In the Name of God Incarnate.
Years ago I was teaching a church school class junior high age and I read them the story that we just heard in the gospel, and then I gave them a short true/false test. The first question/statement was this:
“The story tells of three Kings who came to worship Jesus.”
And of course they all got it wrong.
Now you realized of course immediately not only that the Bible doesn’t say “three” but it also doesn’t say “Kings.” The Bible says magi or wise men and it never says how many.
Well, any good propagandist knows that if you say something enough times, however preposterous, people will begin to believe it. Millions of people believe Trump won the last election because their news sources said so over and over.
It was a member of Congress from Indiana almost 50 years ago who famously said, “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is made up.”
And we have seen so many Christmas card pictures of three kings – well, look in any creche in any church – the one at All Saints, for example. What would happen if we put four figures in it some year?
But this morning I want to confuse you with the facts. The Bible says “magi” and it probably refers to eastern astrologers, men who studied the stars, who in that day and age would have been considered eminent men of science.
So the story is meant to tell us not just as we are often reminded that gentiles came to worship Jesus at his birth but that wise men of science, intellectuals, also bowed down and worshiped – not only the simple shepherds but the leading intellectuals of the day.
The contrast is not only between poor shepherds and the wealthy magi, or between the Jewish people and the gentiles, but between the uneducated shepherds and the men of science – “wise men” is a common translation and we need to think about that.
We’re talking about the stars. We’re talking about men and women who study the stars, and until our day people would have seen little value in it.
Star-gazing when I was growing up was a common term for wasting your time. Now we spend billions of dollars to send rockets to the moon and other planets and we listen intently for any signals that might come to us from a distant civilization.
The magi had none of that equipment. What they learned from the stars was largely a matter of guesswork. They lived in an age when men of science made very little contribution to society. So perhaps it was not so strange to find them bowing in worship to a small child.
What would we, I wonder, expect to see if that scene were acted out today with perhaps a Dr. of medicine, a psychiatrist, and a nuclear physicist?
I think an accurate translation of Matthew’s story in modern terms might be: “Behold there came scientists from Cape Canaveral to say. “We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
Now, one of the interesting things about that church school test was the thought process that went into the wrong answer. What happened, you see, was not that they misread the story, but that even after reading it, they still considered the pictures they had always seen on Christmas cards – and in the church nativity scene, for goodness sake – to be more true than the black and white words of the Bible in front of them.
And we do that all the time, don’t we? We have our own ideas about how things ought to be, and no list of facts, no evidence can change our minds.
The same problem comes up here in several ways. I expect that when I transfer the story into modern terms and speak of men in white coats bowing down before their savior, one of those built in mental blocks kicks in because another modern myth is that there’s some kind of conflict between science and religion. As with so much of the gospel, when we hear of scientists worshiping God we have a tendency to say, “Well, it might have been like that once but these weren’t real scientists and that kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore.”
Doesn’t it? I can give you some facts and you can do what you want with them. William Pollard the first director of the Institute of nuclear studies at Oakridge Tennessee was a priest of the Episcopal church. When I was in college the professor of Chemical Engineering was a priest of the Episcopal church. John Polkinghorne, who was professor of mathematical physics at the University of Cambridge from 1968 to 1979, then resigned to become an Anglican priest. He said once, “If the physicists seem to achieve their ends more successfully than the theologians, that is simply a reflection of how much easier science is than theology.” He’s written a number of books on the subject.
Certainly the scientist who has looked into the intricate mechanisms of the human body or broken down the solid elements into atoms and electrons or moved out into the unimaginable distances between galaxies and universes, – a man who has seen these things is, I should think, likelier to worship the God who made them than the mechanic or salesman or carpenter who deals mostly with man-made things and may never look up.
The scientist whatever her field, knows more about God’s creation than I do. Why shouldn’t she worship God?
