “Blessed are those?” Is that plural right? Is there, has there ever been, even one human being who so delighted in the torah as to live it day and night?
You can see where we are headed, no? St. Augustine’s comments on this Psalm begin: “De Domino nostro Iesu Christo . . .  accipiendum est” (it must be received as referring to our Lord Jesus Christ). Augustine contrasts Jesus Christ, the lordly man, who did not turn away into the path of the ungodly, against that other man, the earthy one, Adam, who turned away. Christ is the blessed one.
St. Basil believed the blessed one could also be one of us in union with Christ. But noting the aorist-tense verbs in the Greek of Psalm 1:1, he said we can only speak these words of those now dead; until that point, how could you know they would not turn aside?
But can we gain some profit from this text while we yet live? How does our Lord’s achievement help us? How can we be united with it, and even with him?
Our psalmist has a fresh suggestion for us: to gain blessedness by delighting in the torah of the Lord, make like a tree and leave. That is, be planted by the river, draw nourishment from it, and put forth fruit and leaves.
What river? It can only be one, though it has many names. It flows through all of scripture because God is present to all times and places.
This is the river that flowed from the pristine garden of human innocence, dividing into four branches called Pishon and Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates—all now lost—the first two disappeared in mists of mythic memory, the latter pair still with us but defiled beyond despair with the blood of human and demonic violence.
But this is also the mystical river springing up invisibly, intangibly in the Holy City, which has no physical river! —of which the Psalmist nevertheless writes, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” and “The river of God is full of water.”
Regarding this river the prophet calls out, “Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters.”
Of this river Jesus spoke, when on the last and greatest day of the feast of lights he stood in the temple and cried, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, as the scripture has said, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.” St. John tells us he was speaking of the Spirit.
This is the river that John says flowed along with the blood from our Lord’s pierced side.
This is the river that Ezekiel sees flowing from beneath the threshold of the new temple, first just ankle-deep, then knee-deep, then waist-high, then deep enough to swim in, then uncrossable, with trees growing along its banks, whose leaves will not wither, whose fruit will not fail; and the fruit is for food, and the leaves are for healing. When it flows into the great polluted sea, it turns it fresh and pure.
This is the river, then, from which arises the second and final great deluge, the ultimate paradoxical fulfillment of the promise of the rainbow, the flood of which the prophets said, “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Every time we say, “Thy kingdom come,” we pray for the advent of this healing flood to overwhelm and sweeten the accumulated tears of the ages.
Augustine says this river is God’s own Wisdom, which put on human nature for our sake. Again, he says, the river is the Holy Spirit, sent to empower Christ’s mission to the world. We may infer: it is the divine life, the divine mystery flowing out, washing and watering and nourishing.
The torah is not God but comes from God and leads to God. The Bible, sacred book that it is, is not the very Wisdom of God; Christ is that. Nor is the Bible the Spirit. But it conveys the torah of God in a powerful if oft perplexing way, so that we ponder for a lifetime, turning it and turning it again, and when through the Spirit the Word speaks to us clearly we delight.
What of the books we publish here? Most of them grapple, directly or indirectly, with what the Bible says, and yet it’s all still ink on leaves, always at a remove—sometimes a great remove—from the divine realities to which the Bible points. We wouldn’t dare pretend that all, or even any, of the many-leafed books that we produce capture and bear the pure wisdom of God.
And yet . . . if we thought that we were only passing time and getting paid, or even ifmore boldour highest hope was to keep our feet from the path of the ungodly and our rear ends out of the seat of the scornful, if we could not aspire to be planted near the river, if we despaired of yielding one or two leaves for the healing of the nations, how long would we stay in these jobs? And when the great flood has washed away all our endeavors, will we not, you and I, consider it a precious grace, will we not call ourselves blessed, if we look back and see that, until that flood came, we occupied, and what we did this year, our daily grind—acquire, edit, design, proof, market, sell—contributed  thirty, or sixty, or a hundred drops to the knowledge of the Lord on the earth?
We are not the river. Sometimes we lose awareness of our nexus with the river. But that’s how it is with a tree. The tree does not stand in the river. The tree would drown, or wash away. The tree is planted in the ground; its roots dig deep into the dirt. We and our authors all are deeply grounded in the dirt of human history and culture—archaeologists each one. We deal in artifacts and ruined memories, bits of evidence, fragments of arguments, conclusions named perhaps.
But the unseen river flows nearby, and irrigates the soil, and who can know what moist drops even now are being absorbed into the tips of roots, or carried up the cortex of the trunk, or extruded into fruit and leaves? And who knows where that fruit, and where those leaves, may fall?
A tree watered by that river must surely be a tree not of knowledge only but also, to some degree, of life.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Eucharist (after the Earthquake)

