The post-Christmas time traditionally called "epiphany" on church calendars serves as a built-in corrective lens to spiritual myopia acquired during the year. The season acknowledges and celebrates the "showing forth" of Jesus, the very glory of God, to the uttermost parts of the earth. For as John 3:17 declares, "God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him." That's consistent with what God told Christ's ancestor Abraham in Genesis 12:3: "In you all of the families of the earth shall be blessed."
We sometimes forget the mystery, breadth, and majesty of the glory of the Christ child-and that dims our view of God, His world, and the good news concerning His Son. Here's where Matthew's account of the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem, via the guidance of the star, comes in. As commentator Frederick Dale Bruner explains, "Matthew wishes to say that God surmounts racial and moral barriers to His saving work by calling to the Son those considered most unworthy." The Magi are walking illustrations of God's grace: "I will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not My People, 'You are my people'; and he shall say, 'You are my God'" (Hosea 2:23).
In order to grasp this more fully, remember that the Magi were men who could be found somewhere on a continuum between all-out scorcery and true wisdom. They were star-gazers for certain, which means they had a detailed knowledge of astronomy, which at that time was always mixed with astrology. In other words, Magi saw a correlation between the movement of the stars and the message of the stars. In Israel, many would have viewed Magi as "magicians" and "idolaters," men like "Simon the magos" (Acts 8:9-24) and Elymas Bar-Jesus, the "magos" and false prophet (Acts 13:6-11).
So when Magi show up to show forth the glory of the "one born king of the Jews," it is ironic indeed. (Of course it is possible, even probable, that these men had knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the earlier Babylonian captivity.) Even more ironic is how God used a star-the supposed stumbling block of the Magi-to lead the "idolators" across miles and miles of country to the Scriptures and on to the Christ child; while those who had the Scriptures all along cannot, or at least will not, cross the region or even the town to acknowledge His presence.
This is strong medicine indeed. Complacency toward God and those made in His image is a sure sign of pride and shortsightedness, and leads to a deadly combination of inability and unwillingness to "see Jesus." On the other hand, the humility that evidences itself in a hunger for true knowledge and encounter with the revealed Lord, no matter the journey required, is the evidence of and key to seeing God as He really is. Such hunger and striving will not be disappointed, for such is evidence of God's call, of God's prevenient or preceding grace.
The account of the Magi offers a wonderful opportunity for Western Christians to remember that the astounding story of God's leading "foreigners" via a star to "the place where the Child lay" is actually our own story. People in the United States in 2007, whose ancestors came from only-the-Lord-knows-where, whose lives contain all kinds of assumptions and practices that make others scratch their heads-could it be that people as exotic as us have been led, across mountain, rivers, seas, plains, interstates, to "the place where the Child lay"? Could it be that people like us now honestly claim to know and be known by God's Son?
The Magi account assures us that God is at work in the world, and that His grace is pervasive and powerful. When those of us who are Christians read about the Magi, we should recognize not only in the account of these foreign "magicians," but perhaps even more so in our own stories, an account of what Bruner calls "humanity under the power of grace."
-Bill Boyd is a pastor in Austin, Texas