The heavens, you know, have always fascinated us and excited our imagination. I am sure that there is no one here this morning who has not felt the thrill, the moment of exaltation which is inevitable when, on a clear night, the stars dazzle us and the panoply of the heavens is spread out from north to south and east to west. There is nothing like it, and we never forget it. Having seen it, we look for it still. It is, I suppose, a primordial human experience and an impression which is imprinted on our minds.
And it appears that there is, as well, an inherent human reaction to the splendor of the heavens. And that reaction is the idea – the myth, if you will – that the heavens are the realm and the revealer of truth. Throughout history and in virtually every culture, truth has been searched for in and through the heavens. Today we send up rockets and satellites and giant telescopes and robot probes to discover the truth about the heavens and the stars. And our expectation is: that the truth which we discover there will reveal a truth we search for here. The ice in a comet will tell us something about the beginning of the earth, or the substance in a meteor will explain the origins of life. What’s happening in and around a black hole will let us in on the make up of matter, energy, and time.
In the ancient world it was the same. The difference between us and them is really only one of method. They too searched the heavens. They too searched for truth there. They too examined minutely the patterns in the sky and the movements of great lights, and their expectation was – like ours – that from a search of the world above would be revealed the truth of the world below.
The truth in the sky. The truth to be found in the sky. It is a myth which excited the ancient world and guides us still. And what people see in the sky tells us something about them. In an optimistic age the heavens reveal a cheerful truth. The majesty of creation, “the spacious firmament on high” – to quote a hymn by a happy poet – these mirrored the Majesty of the Creator, and the world, in that happy view, was as good as it should be (or at least as good as it could be). In times, however, in which a different temperament prevails, the stars are felt to be almost hateful and to reveal a cruel and painful truth. Their timelessness makes the short span of man’s life and his striving seem pointless. Their unchanging order mocks the disorder of human affairs; the truth-in-the-sky makes men even more aware of the un-truth of life below. The “eternal note of sadness” – to quote an unhappy poet – the unavoidable tragedy of life was made clear by the contrasting glory of the heavens. The truth in the sky: it can be a happy truth or a sad truth. But for some reason men and women again and again look for truth to reveal itself there, in the sky.
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This morning we are commemorating the visit and the homage of the Magi to the Child at Bethlehem. For the moment, let’s forget that we call them kings. Scripture doesn’t, and this tradition, as pleasing as it is, is much later than the Gospels. What we are told there is that these men were “Magi,” and if we do a bit of research, we will discover that Magi were not at all an uncommon thing in the ancient Middle East. They were, it seems, a caste of priestly scholars who originated in Persia and were known all over. At their best they were real scholars and often the advisors of rulers. At their worst they were cheap magicians for hire and charlatans.
If they were legit, they studied the natural sciences and medicine. They pondered the wisdom of many cultures, dabbled in magic, and were involved in things which today we would call occult. And like men in every age, they looked to the heavens for signs of the truth. They looked for the truth in the sky: they were astrologers and astronomers, and they searched the heavens for patterns of the present and signs of the future.
The Magi in the Gospel today we call in English “wise men,” and the translation here is, I think, unwittingly astute. For, it would appear, that more than simply being adept at all manner of learning and study, these men had in fact discovered what all truly wise men knew: that there is no rest in the search for truth in this world. And that, indeed, all worldly truth, even the truth-in-the-sky, is only a glimpse of truth itself. And so, being wise in that way – they were on a journey – looking, still searching.
There are many puzzles in the story we just heard. If they were scholars, why did they look for a king? And that king, a child? And why look among the Jews? A king in conquered Israel could be no great shakes. What did the “star” tell them? What was the sign? What did the truth-in-the-sky reveal which prompted their long journey to Bethlehem? Had they any idea what they would find? We don’t know. The Gospels do not tell us.
But what we do know is this. At Bethlehem those ancient seekers-after-truth found a truth which went beyond all their learning. They found a truth at once so simple and so complex that it was the summation of all truth. This time it was not the truth in the sky. Nor was it the truth found on the pages of their books or the truths gleaned from their arcane investigations. No. This truth was alive. This truth had a human face. It was a child. It was Truth Itself/Himself. Jesus, living Truth – a truth which looks like Love. And Scripture tells us: they fell and worshipped him.
The search for truth. That’s what the wise men were up to. The search for truth. But it’s funny – isn’t it? – in today’s world this sounds almost quaint. And we don’t hear a great deal about it, do we? It’s not often discussed in schools or universities. Except, perhaps, as a dead, stock phrase. Many philosophers, who should know better (it used to be their job to search for truth), now avoid mentioning what may or may not be true. Certainly politicians don’t talk about it – they’re afraid to. No, we don’t hear much about this nowadays, and I suspect that the reason for this is the sad poverty of serious thought in our age. Modern notions of what makes us tick are embarrassingly trivial and in the end shallow. Our already sad twenty-first century appears to be content with a world in which nothing is transcendent, all is relative, and truth is what you make it out to be. (The wise men would have scoffed at this. It sounds like the cynicism of Pilate.) And end of this emptiness is disaster. Morality, philosophy, knowledge all collapse into solipsism or are established arbitrarily, often by the barrel of a gun. Truth is: truth for me. Truth is: truth for the Party. In the end it’s all the same. No need to search.
But the Christian understanding – and thank God for it – is rather different. The Christian notion of what it is to be human is much more dignified and exalted than that. What it tells us is that we are made to search for truth. It’s part of us; it’s the primary task of human life. Consciously or unconsciously, we cannot not do it. And we shall never be happy, we shall never be satisfied, never be at rest, never be ourselves – until we know what is true.
That’s a lofty idea. It sounds like a burden. It is a burden. But then, of course, there is Bethlehem. For, you see – dear Christian people – those wise men found what they were looking for. It was a surprise, but they found it. A king, yes. The Christ, yes. But a king and the Christ, because He is the Truth. And the truth was a face and that face was a life. The Word was made flesh and was born in Bethlehem. They fell and worshipped him – the end of their journey. The fulfillment of their search.
And what about us? Do you search for truth? Do I? Do we take this seriously? It is much easier for us, you know, than it was for them. We need not look for truth in the sky – that, after all, is only a hint. We can – if we wish – put aside the books and suspend our study – for all is summed up in that one life. And we need not journey to Bethlehem, for Bethlehem comes to us at the Altar in the church. Indeed, we need not journey at all. For now in love Truth comes to us, and gives us Himself (He will today). And what else can we do? Except – as did the wise men – fall down and worship Him!
And to that Truth, to Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life –
To the Babe of Bethlehem –the King of the Jews – now made known to the Gentiles –
To Jesus our Lord –
Be ascribed honor, glory, might, dominion and worship, for ever and ever.