Luke 22:14-23 – The Lord’s Supper

A communion homily for the Nepali-speaking community at my church in Grand Rapids, May 3, 2015. The community includes people who have become Christians and others who have not. Since the sermon was to be translated into Nepali on the fly by our pastor for this community (thank you, Pastor Ram!), the assignment was to keep it simple and short; this posed a salutary challenge. It was a privilege and joy to share in the service with them. Pastor Ram, whose father's house was one of the many thousands destroyed, led a joyful service of praise to God.

My friends, I am very glad to be here with you in this worship service this morning. I give thanks to God for our time together. For me, gathering in the name of Jesus for worship each Sunday morning is not only the beginning of the week but also the center of the week. I do many other things each week, as you do also. I work, I sleep, I eat, I spend time alone, I spend time with friends and with family. But the beginning, and the center, and the end of everything that happens during the week is here, on Sunday morning, because it is here that I join with other followers of Jesus to remember the goodness of God, and to remember that in the end our only hope is in God. I am very glad to be remembering these things today together with you.

When we worship on Sunday mornings, we always read from the Bible. We read from it because we believe that it tells us what God wants us to know. It contains many remarkable stories, and poems, and laws, and letters. It can seem confusing. But when God enables us to understand it properly, we realize that it is really one large story. It is the story of God's love. God created this world in order to place people in it—people whom he loves. That includes me and you. It includes every human being who has ever lived. But the Bible tells us that human beings have often forgotten that God loves them. As a result we have not lived according to the good patterns that God gives us. God in his love created the human race to be good, and happy, and to live with each other in peace. But we turned away from God, and fell into evil and unhappiness and darkness.

What could God—who did not stop loving us—do to bring us back to goodness and happiness? This book tells us. Jesus came and lived among us. He taught, and he healed. In the books of the Bible called the Gospels we find the stories about what Jesus said and did. We believe that when we hear the teachings of Jesus, we hear the voice of God. We believe that when we see Jesus healing people, we see God reaching out in mercy to the human race. We believe that when we read of Jesus suffering and dying, we are seeing God himself—the God who created the whole world in love—entering into our suffering. God does not leave us alone in our suffering and sorrow; God comes and is with us and shares completely in all that we suffer. This is what we learn from seeing Jesus die on the cross. And then when we read of the resurrection of Jesus, we learn that in the end God will succeed in overcoming all of the suffering and evil of our world.

This book—the Bible—invites us to say yes to Jesus. This book invites us to say to Jesus: You came to call us back to God, to be the presence of God among us, to be our friend; and I accept your offer of friendship. I want to sit at your table and take part in the meal that you have prepared. I want to be with you, and I know that when I commit myself to being with you, I am accepting God’s love.

The story that we read today tells about the meal that Jesus shared with his followers before his death. Jesus and all the people of Israel celebrated a special meal every year. This meal was called Passover. They celebrated Passover as a way of remembering that many centuries earlier God had rescued their ancestors out of slavery. The people of Israel had become slaves in Egypt. But God sent Moses to bring them out. Before they went out of Egypt, Moses and the people of Israel ate a special meal—the Passover meal. To prepare that meal, each family in Israel killed a lamb. They put some of the blood of the lamb outside the door of their house. This blood was a sign that they had an agreement with God and belonged to God. They cooked the lamb and ate it as their Passover meal. And then God brought them out, and made them free, and told them how to live well, and gave them a land to live in. That event is called the Exodus. “Exodus” means “going out.” They went out of Egypt. That is the story that Jesus and his followers are remembering when they eat the Passover meal.

