Tuesday, January 6, 2015

When nature and prophecy agreed

IT MADE THEM VERY HAPPY
The Magi had traveled many arduous miles, coming from a place which St. Matthew simply calls "the East."  They were probably from Iran, for that is where Magi were important people.  They came to Palestine because of a star.  Whatever else they may have experienced, they knew for certain that the star was there.  It remained, not disappointing them.  They came to Herod, but they could tell from the way he was questioning them that he was up to no good.  That was not unusual.  Kings in those days tended to be devious, so the Magi did not give up.  While they were there, the king called some teachers to his court, who read from the Book of Micah, the Prophet. They heard the Bethlehem prophecy.   They turned to go there, and as they did they saw the star again.  When they saw it, according to Matthew, it made them very happy.   They did not doubt that God was leading them to the Royal Child.

Who were these guys?  There is a Christmas carol that calls them "kings."  St. Matthew does not say this.  However, from certain Old Testament passages we can say that kings were supposed to come to the Messiah's birth.  In the 60th chapter of Isaiah, the prophet says, Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.  These are the only guests in the nativity story who fit that description.   Later in the chapter St. Matthew lists the gifts.  In Psalm 72 verse 10 Solomon tells us that kings will bow down before the Messiah, bringing such things.  They certainly didn't do that when He was grown.  There was a whole class of Magi in the Middle East who served as advisors to kings.  They were the scientists of the time, observing nature and keeping records.   Magi were astrologers, in fact they invented astrology.  Their ephemeral tables are still used today.   Now there are people who
call themselves astrologers, such as the notorious crew that Nancy Reagan kept in her entourage.  Those people are not Magi.  They are merely fortune-tellers, who have very limited knowledge of the night sky.  Magi did not tell fortunes.  They made responsible readings of celestial cycles, the very "signs and seasons" that God said He made the lights in the sky to be.  St. Matthew does not tell us their names, nor anything about their personalities.  He does not tell us how many there were, but it is reasonable to conclude that a group of them came, and possibly brought some kings, or at least princes, with them, but he definitely tells us what their errand was, and it was holy.   They knew that a king of the Jews had been born.  The star was leading them to Christ.

When they came to Jerusalem the Magi acted honestly.  They did not use their science to deceive people, to make vain predictions, or give psychic advice.  If they had done such things they would have found a ready market, for people have always been trying to gain the advantage over their neighbors, and superstition was just as prevalent then as it is now, but these were honest men.  They were not there to sell occult services.  They were looking for the Messiah of Israel.   Their intention was to worship Him.   When they saw Him they didn't ask any questions.  There were no second thoughts about His humble situation.  They didn't offer psychic advice to Mary and Joseph, or speculate about what God was going to do.  Far from it!  These ancient scientists did what all true scientists have done ever since, they fell down and worshipped Him.  Then they gave Him expensive gifts, to acknowledge Him as Lord.  All of us should be so humble.

Each of us gets only one life.  We don't want to take chances with it.  To try to lead it based on the quicksand of psychic advice, or to gamble on the words of clever manipulators, is just plain foolish.  We want to base our lives on something certain.  Does our intelligence admit anything trustworthy?  Can we embrace the idea of God Incarnate?  The Bible assures us that Jesus is God indeed, but can we believe that?  Does nature contradict the Bible?  Not in this story.   Let's go over the facts again.  The Magi had the star - that was nature, not revelation.  There was no voice with it.  The location of the star made it special.  In Jerusalem the Magi had a small taste of revelation as the Hebrew scholars read Micah 5:2. That small prophecy turned them to Bethlehem.  As they looked toward Bethlehem, they saw the star again.  Now there were two witnesses, the star and the prophecy, agreeing with each other.  The star had been hidden for a while, but it became visible again, and St. Matthew tells us how happy it made the Magi.   Remember how the King James Version put it:  They rejoiced with exceeding great joy.   Is it too much to imagine these learned men jumping up and down in excitement, certain that what they learned from nature and revelation agreed?

What do we have that corresponds to the star?  We have the Word, of course, prophecies and fulfillments, but what other evidence do we have?  What witnesses lead us to the Christ Child's crib?  What serves as a foundation for our faith?   The Holy Church is just such a witness.  We have the assembly of God's people who use the Scriptures and the Blessed Sacraments, the visible forms of the Word, which Jesus instituted for our use.  So the Word and the Church are our witnesses.  Just as the star was hidden for a while, sometimes the Church may be obscured.  False prophets mix the Word of God with falsehood, or the Church may act in an unloving way, but when we see the two witnesses again, that should make us as happy as the star made the Magi.  We need the Word, the Law and the Gospel, that we might repent of our sins and believe in the atonement Jesus made for us.  We need the witness of the Church, which preserves for us the Rule of Faith that we might properly read the Bible.  The Holy Spirit renews and reforms the Church so we can see this second witness.

Think back to Israel's dying prophecy in Genesis 49 - the scepter shall not depart from Judah until its owner comes.  It had departed to Herod, who was not an Israelite at all but an Edomite, a descendant of Esau.  Jacob had said that the scepter would not depart until the Messiah came.  In fulfillment, when Herod the Edomite sat on the throne, the Messiah came.   Paying attention to such things can make the world far more meaningful for us.  They bear witness to Jesus.  We have assurance of forgiveness, of peace in our hearts, of courage for a holy life, of comfort when we are tried and tested, and the hope of heaven in death.   All these are solidly based on the certain truth that Jesus has died and risen again.  The Magi had never been to church.  One of the great ironies of the Bible is that the scholars learned of Messiah's birth from Gentiles.  We do want to learn from what is around us, but we need the Word of God to put it all together.  Only after the Magi heard the prophecy did they set out for Bethlehem.  Then they were permitted to see the star again.  So the Word and the Church assure us that God has visited His people, and that makes us very happy.   AMEN.

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

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