This sermon was preached on January 6th, 2019 at Broadway Baptist Church. Click here for sermon audio
Have you ever wondered about the journey of the Wise Men?
How they got all the way to Bethlehem?
What they learned on the way?
For most of my life, I haven’t really given much thought to their story. I’ve always considered it a proof text. A supernatural sign recorded to help everyone who heard about it in Jesus’s time and in our own believe that he really was the Messiah born of a virgin in a manger in Bethlehem.
And what makes all of it even more mysterious and perhaps miraculous was that these three wise men were not even Jews, who might have known the prophesies of old, with their signs and symbols to guide them, but Gentiles from the East, only guided by a star. If they believed that Jesus was the messiah, then so should we.
But these days I find myself wondering about the faith of these wise men, not their cognitive belief about Jesus, but the practices that opened them to this incredible journey.
I no longer see them as supporting characters in the drama, passively used by God to teach us something. I see them as spiritual seekers who might guide us on our own journeys to Jesus.
Seeing this takes imagination
My son Judah, adopted from China just a few months ago has a Fisher Price, “Little People” nativity set.
He is more interested in throwing the pieces around or putting baby Jesus on his car ramp than he is assembling the scene as we typically imagine it.
Fischer Price’s wise men don’t look like those conceived by the 8th Century Historian The Venerable Bede: Old King Melchior of Persia, white haired with his box of Gold, Young King Caspar of India red cheeked with his frankincense, or King Baltasar of Arabia dark skinned, and heavily bearded with his myrrh.
Fisher Price’s wise men aren’t even men at all (At least we can’t find any men. We don’t know whether they only put two wise people in the box or one ended up under the couch)
One is a black woman and the other looks likes a Chinese woman with features probably a lot like Judah’s birth mother and his nannies. Judah prefers to put her where the golden haired angel is supposed to sit on top of the barn. That is his way of finding himself in the story. And it should be our way of finding ourselves in the story too. Like the Wise Men, most of us are Gentiles, outsiders to this Jewish story.
I think Fisher Price made their wise people so diverse so that every little girl and boy might know that they can grow up to be wise people, too, so that all of us might grow up knowing that we can also find our way to God’s light, breaking forth within us and around us, even when we cannot see it.
So friends let’s use our imaginations this morning. Let’s go on a journey together with the Wise Men and see what we might learn.
First, the Wise Men show us that to find Jesus you have to step out into the dark
The Wise Men were astronomers and astrologers skilled at analyzing the night sky. Some think the star they followed was Haley’s Comet last seen from earth in 1986 but sighted as early as 11 BCE. Others think it was a supernova.
Whatever created this spectacular light, was we know this…
that the wise men had were willing to step out into the dark and look. That they were awake, intentional, present to what was before them. That they got curious and watched this bright light from the west carefully, charting its course as it moved. And on what seemed like an ordinary night that they were so caught up in this divine glow from the sky that before they knew it they had begun their journey. Like Abram they would step out into the dark, leaving everything they knew and walking thousands of miles. Some nights seeing clearly and other nights wondering if that star was just a figment of their imagination.
When was the last time you were in a place dark enough to see the stars?
Most of us prefer to live in places where there are so many lights that we couldn’t see the stars if we tried. All that light makes us feel safer and more comfortable, but in our desire to avoid the darkness we miss so much. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark writes:
“…the Milky Way, about which Ovid wrote about more than two thousand years ago is now invisible to two-thirds of those living in the United States. If this does not bother you, that may be because you have never seen it stretched above your head like a meadow of smallest stars. Lie down in it, even with your eyes, and you risk wondering things that will make you dizzy for days. Where does the path of stars lead? Where does the cosmos end? What lies beyond it, and who are you to wonder about such things? If you are ever in doubt of your place in the universe, this is a good way to remember.”
But the deeper problem is our avoidance of the darkness within us. Taylor continues:
“The second reason to care about the cost of illuminating the night is because our inner and outer worlds are so closely related. .. For a measure of your comfort with the dark, notice how many lights you leave on at night. Is one per room enough or do you need more? Is a bright home sufficient or does the yard need to be lit too? In these ways and more our comfort or discomfort with the outer dark is a good barometer of how we feel about the inner kind.”
