Skip to main content

Lessons from the Wise Men



Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is 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." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

This story of the magi, or wise men, that first Epiphany is a wonderful and rich story. But as I said in my weekly newsletter, unfortunately, it has become simplified, romanticized, and domesticated. What I mean by that is that the story has for most of us been reduced in our minds to something like
“wise-men-on-camels-calmly-but-confidently-following-star-which-glows-above-stable; they offer gifts, and calmly return home.”

That reduction of the story to such a cartoonish-image is unfortunate, because the story as it really is – the story as it’s told in the Bible – is complex and full of real life: it is full and fast paced and rooted in reality. It is not a safe, friendly, cheerful little story, but a risky, uncertain, murderous-political, fast-paced, mysterious, joyful-tragic story – and therefore the story can help us make sense of our [risky, uncertain, murderous-political, fast-paced, mysterious, joyful-tragic] life.

At any rate, I’d like to explore three major movements in this story:
                      
The first major movement is the movement of the wise men from their homes: “In the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking ‘Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?’”

We don’t know where, exactly, the wise men were from: all we’re told is that they are “from the East,” but wherever they were from, presumably they had come a long way to get to the city of Jerusalem.

In other words, they’d left their homes, they’d left what was familiar to them, they’d left their comfort zone.

Something – in their case, their knowledge of astronomy – pointed or prompted them to leave what they know, go somewhere else, and ask the question, “where?” – “where is the one born ‘King of the Jews’”? was their specific question.

What about you, what about us?

Here you are, in church.

You’ve left your home, your familiar surroundings.

Why?

Why are you here this morning?

Why did you decide to come here today –

--or generally speaking, why do you decide to come to church?

(Okay, I know that for some of you, it’s not really a decision, a choice you make: there are some teenagers here, for example, who might be here because you’re pretty much forced to, you don’t really have a choice….)

(And for that matter, it’s not just teenagers…there may well be some adults here who feel they are here not because of choice, but because of obligation…some people who come from a Roman Catholic background, or from some other religious background where going to church is not seen as a choice one makes, but as an obligation…)

But even if you don’t have a choice, or feel you do…ask yourself…if you could choose to be here, what might make you want to be here?)

With as many other different choices you have: you could be sleeping in and reading the newspaper, or going grocery shopping or to Starbucks – why church? Why here, what points you to church, what prompts you to come?

As Rev. Cathy and I have asked that question of people who take a membership class, we find there are many different answers, many different reasons:

·         some are drawn to the beauty of the space itself;
·         some come because of the liturgy (the worship service itself), what draws them is the music or the preaching or receiving the sacraments (or some combination of all three);
·         some come because they are drawn to the sense of community.

And there are other reasons, other “draws” as well…

But that’s where the story starts…something is drawing, something is prompting these wise men, to God-made-known-in-Jesus...and is prompting you to leave what you know, the familiar, and go to your Jerusalem, someplace unfamiliar, out of your comfort zone.

Then what?

Notice what they do there: they ask the question “where?” “Where is the child born King of the Jews?” is their specific question, but “where” – “where can we find Jesus, where can we find God is the underlying question…for the magi, astrology was the prompt, but what’s being said is, “we’ve observed things in our life that are pointing us to this child, this King, this ruler, this center…and we want to know where to find him.”

So the first movement is a movement away from the familiar, asking each in our own way “where” we can find Jesus.


The second movement:

Finding God-in-Jesus triggers joy and generosity, but it also triggers fear, sabotage, and turmoil. 

Now we get to the bulk of the story:
“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea” and they tell him that is what was prophesied.
“Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."

They go, and when they get there and see Jesus and Mary, “they were overwhelmed with joy” --they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

We see here that finding God-in-Jesus triggers joy: the magi are overwhelmed with joy. There’s a God-shaped hole in each of us that only God can fill, and filling that hole, finding that fit, brings tremendous joy and (this would be a whole new sermon) prompts tremendous gratitude: they offer the best they have.

But it is so important to notice another dynamic at play in this story. Finding God-in-Jesus…putting God at the center of our heart and life, putting God by definition “de-thrones” the thing or things or people that had been at the center.

And those things and people don’t surrender power quietly.

Finding God, making God central, triggers fear and sabotage and turmoil.

King Herod, we’re told, is frightened.

Why would King Herod be frightened?

Remember what the magi were asking for: where is the “King of the Jews.”  

And what is Herod? 

King.

King Herod did not like any threats, perceived or real, to his power.

(Herod had his own sons murdered when he thought they posed a threat to his power. His own sons.)

You think lying, conniving, deceptive politicians are anything new? Read a little later in chapter two, and you find out the real reason Herod is sending the magi and the real reason he wants to find out exactly where the child is born. It’s NOT to “pay him homage” --  

“Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, went into a furious rage and sent and killed all the mail children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were under two years of age…”

Here’s the lesson: the minute you put God at the center of your life, the minute you make God the central driving power in your life, then the things in your life that have had the place of power and centrality in your life will protest.