Jesus wants his followers to understand that something very important is about to happen. He is about to die. But his death is not like any other. It will accomplish a new Exodus. It will deliver God's people from slavery—from slavery to sin and death. So when the disciples sit down to eat, Jesus tells them: This bread is my body, which is given to set you free. This wine is my blood. He talks about blood because he knows that he will soon die. “Blood” means death. Jesus tells them that just as the death of the lamb eaten in the Passover meal had meant that the people of Israel had an agreement with God and belonged to God, so also the death of Jesus would provide a way for all who follow him to have an agreement with God and belong to God.

In many cultures, when people eat a meal together it means that they agree with each other and want to live their lives together. So also when we as Christians gather for worship and take communion, we are saying that we agree with each other and want to live our lives together. But we are saying more than that. Jesus said: I am like the Passover lamb, and this bread is my body. So when we eat this bread together, we are not just saying we want to live life together with the other people in this room. We are saying that we want to live life together with Jesus. We are saying that we need Jesus in order to live. As we eat the bread, we are taking Jesus into ourselves. So also when we drink the grape juice together, we are not only drinking juice with other people here in this room. Jesus said this cup is the agreement with God that is in his blood. So when we drink this juice, we are drinking in the life and death of Jesus in order to be part of the agreement with God that Jesus makes possible.

Because of things that have happened this week, I want to say one more thing about this text from the Bible. The first thing that Jesus says in this text is: I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.
Here Jesus talks about two things: suffering, and the Kingdom of God.

Jesus says that he is going to suffer. He is going to suffer because God's people suffer. This was true in his time, and it is still true today. Jesus suffers with and for God's people. He does so in order to make it possible for them to enter the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is a time and a place where everything is as God wants it do be. God loves the people he has made and wants them to have peace and joy. As Christians we believe that, thanks to Jesus, our future is eternal life in God's peace and joy.

Jesus tells his followers that the Kingdom of God will come, and that when it does, he will sit down to eat and drink with his people. It has already begun to come. The fact that we are gathered here together in this room is a sign that it is already coming and is partly here. But it is not completely here. There is still suffering. There are still earthquakes. When earthquakes come, houses collapse, and people suffer.

Christians also suffer, like everyone else. But Christians know that Jesus has entered into our suffering, so that when we suffer, Jesus is here beside us. And we know that after Jesus died he was raised from the dead. He has already conquered suffering and death. So as we share communion together this morning, even if our hearts are sad because of the suffering caused by the earthquake, we are also filled with hope, because we know that we are God's people, and that the Kingdom of God is certainly coming.

Yes, Lord Jesus. Come!


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Three Fools, Two Kings, One Star

This is a slight revision of a sermon given at Thornapple Covenant Church, Grand Rapids, MI, on December 27, 2009. With thanks and apologies to Mark Allan Powell and Dale Allison, neither of whom should be blamed for what ensues.

Numbers 24:10-19
Matthew 2:1-12

Everyone loves the story about the star and the three wise men. “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” and all that. All the Christmas pageants with bathrobes and fake beards—those are happy memories, right? And gold, frankincense, and myrrh for baby Jesus turn into Christmas presents for everyone. So what’s to complain about?

Well, how can we get at this . . .

Do you remember 2 Timothy 3:16? “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Or remember what Paul says about certain biblical episodes in 1 Corinthians 10:11? “All these things happened to them by way of example, and they were written down to warn and instruct us.”

Both of these statements are talking about the Old Testament, because that’s what Paul and the other New Testament writers had for scripture. But for us, the New Testament is also scripture, so we do well to apply these same thoughts to the New Testament. And we could find other texts, Old Testament and New Testament, that tell us what the Word of God is and can do. Not a single one of them says, “Thou shalt use these Holy Scriptures to concoct weird science.”

