In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."
I just purchased The Book of Joy: a collection of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. These global leaders represent two very different religions but consider each other spiritual brothers. One lived through apartheid and the other has been in exile for a half century, yet these men delight in listening to each other speak about compassion. They both have significant experiences with violence but finish each other’s sentences about the power of forgiveness. Cumulatively, they have over a century’s worth of reasons to be pessimistic about the future and cynical about life. Instead, their delight in people and child-like joy is a contagious kind of piety.
In these ways, the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop have different beliefs but share the same faith. If you watch a video of one of their conversations, it’s easy to imagine that when Tutu listens to the Dalai Lama he hears Jesus, and when the Dalai Lama listens to Tutu he hears Buddha.
At church this Sunday we’ll celebrate Epiphany, when we remember the “wise men from the East” who saw the star of Bethlehem and knew it signaled that the God of Israel had answered the prayers of his people and sent them their long awaited Messiah. The wise men weren’t Jewish but they followed this star. Why? It’s good diplomacy to welcome new kings, but what started as a business trip turned into something else altogether.
When the star led the wise men to a barn instead of a castle, Matthew’s gospel says they were “overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:10). Then, after kneeling down and worshiping the Christ child, these gentile astronomers go home (Matthew 2:12). The story doesn’t say they become Jewish, nor does it say they become followers of Jesus. Instead, although they see and are overwhelmed with joy at what the God of Israel has done, (and recognize it well before anyone in the Jewish community does,) the wise men head back to their own people and presumably their own gods.
The celebration of Epiphany can challenge us to be attentive to people whose customs are foreign and who do not share our beliefs. Like the wise men, there may be times when they see Jesus and the hand of our God at work before we do. Similarly, the Magi invite us to find Jesus at work in everyone, but perhaps especially in people who are not at all like us.
After worship this Sunday we’ll welcome volunteers from “First Friends” who will tell us about their ministry to immigrants and asylum seekers who are imprisoned as they await legal permission to be in the United States. What better way to honor the wise men than to imagine as a church how we might honor and seek Christ by serving people from other countries, customs and faiths?
See you then