Who doesn't like the magi? They're "wise men." They come from the east. They come bringing strange and precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We love the three kings. They endear themselves to us. The only Christmas character more lovable than they is St. Nicholas himself.
Think about those kings. They travel from far, far away. The come across the desert, possibly riding camels, navigating by use of ancient maps and star charts. Finally, they arrive in Jerusalem and approach King Herod and ask to meet the "King of the Jews," whose star they saw rise in the heavens. That's astrology. There's nothing biblical about it. It's pure, straight-up, unadulterated astrology. It's Gemini meets Libra in the House of Ares. Seriously, there's nothing Jewish about these guys. And that's the point.
The come from where? No where we've heard of. They get there how? By an ancient art we're not accustomed to. These are ultimate outsiders--men who appeal to a higher power that isn't the God we're accustomed to. These are the hippies who never came back from the coast. And that's the point. God--our God--brings foreigners who aren't familiar with the story of Israel to behold the one who came to save the world. And all of this happens in Matthew's gospel account!
As I read the gospel lesson for Epiphany this morning, what struck me is how even Herod himself begins to think like these eastern kings. After hearing from them that the birth of his own people's king had been revealed in the heavens, Herod does what? He secretly calls the magi to himself and asks them, "Psst! Hey guys! So, um, when was it, exactly, when this king's star appeared in the heavens? You know, I, um, want to go and worship him myself." Herod the supposed king of the Jews needs the astrologers to tell him when the real King of the Jews was born. In case you hadn't noticed, that's stunning irony.
The point of Epiphany is that God shows up where no one could have expected it. The entire story of Israel's history had been filled with examples of how God revealed himself to his own chosen people so that they might show the rest of the world who he really is. And now that all gets reversed. God's own son comes into the world, and his own people knew him not. The wise men saw his star and came to pay him homage. I can't think of a better passage for twenty-first century Christianity.
If you're waiting for God to show up where everyone expects him to, you'll be waiting a long time. If you really want to see where God is showing up, go where he's not supposed to be. Maybe that's under the overpass bridge. Maybe it's at the neighborhood watering hole. Maybe it's at the Baptist church. Maybe it's at the Native-American-run casino. I don't know where it is. If I did, I'd be there. But I doubt anyone else knows either. And that's the point. That's where God shows up.