“The Wisdom of the Magi” Matthew 2:1-12 January 7, 2018
More than any other characters in the Christmas story the wise men have been the subject of much good humor.
- Like in the story of the child who was setting up a manger scene in the corner of the home and, puzzled for a moment about what to do, calls out to the rest of the family – “And where shall I put the three wise guys?”
- Or if the wise men been women, they would have brought much more practical gifts including a casserole so the family would have something to eat.
We really know very little about the wise men despite the story we tell in plays and songs around Christmas time – you know the one – about how three kings arrived in Bethlehem – fast on the heels of the shepherds – to pay homage to the baby in a manger. The problem is that the gospels do not confirm this often told story.
In fact what we do know is a bit different:
First – the three kings were not kings at all, but rather they were magi, wise men, & professional scholars in fact, schooled in the science of astrology.
Second – we do not know if there were three of them or thirty, the Bible does not say. All we know is that three gifts were given.
Third – there is no mention of the manger in the story of the wise men, in fact just the opposite. The story in Matthew’s Gospel states that the wise men entered into a house arriving approximately two years after the birth.
Today, I want to look at the story of the magi – let’s call it the story of the three wise men for convenience, and draw four points from it. Each of these points concerns the wisdom of the wise men – a wisdom that is available to us if we want it.
First – we discover in the story that the wise men sought for truth and wisdom. The magi knew that the star that they followed was no ordinary star. These wise men or magi had apparently been searching the heavens for years for signs of something unique and significant occurring in their world. They were open to new wisdom and truth – more than this – they searched for it. They were not simply content to get along with that which they already knew.
So, when they saw a new star in the heavens, they sensed in their hearts that it was a sign from God. The bible tells us over and again in some form or other – that if we seek, we will find; if we knock, the door shall be opened to us; if we ask, we will receive. But how often do we actually seek for wisdom; for new truth; or for guidance?
Think of all those times when you or someone you know tried assembling all those new toys and tools that appeared on Christmas. How many people actually looked at the directions before beginning to assemble them? How many tried to put something together relying on the “knowledge” they already had, – only to find that it was not good enough?
The wise men gained their wisdom because they were seekers – they were looking for new things, new insights, new signs, and new ways of doing things. In a way they read their manual as they searched the heavens for signs and wonders.
And so can we. We can be open to the signs and wonders that God daily puts in front of us.
Second – The wise men set forth in faith to find where the star was leading them. Faith by definition involves the idea of making a journey – of venturing forth – of risking one’s very self in a new activity. The living God cannot be found by proxy; by someone else on your behalf. That was King Herod’s mistake. He wanted the magi to go in his place and search for the Christ child. Only then, he said, would he come and worship the newborn king though we know he had other plans.
By contrast the magi had to travel from a foreign land in search of wisdom and truth. They did not know where the star would lead them, how long it would take, or what the end result would be for them. They only knew that it was important for them to follow that star to wherever it led. It was a quest and the result was an opportunity to worship the one who would be King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
This may well be the most important truth for us in this Epiphany story. A story of faith is a quest, a journey. It is not enough to know all kinds of facts about Jesus Christ. One must be open to the wonders of God’s grace and action in the world and in our individual lives.
Faith is not inherited like the family jewels – nor can it come from simply knowing what others have said about it. Faith is about stepping out in life, and taking a risk.
Faith is like the difference between having read about how to make a cake and actually making one. One can know all there is to know about cooking, one may well have memorized the recipe for the cake that he or she wants to make – but until one actually gets out the ingredients and mixes them together and puts the results in the oven – it means absolutely nothing.
Third – The wise men sought help from other people as they tried to find the king. We so often try to live our lives without making any demands on others. We try to be independent; to stand-alone; to make it by ourselves. Sometimes this comes out of noble motives – we do not want to burden others. Other times it comes out of fear – we are afraid of looking weak or foolish.
