Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12
Originally Given on January 6th, 2013
When I was growing up, for the first few years, I remember traveling a few hours down I-95 to visit my grandparents in the town of Santee, SC. And because this was before the time of DVD players in cars, or iPhones, or any kind of hand-held gaming device, or the ability to choose the music in the car, my brothers and I would soon grow restless. To keep us entertained, though in all honesty it was perhaps more to keep themselves from going insane, my parents would play different games with us that required looking outside the car. Early on, my parents would offer a quarter to the person who first saw the “big sombrero” at South of the Border. The big sombrero was a hat high atop a tower at a kitschy little tourist stop just across the South Carolina border. The tower and the hat on top rose a couple hundred feet off the ground and so it was visible a few turns before we actually passed South of the Border and so that covered the first 20 minutes of the drive or so. Of course, going to my grandparents house always provided my brothers and I more than enough excitement and so anytime we got too restless my parents would remind us of our final destination and we would happily remind each other that we were heading to see Granddaddy and Gaga. On the way home was a different story, leaving my grandparents was never easy and so our dispositions were not nearly as cheery but my parents tried to help us along and soon we would be counting down the miles until South of the Border and the Big Sombrero and another quarter. But the marker for home that sticks in my head to this day was not the Big Sombrero, as great as that was, but a sign on a billboard that happens to still be there to this day. The billboard read, “Wise men still seek him.” Partly it sticks in my memory because in my 9 year old brain, at first I didn’t understand it and had to ask my dad what it meant. After he explained that it was referring to the Wise men in the story of the birth of Jesus, my 9 year old brain began to try and work this out literally. Were there people still wandering around the area around Bethlehem looking for Jesus? Was there still a star shining over the place where Jesus was born? Were there still shepherds and angels? You would not believe how long my 9 year old brain grinded over these questions until finally, and I imagine quite exasperated, my dad explained to me that it meant that smart people still sought after Jesus, still sought to be faithful, still sought to know God and God’s love for the world. Wise men still seek Jesus. I’m not sure why that memory has so firmly implanted itself in my mind but I smile every time I pass that billboard and think about a child trying to work out how the story of Jesus’s birth still challenges people to live a better life today. And so it should come as no surprise that the story of the wise men is perhaps my favorite in the whole of the Biblical narrative.
We are told in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus that magi from the East came searching out Jesus, came from a far distance, and first encountered Herod, the King of Judea. These men came to the king and told him of their journey, told him of their hoped for destination, and this shook Herod to his core. We are told this shook Herod to his core and all of Jerusalem with him. Is it possible that one had been born who would challenge him for his throne? Is it possible that one was born who would shake people out of their slumber, shake people to their core, and offer them a new way of looking at the world in which those in charge, those with all the power and authority could no longer hold the masses down? Was one born who would challenge the authority of the Roman Empire? Was one born who would challenge the prevailing religious devotions of his day? Was one born who would change everything?
Soon after Jesus is born in Bethlehem these three men see the star that marks the place where Jesus is born arise in the sky and they begin their journey. And first they come to Herod, the ruler of the region in which Jesus was born, and they inquire to him where they are to go. Herod, being a part of the old order of the world, the old order that cannot see Jesus in its midst, Herod has to have others, consulting the Hebrew scriptures tell him where to look for Jesus and still he doesn’t get it. Herod, faced with the chance to see Jesus, to see God incarnate in this world, is still too tempted by the power that he has in the old order of the world. And he is scared, and it says that all of Jerusalem was scared with him. He is scared because if the Magi are right, if the scriptures are right, then he is about to be challenged in his power. And maybe he can see it slipping away. Maybe he can see all the riches of power and wealth that he has stored up in the old order of the world being lost amidst the appearance of a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. But Herod wasn’t done yet. Because we all know that there is a pull in the old order of the world, there is a draw to maintaining the status quo. It is easy. It is easy to say to oneself, I am going to try and maintain things just the way they are because that is easier than learning something new, that is easier than being something new, it is easier to not challenge the old order of the world. It is easier to choose not to step out into faith in Jesus. And so it is that Herod gathers the Magi back together with every intention of getting them to lead him to the manger so that he may deal with this challenge early on. So the Magi head off, having no idea that they are being used as pawns in Herod’s plan.
