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Magi Thinking

January 7, 2013

“Magi Thinking” Matthew 2:1-12 © 1.6.12 Epiphany C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Magical thinking is the common belief that just wishing for something will make it happen, that if you make a good effort and you concentrate hard enough, your desires will be granted. It’s not a particularly realistic, productive or healthy way to approach life.

What I’m calling “magi thinking,” on the other hand, is very helpful, especially as we prepare to ordain and install ruling elders this morning. The men who traveled from Persia in search of a king who had been born are well-suited to instruct us. They were part of a long-standing international movement and brotherhood that included scholars from Egypt, Israel, Arabia, and Mesopotamia. It was members of this group that produced the biblical wisdom literature like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. These particular Persian sages, however many there were, belonged to an old and special group of scholars and priests called “magi,” who were interested in the observation of the stars. So they were astronomers and scientists, as knowledgeable about the cosmos as it was possible to be without radio telescopes and robot space probes. But they were also what we would call astrologers, people who looked to the stars and their movements for guidance and help with life. In the heavens could be found the will of God. So the magi were deeply spiritual people.

On one particular night, at least one of these men was watching the sky and saw an extraordinary sight. It was the brightest star he had ever seen or would ever be seen by anyone. Theories abound as to what the celestial event was. Perhaps it was a supernova or a comet. Maybe it was the conjunction of two planets observed against the background of a constellation. Might be the star was no natural occurrence at all, but a miracle of God. But whatever it was, the magi saw in it a sign that something wonderful and significant had happened. A new king had been born.

The story of how they sought and found the child is a familiar and fascinating one, the stuff of song, art, and legend. We could look at it from a number of perspectives, sorting out the biblical from the fanciful, reflecting on the meaning of their gifts or comparing and contrasting the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke. Any and all of that could be interesting, even useful. But this morning I want to reflect on some wisdom this tale provides us for living and especially for leadership in these days.

First, notice that the magi were alert to the signs of God’s activity. Like their colleagues in other lands, they were aware of their world and what was going on; they kept their eyes open. They learned by experience and observation. So they noticed when something was different, when a surprise appeared in the sky. They believed that God provides clues to his activity in just such occurrences, that truth is woven into the very fabric of our lives and of the universe.

The wise men would no doubt urge us to open our eyes and look. They might tell us that the raw material of theology is the experience of living. In birth, death, growing up, growing old, losing and gaining, longing and loving, we can find who God is and what he wants of us. As Frederick Buechner has it in a classic passage: “The music of your life is subtle and elusive and like no other—not a song with words but a song without words, a singing, clattering music to gladden the heart or turn the heart to stone, to haunt you perhaps with echoes of a vaster, farther music of which it is a part….

“There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak…. He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our footsore and sacred journeys” (The Sacred Journey: 77). Or as he says elsewhere: “Theology is mostly autobiography.”

The magi were alert to all the ways God speaks, what God does right before our eyes, in the heavens and in our lives. But they also embraced a comprehensive spirituality. The magi were not Jews; they were probably Zoroastrians or even pagans, embracing a nature religion. Some of their colleagues were powerful wizards. But they knew the scriptures of other faiths. And like wise men everywhere in their day, even in Israel, they never claimed special, exceptional privilege for one nation or one way of encountering the Holy. They sought truth above all and were not threatened when they found it elsewhere than in the teachings of their own faith. An event that affected the history of the Jews touched the people of Persia as well.

Our world is so much larger and smaller than that of the magi, and that makes their practice of global, comprehensive spirituality all the more vital. This is a day of instant global awareness and contact because of TV and the Internet and the increasing diversity of our communities. It is also one of intense spiritual longing and often of conflict between the followers of the great faiths and no faith. We can ill afford to be unaware of the tenets and practices of others or be threatened when the answers they provide challenge what we believe. The reality of today’s world calls us to follow the example of the magi and welcome the insights of other faiths as well as those of people who claim none.

