Three Surprising Truths Revealed by Ancient Eastern Astrology

Posted: January 6, 2014 by Todd in Sermons
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Astrology Tile Mosaic

I preached this sermon on Epiphany Sunday, January 5th, 2013 at Grace United Methodist Church.  The text was Matthew 2:1-12.

Before we read our Scripture this morning, I wanted to ask you all – How many wise men are there?   

As we read our Scripture, see if you can tell how many wise men there are.

Read Matthew 2:1-12

So how many wise men are there?  The Scriptures don’t actually say, do they?  There are three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but the Bible never actually says how many wise men.  Three is probably a good guess – one to carry each of the gifts.  It makes things nice for nativity scenes and so forth.  


A lot comes to us through unexamined assumptions.

My three wise men question illustrates these unexamined assumptions.

Unexamined assumptions are behind what psychologists call “cognitive biases.”  We interpret things based on what we’ve seen, what we think we know, but not necessarily all the facts.  

Representation Bias

One cognitive bias is the “representation bias.” It’s illustrated by the myth of “hot hands” in basketball.   As a kid, I used to play a basketball video game called NBA Jams where if a player made three shots in a row, that player went into “on fire” mode and they would do cool dunks that would burn down the net and increase their shooting percentage.  But according to researchers, “hot hands” is a myth in basketball.  If you analyze the shot percentages of players who have recently made several baskets, they are no higher than players who have recently missed several baskets.  I don’t think the researchers looked to see if they could do cool dunks, however.  Through a cognitive bias, we let what we’ve seen, what we think we know tell us what’s going to happen in the future.  We’ve seen with our own eyes recent representation of baskets made and we ascribe to them greater predictive weight than they deserve.  It would be better to rely on a much larger data set than the past few minutes.

Spotlight Effect

Another cognitive bias is something called the spotlight effect.  Basically it is the belief that people are paying more attention to us than they really are.   I don’t know who dreams up these experiments, but my hats off to them.  You may not agree, but in the 1990’s researchers decided that the most embarrassing person to have emblazoned across a t-shirt when walking across a room full of college peers was Barry Manilow.  Barry_Manilow4Researchers had students put on a Barry Manilow t-shirt and walk into a room where other students were filling out surveys.  After a few minutes, the researcher would retrieve the Barry-Manilow-t-shirt-wearing-student and ask them how many students in the other room they thought noticed Barry Manilow.  The average guess was that 46% of their peers noticed.  But in actuality, only 21% noticed.  Particularly when there’s embarrassment involved, we overestimate how much people are paying attention.  Again, our unexamined assumptions lead us astray.  Yet we rely on them so much.  Nearly everything that comes into our world is judged according to the mental framework operative in our own minds.  We categorize and judge things.  Yet, what we think we know isn’t always so. But sometimes things break through our frameworks and assumptions.  That’s what an “epiphany” is.  It is a showing, a revealing that is surprising precisely because we had no expectation of it.  

(Both the “representation bias” and “spotlight effect” come from the book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness)

Our scripture this morning contains a few of these surprising epiphanies.

Mental Framework of the Scripture

Astrologers from the east?  Sounds kind of New Agey.  Most of us aren’t used to astrology, magic, eastern spiritual wisdom.

The gifts these astrologers bring don’t exactly seem very well chosen either.  What is Jesus going to do with gold, frankinsence and myrrh?  Why not diapers, a crib, or whatever ancient toddlers played with?  //

When I was searching the Internet for something cute to include in my sermon, I ran across an account of children acting out the scene of the wise men and their gifts:

‘I am the King of the North,’ said one little boy, kneeling before the manger and laying down a brightly wrapped box. ‘I bring you gold.’

‘I am the King of the South,’ said the second, kneeling before the manger and laying down a large colored jar. ‘I bring you myrrh.’

‘I am the King of the East,’ said the third and smallest child, kneeling before the manger and laying down a silver bowl. ‘And Frank sent this.’

