A few years ago on one of his trips to Chicago to hang out with me and Kerry, we took my dad to the Adler Planetarium. I hadn’t been to a planetarium since childhood, and didn’t know entirely what to expect aside from a memory of a darkened auditorium and an old-fashioned globe casting pin-prick maps of constellations in the sky against the inside of a half-dome. What we found instead was a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to educating the public about humanity’s explorations into space and time.
One exhibit in particular has stuck in my mind. It was a 3D film about the birth of the universe, the so-called big bang, and the rapid expansion that has followed ever since. Using images taken from deep in space by the Hubble telescope, the film gave me a glimmer of understanding of the size and scope of the known universe. It showed a small section of the night sky as we see it here in Chicago and zoomed in reveal a region of spacetime containing hundreds of thousands of galaxies and millions of stars all racing away from the center of the universe as it continues to expand at an unimaginable rate. As the film returned to the familiar first-person perspective of a person standing on the shore of Lake Michigan staring up into the night sky I felt myself awed and unsettled. The universe is vast and unknowable, and we are smaller than specks of dust on a tiny planet circling a single sun in a galaxy that is but one among billions.
The night sky we look at is virtually the same as the sky our ancestors looked at two thousand years ago, but our perspective is radically different. They lived with a cosmology that imagined the world to be flat, with waters held back beyond the sky by a dome high in heavens and resting upon other waters deep below and around the earth. They thought the stars were finite and fixed, and that they narrated the exploits of humanity’s course throughout the ages. Essentially, their world was much smaller than ours. The answers they proposed solved problems whose very premises no longer make sense to us, who now implicitly trust in a universe defined by laws of gravity and relativity articulated over the last few centuries and built into every facet of our lives from satellite-assisted global navigation systems to precision time-keeping. Our ancestors would barely recognize us as members of the same species, and when we consider what that means we find them and their stories equally as foreign.
We, then, are like the wise men from the East described in Matthew’s gospel who arrive at the scene of Jesus’ birth using foreign technology and alien religious practices to make their way to the vast and limitless God who takes on particularity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born at a moment in history, in space and time. We have to slow ourselves down a bit to hear it, since the story has become so familiar after two thousand years, but to its first audience the story of foreigners following a star in the heavens was not a story about following traditions, but breaking them. To us, the wise men and their star are figures carved in alabaster in the crèche making their way toward the manger year after year, printed on calendars and surrounded by legends. To the first-century Jews who were Matthew’s audience, they were foreigners who did not know Israel’s stories, Israel’s prophets, Israel’s God. When they arrive, they do not do as Mary does in Luke’s gospel, they do not quote Israel’s scripture to interpret Israel’s present. Instead they rely on a foreign and foreclosed source of knowledge: the stars. Moses taught,
When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who … practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur … (Deut. 18:9-10)
And the prophet Isaiah dismissed the power of wisdom found outside Israel’s traditions, saying,
You are wearied with your many consultations; let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars, and at each new moon predict what shall befall you. See, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming themselves is this, no fire to sit before! (Isa. 47:13-14)
So it comes as a surprise when Matthew, whose gospel is so thoroughly oriented toward Jewish tradition and who presents Jesus as a new kind of Moses, introduces these three wise foreigners who make their way toward this incarnation of God by means of their own native wisdom and traditions.
For centuries the church has told this story as one of triumph, to say that from his very birth people of every nation flocked to Jesus as the definitive incarnation of God in human history. Indeed, there is a theme established by this story in Matthew that will be developed throughout that gospel where those closest to Jesus fail to recognize who he is as those outside the community, and even demons, immediately recognize him as the Son of God. From there it was only a small leap for the church to begin to imagine itself as the Holy Family, as Mary and Joseph receiving the gifts and recognition of outsiders from around the known world who were coming to faith in God through Christ Jesus. In this mode, we often heard this story preached and taught as one about evangelism, that God welcomes into God’s house people from every nation, bringing every kind of gift.
I think we’re living in a different era however. As the church struggles with the birthing pangs that are delivering it into a new station in society, ushering it into a world where it is established not at the center of mass culture but on its margins, this story takes on a new significance for all of us as we see ourselves in the role of the wise people from different and distant lands, feeling our way forward with sources of knowledge and revelation previously discounted, even disrespected, but now seen to be powerfully accurate in guiding us toward God’s manifestation in this day and age.
We experience this as people who trust and rely on the insights of science to teach us about the nature of the observable world and our history within it. We generally take for granted what previous generations found blasphemous: that the earth is much, much older than the stories passed down by our various religious traditions; that humanity emerged as a species through a process of evolution that connects us to all other life on the planet; that the earth is not the center of the universe and does not exist for the sake of humanity alone. In this, we are like wise people from the east, feeling our way toward God even as we lean on and learn from sources of wisdom and knowledge that challenge and sometimes contradict received traditions.
We experience this as people who go to work each day with people of different religious identities, and who claim no religious identity at all; as people who are related by blood, adoption, marriage and affection to people from around the world and people who live in and among us with different ethnic and cultural traditions. We have worked alongside, dined with, listened to, learned from, and loved people whose vision of God is not only different, but often irreconcilable with our own. Yet we continue to navigate toward a shared future by sharing our stories and listening to each other’s, knowing that truth is not only found in our history and experience, but outside it as well.
It is in light of this rich diversity and unexpected openness that I hear Paul’s words to the Ephesians,
This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Eph. 3:8b-10)
What I hear today with fresh ears is Paul’s hope and vision that the church would participate in revealing the rich variety, the rich diversity, of the wisdom of God. Note that he does not say that he was tasked with bringing the boundless riches of Christ to the Gentiles, but that he was charged with bringing the news of the boundless riches of Christ, as if to say that he is sharing news of what already is true — that the wisdom of God in its rich variety is found among all peoples and nations.
What a different church we might be if we imagined ourselves not as the star’s destination, but as the wise travelers feeling our way forward together, guided by light coming to us from the far reaches of space and time and governed by laws that have governed us all even before we could name them or know them. A church on the lookout for God’s wisdom shining throughout creation, among our neighbors, our enemies, even ourselves. A church on the margins speaking to the rulers and authorities about what can be learned when we stop hungering to live at the center.
That church, that society of diversity, that rich variety is coming into view in our lifetimes. It is a revelation, an epiphany, a manifestation of God among us challenging our most basic ideas about membership, citizenship, identity and belonging. It is a place we are finding together, which will demand all our gifts and talents, and which will take us down roads none of us have ever walked before.
Thanks be to God!