The spiritual life – the peace of God, calm confidence in God’s care, all that – are not found at the drive-through. Not that easy.

It’s a fight. The spiritual life can be a battle.

Good and God-given things can develop a hold on us.

Let me give you a concrete example, one that compared to a lot of things might seem trivial:

Later today, I’ll be going, with my son Will, to the Redskins-Seahawks playoff game.
I’m a fan; I hope Washington wins. If they win, I’ll be happy. If they don’t win, I’ll be disappointed.  

But win or lose, I’ll be over today’s game in about an hour. I care…I’m hoping we win…but it just doesn’t mean that much to me.

That’s a healthy perspective to have as a sports fan.

But compare that to last Sunday. When we played Dallas.

I’m not proud to admit this – it’s embarrassing to admit – but that game meant a lot more to me; that game assumed a great deal more importance to me than just a game. Had we lost that game, I would not have gotten over it so quickly or easily. I would’ve hated my life, kicked the dog, hated my car, hated my job, hated myself for hating…  

That is NOT a healthy perspective to have as a sports fan…

And here’s the interesting thing: even though I was happy that we won the game, I didn’t really enjoy watching the game very much. Because I was not holding on lightly to it. Or should I say it was holding on tightly to me.

Alcoholics have an expression: “first you have the drink, then the drink has you.”

My little embarrassing example is meant to make a larger point.

It’s the same with sports…money…power…sex…fame…you name it: any time we allow ourselves to become [what Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits] calls “inordinately attached” to them, then those good and God-given things are in danger of becoming small-g-gods to us, in that moment.

And the chief sign that this is happening, the thing to watch out for?

Power.

They have power over us, rather than our having power over them.


It’s a power struggle: developing new habits, healthier relationships and healthier perspectives alarms the principalities and powers behind those things, and then the evil one, sensing a loss of power, will either directly or through other people, seek to sabotage our change.

Resist that sabotage…fight and pray through the turmoil….detach from inordinate desires, put desire for God back at the center, and the good news, all those things (if they are good and God-given) will be given back to us. And we can enjoy, truly enjoy them.


The third movement comes at the very end of the gospel story. I don’t want to spend much time on it, I’ll leave it to you to fill in the blanks, but I have to mention it because I’m fascinated by it: it’s a little line I’ve never heard a sermon preached on before.

The third movement is that the wise men go home by a different road.

having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

If we do begin to ask questions about our money…the way we spend it, where it goes;  

If we begin to ask questions about our work…the number of hours we put in, the value it is adding to society;

If we begin to ask questions about our the amount of stuff we accumulate, how we spend our free time, what relationships we’re in that are life-giving, and which ones are not…

…then not only will those with something to lose will feel threatened and seek to sabotage our change,  

But doing asking those questions, putting God at the center of our life, will change you.

Church, in other words, can change the way you go home!

When we return home, return to the things that had been our center, and we have a take it or leave it attitude, an ability to enjoy things without being attached to them, we’ve gone home a different road.

We return to possessions, work, relationships, and enjoy them, get meaning from it but they do not define us, they are not our king, our ruler, our Lord.

Because we – like the Magi – have a different King, ruler, and Lord.  

--##--

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Irresponsible to be Silent

A sermon preached June 19, 2016 The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church, Virginia
(“Dear Lord: Carry your word into the most protected parts of our hearts.”)
Today I don’t have a traditional sermon. I certainly don’t have a sermon about Father’s Day, but now that I’ve mentioned it, happy Father’s Day. Today, instead of a traditional sermon, I feel led to share some things that have been on my heart this past week.
I’ve been your Rector here since August of 2012. Those of you who have been here a long time know that my preaching style is almost always “expository,” a fancy word that simply means you take a passage of scripture, and having studied it during the week, you show – or expose – its meaning and relevance as best you can, and then you sit down, trusting Holy Spirit will be hard at work simultaneously translating for each of you what you need to hear on any given Sunday.
One of the implications of this style of preaching is I tend not to preach “to…

Let's Unpack One Trump Tweet on Refugees

No one can  -- and I certainly don't want to try -- to unpack every tweet the person currently holding the office of President of the United States sends out.

No one has the time to respond to every one of his tweets on just one issue. Although I wish I had the time on the issue of the Executive Orders recently issued in regard to refugees.

But every so often I feel I MUST respond to at least SOME of those tweets, lest I grow accustomed to them as normal. And I refuse to normalize the abnormal. 

Take one of Saturday's tweets, for example: in response to Judge Robart's temporarily stopping an Executive Orders, there was this: 



“What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?” 

Let's unpack: 

"What is our country coming to..." 
Does that lament sound familiar? Ask yourself: who often says it, where do you hear it from the most? Is it a positive, hopeful line of thinking? I wil…

The Beatitudes, Lady Liberty, and Refugees

A sermon preached January 29, 2017
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the p…