 We hear things and our preconceptions label and categorize them in ways that correspond to what we already know.  Translators and storytellers in Western Christianity seem to favor the term “wise men” over “astrologers” or “magicians” in this Scripture.  It’s less of a stretch for our expectations.  But they were astrologers.  That’s what the word magoi in the Greek means.  They were following a star.

And when this child was telling the story of the three gifts, not knowing what Frankincense was, he says, “Frank sent this.”  That, he could understand.  He had no idea what Frankincense was.  None of us would fault the young child for doing so, but he was relying on his unexamined assumptions.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

The ability to rely on these categories, assumptions in our mind is a trait that we all rely on.  In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, the Nobel Prize winning author, Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between two different types of thinking.  Fast thinking and slow thinking.  Slow thinking is what most of us used when first learning to drive. That’s because it is overwhelming.  There are lots of things to pay attention to.  You’ve got to monitor your speed.  Make sure your feet are in position to step on the gas and the brake.  Watch three different rear view mirrors.  Let people around you know when you’re turning. Be aware of traffic around you in all different directions.  And much more.  But over time, all of this becomes intuitive.  It becomes part of our fast thinking system.  When we were first learning to drive, we had to do it slower, with more conscious effort.  But eventually, it becomes familiar and we can do it intuitively as it becomes part of our fast thinking system.  Fast thinking is great most of the time.  Especially when dealing with everyday ordinary things like driving.  We don’t waste energy re-inventing the wheel.  It frees up mental space to do other things.  But it isn’t so great at dealing with unknown things.  It is always trying to sort them according to a pre-existing mental framework.

Reaction or Response

Epiphany is one of those religious holidays that people sort of have to look up each year to remember what it is.  It’s ironically appropriate that we have to reveal to ourselves what Epiphany is each year.  We have an epiphany about Epiphany.  An epiphany is much like a gift.  You don’t know what is inside until you unwrap it.  The wise men were searching for a king – an epiphany…but didn’t know exactly where it would take them.  Our encounter with this baby king should be like this too.  We don’t know exactly what this epiphany gift will mean for us when we open it up.

In our Scripture, the epiphany gift is greeted in two different ways.  The wise men have a response; Herod has a reaction.  In their response, these ancient eastern astrologers seem to be teaching us three surprising truths about the Epiphany.

Ancient Eastern Astrological Truth #1The Magi’s Incantation: Pause, Awe, Open. 

Here’s the first surprising truth.  The magi do three things in one fell swoop.  You might say it is an incantation of sorts.  Magic words to guide us on how to approach the epiphany gift.  You have to say them slowly.  The words are: pause, awe, and open.

In contrast, the epiphany gift provokes a fast, fearful reaction from Herod.  Immediately he’s frightened.  Why?  Herod is king of the Jews.  His very kingship is the mental framework through which Herod understood the wise men’s question, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”  There can’t be two kings of the Jews.

Let’s return to the distinction between fast and slow thinking.  For the most part, we share fast thinking with all other animals.  It reacts immediately to perceived threats.  Slow thinking takes a little longer.  It takes time for self-reflection.  There has to be a brief period of analysis, a suspension of judgment, time to savor the question, “what might be inside this gift?”  This slow thinking is unique to humans.  It is what enables us to deal with the great amount of complexity within our world.  Given that it is part of what separates us from other animals, I can’t help but wonder if this is part of the image of God, part of why God calls us “very good” and everything else in creation, “good.”  We can thoughtfully create new spaces in our hearts and minds for these unknown epiphanies.  But it takes a pause.  A moment of silence.  A suspension of judgment.  This is the first word in the incantation the magi reveal – pause.

That word makes space for the second – awe.  In the hearts of the wise men, a pause gave way to awe.  They were star-struck, literally.  Mouths-gaping-wide-open.  Or as our scripture says, “overwhelmed with joy.”  They looked into the eyes of a precious baby and couldn’t help but say, “awwwe.”  This simply wasn’t possible for Herod.  He was already busy reacting.  Filing this unknown thing away into his mental framework according to his unexamined assumptions.  Fear prevents the possibility of awe.