When the magi arrived in Jerusalem it seems that they lost sight of the star. They knew they were in the right area, but they were not yet at the right spot. Kind of like us sometimes when we go driving in a new city to find a friend or office or store. We get into the right neighborhood – but somehow can’t quite locate the street we are looking for. Our map may be outdated or in error, or the Global Positioning System is turned off or not working correctly, whatever the reason may be, we are stuck and remain stuck until we ask someone else for help.
That is what the magi did – they asked in Jerusalem, “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” They ask where the newborn king is and how they can find him so they can pay homage to him. Because they ask – they receive. Their question is answered by people who are familiar with the scriptures and prophecies concerning the birth of the Messiah – and they take that answer and set forth with it – and when they do so, once again they see the star going ahead of them – until it takes them to Jesus.
There are many people who can help us on our journey of faith – if we are wise enough to ask them. The question is, “are we willing to ask for help when we need it?” When we are in the right neighborhood, but can’t quite find our way to our destination will we stop and ask for directions, as did the magi?
Fourth – The wise men accepted what God led them to and believed in it. In the story of the wise men often much is made of what they gave to the Christ child. But consider what they were given for a minute. They set forth looking for a king – a King of Kings in fact. After a long and hard journey they end up at a simple home in Bethlehem – and there they find a carpenter and his wife and child. There are no costly treasures in the house, no purple robes, no gold rings, nothing in fact to show that they are in the presence of person destined to be a great king. Only the star stood overhead to indicate that anything special at all was going on. And they accept this.
Although all the outward signs, save one, are telling them that they are in the wrong place, they accept that single sign – the sign of God that they have been following for so long – and ignore the rest.
So many of us have a hard time accepting what God has given in the form that God gives it. Because we are waiting for a gift from God – we look for great miracles, instant healings, signs and wonders, trumpet calls, a flash of light and 21 gun salutes.
We may pray to God for a special blessing – and then turn away from our door someone who is looking for a meal, or a neighbor who is dropping by unannounced, or someone who shows up just when we are preparing to leave work for the day.
There is this old story told about a man who hated Christmas.
It was late Christmas Eve, but in spite of his wife’s pleas, he would not accompany her to church. The whole crazy idea of God becoming a human being made no sense to his logical mind. He stood watching the heavy snow at his picture window. He thought of the birds and wondered if they would find the seeds he had put out for them. It was snowing hard enough that the seed holders were quickly covered.
He turned on the backyard lights, but both the birds and the seed were lost in the falling snow. Putting on his heavy coat, he went outside and opened his big barn door. Then he spread birdseed just inside the barn, hoping that the birds would see it. They did not!
Still hoping to help these little starving creatures, the man tried desperately to shoo the little birds toward the light of his open barn – but they were too frightened. Here they were only inches away from the food and water they needed, and he was helpless. He thought, “If only I were a bird, I would show them the way to that life-giving food.” Just then the church bells began to ring announcing Christmas morning. Suddenly he understood why God’s Son came to show us the way to eternal life in the way that he did – as one of us. From that point on he became a believer.
We have this idea fixed in our minds that God does not, or should not appear to us in the ordinary aspects of our life. We do not expect God to show up while we are at work, or doing housework or yard work; or traveling, or spending time with a friend, or watching the grandkids.
We have a hard time too considering that God’s answers to our questions can be found on the lips of our friends, or that a dream or thoughts we have had during a long and troubled night is, in fact, a message from God.
The wisdom of the wise men was and is simply this:
- they sought wisdom,
- they were willing to journey in faith, to take a risk, and to personally discover what God was doing,
- they did not hesitate to ask for help along the way;
- and finally – they accepted what they found – even though it was plainly dressed – and they believed in it.
Simple stuff really – but true wisdom is normally simple stuff. Simple – but when used – as the wise men used it, it leads us to God. May God bless us all with this kind of wisdom. Amen
©Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, 1/2018
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