To see the stars you have to risk going to where it might be dark and for most of us that is risk we are not willing to take.
A recent study from the University of Virginia found that given the choice, many participants preferred undergoing electric shock to sitting alone with their thoughts. Study participants were exposed to a mild shock, which they all reported they didn’t like and would pay money not to undergo again. But when left alone in an empty room with a “shocker” button for up to fifteen minutes, removed from all distractions, unable to check their phones or listen to music, two-thirds of men and one-fourth of women in the study chose to voluntarily shock themselves rather than sit in silence
We do so much to avoid dealing with our true thoughts and feelings. We prefer the glow of our iPhones to the dark night of the soul.
But if we are always avoiding the dark, fearful places within us, we will never see the stars. We will never see the God who is present exactly where we are however dark it might seem.
Leonard Cohen sings:
“There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
That sounds a lot like the night sky to me. The light of God is streaming into the cracks of our world and the cracks of our lives for those who know where to look. This new year, I pray that you will step out into the darkness within and without and look for the stars
Second, The Wise Men show us that to find Jesus you have to ask for help
You can’t walk alone. The journey from Persia or modern day Iran where these wise men came from could have been 9,000 miles. It was a long, desolate, dangerous trip.The wise men had to travel together to survive, but even the three of them couldn’t make it alone. Somewhere along the way the star just disappeared and so they went to Jerusalem and began asking everyone, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
They asked for directions.
Some say that if this story were about three wise women they would have asked for directions way sooner, and they wouldn’t have wasted so much time wondering around, and they would have been at the birth on time, and perhaps they would have brought gifts that the baby and his mama could actually use.
However much time the Wise Men might have wasted, their asking for directions demonstrates a deep humility.
These great scholars acknowledged that they had come to their limits. These Persian Zoroastrian Priests, had the humility to ask the Jews they found on the streets and Jews they found in the King’s court for help. Their desire to seek the truth was bigger than their egos.
Of course it’s also true that without the Wise Men neither Herod, nor the chief priests, nor the scribes would have known that the Messiah had been born 6 miles down the road in Bethlehem. It goes both ways.
The Wise Men’s query was also a risky act of vulnerability.
Their question was dangerous. The text tells us that “When King Herod heard it, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod feared the possibility that he might lose his power and the people feared the violence that would ensue. They had seen Herod kill his own family members, and they would see him kill a whole generation of boys to keep his throne.
We must also risk ourselves if we hope to find Jesus. We have to risk walking with each other, because walking alone is too dangerous. Our loneliness is literally killing us.
Numerous recent medical studies tell us, shockingly, that loneliness is more of a health risk, more lethal, than obesity or smoking cigarettes
That seems incredible, but it’s true. More and more research is showing this.
And it doesn’t take that much research to see that our stubborn self-sufficiency is killing us collectively as communities and as a nation.
Just look at your Facebook feed or turn on the news or try to have a meaningful and respectful conversation about race or politics over a meal with your extended family. In subtle and not so subtle ways, we believe that we have all the answers. Our conversations end before they begin. They really aren’t conversations at all. At best this path has led to echo chambers that keep us intellectually lazy and emotionally immature. At worst this has increased our fragmentation and our violence.
We are no longer just in conflict over ideals-that is actually healthy! We attack each other on a personal level and this isolates us even more.
And so we keep on wandering around in the dark by ourselves, trying to make it on our own, until we are forced to admit we are lost.
The Church of course is guilty of this hubris, too, in our own way.
Our insistence on having all the answers has led us to isolation and conflict as well. We enjoyed cultural influence so long that we began to believe that we were the only ones who held the truth.Like those chief priests and scribes in our story we’ve prided ourselves with knowing the scriptures well, and worshipping correctly, but we’re caught off guard when someone comes along to ask a question we don’t want to answer because it threatens the way we’ve always done things, or the power we hold, or exposes the power we’ve actually lost, but in our denial attempt to grasp more tightly.