I have heard and read a fair amount of speculation about the star of Bethlehem. It was a supernova, or it was a comet, or somebody has discovered ancient Egyptian or Chinese astronomical records that prove exactly when the star appeared. You could pile up the books and articles in grocery-store magazines and even in serious journals that take that sort of line, and none of it ever did the least bit of “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” None of it ever did anything to “equip God’s people for every good work.” I suggest to you that the Holy Spirit did not inspire the account of Noah’s flood in order to prompt 21st-century Christians like you and me, with no advanced training in geology, to make ourselves look silly by pretending to know more geology than the geologists; and the Holy Spirit did not inspire the account of the star of Bethlehem in order to prompt 21st-century Christians to make themselves look silly by offering up pseudoastronomical “facts.” The Word of God is not fragile or vulnerable and does not need that kind of “help” from us. More importantly, this kind of speculation seems to show we aren’t paying careful attention to what Scripture is actually trying to do. Scripture sets out to form us in humility, not to lead us into false pride. So if we approach the star with the wrong attitude, the star can lead us astray. Where should the star really lead us?

We’ll get back to that.

But for now: the magi. We often hear them referred to as the "three kings" or the "three wise men." Here again, there are problems.

First of all, if we’re going to read the text carefully, as we should, where does it say there are three of them? It doesn’t say that. It lists three kinds of gifts, but the one-to-one correspondence between gifts and givers is only an assumption. Later tradition even gave names to the three—Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar—and a cathedral in Germany even claims to have their bones. Some later writers saw them as representatives of the three major divisions of humanity: Asians, Africans, and Europeans. All well and good, but it’s not in Matthew—it’s the product of later imagination. But let’s suppose there were three of them. Three what? Three kings? Three wise men?

What about “kings”? On one level I guess it’s somehow impressive and encouraging if three mighty kings from the ancient orient show up to worship baby Jesus, but on another level, it doesn’t do much for me. I am not mighty and powerful! I do not rule over peoples and lands. If you do—great! Follow the three kings and bow down before Jesus! But I cannot identify with these three kings, so it’s hard for them to teach or instruct me. Maybe that’s just my problem. But here’s what’s not just my problem: Matthew doesn’t say they are kings! So why all the songs and paintings about three kings? A New Testament scholar named Mark Allan Powell became interested in that question and read all the early interpretations of this story, and he found something quite interesting. Prior to the fourth century, nobody read this story and saw three kings. It wasn’t until the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian, that Christian preachers started talking about the magi as kings. Before that, kings and rulers had persecuted Christians or at best been indifferent to Christ. But now, with Constantine, suddenly the king of the whole Mediterranean world is a Christ-worshiper and wants to take a hand in helping Christians settle their differences and unite, because if the whole empire can unite under one religion that will make it easier for him to govern. When a pagan king, a worshiper of pagan gods with no roots in Jewish scripture or religion and no Christian background, suddenly said, “I saw a sign in the heavens! I’m a Christian now, and I’ll help you sort out what Christians should believe and how they should relate to each other,” there were Christian teachers ready and willing to open their New Testament and say, “Whoa, look here! Right at the beginning of the gospel we find the example of three pagan kings who saw a sign in the heavens and came to worship Jesus! The only hitch is that Matthew doesn’t say anything about three kings.”

Matthew does mention two kings, though! One is Herod the King. This Herod is a client king, propped up by the Romans as king of the Jews. For convenience, he poses as a Jew, but he’s not really a Jew, and his subjects know it: he’s Idumean, a descendant not of Jacob, much less Judah and David, but of Esau. So in terms of the classical Israelite theology of kingship, he is not a legitimate king, and he knows it. So he’s insecure. He’s also brutal and immoral. When he hears of the birth of a “king of the Jews” in the lineage of David, he thinks only one thing: Must kill!

Now let’s try a little word-association game. I’ll say a word, and you say the first thing that pops into your head. OK? Sounds easy? But there are two complications. The first is that you aren’t you. You have to pretend you’re Matthew’s first readers. That is, you are Greek-speaking Jewish and Gentile Jesus-followers living in Syrian Antioch in about AD 85. That’s our best guess as to where this gospel was written and first read. The second complication: the word I am going to say is not in English; it’s in  Greek. The word is basileus. I’ll help you out a little: this word basileus is the normal Greek word for “king,” and it’s what Matthew calls Herod. But it’s also the normal Greek word for the the Roman emperor.