The pause and awe of the wise men were more than obligatory words to be chanted.  You can’t just say these words.  You’ve got to feel them in your heart for them to work.  Only then can you utter the final word that gives life to the epiphany.  Open.  They didn’t retreat back to their prior expectations before the pause.  They let what they beheld change them.  They didn’t say, “This king is only a toddler.”  They didn’t say, awe shucks, “now our gifts aren’t age-appropriate.”  No, they remained open to the awe, to the overwhelming joy.  Their mental frameworks had been opened up.  They were transformed.  Herod’s reactivity precluded this transformative epiphany.  He would remain the same as he was in the echo chambers of Jerusalem.

Ancient Eastern Astrological Truth #2 – Still Sing Your Song

The second truth we learn from our ancient Eastern astrologers is to sing your song.  I recently read an interesting quote, “Keep an open mind, but not so open that it falls out.”  Not all epiphanies, not all things unknown to us, are created equal.  There are some presents, when you open them up, you know you don’t want to keep them.  That’s what re-gifting is for.

The wise men don’t forget who they were – to do so would be an over-reaction, not a response.  They meet Jesus with the tools of their trade – by following a star.  Without shame or regret, they greet him with gifts that seemed appropriate to them when they started out on their journey.  They came just as they were.

Gifts that you want to re-gift are one thing.  But the worst gifts are the ones that hold you hostage.  The ones you don’t want but feel like you’re obligated to keep.  Perhaps you’ve received such a gift.  I have.  I’ve given a few too.  Gifts with an agenda.  Gifts that try to alter the song that you sing.  Gifts that cajole you to stop doing your thing.

But ultimately, I’m convinced that none of us have to receive gifts like this.  To do so is to be reactive, like Herod.  Gifts can only hold us hostage if we grant them the power to do so.

The epiphany gift takes Herod off his game.  He could keep on ruling.  But he’s put on the defensive.  He reminds me of a sports team that has found themselves ahead late in the game.  Instead of playing in the same way they’ve been playing, they get defensive.  They fear losing what they already have.  They’re too careful.  Rather than playing to their strengths, they get too cautious or they rush too much.  They let fear insert urgency where none is needed.  This is yet another type of cognitive bias called, loss aversion (according to Thinking, Fast and Slow).  Typically, we expend more effort to protect the $100 we already have than we’re willing to in order to earn $100 we don’t have.  There’s a reactive attachment to what we already have.  Epiphanies threaten that attachment.  It is a lack of self-confidence, a failure of nerve in the face of the unknown.  The wise men do their thing.  Herod anxiously calls everyone he knows and shakes them down for information about this epiphany threat.  The epiphany gift holds him hostage.

Can you be your best self in the face of the uncertainty of life?  Open, but still singing your own song.

The wise men are showing the way.

Ancient Eastern Astrological Truth #3 – To experience an epiphany, you must be an epiphany 

Last, but not least, our third “Ancient Eastern Astrological Truth” is to experience an epiphany, you must be an epiphany.  The wise men were willing to be strangers themselves – epiphanies to other people.   They traveled to a foreign land carrying lots of seemingly unnecessary supplies guided by no more than a star.  They were able to enter the royal courts of Herod, but also the humble house of Mary and Joseph.  They didn’t stay in the comfort of the East and speculate on what the star might have meant.  They walked into unchartered territory – places where they had no map for – places where epiphanies reside.  Epiphanies don’t tend to show themselves in familiar places.  We already have the terrain figured out, so they are impossible to see.  Our fast-thinking mental framework rules the familiar places.  It takes journeying beyond the familiar to evoke the slow thinking system.  So you’ve got to go to some places where you are the unknown in someone else’s familiar place.

Herod, on the other hand, retrenches himself in his own familiar echo chamber.  He brings all of Jerusalem in to be frightened with him.  This sort of reactivity is contagious.  As others affirmed Herod’s fears, they became more entrenched, making an epiphany even more unlikely for more people.  Herod stays in Jerusalem.  Rather than going himself, he enlists the wise men in sending word back to him from the unfamiliar places.  He won’t go himself.


