Wisdom Seekers

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | December 26, 2021

Matthew 2:1-12

Have you ever sought an answer, when you weren’t even sure of the question?

Have you ever followed a hunch, trusting that it would lead you to the right outcome?

Have you ever had a dream so real, that upon waking, you knew that you had to do something about it?

The story of Jesus, from his birth to his resurrection, is not a story that is best understood by way of explanation. It is a story we ponder as we live out its meaning in our lives.

There are so many ways to tell it. That’s why we keep telling it, over and over again. And with each telling of the old story, there always seems to be something new that we find in it.

The second part of the Christmas story unfolds sometime after the birth of Jesus. The shepherds were back in the fields, the angels had returned to heaven, Joseph and Mary and the young Jesus had settled into life in Bethlehem. They likely thought of the events around the birth of Jesus. What would happen next and when would it happen? All they could was wait.

In the meantime, a caravan was making its way to Jerusalem. In it were a group of star gazers from lands in the east. They had read signs in the sky and interpreted them in line with Jewish scriptures that foretold of a king being born in Bethlehem of Judea. Not just any king, but a Messiah, a king anointed by God as a Savior.

These wisdom seekers wanted to share in this miraculous event. They would travel to Judea and pay homage to the new king with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. However, wise as they may have been, they made assumptions that turned out not to be true.

Their first call was to King Herod. They assumed that he would be in on the story. That he would be part of the celebration. He knew nothing about it. What he did know was how to use his power. He told the wise men to go and find the newborn king so that he too could go and pay homage. But his homage was not to be the bending of the knee, but the wielding of a sword.

A star up in the sky that moves around and then stops over a particular house down below is not the kind of stellar event that can be explained by astronomy. This takes our basis for understanding the story out of the realm of explanation and into the realm of mystery. Mystery that is understood like we understand poetry or prayer.

As the story is told in a few verses in Matthew’s gospel it’s fairly brief. And so, over the years we’ve added details to it. There’s no mention of just how many wise men travelled to Bethlehem. It could have been two or a whole caravan.

But since they brought three gifts, we tend to place them with three individuals. We’ve even given them names – Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. We even anoint them as kings in their own right. Their visit to Bethlehem has provided a springboard for the imagination about the meaning of God coming into the world as one of us.

One legend has it that the first king would offer gold, suggesting it could buy the pleasures of earth. The second would offer the modern scent of chemistry – the power to drug the mind, seed the soil, and control the population. The third would offer myrrh in the shape of a split atom – the symbol of death for anyone who opposed the ways of peace.

When they found the house, they met Joseph who refused them entrance. They protested; “What more could we possibly need to assure peace?

“We have the means to provide affluence, control nature and destroy enemies?”

Joseph would not let them pass. “You have forgotten the child,” he told them.

One legend tells that the Magi were three different ages. Gaspar was a young man. Balthasar was middle aged, and Melchior was an old man. When they found the house in Bethlehem, they entered one at a time.

Melchior being the oldest went first. He found Jesus to be an old man like himself. They spoke together of memory and gratitude.

The middle-aged Balthasar met Jesus as a teacher of his own years. They spoke passionately of leadership and responsibility.

When Gaspar entered, a young prophet met him with words of reform and promise.

After they each met with the Christ, they gathered outside the house and marveled at how each had gone in to see a new-born child, but each had met someone so much like himself.

The wise men who came to see Jesus were called ‘Magi.’ They were not conjurers like magicians, but interpreters of knowledge. Being knowledgeable and interpreting signs from the stars would give them a power that might seem like magic.

They travelled a long way to see the new king born in Bethlehem. They saw something in the stars of which few people were aware. There was a new king; but he was not a king appointed by the emperor to lord it over the people. He was a monarch of a different realm; the realm of the heart and soul.

When the wise men paid him homage they were spitting in the face of Roman power. They were saying, “We bow to a rule greater than that which can be imposed by the power of violence.”

No wonder Herod was afraid. As king he could rule people by force. But he always knew that if the threat of the sword was removed, there was no authority. You can kill the body, but you can’t touch the soul. No wonder he tried to destroy this threat to his position by the only means at his disposal.

This story reminds us that reminds us sometimes it takes an outsider to reveal the truth. They came from the same direction from which most of Israel’s conquerors had come in the past. Assyria, Babylon and Persia. Instead of coming to impose some new rule or dominion, they came seeking a universal dominion. They came from the same direction from which the sun rose each day. Like the rising sun each day, they represent God’s renewed possibilities. They were a reminder that the birth of Jesus was a reason for hope.

One wonders how they ever really found Jesus. The star they followed wasn’t some Tinkerbelle fairy that flitted around and hovered over the house. Yet, how do any of us find our way to Christ? Any one of us could look back on our lives and see the ways that we have been led to Christ. Scriptures describe what he did and said. Scriptures have truths that speak to us. But Christ himself, the living reality of God with us? Wisdom seekers still find him to this day. And in that finding the story often makes about as much logical sense as the one we tell each year at this time. The world is full of stars in the east.

Why was it so important for them to find the newborn king? That’s a question we can ask ourselves. Why would it be important for anyone, for us even? Would it be important for our world today to discover anew the heart and soul reality that Christ brings into the world?

One thing this story reveals is the reach of God’s love and grace. It’s a preview of what follows. The Christ who drew these wisdom seekers to him, is the same Christ who had a profound effect upon people from all walks of life.

So, what do we hear in this story? 

We hear that God has sent a gentle ruler, a shepherd who will nevertheless upset the powers-that-have-been.  We hear that the smallest things, like a newborn baby, can terrify the arrogant, and bring them down in the end.  We learn that God’s reach of grace goes far beyond every obstacle within or without, and pushes us beyond them, too.  

I came across a poem written by the African American poet Langston Hughes called “Carol of the Brown King”

Of the three Wise Men
Who came to the King,
One was a brown man,
So they sing.
Of the three Wise Men
Who followed the Star,
One was a brown king from afar.
They brought fine gifts
Of spices and gold in jeweled boxes
Of beauty untold.
Unto His humble
Manger they came
And bowed their heads
In Jesus’ name.
Three Wise Men,
One dark like me
Part of His

The story of wise men, magi, kings from the east who sought out an audience with Jesus, foreign though it may seem is our story as well. Who could seem more foreign to Jesus in Bethlehem than folks from the cold northern land of Minnesota? To find him today we too must cross boundaries of geography, ethnicity, class, economics and religion.

As my friend Rex Hunt has said of this story – “We have all been given our own star or, better still, each of us has a ‘personal legend’. As others have said… we embody God’s dream for the world in a unique and singular manner…We acknowledge this awesome mystery embodied in every human person, aware that each gives God unique and personal expression”

God calls us to follow that dream into unlikely places and to see that dream in unlikely people and ordinary folks. And even in people just like us. Amen.

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