We can and should regard the truth of others as our own and find in their spiritual seeking an invitation to a deeper reflection on our own beliefs, a better acquaintance with our own traditions. The world will be made better by the cooperation and understanding of spiritual people who seek together to promote harmony, peace, and community, as the writer Brian McLaren has pointed out in his recent video “Toward the Other” (

Along these same lines, in the summer of 2009, representatives of eight religions founded an organization called the Association for Global Spirituality. It’s an ongoing Internet-based project whose stated vision is “deep respect for the essence of each other’s philosophical, religious or spiritual path that leads to a courageous commitment for the benefit of humanity and world community.” “Within every human being lies a beautiful heart where love and wisdom can blossom,” they say. “The heart contains a seed of universal potentiality, the essence of being, [that] we all share in unity. The door of the heart is always open, ready to connect the present moment with infinity, a deeper reality.

“In the depth of our heart, we discover calmness and clarity, peace and loving kindness, springing from an ineffable source beyond words – silence behind silence, the whisper of Truth. Here, unconditional love and all-embracing wisdom emerge, caring for all manifestations of life in a natural and spontaneous way” (

But a comprehensive spirituality means not only being open to the insights of other faiths and other traditions within our own faith. It calls us also to other ways of human knowing. For centuries, for example, religion and science have been seen by some as enemies. But over 12,000 Christian clergy, part of the Clergy Letter Project,believe otherwise. They say that science and religion are different ways of apprehending truth, with different purposes. As the letter puts it: “Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

“We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist…. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris…. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth ( (On this topic, see also

I sgined that letter, and so would have the magi. But if they model an openness to many traditions and ways of knowing, we also find in them a willingness to try something new based on fresh information. Their plans changed when they were warned that they should not return to Herod. A new reality called for a different approach. So they went home “by another road.”

I find in their action a striking metaphor for the call of God today. We are always receiving new information, meeting new people, encountering and using new technology. Don’t we have to ask if our beliefs and practices are appropriate for the reality in which we live, if what we have done in the past is still effective or whether we may need to do something different based on new data? Most of our culture is now multisensory, and we know people apprehend reality in different ways. Should not worship, education, and communication in the church regularly offer a variety of ways to encounter and learn about God that engages our whole being and all the senses? We value words because Jesus is the Word. But remember: the Word was made flesh.

Another piece of new information we need to deal with is our minority status. The formerly mainline churches (that’s several denominations, including the PC[USA]) now comprise just 15% of the church-affiliated population in our nation. Presbyterians are typically about 1% of the population. At the same time, those who have no religious affiliation has risen to about 20% of Americans. Churches like the PC(USA) cannot count on being propped up as we once were by the culture. It hasn’t been true for a long time that “if you build it, they will come.” A church has to be distinctive in its mission and hospitality to attract spiritual seekers. (See especially And when numbers are small already, no group can afford to engage in any activity that wastes energy on internal conflict or endless reorganization. Anything that’s done needs to be productive, focused on building relationships and engaging in mission.

There is not just one road home to the kingdom. Given a new reality inspired by the dreams and longings of people, we may need to take another route or even go “off the map,” as church consultant Tom Bandy says. Magical thinking keeps doing the same old things, but expecting a different result. Magi thinking leads its practitioners to act appropriately for a new situation.

But if the wise urge us to be alert to God’s work, to find his truth everywhere, and to innovate when necessary, they also invite us to show our devotion to God with appropriate gifts. To the Christ child they gave costly treasures of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. They also did him homage, bending their knee before a child, though they themselves were important men of great status in their own country.

So it is that we are summoned to bring our gifts as well and lay them at the feet of our Savior, as tokens of our heart’s devotion. What sort of treasures do we open to Jesus? Perhaps hymnwriter Kenn Carmichael puts it best: “Bring we the frankincense of our love to the feet of the holy Child, ever remembering God’s great gift of a love that is undefiled. Bring we the myrrh of humility to the throne of the Son of God, ever recalling the purity of his life when the earth he trod. Ever secure in his changelessness, though the kingdoms of earth may fall, bring we the gold of our faithfulness to the King who is Lord of all. Holy the infant and holy the mother and holy and precious the gifts that we bring; praise to the Father and praise to the Spirit and praise to Christ Jesus our King.”

The magi fell down and worshipped, opening their treasures to the One in whom is hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. In doing so, they showed themselves truly wise. They invite us to join them this Epiphany and learn not only the wisdom of the East, but the wisdom of the ages, which God has now revealed in his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.


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