Thus ends the sermon series and the Christmas season. I hope it was a blessed one for you!
SCRIPTURE – Matthew 2:1-12
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
” ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’ “
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Jan. 3, 2010
Well, here’s a story we all know. The three wise men travel from the Orient to greet the baby Jesus in the manger, bringing with them gifts to bestow upon the new-born king. If you have a nativity set, you probably have Gaspar, Balthazar and Melchior as part of your figurines, probably accompanied by their camels. After all, you can’t have a nativity scene without the wise men.
Or can you? As much as we think we know these foreign visitors, there’s actually very little that scripture reveals to us. Tradition has played all kinds of tricks with the Magi, giving them places of origin, names, and even physical appearances. But the truth is, we really only know what we’re told in this passage, which isn’t much. We don’t their names, what they looked like, we don’t even know how many there were! They brought three gifts, but chances are there was a whole cavalcade of people in their procession. We also don’t know their occupation, but we’re pretty sure they aren’t kings. Most likely they’re astrologers or magicians in some foreign king’s court whose job is was to observe and study the sky for signs. That’s why they responded when they saw the star, following it as it led to Jesus.
So there’s a lot we don’t know. One thing we DO know is that they weren’t at the manger scene. The passage tells us they came to Mary and Joseph’s house, which means baby Jesus is most likely toddler Jesus. He could have been up to two years old when they visited. That’s a lot different than what we’ve come to know. When we strip clean this biblical story from all the legends that have been attached to it over the years, when we look at it through fresh eyes unclouded by Christmas convention, perhaps we can see these “wise men” for who they really are. They are like us. They are human beings on a spiritual journey, a quest for something more holy and more meaningful, a search for the true source of promise and hope. They are seekers.
Now, in verse 2, something happens that I find disturbing. Before the wise men make it to Bethlehem, they make a pit stop in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. Why? Did they need to refill their canteens? Were their camels out of gas? No. They stopped to ask directions. This is troubling. Here we have a group of guys on a road trip together, they stop to ask directions, and the Bible calls them wise men! What worries me is that, if they are wise for stopping and asking directions, where does that leave the rest of us?
The timing of this story for us is not coincidental. After all, at the beginning of a new year, what better thing to do than to stop and assess our life’s journey, where we are and we want to be, and how it may be that we are in need of some direction and help. That’s not always easy to admit, especially for those of us who pride ourselves on not stopping to ask directions, who like to think we know exactly where we’re going and how to get there. But here’s the thing: people who think they don’t need help, the Bible calls “prideful,” but people who can honestly assess their situation and courageously ask for help and direction the Bible calls “wise.”
So these wise men stop in Jerusalem to ask directions from King Herod, who was appointed to rule over the territory of Judea by the Roman Empire. He was an opportunistic ruler who did his best to get on the good side of his Jewish subjects. But Herod himself was only half-Jewish, and everyone knew that he wasn’t the true heir to his throne; someone else was the real king. So Herod was constantly looking over his shoulder. And when he hears about the birth of the true King, he’s rattled. His power is threatened.
So he calls in his chief priests and teachers of the law, members of his royal court who would know exactly what the magi were talking about. These people were students of God’s law and would know intimately the prophecy about the coming of the Messiah. You could throw any question about the Bible at them and they would quote a chapter-and-verse response. They reply to the magi’s question about the birthplace of the Messiah by citing the passage in Micah about the king of the Jews being born in Bethlehem.
I find this really interesting. Though the chief priests and the scribes could recite where the Christ child was to be born, they didn’t actually lift a sandal to go and see him. At a time when the Savior of the universe is born, the most religious people of the day were nowhere to be found. And yet the magi, a group of Gentiles who probably couldn’t recite a lick of scripture and wouldn’t know Adam from Abraham, were following God’s star to see the Christ child.
That’s food for thought for us Disciples, who belong to a denomination that holds a high regard for intellect and reasoning. For those of us who consider ourselves spiritual, it’s a warning not to let knowledge replace service. It’s one thing to know what the Bible has to say, but it’s quite another to actually follow the directions. If simple knowledge of the Bible were the only criteria for faith, then our level of faithfulness could be measured by our intelligence. But it’s not. As James says in his letter, knowing and doing are two different things.
