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Magi Thinking

January 3, 2017

“Magi Thinking” Matthew 2:1-12 © 1.1.17 Epiphany A 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. 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 not kings, despite the tradition, but astronomers and scientists, as knowledgeable about the cosmos as it was possible to be without orbiting 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 that would ever be seen by anyone. It was a sign to him and his colleagues that something wonderful and significant had happened. A new king had been born.

The story of how the wise men sought and found the child is a familiar, fascinating, and rich one. I believe it provides us with some wisdom and guidance for living 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, a theme I seem to return to again and again. 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. I quoted Frederick Buechner just last Sunday, but please indulge me with one more observation from that noted author. As he 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. 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 a global, comprehensive spirituality all the more vital. This is a day of instant 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 and among the followers of the great faiths and no faith. Religion factors into so many, if not all, of the debates and wars of our time. We can ill afford to be unaware of the scriptures, 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.

As Mickey Maudlin of HarperOne publishers has observed: “…the U.S. is the most religious country in the developed world but also among the least knowledgeable about religions. In other words, we are pious but ignorant, even of our own faith. This has become more problematic as world religions have become our neighbors. Singing more loudly that ‘our God is better’ is not a wise strategy for navigating our future.

He concludes: “It is time to welcome our neighbors, understand their faiths, see how the world looks from their perspective—and, consequently, see our own in a deeper and better way” (

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.

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. And too many Christians in our land today are anti-intellectual science deniers or else they dress up Bible stories in pseudo-scientific language and insist on equal time for them in public education. But a large group of Christian clergy, part of the Clergy Letter Project, of which I am a member, believe 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 ( ).

The magi would have signed that letter. But 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 engage our whole being and all the senses? We value words because Jesus is the Word, the Logos, and we have scriptures that bear written witness to him. But remember: the Word was made flesh, fully, truly human. Part of the reason the sacraments are so important is the recognition that God comes to us in ways that engage our senses of sight, taste, touch, and smell, not only hearing.

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. That’s the common definition of insanity, isn’t it? 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 hymn writer 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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