Now we’re ready to play. I say: basileus. Without pausing to think, without batting an eye, you say back: Domitianos. Domitian, the current emperor, the persecutor who has or soon will exile the presbyter John the island of Patmos. And you think: Titus, Domitian’s older brother, who commanded the armies that entered Jerusalem and leveled it to the ground. And you think: Nero, the vicious madman under whose regime so many Christians were lit up like torches at Rome, whose agents crucified Peter and beheaded Paul. That’s what will pop into the heads of Matthew’s readers when he says basileus. He is saying: you call that a king? Domitian? That’s not a king. That’s like the insecure pseudo-king Herod, quaking in his boots at Jerusalem, and soon to be swept off the stage of history.

Thus it ever was and ever shall be with wicked rulers, whether called king or emperor or premier or president or chancellor or some other title; whether called Pharaoh or Herod or Nero or Titus or Domitian. Those who would grind God’s children under their heel may prevail for a season and inflict great harm, but they will in the end find themselves fatally outmatched by the overruling providence of the one who wills his people’s vindication and liberation and salvation. I believe the Spirit of God wishes the people of God in situations of oppression and persecution in our own day to draw similar comfort and assurance from scripture. Their exile is grim, but their liberator is born, and nothing can stop him. And I believe the Spirit of God wishes us who are not oppressed and persecuted to take care that we do not find ourselves sitting on the throne of Herod.

Three kings? No. Matthew gives us a story of two kings, or rather of the anti-king and of the true king. The one true king, emperor, lord, leader of Judeans, Galileans, and gentiles, is the son of David, and he is nothing like the earthly tyrants. He is above all kingdoms, above all powers. He deserves our worship, our precious gifts, our all.

So much for “kings.” What about “wise men”? Some English translations use this wording. But Matthew does not. The same scholar who traced the history of the “three kings” idea also traced the history of the “wise men.” The magi become “wise men” in the writings of Renaissance and Enlightenment scholars who wanted to argue that secular learning is valuable. They wanted to study sciences like astronomy without interference from bishops and theologians. So they presented the magi as ancient near eastern scientists, scholars who read the book of nature and find that it points to Christ. “Oh, look!" they say, “Right here at the beginning of the gospel we find secular higher education accepted and endorsed!”

Some of these Enlightenment scholars were committed to following Christ; others, not so much. Either way it might be easy for those of us who believe that all truth is God’s truth to endorse their aims. To the wise, the scholars, the scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals in our midst or beyond our walls, we certainly want to say: Come with the magi to Christ, kneel down, offer your precious gifts to him.

But is that what Matthew meant? Is it what his first readers and hearers understood him to be saying?

Time for another word-association game! Again it’s a Greek word: magos. In English we use the Latin forms: singular magus, plural magi. When Matthew’s Jewish and Gentile Jesus-followers in late-first-century Syrian Antioch hear this word, what pops into their head? This is more difficult than the basileus. It’s ambiguous. In the Greco-Roman world of their day, many, perhaps most, people did believe that the stars either controlled events on earth or at least could predict them. It was normal for the biography of a great person to begin with signs in the stars or other supernatural omens. People who believed in such things might treat experts like magi with respect. On the other hand, some Greco-Roman writers were just as dismissive of astrology and other forms of exotic superstition as a modern scientist might be. So while it’s hard to say what gentiles among Matthew’s readers would have thought when he said magi, at any rate they would not have thought the magi represented the state of the art in secular learning.

But it it’s a little easier to tell what magi would have suggested to Jews because we have both Jewish scriptures and commentary from that age. The Greek Old Testament uses the word magos for the people that Nebuchadnezzar called in to interpret his dream. They were unable to interpret it, and Daniel had to supply the true interpretation, which God revealed to him. We know that Jewish commentary on the story of Moses used this word in connection with Pharaoh’s magicians, who tried to discredit Moses and Aaron by duplicating their miracles. Their partial successes only make them look foolish. We know that when Acts 13 refers to  Elymas as a magos, that’s not a good thing. In the ancient Jewish and Christian tradition in general, the magical arts, including astrology, are in the same boat with the pagan gods. Definitely it is forbidden to pursue them. And most of the time they are seen as ridiculous. In short, it’s not at all clear that to Matthew’s readers a magus is a “wise man.” Maybe he’s a fool.

