Sermon preached 1/3/2011
Christmas was a week ago, and it may feel over, but I still have the Glee Christmas Album playing in my car, we still have our Christmas tree up, and there are still nativity scenes with Marys and Josephs, the Shepherds, and of course the Three Wise Men, who actually show up much later in the story. Our Nativity has seen better days – we’ve had it for 7 years, but within the first couple of years, Mary had already lost a hand, a lamb’s ear had somehow disappeared, and one wisemen had suffered the most with one hand and his head at his feet after an unfortunate decapitation.
This morning’s scripture lesson introduces us to the wise men. Now, you may be thinking, “Hold on a minute. We just talked about the wise men. So, what do you mean we are introduced to them now?” Many of us may feel ready to move on from Christmas and any stories about peasants, shepherds and wise men. Thankfully, the wise men are held in much greater esteem in the gospels: The birth of Christ is recorded only in Matthew and in Luke, and they are each a little different. Most nativity scenes are a combination or a blending of those two accounts. It is only in the Matthew account that we see the wise men, or as it is in the original Greek, the Magi. They come on the scene a little bit later, after news of the birth of Jesus had spread. In fact, they didn’t even show up at a manger at all, but as Matthew tells us they came upon the child in a house.
There is much we do not know about the wise men. To begin, we usually assume there are three of them. This likely started in the 3rd century with the theologian Origen, who declared there to be three wise men—probably because there were the three gifts, but we aren’t given the exact number. We know they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh given to the Christ child and we’ve even done a lot of speculating about why they brought those gifts and the meaning of each gift. Later in the 6th century they had even been given names – Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior. But, we don’t really know that to be 100% accurate. We think they were astrologers. Then, there is the question of their origin. Some scholars will say Arabia, some Sheba and Midian, some Persia. Matthew simply says “the east.” That could be China, India…even New Jersey.
On occasion we have also been told that had they instead been the wise women they would have asked stopped and asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, made a casserole and there would indeed be peace on earth. This seems like the most practical theory.
What we do know is they brought gifts, they were guided by a star as they were looking for the one born King of the Jews, they had an interaction with King Herod, they eventually did find Jesus and when they did, the NRSV translation tells us, “they knelt down and paid him homage” but if we look at the Greek we see that they “fell down and worshipped him.” They didn’t simply get on one knee and make some sort of official gesture, but being overcome with joy, they fell on their hands and knees to worship him. Plain and simple, and honest – this was the first Christmas eve service.
So there is a lot we don’t really know, and there are some things we do know. But what I think is important for us, especially as we begin a New Year, is that they followed the star that led them to Jesus. The star of course, was God’s sign for them and it lit their road all the way to Bethlehem.
But, don’t forget that they were waylaid first, and had a meeting with King Herod. Herod was the terrible person who did not like the idea of anyone else being called the Messiah or the King of the Jews, especially a little baby. So when the wise men met with Herod and told him they wanted to find this newborn King of the Jews, Herod immediately started hatching a plan to get rid of newborn Messiah and asked the wise men to return with directions so that he could go pay the little baby a little visit.
And this is where we see that the story isn’t really just about three kings journeying from afar, it’s about two kings. The three wise men no doubt realized that they had two options—follow King Herod’s request and stay in the good graces of a powerful politician—or follow the way God put before them to the infant King, and experience God’s grace in a whole new way.
We know that we too are often presented with the same choice. On one hand we can follow the Herods of the world; those things that would love to knock Jesus off and claim their hold on us as king. Sure we easily can rattle off greed, war, bigotry, and hatred as Herods. What about selfishness with our resources, or laziness or lack of interest in our quest to learn more about God? Or apathy toward those in need or experiencing pain? Could those be Herods? What about an unwillingness to get involved or to make a commitment? What about our schedules and calendars and pressures to keep up with everyone else, lest we fall behind, could those be Herods—something that tries to claim kingship in our life and maybe keeps us from following God? What about holding a grudge or not realizing our part of the blame in a disagreement? Can these things get in the way of our relationship with God? If so, then it might be a Herod, and it will be up to you to decide if you follow it—or not.
On the other hand, we can decide not to follow the Herods of the world; those things that would love to knock off Jesus and claim their hold as King—and we can instead follow the light. We can seek out the newborn King and we can seek not to just pay him homage, but to have an experience where we are overcome with joy and we fall on our knees to worship him. What are those things that light our way and lead us, lead you, lead me, to Jesus? What is it about God that excites you – makes you feel alive – and how can you pursue it? What is your light? Is it singing, is it helping at Safe Harbor, is it a desire to learn more about God, is it teaching, is it sharing your resources, is it leading or serving on a committee? Is it carving out time during the day to give to God and to pray or read the bible or a devotional? Is it talking with your kids about God or sharing your faith with people who need it? What is it for you that would lead you to kneel at the manger and worship God because for as close as we all may have felt during Christmas, none of us — definitely including me — spend much time kneeling at this precious manger really understanding what it means that God Incarnate chose to be a baby and not a powerful politician or a king like Herod.
Christmas wasn’t so long ago – the day we celebrate God’s incredible entrance into the world, but we need more than a few days, a few weeks, even the rest of our lives to watch, follow, and journey towards that light, and feel what it means that it wasn’t only Mary and Joseph, or even the wisemen who took a long journey in this story, God also chose to take a journey…inconceivably across time and space…to be with us…
My desire for each of us is that we journey and follow the light that leads us to Jesus. But if there is someone here today who is wondering what in the world that light or sign to follow might look like, here is something more to glean from our text – with the wise men God used an ordinary object for them — a star. Remember, they were astrologers after all. A star makes perfect sense for them.
So don’t be surprised if God might just decide to guide you by something ordinary or familiar too, something that is already in you, or before you, that makes sense to you…and if you have you eyes open and are willing to look for it…you will see it…And, we will always have the help of peasants and shepherds, wise men, babies, and a star…and so much more around us. We also have the table, where God invites us to feast on ordinary, everyday bread and drink from the cup to share together in God’s presence.
When we come to this table we proclaim that love, peace, and joy, that hope – as Ann Weems writes in Kneeling in Bethlehem:
The Christmas Spirit is that hope which tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithful
and announces in the face of any Herod the world can produce
and all the inn doors slammed in our faces
and all the dark nights of our souls
that with God
all things are still possible,
that even now unto us
a Child is born!
Like the men of old, may we be wise enough to follow and journey!