But of course, it isn’t that simple. There’s a larger question involved than just an individual and his or her faith. It’s a matter of ways of thought and the obvious difference between the way scientists think when they are operating as scientists and the way they or anyone else will think when considering God.
What do scientists do? They operate, we all know, by observation and experiment. They gather together a hundred apples, or a hundred uranium atoms, or a hundred corona viruses, and they cut them all in half or put them in atom smashers or test tubes and watch. Then they write down what they have learned: all apples cut in half turn brown – all uranium atoms explode under pressure – all corona viruses cause disease. The scientist tests and observes and tests again. The scientist works out a theory and tests it over and over. And the scientist learns, someone has said, “more and more about less and less” – but they do learn more and more about the structure of the world and the universe and life itself. And sometimes it has seemed as if so much can be learned this way that everything can be learned this way and that nothing can be learned any other way.
And, of course, if that’s so, we have to give up religion – and especially Christianity, because the first claim Christianity makes is that something unique has happened: God has become human in the person of Jesus Christ.
And how can you test that? If there is only one such, you can’t. It’s what scientists call a “singularity” and experimental science is ruled out.
The theologian talks about singularities all the time: unique actions of God.
The scientists wants to say that “all children born of virgins are sons of God” and “all Gods are divided into three parts” and “all resurrections from the dead occur on Sundays” but if there’s only one God, only one Savior, only one resurrection, the scientist has nothing to say. The experimental scientist needs a multitude of examples for his or her experiments. How many thousands of people needed to be vaccinated to be sure it was safe and would work? But the theologian talks about unique actions of God: one only.
Christianity says these events are unique and that’s why they’re important.
If a scientist says it’s impossible to have a unique event, it’s impossible to have something that won’t go under my microscope – then science knows nothing about love and justice and sacrifice – and science is fairly accused of knowing more and more about less and less.
But it’s the unique that has the ultimate value, and that is, by definition, outside the realm of science. But let’s be fair: there was a day when the theologians thought they knew all the answers: that the Bible gave us the date of creation and the shape of the world and the full story of human creation.
Now we know better, and we turn for this information to the scientist whose field this is and wherever observation and experiment can be applied, the scientist will find the answer sooner or later.
But if there are scientists who think they know all the answers, they are wrong. There are such things as love, and justice, and mercy, and forgiveness, and self sacrifice, and there are not only unique events in our religion, we, too, are unique – each one of us. If no two of us, out of all the billions of people on earth today, have even identical fingerprints how much more unique are those inner qualities and characteristics that make you and each of us who we are? And is it the blood cells and fibers and tissue that you share with everyone else that you value, or is it those inner qualities that make you utterly different – the things no scientist can deal with – that have ultimate value to you?
But even though there are such things beyond the range of any science, I am sure any truly wise modern scientist would agree that it is humbling to consider how much we don’t know and to believe – as many scientists do – that all of this has a single source is enough alone without asking any questions of purpose or meaning to make heads bow and knees bend in worship.
But if human instinct is right in saying the unique must also have a meaning – and if Christians are right in saying that the Creator of all things came once to show us God’s purpose – then we need to look beyond the camels and “we three kings” and all that. Today is about the wisdom of worship and the value of the unique because strange and unique things do happen.
The shepherds were simple-minded enough to see angels and the magi were single-minded enough to follow a star. Then like wise men and women in every age and place we also need to put aside our human pride and bring our gifts and ourselves to the one and only God uniquely present to us in Jesus. Amen.
Whom here we worship.
All poor men and humble,
All lame men who stumble
Come haste ye, nor feel ye afraid.
For Jesus our treasure,
With love past all measure,
In lowly poor manger was laid.
Though wise men who found him
Laid rich gifts around him,
Yet oxen they gave him their hay;
And Jesus in beauty
Accepted their duty;
Contented in manger he lay.
Then haste we to show him
The praises we owe him;
Our service he ne’er can despise:
Whose love still is able
To show us that stable
Where softly in manger he lies.