Here, then, we come closer to something useful for our instruction if we do not regard ourselves and being powerful and learned and wise. After all, a few chapters later, Matthew himself tells us that Jesus prayed to the father: “I thank you that you have not revealed these things to the wise.” That would be a strange thing for Matthew to report if he knew that the very first people to whom God revealed the identity of the Christ were three wise men! No, Matthew is on the same page as the apostle Paul, who had earlier written to the Corinthians that there were not many wise, not many powerful among them, because God has chosen the foolish and weak things of the world to confound the wisdom of the wise.

We can throw in at this point that even if the magi are fools, there are bona fide wise men in this story: scholars steeped in the scriptures of Israel. They have studied every line and remember every detail. When Herod asks them where the Messiah is to be born, they do not hesitate: he is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod does not despise the scholars, and neither do the magi. They both learn from them. But do you see the strange thing about these wise men, these scribes? They know where the Christ is to be born, but they don’t care! The magi are intent on finding the Christ child so that they can worship him, and Herod is intent on finding the Christ child so that he can kill him, but the scribes don’t want to find him at all. They simply answer the question and go back to their books. In Matthew’s view, they are the wise, who have studied much and know many wonderful things, but who have not received the revelation of the one thing most worth knowing. This paradox stands as a challenge and a warning to all who pursue biblical and theological study. Book learning is necessary—but not sufficient.

So where are we? We have completely mucked up our sermon text! The three kings are not kings, and Herod, who is a king, is an enemy. The three wise men are not wise, and the priests and scribes, who are wise, are not interested. We seem to be blundering about in darkness! We need a star to shed some light!

Once more we look back to the magi. If Matthew’s first audience would not have seen them as kings or wise, what would they have thought of them? They would have picked up parallels with another story they knew. Just as surely as a gong sounds when you hit it with a mallet, this other story will ring in their ears when Matthew evokes it with his king and magoi and star, and it will tell them what Matthew’s story means. This other story featured another righteous man named Joseph, a dreamer of dreams and interpreter of dreams. It had a powerful king, and descendants of this king who became persecutors and oppressors of the people of God. It had a baby who was born to save God’s people and lead them out of bondage. It told how this baby escaped the wicked king’s plot to kill all Hebrew babies. This is of course the story of Moses.

Matthew’s readers would also recall that when Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt, they encountered another wicked king: Balak, king of Moab. Like Herod, Balak feared for his own position of power. There was something different and frightening about this migrating horde, so he sent to the east for a pagan soothsayer, one who could read the omens and the portents. Matthew’s readers might call a person like this a magos. That’s exactly what a Greek-speaking Jewish commentator of their day named Philo called him. This magos, named Bil’am, is a formidable hired gun. He needs no horses or spears. He has the power of utterance, he is in league with gods and demons, and if he utters his curse, the weak and vulnerable people of Israel will wither and die and be no more a threat. That’s what Balak hopes!

But Matthew’s readers know that wicked King Balak’s summons to Bil’am was intercepted by a higher power, and that the God of Israel sternly instructed this soothsayer to say nothing against his people. He sent a mighty angelic warrior to block his path, but the so-called seer couldn’t even see the angel, although his donkey could. Philo says he was stupider than a donkey! When the hired wizard reaches the scene, King Balak stands him up three times and commands him curse the Israelites, and three times the God of Israel pours words of blessing through him instead. The mighty sorcerer is reduced to a holy fool! Yet a fourth time King Balak commands Bil’am to curse, and this fourth time Bil’am doesn’t even try. He knows what the Lord God wants. He yields and falls flat, and the word of God enters him; his mouth opens, and words spill out:

[Voice of James Earl Jones on crack:]
Ne’um Bila’am bino Beor . . . 

[Better switch to English, but keep the high drama going:]
Utterance of  Bil’am the son of Beor,
Utterance of the man of the open eye
Utterance of the hearer of divine sayings
who knows the knowledge of the Most High,
who sees a vision from Shaddai.
I lie flat on the ground, but my eyes are uncovered!
I see it! —but not now.
I behold it! —but not soon.
I see—a star! And it is coming forth from Jacob.
I see a scepter! And it is coming from Israel.
And one from Jacob rules.

