These verses of Matthew tell us everything we know about these people called “Magi.” We have traditions that have been layered onto the story – the earliest traditions had 12 of them coming, now 3 figures come to our manger scenes. Tradition has named them, brought them from different countries, even described their beards. They have been described as kings or magicians or philosophers or scientists, but what all traditions agree on is that they were interested in the night sky. They may have been astronomers, but it is also important for us to remember that everyone was more familiar with and more interested in the night sky at the time of Jesus’ birth than we are.
Fire and the night sky were the only sources of light at night. There was nothing else to sit and watch in the evening. And there was no light pollution creating what scientists call “Skyglow” that reduces the contrast between stars and galaxies and the sky itself, making it much harder to see fainter objects.
They looked up and saw the stars, too many to count, stretched across the sky. In the countries east of Palestine, they had “developed the study of the stars and the planets to a fine art, giving each one very particular meanings. They believed, after all, that the whole world was [one]; everything was interconnected, and when something important was happening on earth you could expect to see it reflected in the heavens (N.T. Wright).”
So, when they saw the star in the East, they believed it announced something significant, and they came.
We don’t know exactly what they saw in the sky. I can remember being told as a child that it was Halley’s Comet, but it appeared in 12-11 BC, and that seems a bit early given the historical information we have about Jesus’ life and death. A new star was recorded in 5 BC in what is now China. It was visible to human eyes for over 70 days, and at its birth, it increased in brightness rapidly, and would have appeared several hours before sunrise. But it would not have moved enough for them to see it in the South as they traveled to Bethlehem. Perhaps what they saw was the interplay of Saturn and Jupiter in 7 BC. The two planets were close together in the night sky three times that year, and Jupiter was known as the kingly or ‘royal’ planet and Saturn was associated with the Jews. So for the two to appear brightly together may have been interpreted as something significant happening related to a King of the Jews.
What we do know is that they saw a light and believed that it announced something significant, and they came.
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright observes that Matthew intentionally has foreigners, non-Jews, come to visit Jesus. He writes, “If Jesus is in some sense king of the Jews, that doesn’t mean that his rule is limited to the Jewish people. At the heart of many prophecies about the coming king, the Messiah, there were predictions that his rule would bring God’s justice and peace to the whole world. Matthew will end his gospel with Jesus commissioning his followers to go out and make disciples from every nations; this, it seems, is that way that the prophecies of the Messiah’s worldwide rule are going to come true.”
The prophet Isaiah foretold the coming of a great light. At his birth, the night sky proclaimed his arrival. “Lift up your eyes,” says Isaiah, “and see. They all gather together, they come to you.” They came to the Light of the World. And now, we are commissioned to be bearers of his light.
Arise and shine, bear Christ’s light. You may have heard the charge, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” It is often attributed to St. Francis, interestingly there is no evidence that he said it, and the earliest source that attributes it to him is from the 1990’s. Preach the Gospel at all times – let your light shine at all times! Live a life of joy and integrity, honesty and love!
And the reality is, it is necessary to use words. Our words tell others where our light comes from – our words tell others what is important to us. Preaching the Gospel does not require us to have awkward conversations. Preaching the Gospel does not involve trapping people in situations they are looking for a way out of. Preaching the Gospel does require sharing what God is doing in our lives. Where does your joy come from? When you let Christ’s light shine in your life, you act as a star leading others to worship him. And, it does require words to say that you are looking forward to something happening at church. It requires words to share about the missions we are involved in and what difference they make. It isn’t awkward to talk about the impact offering a safe place to stay for a young mother and her two-week old baby has had on us. It isn’t imposing to invite a friend to join you at Wednesday night dinner or for a special event. Preaching the Gospel requires sharing where the light in your life comes from – if Sunday worship impacted you, sharing that in conversation with others is letting your light shine.
And that light is attractive.
Just like the star that captured the attention of the Magi, Christ’s light in us gives hope to those around us who are hurting and searching. But, they will only know where to find the Light of the World if we guide them to come and worship him. Arise, shine, for your light has come! Thanks be to God! Amen.