Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Feast of the Epiphany, Year A, January 6, 2008

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.


Enter the wise men, stage right. In their hands they bear frankincense, gold and myrrh. The Holy Family receives them graciously, illumined by the bright star overhead. The cows moo, the sheep baaah. It’s a scene that is played out in hundreds of Nativity plays in churches all over the world.

We don’t know much about the wise men. We know they came from the East, which could have been Persia or Parthia. We don’t know how many of them there were, though we guess at least 3 because there were three gifts. And we know that they followed a star, which might have been anything from the conjunction of two planets, a super nova, or a manifestation of the Shekinah glory of God. We know that they arrived in Jerusalem probably at least a year, maybe two years, after Jesus was born, making our traditional manger scene a pleasant piece of fiction. By the time the wise men arrived, Jesus, Mary & Joseph were living in a house in Bethlehem. The sheep, the donkey, were back in the stable where they belonged and the star did not shine above it, but above the house where Jesus was living. The wise men, after a brief detour in Jerusalem, came there to offer their gifts.

Matthew’s word for the wise men was “magi”. Magi was a kind of generic name for all sorts of men, from those who professed to do magic to astrologers, philosophers, and scientists. These “wise guys” were probably the intelligentsia of their day. They probably knew as much as anyone could know in those days about science and philosophy. They must have been very well read, well enough read that they had read the Jewish scriptures contained in what we call The Old Testament. Knowledgeable enough to know what the sight of that particular star must mean, once they saw it.

Yet there were other men in Jerusalem, who had access to the same knowledge and they were not at Jesus’ feet worshiping him. We know that when the wise men arrived in Jerusalem, the star disappeared. So they asked around…where is the child who was born to be King of the Jews? And the people there honestly had no idea. “King? What king? The only king we know is Herod!” And Herod didn’t know either. Only by consulting HIS wise men was he able to find out where this child was supposed to be, Bethlehem. The wise men from the East set out for Bethlehem after Herod told them and the star rose yet again to guide them on their way.

These wise men of Herod’s, these priests and scribes of the people were not out looking for Jesus, in spite of the fact that they probably knew about him. Jesus, after all, was brought to the temple in Jerusalem by his parents so that he could be ritually circumcised as was required by the law of Moses. There Simeon proclaimed him the one prophesied as the light of revelation for the Jewish nation. The prophetess, Anna, foretold great things in store for the baby. So the rumors about Jesus would have been circulated widely by the time the wise men from the East appeared on the scene. The appearance of these men should have confirmed to the priests and scribes that God had sent the Messiah as promised, after all, we see in our Old Testament reading that the prophet Isaiah foretold that at the advent of the Messiah,

“all those from Sheba shall come.

They shall bring gold and frankincense,

and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.”

So why weren’t the priest and scribes headed out to Bethlehem to find the babe where he lay? Didn’t they know the same things that the wise men knew? Weren’t they as wise as these guys from the East?

The answer lies in the nature of wisdom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and leader of the German resistance movement in Nazi Germany said this:

To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depth of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.

The priests and scribes of the people had all the facts. But they missed the essential nature of what was happening. These wise men from the East were not Jews, after all. Why should they pay any heed to what Gentiles said? Obviously, God was not going to reveal the Messiah to anyone but his Chosen people. They had all the pieces of the puzzle in front of them, but they could not put it together to find the significant in the factual. They were well informed, but not wise.

In our own time, we see a lot of false wisdom. We see it in well-regarded scientists, philosophers, thinkers, and writers who stubbornly insist that there is no God; those who refuse to believe in a God they cannot see. These are people who do not perceive the essential nature of things, despite all their knowledge.

But we, ourselves, also fail. We fail to perceive the significance of God’s gift to us of Jesus, our Savior. We put our emphasis in the wrong place, worrying over things that are trivial while the greater wisdom of God eludes us. We hold on to the little that we know, rejecting all that does not fit into the feeble framework we build out of “facts”. We choose facts over faith and fail to fully live the abundant life promised to us in the gospel. We put limits on what God can do in our lives by refusing to have faith in all that he can do for us and through us. We lack the wisdom of faith.

Unless we come to the wisdom of faith, where we lean on and trust God to fill in the blanks, we end up missing the point entirely. The wise men set out on a journey consisting of hard travel of hundreds of miles in a countryside that was infested with robbers, into a land where the people distrusted and despised them, following a star that wasn’t exactly as precise as a glowing Motel 6 sign might be in guiding them to our destination. They had the wisdom of faith. And through their faith, the Holy Spirit guided them to the place where Jesus lay. These men were truly “wise”.

We, too, can heed the call of the star. We, too, can find the babe underneath its guiding rays. All it takes is the wisdom of faith, a faith that lets us see the significant in the factual, indeed, sometimes in spite of the factual. Arise! Shine! For your light has come!