When Matthew’s first audience hears of magi from the east who follow a star to the Christ child, they understand. This is the star that Bil’am saw. For Bil’am it was “not now”—but Matthew’s readers know it has come. For Bil’am it was “not soon”—but Matthew’s readers know it is already! They will understand that these magi did not find out the truth by their own powers of observation any more than Bil’am did. They will not think: look! astrology works! No. They will think, with Jesus: Thank you, Father, that you have not revealed yourself to the wise! God broke into their world and showed them something they were not expecting. God graciously used their language—the broken signage of astrological superstition—to point them to a truth beyond all magic. This star that they followed was not a flaming ball of gases lightyears away; it was a flaming messenger of the Most High aimed precisely at them. No astronomical star can travel first northwest out of Mesopotamia, then southwest to Jerusalem, then disappear, then reappear heading south to Bethlehem, then stop and stand directly over a little house. The ancients knew that as well as we do! What the magi see as a “star” behaves for all the world like an angel, a supernatural messenger from the most high. (The gospels scholar Dale Allison has pointed this out and traced the early history of  this interpretation.) They do not chart its course with disinterested scientific precision; they are captivated by it and led to a destination they never would have set for themselves. Whatever power and wisdom and learning and skill they may have in their own pagan sphere of learning dissipates as bleak darkness in the light of the shining of this star. It is all grace, all gift. They are gentiles chosen by God and made witnesses of the coming of the Jewish messiah who will be a light to the nations. The star in the sky, it turns out, is only a weak pointer to the true star that is a human child, the child who will wield the only scepter that will never rust and crumble. When the magi kneel before the Christ child, we do not see proud human power (kings!) and wisdom (wise men!) kneeling before a helpless baby so much as we see the exhausted and tattered but called, redeemed, and blessed remnants of all human weakness and foolishness bowing down to adore the one who is, as Paul tells us, the wisdom of God and the power of God. When they offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they are giving all they have as a symbolic giving of themselves.

The star still shines. Do not look for this star in astronomy textbooks or ancient historical chronicles. Look for it in the sky of your own darkest night. This is the first lesson of the magi: they were attentive, they were hoping for something beyond themselves. When a transcendent light glimmered in the distance, they dropped everything and pursued it. Lesson 1: Be ready to follow!

Lesson 2 from the magi: The light from the star was not enough. They had to seek help from those learned in the scriptures. They were able to learn something essential from the scribes even though the scribes themselves remained spiritually untaught. God can use diverse means to guide, but the scriptures remain indispensable. Lesson 2: Be ready to seek and accept instruction!

Lesson 3 from the magi: When the star stops above one particular house in a little Judean town, the magi rejoice. Matthew says not just echaresan, “they rejoiced,” but echaresan charan, “they rejoiced a rejoicing”—an emphatic construction; but he adds another word: echaresan charan megalen, “they rejoiced a great rejoicing”; but that still doesn’t cover it, so he adds yet one more word: echaresan charan megalen sphodra, “they rejoiced a great rejoicing very much indeed!” They did not think that the journey itself was everything. They knew that the destination was everything. They were not offended or disappointed when the star stopped over one particular and no doubt unimpressive house in one little Judean village. Lesson 3: Be prepared for the star that leads you to stop in a particular place, and free your heart to rejoice greatly when it does.

Lesson 4 from the magi: When they went in and saw the child, they bowed down to worship. It does no good to find the Christ the power and wisdom of God unless you are ready to bow down and give yourself in worship. The giving of the gifts is an external expression and sign of this inward offering of the self to God in thanksgiving and praise. Lesson 4: the whole point of the journey is to give yourself unreservedly to the one to whom you owe everything. The magi didn’t say, “How fascinating!” or “Aw, how cute!” They fell down and worshiped, and their worship meant both the end and the fulfillment of everything they had tried to accomplish through their own arts and skills.

May God shine his light on us, leading us to our savior, and give us grace to follow and learn, rejoice, and worship.