When I was in about 6th grade, I used to go with some friends to a church group that met on Sunday evenings. Remember, I was living in Japan at this point, with my missionary parents, so I took public transportation to the church. Our house was just a few blocks away from the train station, and every time I came home, it was just about dusk. One night I saw a star in the half-lit sky, and I immediately thought of that children’s poem—“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight… I wish I may I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight.”
I thought of the poem because I had never paid attention to the way stars appear in the evening sky, before—how there can be a single, first star you see on a given night. I was used to gazing at stars later in the night when you could see whole constellations.
It became a habit for me to look out for that first star, and I would always hear that poem echoing in my head, but I also knew that I couldn’t actually wish on stars. I was 12. I knew stars were giant, non-sentient balls of gas millions of light-years away. So, instead of wishing on a star, I would follow the little poem up with a prayer—a moment of mentioning to God what was on my heart. What I cared about. What I wished for my life.
It was a small thing. Just a few moments of private time on my 5-minute walk from the train station to the house, but it was nice to have a prompt—something that brought my attention to God on a regular basis. Something that lifted my gaze a little higher. I was still 12. I still prayed mostly about boys and mean girls, and pre-teen drama, but for a few moments I would see the world as something bigger than myself and my problems, and I would gain a little bit of perspective.
Sometimes, I think, we expect God’s voice or God’s guidance to be something big and flashy, and really really rare—something that only happens to special people, if it happens at all in the modern world. And because we don’t expect to hear a loud-speaker from heaven, or see a giant hand reach through a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds, we go about our lives assuming God is not speaking to us.
Sometimes the way we depict stories like the story of the wise men from Matthew contributes to this sense that God’s guidance is something big and unmistakable. The wise men see the great big star shining like a spot-light and follow it to the stable in the Bethlehem. Crazy, right? How can we believe that one star shone big and bright like the moon, and moved ahead of the wise men, guiding the way? How could we expect God to change the laws of physics just to get our attention? It doesn’t make much sense, so it doesn’t seem relevant to the way we live our lives.
But, see, that big, spot-light-like traveling star does not actually reflect what Matthew tells us about what happened. In Matthew’s account, the wise men explain to Herod that they have come seeking a new-born king, because they “saw his star at its rising.”
These men were magi—priest-astrologers from a distant culture that looked to the stars for information and answers about life on earth. They probably spent years studying astrology—studying the stars, paying attention to their movement and relationship to each other—learning all the ways that astrologers before them had interpreted the movement of the stars. Learning how to develop their own interpretations.
The star they saw was not a supernaturally bright beacon, but one little glint of light among billions. One little glint that only had significance to them because of their years and years of training and study and attention. They were looking to the stars for answers—for signs—for truth, and their study of the stars led them to Jesus.
Let’s let that sink in for a moment. Astrology was not something the Jewish religion approved of, let alone taught. To the devout priests in Herod’s court, it probably seemed like these magi were looking for truth in the all the wrong places. They were the opposite of who should have heard God. But, rather than leading them astray, their study of the stars led them straight to Jesus.
If we expect that God only speaks in big, super-spiritual, supernatural ways, then we could easily go through life thinking God never says anything. But if we look for God—look for truth—in the normal course of our lives—in our work, and our play, in our passions in those things we’re good at, either from innate talent or from years of education and training, we will find that God meets us there—God guides us through life—God calls us to take risks and to venture into new possibilities.
Because I have always been an avid reader, and studied literature during college, words and stories and poems are all pretty common ways I’ve sense God in my life, but everyone is different. Gardening, cooking, engineering, cross-country skiing, accounting, you name it—God is there, speaking. If God was willing to guide the magi by means of their commitment to and knowledge of astrology, what is to keep God from guiding us through medical, or scientific study, through first-aid training, through music, or interactions with students, or volunteer work?
I think the journey of the magi was less like that bright, unmistakable, supernatural spotlight, and a little bit more like the twilight star-gazing I did in 6th grade. It was more of a gentle nudge—a sense that it was worth paying attention. The miracle of the magi is not the star, but the fact that in the midst of their study of the stars, the magi found this one star to be significant enough to act on—to travel a great distance and bring valuable gifts to honor a new king.
Are we looking for truth with that much commitment—ready to uproot, or leave the comfortable and familiar behind when we discover something big and beautiful and true is waiting for us in a new place? Are we, as individuals and as a church, looking for God like those magi–ready to follow, even into the unknown when the signs are pointing that direction?
Our journeys may look very different from the sandy desert travel of the magi. We might have inner journeys into or out of fear, or grief, or worry. We might have journeys into the lives of strangers. We might have journeys that lead us out of a rut and onto a new path—a new direction, or way of living we could not have imagined. We might have journeys into illness, or into health. We might have journeys that lead us away from familiar ways of doing church. We might have journeys that feel dangerous, or risky.
But there is one thing about our journeys that will be like the magi—the journey will lead us to a place of worship. Sooner or later, in a strange or familiar place, we will encounter God. We will bring our gifts; we will bow our heads, or lift our heads in wonder. We will praise God, who is with us.