Or our critics and reformers see a different way forward but our pride or our fear keeps us right where we are. Like the scribes and priests who know the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem but stay in Jerusalem where its comfortable
Diana Butler Bass, a church historian and scholar wrote a twitter thread about this. So many churches (including maybe our own) lament that millennials and an increasing number of people from all generations no longer come to church. The statistics show us that these same people are increasingly identifying as spiritual but not religious.
She asks a simple question: “What if instead of believing that God is calling us to work so hard to attract these people to our churches that we looked outside of the church, and we walked with them, and dared to believe that we might learn something about where God is already at work in their lives outside of the church, even and especially if that makes us uncomfortable?”
The surprising truth of these Wise Men from another culture and religion finding the way to Jesus is that we all need each other whether we know it or want to admit it or not.
If we could get over our need to appear self-sufficient
If we would risk accepting help from others
If we would be ok with “being wrong” or “appearing weak” or just admitting that we don’t know what we don’t know
If we could admit we needed help
We might not just survive, we might just find Jesus in a whole new way. This New Year, I pray that you and that we as a church would ask for directions, ask for help, and learn to walk together
Finally, the Wise Men show us that to find Jesus, you have to follow your dreams.
In the gospel of Matthew, dreams and the followers of dreams are God’s means of protecting the Divine being born and growing in our world.
Joseph’s dreams saved Mary’s life and Jesus’s life
Despite his fear of shame and disgrace he followed his dream and became a husband and a father.
Despite his fear of being caught by Herod, and everything that comes with seeking asylum in a foreign land, Joseph followed his dream and took his family to Egypt.
It was Joseph’s dreams that gave him the courage to face his fears, choosing to risk himself to keep God’s dream alive.
And it was Herod’s fear that drove him to violent self-preservation.
The Wise Men had good reason to be afraid. In their time in Herod’s Kingdom, they could sense Herod’s ruthlessness. They knew the power-hungry tyrant would not hesitate to kill three foreigners who undermined his power.
And yet in their fear they choose to follow their dream, and go home another way. For they had seen the star stop over Mary and Joseph’s house and they were overwhelmed with joy! They held joy, and watched him run around the house and play, and saw joy in the eyes of his exhausted parents. And this joy living and breathing before them in that little boy grew within them into a beautiful dream of what might be in their lives and the life of the world.
I don’t mean to say that the Wise Men knew all that Jesus would become, but in their great joy they knew enough. And so the wise men left Bethlehem like the women leaving Jesus’s empty tomb on Easter, afraid, yet joyful.
Isn’t this the case with every great dream?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer dreamed God’s joyful dream of a Germany safe and free for Jews, and for all people, and in his dream he faced his fear, resisting Hitler and his theology of extermination when he could have retained his place of privilege.
Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed God’s joyful dream, not just of Civil Rights, but peace in Vietnam, and justice for the working poor, and so he faced his fear non-violently and stood with sanitation workers in Memphis.
Oscar Romero dreamed God’s joyful dream of a world where the hungry were not only fed, but the powers and principalities that kept them hungry were defeated. And so he faced his fear of the deadly consequences of being called a communist, preaching the gospel week by week.
Nelson Mandela dreamed God’s joyful dream of an apartheid-free South Africa, walking out of prison to face the fear of hatred and retribution, but choosing truth and reconciliation instead.
Malala Yousafzai dreamed God’s joyful dream of a world where girls and women could go to school without violence and intimidation. Facing her fear of another bullet from the Taliban, she still dreams this dream as she speaks in Pakistan and studies at Oxford.
These men and women like the wise men before them followed their dreams, God’s dreams, choosing to run after the joy of what could be rather than giving into the fear all around them.
What is your dream this morning?
It might seem small and insignificant compared to that of the wise men or those other dreamers who inspire us, but you should know that they too were once considered ordinary unknown people like you and me. All of their journeys started like ours with a fearful, “yes” to take a small step toward that joyful, but fragile, dream within. We can all do likewise, as individuals and as community. Taking the risk to listen to that wild and beautiful voice inside of us that we so often silence.
For it is our dreams, God’s dreams within us, God’s dreams we share with one another that will lead us home. Home to our true selves. Home to our true callings. Home to Jesus and all that God is birthing into our world.
May you step out into the dark, walk in community, and follow your dreams all the way home.