The wisemen are the only people in the Christmas story who come to worship Jesus. They have seen his star in the East, and they just can't wait to pay him homage.
Herod doesn't want to worship Jesus. His only thought is to strangle God's new initiative at birth. He's happy with the way things are, he doesn't want his life turning upside down by a baby who needs to be worshipped.
The shepherds make haste to Bethlehem to see this thing which has taken place, and they make known the amazing story of their encounter with the angels. But they don't worship Jesus. Even Mary doesn't worship him. She only ponders all these things in her heart.
Aren't these responses all too familiar among the people we meet? Many are prepared to acknowledge Jesus as a great and inspiring teacher. But they don't want to worship him, only to borrow some of his ideas perhaps, to pick and mix with other teachings and philosophies, or to ponder the amazing story of his life and death. Some even see him as a threat, which they deliberately shut out of their life and their thinking, because they don't want their world view and their hopes and ambitions to be turned upside down. It takes faith and commitment to worship him.
The beginning of January, when Methodists traditionally observe the 'covenant service', is as good a time as any to ask ourselves whether we have truly aligned ourselves with the tradition of the wisemen. Are we committed to offering him our most precious gifts of love, devotion and service?
Even though they had good intentions, of course, the actions of the wisemen had unintended consequences. They went to the wrong place looking for Jesus, and a lot of people died as a result.
Over Christmas we were talking about a film which our children had watched called 'The Butterfly's Wing'. It didn't sound like a barrel of laughs so I certainly wont be going out to look for the DVD, but the theme of the story was how tiny changes in the way we behave or act can have huge repercussions for good or ill.
I guess the makers of the film got the idea for the story from Chaos Theory, which describes how the world as we know it has been brought about by the interaction of lots of tiny random events. A good example is someone braking on a motorway. The person behind them brakes too, but just a little harder, and so does the next driver behind them. Then someone swerves from one lane to another, and soon drivers in all three lanes are braking, and before you know it we've got a tailback stretching for half-a-mile – all because of one, tiny, random event.
There's a short story called 'The Butterfly's Wing' as well, in which some hunters go back in a time machine to shoot a dinosaur that was about to be killed anyway by a falling branch. The leader of the expedition explains that the whole thing has been carefully planned so that nothing, absolutely nothing, about the past will be altered by their intervention. A special path has been laid down for them to walk on so that they won't crush even a single bug or caterpillar. They are to stay on the path, and they are to shoot only the one dinosaur. But, in the heat of the moment, one of the hunters panics. He blunders off the path and, when the leader of the expedition looks at the bottom of his boots, there's a butterfly's wing stuck to them. 'Well, it's only a butterfly,' the hunter says in his defence, but – of course – when they arrive back in the present, the world is a totally different place.
It sounds like a fanciful idea, but the covenant service makes similar claims. The way we behave can make a difference to the world. More than that, it makes a difference to God. God cares about what we do, each day, and wants us to enter into a covenant to work with him for good. What an amazing idea! What a challenge!
The wisemen took a right turn instead of a left. They ended up in Jerusalem, asking, 'Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?' If only they had ended up in Bethlehem, talking to the shepherds rather than to Herod. Debate rumbles on about whether or not the massacre of the innocents is a real story or a legend. Herod was certainly capable of such a thing, because he didn't even hesitate to kill his own children when they got in his way. But the story is true even if it isn't historically accurate. It's true because it recognises that how we behave – little, ordinary you and me – does have consequences for other people, for our community, perhaps even for our world – and, certainly, it matters to God.
One thing the wisemen did was to go with the flow. God called them to do something, and they made themselves available – not knowing, necessarily, what the outcome would be. The covenant service asks us to do the same – to make ourselves available to do God's will even when we cannot see where this might lead, and to be open to the guidance and inspiration of the Spirit.
Finally, of course, science meets religion in the story of the wisemen – not only in all that stuff about Chaos Theory and the consequences of our actions, but in the star which they followed.
They were astrologers, rather than astronomers, so it's easy to scoff at them. But, just as the origins of chemistry and physics lie in alchemy, so the origins of modern astronomy lie in astrology. The ancient astrologers were scientists. In their attempt to measure the movement of the stars, astrologers from Persia and Iraq invented many of the things we now take for granted, such as the measuring of time in units of sixty called 'hours'. There are properties about the number 'sixty' which make it ideally suited for this.
The ancient ancestors of many people in Britain studied the sun, moon and stars with amazing accuracy, too, but they never got around to writing down their findings in calculations which other people could easily check and confirm. They wrote their findings on the landscape in enormous henges and monuments. The wisemen wrote their findings down on paper or clay tablets, in columns of arithmetic. It was a great advance on the way to modernity.
Yet, when their calculations lead them to Jesus, the wisemen can only kneel down before him. Their science can only take them so far. It can't help them to understand his significance for their lives. From a scientific viewpoint he is, after all, just another baby.
Sciences categorises things in order to make them predictable. Religion deals with the unpredictable, with the things that lie beyond the boundaries of calculation and experiment. It's about love and joy and peace, things which we all know are important but which are hard to measure and put in boxes. Science is objective, religion is subjective. Science tries to stand outside things and observe them dispassionately, whereas only through relationship can we find true religion. The covenant is about getting right our relationship with God for another year.