After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. Matthew 2: 1-12
Tenko grew up in a little village in northwestern Burkina Faso, near the border with Mali. That far north, toward the Sahara Desert, the dozen or so rains that fall during their 2-3 months of a rainy season barely suffice to grow some dryland grains and beans, and some scrubby grass and bushes for their goats and donkeys to graze. Hopefully the rains will also recharge the aquifers, so that the wells provide enough water for gardening and drinking.
That’s why Tenko’s people might say that “life comes from the south.” South is where the dark clouds come from in the months of June, July and August, over the horizon line of bluffs and hilltops to the south, bringing the rains from the Atlantic Ocean on which all life depends.
As a child, Tenko had not learned about the ocean, and how the sun generates clouds from it through evaporation. He could only wonder what there was on the south side of that horizon of hills and ridgelines that generated the rain-bearing clouds. Perhaps a giant pot over a big fire, from which steam arose, like whenever his mother was cooking millet porridge? So, one day, when he was about 8 years old, Tenko left his home and village and walked south, ascending the hills toward the horizon. When he finally got to the uppermost ridgeline, where he could look down and beyond toward the south, Tenko saw, in the distance…… more clouds coming over more ridgelines and hilltops to the south.
That’s when Tenko began to understand how much more vast and mysterious is the world than his home village in its shallow little valley. Then he began to understand the proverb, “Beyond mountains… lie more mountains.”
Later, in his adult life, when Tenko related this story to me, he had been in Ivory Coast and seen the ocean, the source of the life-giving rains. He could also say that what he was seeking, in his 8-year-old understanding– the source of life, including his own– he had found not by climbing any hills, nor by standing on a beach, but in Jesus Christ and his Gospel. That’s why I have long treasured Tenko’s story about his 8-year-old search for the source of life in the source of those clouds. It’s such a precious and poignant parable of the search and the journey that we are all on. We came here this morning in a way similar to Tenko climbing those hills. His experience illustrates another proverb: “Sometimes we don’t really know what it is that we are really searching for, until it finds us.”
Okay, so I made that proverb up, after reflecting on Tenko’s story, my own story, and on that of the magi who came bearing gifts to the Christ child on the day we call, “The Epiphany.” That’s an ancient Greek word for “the revealing,” or “unveiling.” Today, we are celebrating the revealing or the unveiling of the Hebrew Messiah to the nations, as Israel’s prophets promised would happen. For many Christians around the world, Epiphany is actually the high point toward which the whole Advent and Christmas season leads.
I can’t overstate how strange and surprising it is that the first Gentiles to see the life and the love at the source of all life and love would be these magi. The word, “magi,” suggests that they were priests, astrologers, sorcerers and sages of the imperial religion of the Persian Empire. That they were watching and interpreting the stars also supports that idea. They tried to divine the future or discern the best royal policy by such things as sacrificing animals and looking for clues from the spirits in their livers, or in the way that smoke ascended from the sacrificial fires. They may have gone into spells and trances and channeled spirits, maybe even lent a hand to human sacrifice. They would have been into everything occult that the Hebrew Bible forbids.
But that they knew about Jews and Judaism and respected them, and that they came from the east, suggests that they lived where there was a big Jewish community, probably what became modern-day Baghdad. From the Jewish Exile all the way to World War 2, Baghdad had the biggest, most scholarly and influential Jewish community in the world.
Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mary and Joseph, as devout, card-carrying Jews, felt a bit awkward about receiving these diviners, sorcerers and astrologers, and accepting their gifts. Maybe they got over any squeamishness by remembering the words of Isaiah 60, from 700 years before: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. the wealth on the seas will be brought to you… to you the riches of the nations will come. 6 Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”
Or maybe the hopes of a just king for Israel, in Psalm 72, came to mind: “May the desert tribes bow before him… May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him. May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts.11 May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.”
Those were Old Testament prayers and promises that the Gentiles would come bearing honor, treasure, theirs lives and their love back to where they all come from, to Israel’s God. Epiphany celebrates the first step in fulfilling those prayers and promises. And that’s how we ended up here, this morning.
Isaiah didn’t say, however, that these Gentiles would understand 100% why they coming, nor to whom. Do we? Like Tenko, these magi were seeking the source of all life, including their own. Like Tenko, they found more than they understood or had counted on. Like Tenko, they were genuine and sincere in their search, if also somewhat confused and ignorant. We must treasure that about them, not dismiss nor condemn it. Which of us has it totally all together and has the last word on God, all the truth, and nothing left to learn? If anything, we should commend them for going in the right direction, on the right search, to the right destination, with what limited understanding they had. Like Tenko, those magi could say, “Sometimes, we don’t know for sure what all we’re looking for, until it finds us.”
And so can we. As Solomon put it in Ecclesiastes 3, “God has put eternity in our hearts.” No question about it: something within stirs us to seek the source of life and love. As St. Augustine said in his Confessions: “… you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” This quest is leading us to the One who drives and inspires it, as happened for Tenko and the magi, whose journeys reveal a God and a world much bigger and more beautiful, complex and wondrous than whatever they first had in mind.
Like the magi, we too are bringing our talents, time and tribute, our lives and our love, back to their source. So, this year, let’s stay on the quest. Keep to the journey homeward. For all the other places and people in which we seek the source and meaning of our lives, whether in politics, power, possessions, pleasure or prosperity, are turning to ash and trash around us. However long and surprising and baffling, don’t give up the journey, neither for cheap and easy answers and self-satisfied certainty, nor for cheap and easy skepticism, doubt and despair. For the object of our quest is also the One who inspires and motivates it.
And as we relate to the world and each other, don’t look only at how far we think people have yet to go, or how far off track they are. That’s always easier to see in other people than in ourselves. Yes, we’re all partial people, unfinished products, diamonds in the rough, who, like Tenko and the magi, “see through a glass dimly.” But try also to see how far people have come, and when or how they are moving in the right direction, toward Jesus, the source of all life and love. The magi didn’t know—they couldn’t know there and then in Bethlehem—that they were meeting in the Christ child the very Lord and God who has come seeking us. But they do now. And so do we, because of their confused journey and discovery. With the magi, and with Tenko, we can say that sometimes you never really know just Who you’re looking for, until God finds you.”