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January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, which follows the twelve days of Christmas. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Jesus to the gentiles in the persons of the magi (Matthew 2). Matthew is the only evangelist who tells the story and he provides few details. I’m sure you know the story: Magi come from the east seeking the newly born king of the Jews; they don’t find him in Jerusalem; upon the advice of Jewish leaders (via Herod) they travel to Bethlehem; they find Jesus, worship him, and give him gifts; and they return home. Matthew provides some additional details, but not many, and the story raises as many questions as it answers.

Matthew says that the magi came “from the east”. Given that they are called magi and were engaged in watching the heavens for signs, it is reasonable to assume that they were from Persia, or perhaps Babylon. Neither of these places is Jewish territory so why would the magi be interested in the birth of a Jewish king? The answer may have its roots several centuries earlier when Israel and Judah were conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Many Jews were taken into exile from Israel and Judah to Persia and Babylonia. The people living in the area were polytheists so when the Jews came along and spoke of the God of Israel, the people living in the area would have listened, believed in this new god, and added the god to their list of deities. They would not have accepted the view that the God of Israel was the only true God, but they would have believed in God’s existence and willingly learned about this new deity. Many Jews stayed in Persia even after they were given permission to return to Judah so the exchange of knowledge between the Jews and Persians probably continued for centuries.

Some of the magi of the land knew enough about Jewish scriptures to know that an important king was expected. These magi watched the skies for omens and when a certain “star” appeared they interpreted it as heralding the birth of the new Jewish king. They set out for Jerusalem to pay homage to this important person. When they arrived they learned that those in authority knew nothing about the birth of a new king.

King Herod (who was not a Jew) asked the chief priests and the scribes about the birthplace of the expected king. They told Herod that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judah. When telling Herod this, they state, “so it has been written by the prophet.” This addendum is a formula to state that the message was accepted by the Jewish religious leaders as the word of God spoken through a prophet, and thus was certain. Upon receiving this information the magi continue their journey to Bethlehem. There they found the child, worshiped him, and gave gifts.

The magi knew enough of the scriptures to know the prophecy of the king’s birth but lacked the detailed information which would have guided them to Bethlehem. The chief priests and scribes knew to look for the king in Bethlehem but they didn’t accompany the magi or send a delegation to investigate. Why did the chief priests and scribes stay in Jerusalem after hearing the magi’s report of the star? The messiah was long awaited and was the hope of all Israel; his birth would be great news to his people.

I think the reason was hubris. The chief priests and the scribes studied the scriptures; they were the religious experts of God’s chosen people. Why would God reveal the messiah’s birth to pagan, polytheistic magi? It just wasn’t reasonable to their minds. They were the important people, the authorities among God’s chosen. They were sure that God would not send an announcement to anyone other than them. And they were wrong.

God chose to reveal the messiah’s birth to foreigners. God also revealed it to Jews who were not very important in the world’s (or the religious leaders’) eyes: Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Anna, and Simeon among others. There’s a lesson for us: God speaks to those to whom God wishes to speak. It is not our position in the world or church, our value in the eyes of others, or our self-evaluation which determines whether God will speak to us directly. God often, perhaps usually, speaks to us through others, and sometimes those other folks are not ones we expect to bear God’s message. Over the course of our lives, God’s words will come to us from many directions – some expected and some not. It is our task to listen and discern the word of God while being aware that it may come from a place we would never expect (and perhaps not respect). Once discerned we must accept the word of God regardless of the messenger. As Jesus said, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:35, NRSV). We need to keep our ears open regardless of our view of the person who is speaking to us; it may be magi who bring us good news of God’s work.