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Sermon: Wise Guys

January 1, 2012

I originally preached this sermon in 2004 and repeated it today with only minor modifications.  I don’t recall how well it played last time, but it went exceedingly well this week.  Below is the original version.

Matthew 2:1-12

Traveling with the flu wasn’t so bad this time.  The drive up to Bishop is pretty simple and straightforward and relaxing.  You just take 14 up over the mountains and up the valley.  Highway 14 turns right into 395, so you don’t even need to worry about missing it.  All you need to do for 5 or 6 hours–depending upon how fast you drive–is to point your nose down the highway and go.

Even though I was hung over with the flu, I could enjoy the ride.  That’s the thing about the road often traveled.  You have an opportunity to put your mind and body on autopilot and enjoy the scenery.  You feel safe and secure because you know where you’re going.  There are no surprises and no anxiety.

In fact, most of us choose those kinds of roads for that very reason.  Only a few choose to head off into unknown territory without a guide.  We don’t leave home without first consulting MapQuest or the Thomas Guide or at the very least, our trusty old AAA map.  We feel better knowing how long we’ll be on the road, what time we’ll arrive, and most importantly, what time we’ll get home.

That’s why the wilderness experience was so frustrating for the people of Israel.  After the people left slavery in Egypt they were wandering for years, and only God knew where they were headed or when they would arrive.  Imagine tens of thousands of Hebrews in the back seat asking “Are we there yet?” for forty years.  The people felt so anxious about their uncertain journey that they were ready to go right back into the arms of slavery in Egypt.  That’s how much we dislike a journey if we might get lost or run into difficulty.  Let’s just stay home.

Some wise men–some magi–men who knew a little bit about everything, including art, science, mathematics and astronomy and astrology–lived somewhere east of the Promised Land, east of Jerusalem and east of Bethlehem.  They saw a star rising and knew that it was a special kind of star.  They may have consulted their scrolls and decided this star meant that a new king was born.  Their scrolls, however, couldn’t tell them where exactly the new king was, so they packed up some gifts fit for a king and took off.  Now we know the magi didn’t have MapQuest or a Thomas Guide or even AAA, so they just went.  It is important to note that the star they saw in the heavens wasn’t leading them at this point.  It isn’t until later in the story that the star begins to lead them.  For now, the star is only a sign that something wonderful has happened, and these men want to get in on it.

The adventurous magi kept traveling until they came to Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is the logical place to search for a newborn king.  It is the major city of the region, the home of the kings of Judah.  The wise men came to Herod, the ruler of the area, and asked the logical question, “Where has the new king been born?”

The magi probably just assumed that everyone already knew about this new king, but Herod didn’t.  Herod, in fact, was frightened at this prospect.  Herod was the authority of the area, and he kept his job by keeping peace on behalf of the Emperor in Rome.  If the people were talking about another king, that could only mean revolution, and if revolution, Herod might end up not only out of a job, but up on one of those crosses he used to execute criminals.

I am sure Herod didn’t want to let on that he knew nothing about the birth of a king, so he probably herded the magi into the waiting room while he consulted with his own advisors, the chief priests and the scribes.

“I’ve heard something about a new king being born,” he told them.  “That can only mean the people will be getting fired up about another Messiah.  I need to nip this thing in the bud before it gets going.  Tell me, where is the Messiah to be born?”

The chief priests and the scribes consulted their own scrolls, specifically the scroll of the prophet Micah, which read, “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.”

Herod called the magi back and tried to get more information from them about this strange star.  Then, he told them to go to Bethlehem.  “Go; find the child,” he said to them.  “Then, come back and tell me where he is, because I want to pay homage to him, too.”

The wise men went out, and at this point, the star began to lead them.  They followed it until it stopped over a rather unremarkable building.  It certainly wasn’t a palace.  But that’s where the star stopped.  The magi may have waited for a while, assuming the star had just stopped to catch its breath since, certainly, this wasn’t the place where the new king had been born.

Yet maybe I’m being too cynical about these men.  After all, they were wise men.  Our text says, “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”  They were apparently wise enough not to be fooled by appearances.  They knew that all great men and women are not born with silver spoons in their mouths.

The wise men went inside this place that was not a palace, and they saw Mary with her child, and they knelt down in front of the child and gave him honor.  They presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  The wise men who had got up and gone, without any map, only a star in the distance and the firm belief that something wonderful had happened, had found the newborn king.

Then, it was time to go home.  Somewhere along the way, they had been warned in a dream that Herod was bad news.  Herod–as the story will show later–didn’t want to worship the new king, but to kill him.  The magi probably didn’t need a dream to tell them that, but they got one, and decided they would go home by another way.  And so they did.

Who among us is a wise enough man or woman to take a difficult, uncertain journey?  Who among us is enough of a magi to go somewhere if only God knows the way, and we can only follow?  We like the safe journeys, the ones we’ve been on before, or at least the ones where the road is wide and clearly marked.  We like to sit back and enjoy the scenery, secure in the knowledge that we won’t get lost and we won’t go anywhere unexpected.  That’s what we like, but the old saying is that the turtle only goes somewhere if it sticks its neck out.  (Induk Pahk, The Wisdom of the Dragon [New York: Harper & Row, 1970], 70; from Homiletics Online.)

Today is January 4th, so that means that most New Year’s Resolutions have already been made and broken.  But if we’re to make any more, perhaps a good resolution would be to embark on a dangerous, uncertain journey, with only God to guide us.  That’s a hard resolution to keep, however, because it means we have to ignore the voice of Herod, who speaks to us of stability and peace and comfort.  God’s stars, however, often lead us to places where we feel lost or afraid.  And then, we might not be able to come home by the same road we left.  Following God on a dangerous journey can change us and our perspective on the rest of the world–and that’s the danger.

I suspect that many of you already know the kind of uncertain journey God would have you take.  I think many of you have been wrestling with the idea of God leading you somewhere you’re not sure you want to go.  It may be that God wants to lead you out of slavery to drugs, alcohol, an abusive relationship or a bad job to a Promised Land, but you know that to get to the Promised Land, there is a long, hard journey through the wilderness.  It may be that God wants to lead you on to a new, more full relationship with that newborn king, Jesus Christ, but you’re not sure how to find him.  It may be that you’ve been on such a long, comfortable journey so far, just enjoying the scenery, that you’re in a rut, and you just need something different so your soul will stay fresh and alive.  It may be that you need to see a change in your church or your community or your nation or your world, and you are the one that God will use to lead the people on a difficult journey to the unknown.

If you know the way, if you’re traveling on a path you’ve trod many times before, it may be that you haven’t been listening to the voice of God, calling you to go another way, to embark on a new journey–one that scares the pants off you–but one that leads to true life and true living.  If you still have room for one more New Year’s Resolution, I urge you to add a promise to yourself that you will take at least one journey led only by God–not by your own intuition or reason or comfort level, but only by God.  That is the surest way to find yourself kneeling before the newborn king.

Let us pray…

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