For those of us who don’t consider ourselves biblical scholars, this story has something to say to us, too. Notice that God didn’t say to the wise men, “As soon as you memorize the first three chapters of Genesis, follow that star,” or “Once you write a five-page paper on the meaning of grace, I’ve got something to show you.” God simply led them, and they followed. It was the same for Jesus’ disciples. He didn’t give them any kind of aptitude test or require them to meet any kind of criteria. He simply said, “Follow me.” You may think that to teach Sunday School or to attend a Bible study you need to fulfill some sort of religious prerequisite. But you don’t. To follow God, we don’t need any preordained knowledge or divine insight; we only need a willingness to ask directions, and sincere desire to follow them.
That’s what the Magi do. After leaving Herod’s place, they continue to follow the star until it stops right over Jesus’ house. Then they presented him with the curious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There’s some symbolism there worth noting. Gold was traditionally considered a gift for a king. Frankincense, or incense, was a gift for a deity, and was often used in the temple during prayer time as an offering to God. And myrrh as was an expensive spice, most often used in the embalming process, as a body was prepared for death. So in these gifts, we see Jesus’ life laid out before us: his royalty, his divinity, and his death. These offerings tell us who Jesus is, what he came to do, and how much it would cost him. He would become, for us, the ultimate gift.
After their time with Jesus, the wise men are ready to return home. But God warns them in a dream about Herod’s wrath, and instructs them to go home by another road. Having lived in Lexington for over a month now, I can really relate to this. I soon learned after moving here that just because a road starts out with one name doesn’t mean it’s going to end up with the same name. Cooper becomes Waller, Jessalyn becomes Southland, Armstrong Mill becomes Redding. Someone could give you directions with five different street names but no turns. I may think I’m on one road, but I could very well end up on a completely different road, even though I didn’t do anything differently.
In fact, life has been like that. There have been so many times when I just knew where I was going and how I was going to get there, and then like a divine GPS system God said, “Recalculating.” Often times the new way is not where I want to go. The route I had planned for myself never included dying loved ones or multiple sclerosis. I would rather take the easy route, the straight road with no obstacles. Instead God leads me down roads with twists and turns, speedbumps and roadblocks, with only the light of the Star to guide me. Have you run into roadblocks in your life, detours that took you off your meticulously planned route? There were things you simply didn’t plan for, didn’t want: illnesses, broken relationships, loss. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? “God, this is NOT what I had planned!” And yet for me, in the midst of this new part of the journey, there was peace. I didn’t know where I was going, didn’t know what was ahead, didn’t know how long it would take, but I knew one thing: when I got to wherever God wanted me to go, I would be home. Maybe not where I planned or expected, but because God would be there with me, I would be home.
As we start this new year together, this might be a good time to take a rest stop and check our maps. Are we headed in the right direction? Are we trying to navigate life without a spiritual compass or a guiding light? Are the roadblocks we encounter keeping us from moving forward, or are we letting God lead us down a new path, helping us to recalculate our route as we continue our journey?
Maybe that doesn’t apply to you. Maybe you’ve got it all worked out, your soul is locked in on the right path and your spirituality is right where you want to be. But for the rest of us, now might be a good time to stop and ask directions. “God, where do you want me to be? What do you want me to be doing? How do you want to use me to do your will?” I don’t know how God will answer those questions for you, but I do believe that if you are listening for it, God will answer. Because that’s where we find all the answers to life’s most important questions: in God.
So here we are, the end of our journey for this morning and the beginning of our journey for this new year. What lies ahead? Probably not what we think. As we follow Christ’s shining star into 2010, I pray that we become more Christ-like in our lives, living in such a way that we embody God’s love and forgiveness. Sometimes we forget that, and we get lost. That’s OK. It happens. Just don’t be afraid to stop and ask directions. After all, that’s the wise thing to do.