And so the star begins to move them to the manger and when it stops over the stable the magi are overjoyed! Can you sense it? Can you sense the excitement mixed with trepidation that they must have been feeling when the star finally came to a stop and they knew that their journey was almost over? Can you imagine what they must have been feeling as they entered the stable and saw Mary and Joseph? And the baby? Joy. Pure joy. As can only be experienced by those who look on the face of a newborn baby and can see the whole of God’s beautiful plan unfolding before them. And maybe that is exactly what they experienced. The beauty of a newborn baby, so pure, so undefiled by the brokenness of humanity, laying in a manger. God’s special child. And they knew. They knew the baby before them was special and so they honored him. They honored him by kneeling down, paying him homage, and by their gifts, gifts that would symbolize the whole of the baby’s life before he even knew what his life would be like. “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod they returned to their country by another road.
The magi, left Herod’s court in order to report back to him their findings. They would leave the manger on a new mission. Before they leave the palace, Herod says to the magi, “Find this one who was born, find this one so that I may, too, worship him, that I may, too, prostrate myself at his feet, find this one so that I may know him.” And the magi went along with this plan. They went along because they had not yet had their epiphany, they had not yet had their moment of clarity, they had not yet had their aha. But they continue to track the star of David until they arrive at the place where Jesus was born. They arrived there and immediately they knew. Immediately they knew that the one before them would bring to fruition all the visions of the prophets from past times. The one before them would begin the work of the psalmist who offered a vision of the future. The one before them, was the Christ. Clarity. Epiphany.
And their lives are changed. And we know their lives are changed because Matthew tells us clearly, they left for their own country by another road. The New Revised Standard Version often cleans up translations for the understanding of modern readers, and so it is the New American Standard Version that better tells us, “they left for their own country by another way.” They left their encounter with Jesus forever changed so that they could not return to their country as if nothing had ever happened. They could not have traveled back to the comfort of their home in the exact same way. That way had Herod. The new way had searching for something new, something that would fulfill all the visions of the prophets. After their encounter with Jesus they found it, and they were forever changed, and so they went back to their own country, by another way.
We read the passage from Isaiah today with the knowledge that in our world, our brothers and sisters still ache, still seek a better way, are still covered by darkness. And they need light. At this time we know that wars rage on and that people, our brothers and sisters, continue to be killed, and we need hope. We need hope and vision. We need hope and vision and one to emerge from the unrest and violence, from the oppressive conditions in which people find themselves, one who says, “God still cares, God still loves, God still desires wholeness and justice for all the children in creation!” And so it is that Isaiah offers this vision for today. And a beautiful picture is painted of a time in which the clarity of God, the light of God, shines out covering those lost in the darkness of despair and hopelessness, shines out to a world in desperate need for change. Isaiah sees this time, sees this reality and offers all those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, a vision, a direction, a hope. Visions can lead to clarity, visions can lead to epiphanies, visions lead people to imagine the world as a different place, a more loving place, a more just place, and visions lead movements. And movements bring change, both here in Amsterdam and around the world And I wonder. I wonder what anyone thinks when they hear the words of Isaiah. I wonder if these words seems like pipe-dreams that will never come to fruition, I wonder if people hear these words and trap them in a forgone era from a place in the world thousands of miles and years from our own. I wonder, if anyone still sees visions of light in darkness, of all of God’s children coming home, of radiance in all, I wonder, if hope for such visions is even possible.
Isaiah’s words are intended to shake people out of their state, they are intended to move people from the status quo of today and into a brighter more hope-filled tomorrow. The words are a passionate plea from a writer thousands of years ago and they have arrived in this place and in this time, and they cannot be missed. Throughout the Advent season we said that we were searching for Jesus, we were searching for the Christ in our midst and we are told that just as he appeared in a stable on a dark night long ago, so to does he arrive in this moment, and in this one and in this one. But our encounter with Christ in the text, our encounter with Christ in our midst must be transformative, it must be radical, it must shake us out of the comfort of our lives and propel us to something more. It must set us on a journey, a journey in search of God, of hope, a journey in which we depart a changed people, a changed world. The magi came into the place where Jesus was with his parents, and from that experience they were changed. They went home by a different way. They were changed because they knew that redemption had quietly slipped into the world, that love had quietly slipped into the world, that God had slipped into the world. And they knew that what had started was a movement, a movement spoke of by the prophets, sung by the psalmists. A movement that would be first for Jesus’ own people but would never ever be contained by one nation, one people, own faith. And so that movement continues on this day and at this moment. We believe. And when we believe in a present God pulling us from brokenness to holiness, and when we believe in a God that cares about each person in this place and outside of this place, and when we believe in a God that loves the other no matter who that may be, and when we believe in a God that dwells deep in our own souls, we can still have moments of peace, still have moments of clarity, still have moments of epiphany. And for those moments, for those brief moments, maybe it all makes sense. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all peoples. Alleluia, Amen.