January 6: A New Orbit
MATTHEW 2:1–2, 9–11
Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” . . .
And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Every year we set up our little olive-wood nativity scene at one end of the fireplace mantle. We don’t put the baby Jesus in the manger until Christmas Eve, and we set the wise men up at the other end. And every day, we move them a little bit closer and closer . . . until they arrive on January 6.
In our Christian calendar, and in the gospel story, they’re the end of the Advent/Christmas season and the beginning of Epiphany: the presentation of Jesus to the world.
We don’t pay much attention to the Magi, other than to give their role in the Christmas play to the three biggest boys in the church. They’re positioned with the shepherds and animals, and we focus on the gifts they bring.
But there’s more going on than gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The bigger story is why they’re even in Bethlehem, and it may be one of the most important parts of the story of Jesus’ birth.
To understand why they’re here, we need to end where we began: in outer space. Remember where we started our Advent/Christmas journey? We said we needed a new way to see the whole earth. We needed a new orientation, one with Jesus setting the orbit of our lives. Theologically speaking, we first needed a “Google-Earth” view to fully embrace “for God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” (John 3:16, emphasis added).
Over the course of Advent and Christmas we worked our way down to ground level, but Epiphany is about looking outward again, to present Jesus to the rest of the world. And he’s already gone ahead of us.
We call it prevenient grace: the grace of God that goes ahead of us. The belief that the holy love of Jesus is pursuing all people, guiding them to the heart of the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit . . . even if they’re not aware of it. Put another way, it’s God drawing us into the orbit of Christ.
How is that happening with our wise men? The Magi were Persian or Arab astronomers and astrologers who studied the orbits of the stars and the planets, looking to the heavens for meaning and signs, and as the psalmist says:
The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word;
their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
and their words to all the world. (Ps. 19:1–4)
And what’s most important was that the Magi were Gentiles, not Jews. They didn’t worship the same deity, keep the same festivals, or practice the same holy days. But they saw something in the stars that went ahead of them, guiding them to the new king they needed to worship.
God pursued and led them in the midst of something they knew. They were looking to the heavens for wisdom, but what they didn’t yet know was that wisdom is a Person who had come from heaven to earth. They were really looking for Jesus, even if they didn’t know it.
This is of critical importance to the mission: Jesus gets into each person’s story, even if they’re not aware of it. Remember what Paul said?
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation,
for through him God created everything
in the heavenly realms and on earth.
He made the things we can see
and the things we can’t see—
such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.
Everything was created through him and for him.
He existed before anything else,
and he holds all creation together. (Col. 1:15–17)
That means everyone is created by Jesus, for Jesus, and exists in Jesus . . . even if they’re not aware of it! This includes the immigrant, the Muslim, the atheist, the person from the other political party . . . everyone, even if they’re not aware of it.
So if someone is looking for love, they’re really looking for Jesus. If they’re looking for truth, they’re really looking for Jesus. If they’re looking for peace, they’re really looking for Jesus. It’s just that they still haven’t found what—or really Who’they’re looking for.
So if these past thirty-six days have been mission preparation, then let’s get ready for liftoff.
What does that mean for us as we come to the end of Christmas? It means that if Jesus is pursuing every person, we can only know what he’s up to by entering into another person’s story through holy love. It’s an incarnation invitation. We don’t want to miss this! This is our awakening—our new earth-shot!
It’s time for liftoff. It’s time for a new orbit. It’s time for a new mission.
So go tell the story, and tell it well.