I believe the lessons that the wise men and Herod teach us are particularly important for us today.  There is a poison in the cultural waters that I’m infested with.  Perhaps you are too.  I’m talking about the polarization between the right and the left – conservatives and liberals and people at all different places along the spectrum.  It has infected our politics as well as the church.  It threatens the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love.  Sometimes it seems that there’s no way out.  The right isn’t going to budge.  The left isn’t going to budge.  No one’s happy with a wishy-washy compromise.  Lots of people are just turned off to all the ranker and fuss and so they just check out of it entirely.  And that leaves those willing to engage in ranker and fuss the ones controlling the public conversation.  There are some wise men, who I think, have some things to say.  Wise men who can help us examine our assumptions.

My assumption is that all my opinions on the controversial issues of the day should just be adopted by everyone else and then there won’t be a problem.  That’s what most of us want.  That’s the reactive temptation.

But the wise men show us the way into the unknown.

Polarization thrives in familiar places – where fast thinking rules.  Places like Herod’s court in Jerusalem.  Whatever the controversy, polarization responds immediately with a reaction.  There is no pause.  There is no attempt at awe – to look for the goodness in something on its own terms. There is no openness to how something might be good or useful, even in a limited way.  Polarization denounces immediately.  It doesn’t listen, but is exceedingly good at putting things into predefined categories.  Polarization gets defensive quickly.  Rather than focusing on a positive vision of what one does believe, it is taken off its game and gets down in the gutter loudly proclaiming what’s wrong with everyone outside its own echo chamber.  And polarization almost never willingly becomes a stranger in unknown lands.

Better is the way of the wise men.  Rather than reacting immediately when you hear something that rubs you the wrong way, pause.  Suspend your reaction long enough to understand where an idea is coming from.  Dare yourself to ask what good is trying to be expressed through the idiotic things some moron is blathering.  Even let your self be in awe of it.  And not an angry awe either.   I’m not talking about abandoning your convictions.  Convictions are good when we have them.  When they have us, they are not as good. The pause and awe helps us from pre-maturely fitting things into our unexamined assumptions.  This is the space where epiphany happens.  The unexpected arises.  And if you’re looking for it, you’ll find it.  You’ll know when you’re surprised.  Like the wise men, remain open.  You may not even like what has been revealed.  But the epiphany will show you new land one way or the other.  You might decide to stay.  Or you may expand your territory like the wise men did by going back home by another road.  Either way, you’ve been opened up.

The trouble with polarization and with spiritual growth is that too often people don’t even want an epiphany.  There’s no desire to explore the unexamined assumptions in one’s convictions.  There’s no desire to do something unknown in our relationship with God.  That’s fine.  You can coast along time in life like that.  But every now and then, even the echo chamber is pierced with an epiphany.  Someone or something will wander into your life for which it becomes obvious even to you that you’ve got no mental framework equipped to handle it.  Astrologers from the East show up at your door asking where the person who does your job lives.  Then what was your comfortable echo chamber is now an epiphany gift that has taken you hostage, because you granted it the powers to do so through apathy.

Much better to intentionally grow and change like the wise men.   Something called the oracle at Delphi said that the ancient philosopher, Socrates was the wisest man of all.  Socrates responded that if this was so – it was only because he knew one thing – that he didn’t know anything.  He didn’t have unexamined assumptions.  This incident launched Socrates’s life calling – to be a gadfly.  A gadfly on a quest to test the unexamined assumptions of the most knowledgeable people in the land.  The way in which he did so has come to be known as the Socratic Method.  It uses slow thinking in the face of the unknown and usually revealed that those who think they know, don’t know as much as they think they do.   Socrates reveals another cognitive bias called illusory superiority.  It is best illustrated by this simple statistic –  90% of males believe they are above average drivers.  Perhaps Socrates’s most famous words are, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  This is the way of the wise men.  It is an epiphany of overwhelming joy.

Perhaps God has some surprising things in store for us at the communion table.  Would you join us in this epiphany feast?



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