"Let no one be found among you… who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God." (Deuteronomy 18.10–13)
So says the book of Deuteronomy. Stern stuff! And it is certain that first century Jews and Christians didn't viewed astrologers as jovial Russell Grant types. They were morally dubious people who worshipped the stars as gods, and looked to them for guidance, rather than looking to the creator of the universe and the Law he had given. Isn’t it strange then that three of the most popular, most memorable, most mysterious and enigmatic characters in the Christmas story are these Magi: astrologers, soothsayers, diviners, interpreters of omens, magicians. These are the first non-Jewish people to fall at the feet Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, and it is their extraordinary journey which we remember today as we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. And they teach us something about the search that we all make to find God.
Perhaps the strangest thing about this story is the way that God guides the Magi. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Magi had decided to look for the new born King because they had read some prophecy from the Old Testament about the birth of the Messiah, and had dedicated themselves to searching for him. But no. That isn’t how this journey started. God used their idol, a star, to lead the Magi to his Son. And whilst that is unusual it is actually quite beautiful. People are led to Christ many different ways. Some are led through reading scripture, or through the nurture of a Christian home or Christian friends, or maybe through an Alpha course or something like that. But others may come to Christ through less orthodox routes: through New Age Spirituality perhaps, through a twelve step support group, through belonging to the Free Masons. If the journey of the Magi tells us anything, it is that God really isn’t too worried about the method he uses to draw people to his Son. Why? Because every desire and expectation it is possible to have, is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Every desire for companionship or love is fulfilled in him. Every expectation of justice is met in him. Every yearning for goodness truth and beauty finds its source and goal in him. So don’t be surprised when people, following a star, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, are still led by God to worship at the feet of Jesus Christ.
But here is the irony of this story. God leads these morally dubious characters, by means of their idol to his son. But those who have the Law and Prophets don't join them in pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Perhaps they fear that this moment of Epiphany will challenge the status quo, or will undermine their power and authority, perhaps they are just afraid of change. For what ever reason the religious leaders choose not to look for the Messiah with the Magi, “After they had shown the fountain of life to others, they themselves perished of thirst”, in the words of St Augustine. And the king! Herod's heart is filled with even more darkness still. He knows that the coming of the Messiah means one thing and one thing only for tin-pot dictators like him. And in a desperate attempt to cling on to power, he plots murder of the vilest kind. Those who were the guardians of the oracles of God, who stood in the great line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the leaders of the people of God had become so accustomed to hearing God’s word, that it had become almost meaningless to them. They had become deaf to its cadences, fearful of its promises. And a group of unclean, idolatrous, star-gazing outsiders, proclaimed the good news of the birth of Christ to them. The outsider becomes the teacher. The first will be last, and the last will be first.
So this new year, may we never become so accustomed to the things of God that we fail to seek the one who is born king of all. May we welcome the insights which God brings to the church through unlikely people, led by strange means, but still led to the crib and cross of Jesus. And may we be willing to lay everything at his feet, knowing that our deepest desires are all fulfilled in him.