January 3, 2021
Have you ever wondered what would have happened if it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men? At least two things would have been different. One, they would have asked for directions sooner so they wouldn't end up in Jerusalem. And they would have brought practical gifts like diapers and food; maybe a hotdish. That's an old joke, but as we celebrate the arrival of these foreigners come to worship a Jewish King, we need to consider the whys and the results of this visit.
We really don't know a lot about these magi/wisemen/astronomers/kings. All Matthew tells us is, “ wise men from the East.” No country, not titles other than wise men. He does have them tell why they came, looking “for the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” As we consider their tale, I want to move back and forth between them and their quest for the new king and the official King of the Jews, Herod.
The magi, non-Jews, practicing arts that were not compatible with the Law of the God of the Israelites, searched and found the Messiah when almost the whole Jewish world missed him. They came to Jerusalem, kind of a surprise when you think about it. They knew the ancient writings, the star was understood by them to lead to a king, they were learned men. I would think they could find the prophecy of Micah on their own. But... for whatever reason in God's eternal workings, they let this evil king know of the birth of a new king. And that, we know, didn't sit well with Herod.
Herod welded a lot of power even though he was given his throne by the Romans. Pastor and author Heidi Haverkamp wrote this about him, “The power of Herod is brutal, reactive and paranoid... the power of God is not like that. What if God's power is just the opposite?” Now we are getting into the question of power in our world; how do we act or react in a world where the powerful seem so out of touch with our day-to-day lives? How do we react when powers-that-be take advantage of the weak and powerless?
The morning I read Heidi Haverkamp's article in the Christian Century, I reflected back on my prayers just minutes earlier. As I finished praying that morning, I was thinking about all the evil, all the troubles in the world. So I asked God to send his Holy Spirit in a more powerful, direct way and forcibly change the hearts of the rulers in today's world. I was asking God to be a ruler like Herod. Herod used brute force to try to get his way. God uses a spirit of peace and love. God does not take over our live's forcibly. God doesn't send avenging angels to take revenge on mass murderers or rogue police officers. God speaks to us in a small still voice. Herod makes his point with violence; God with sacrifice, with feeding the hungry, with charity, with mercy and grace. These traits do not match up with a god who forces compliance, even by the Holy Spirit's work.
What about those three kings? They end up at the home where the Holy family dwelt, “They saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Their quest was completed, they witnessed that the King of Israel was born. If they were kings, leaders of nations, they perhaps could have found a way to protect the new king. But they did not have the kind of power Herod possessed; “and having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” This sentence led Haverkamp to reflect, “What if the power of God is not a takeover or a massacre but seeking and finding, going home another way … and the spreading of good news?” The magi were not a part of God's “chosen people”. They were the first Gentiles to know Jesus. And Paul in today's epistle tells us, “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” But they received and brought home with them the good news.
I am not a big poetry guy, and among the few poets I have read, T. S. Elliot is not among my favorites. But in my research this week I discovered that he wrote a poem called, “Journey of the Magi.” I want to share a few lines and then his finish.
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.”
They went back their own countries, but they were not the same men, they were changed by their encounter in Bethlehem. They had been in the presence of the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. Their old dispensation, their old gods no longer satisfied them. Having been in the presence of the Savior changed their view of life and death. They were no longer at home in their old lives. And that is the effect Jesus should have on us. We are not to be satisfied living in a world of status quo; or a world where power is the goal. We are to live lives of service, lives of change, lives that reflect the life of Jesus.
Listen to what Paul wrote, “ I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power.” We too are called to live as servants, a difficult calling to be sure. But like Paul, we have been given grace by the working of Christ's power; power in service and grace, not in domination and violence as the world too often sees power played out. And it is our natural tendency to seek power, to seek our own good, to live selfish lives. But God does not call on us to serve under our own power. God invites us to team up with the Holy Spirit to serve. God invites us into the throne room of God to share our needs, our hopes, our failures. Paul assures us that in Christ Jesus our Lord, “we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”
The magi followed the star seeking to worship a king; and went home changed. Herod sought only to protect what was his and lived and died a pitiful life. What are we to do; seek our own good or seek Jesus? As we share the sacrament of communion this morning, remember that we are called to servant-hood. As the light of that star led the wise men to the light of the world, so we are called to follow the light of the world, our Savior Jesus. And so may we be encouraged in our walk of faith... and may we leave here today knowing we are children of THE king. Living, not to lord it over others, but living as the prince of peace lived, as a servant to all. Amen.
Hymn: We Three Kings