The Wise Guys
The Wise Guys
January 6, 2019
So, I’ve mentioned several times that as a child my favorite characters in the Christmas story were the “wise men,” or as I used to call them, “The wise guys.” We always had a creche up in our house during Advent. I was known to steal a “wise guy” every now and then! If one went missing, I was the prime suspect.
Even as a grown up, there is a sense that the presence of the wise men in the pageant story kind of raises everyone’s game. For years in the Union Church, the wise men were guys from the choir who dressed up in robes that kind of reminded us of Prince during his “Purple Rain” years. Meanwhile, the congregation would get into the spirit of the moment and sound a bit like an Octoberfest crowd in Germany: “Ooooooh, oooooh…Star of wonder, Star of light…” Wise man after wise man makes his way to the front of the church.
Of course, the thing is that the wise men never went to the manger. If you listened carefully to our text this morning, these men arrive “after Jesus has been born.” When they follow the star to Bethlehem, they find Mary and the baby in a “house,” not a barn. Mary and the baby have found more permanent lodging and Joseph is not mentioned. Some scholars think that this visit could have been weeks or months or even a year or two after Jesus’ birth. When they see the child, they kneel down before him and pay him “homage.” They offer gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Isn’t this what every baby wants, after all. Oh…by the way, unless you missed it, there is never a number of wise men named in the text, even though, we know, for sure, that it was “We, Three Kings,” right? Hold it, though, not only is there no number, the wise men are never called “kings,” either…
Holy cow…what do we know? Well, let’s piece some things together. These wise men from the East, scholars think, were probably part of a royal court and likely were some sort of astronomer/astrologers. Like the rest of us, if they were expert in something it was probably some focused area of study and practice. It makes sense that the people who might be curious enough to ask, “What is that star doing over there?” would have been folks who spent their time looking at stars. And in the ancient world, unusual things in the night sky were often interpreted as “signs.” Still, today, in a very different world, whether for amusement or for some sense of direction in life, lots of people read horoscopes.
If you were a king, it would make sense that you would want people around you who could talk to you about the future, who could see what was coming, who could give you a leg up. That’s who these guys were. For those of us who just want to sing, “We Three Kings” with some literal sense of truth, this is a little disappointing. They may have had connections to a king but they were no kings, themselves. Much as we might have liked it if the “wise men” were M.D.s or PhD.s, that was not the case, either. If they were wise at all, their wisdom didn’t rest in some role we would admire or even in some ideas generated by mainstream astronomical thought that any of us would accept. Their expertise didn’t lead them to the child. Their curiosity did. They were paying enough attention to know that something was up. The truth is that almost no one else was paying that kind of attention at all.
Let’s start there. Most of the people who ever listened to Jesus paused for a moment, took in what he said and moved on with their lives. They had more important things to attend to: gathering today’s food; getting today’s work done; dealing with that unruly child or that difficult neighbor. He was interesting. What he did for that blind guy was one amazing trick! Still, though, who is going to drop everything and follow him? With him fully grown and preaching and teaching and healing, showing people a different way of living, most people couldn’t be bothered.
That’s still true for most of us today. We lead busy lives. We need to get the kids to school, get to the store, work, maybe check in with a friend and, oh yes, check my email in between and during each of those things. I’ve got a list the length of my arm of what I need to get done. I have responsibilities. I have people to care for. I have to start ticking things off that list. If you put Jesus, himself, in front of me at the self-checkout at Target, I might stand there tapping my toe and wondering, “What’s taking you so long?”
Unlike those crowds of people who actually got to meet and listen to Jesus of Nazareth—and then forget about him altogether, we are more like the wise men. We have some kind of knowledge and wisdom that we’ve cobbled together. (Don’t kid yourself, though. Are eggs good or bad for you? Should you be drinking whole milk or skim? How long until we learn that sunblock wasn’t good for us after all?) We know some things. We are wrong about a bunch more. However, what will matter isn’t what we know or don’t know. What will matter is whether we are paying attention, whether we are available, whether our curiosity can get the best of us and knock the all powerful to do list out of our hands.
The wise men notice. They are curious. They decide to go and find out what’s up. They are willing to leave behind what is safe and familiar and comfortable and go far afield into the unknown. And their reward for this willingness to follow the star? They waltz straight into the heart of darkness, itself—Herod’s court.
Now, we know very little about the wise men at this point except that they are a little clueless about the world and how things work, at least how Herod worked. We know a lot about Herod. He killed most of his own children and his own relatives because he was so paranoid about someone taking away his power. He loved no one more than his wife but whenever he left Jerusalem, he left orders that should anything happen to him, she should be killed. (This was because he loved her so much that he couldn’t stand the thought of her being with anyone else.) When he found out how much she loved her kind, elderly uncle, Herod killed him in a jealous rage. This man had some serious anger issues which everyone knew except the wise men. They waltz right into his court and say, “Yo, Herod! Where can we find the newborn king?”
Now, we should pause and understand that often the price of following God’s calling is that we find ourselves in some rather clueless way getting way in over our heads. “What are you doing here?” “Um…I just wanted to feed someone who looked hungry?” “Uh…I was worried about this child.” “Oh, shoot…I saw something and I thought, ‘I want to at least try to help.’” It reminds me of the night when I was in seminary and walking in a terrible neighborhood in the middle of the night between the men’s homeless shelter and the women’s homeless shelter and got surrounded by a group of guys who looked me up and down and then one said, “We eat hippies like you for breakfast!” (Trust me…I went back by a different way, just like the wise men!) Paul would later talk about being “fools for Christ.” A lot of folks who are doing the faithful thing end up looking like fools to the rest of the world.
The vast majority of the time, feeling the fool is about as bad as those moments get. If you’ve been seen as the fool through enough adventures in faith, it starts to become disturbing when it’s been a while since someone told you what a fool you are being. If my life and my choices start making too much sense, maybe I’m off the track? Herod doesn’t kill the wise men or even arrest them. He calls in his experts. They offer up what I’m sure was a little carefully measured advice: “Well, our beloved ruler whose rule will never end or be equaled by any, if there was some sort of newborn king the record seems to favor Bethlehem but gosh…who really believes that?” Part of the price of being Herod or a Herod like figure is that if you kill enough messengers then, sooner or later, no one is really going to want to tell you the truth. Herod insists that the wise men come back and tell him what they’ve found. (At which point, I like to think the wise men, even before being warned in a dream, thought to themselves, “Herod, do you think we are idiots?”)
So, we can emulate the wise men for being open and curious and available to God’s calling. We can hope that we would be willing to follow where God calls us, too. We can be honest and recognize that trying to do the faithful thing will rarely make us look all that wise to anyone else in the world. There are a couple more steps, though that we have to see…
When the wise men arrive in Bethlehem, it is amazing that they don’t take one look around and run. Seriously! If you have paid the price to do the faithful thing, if you have put in your time to follow that path, you have expectations about what you are going to find. Those expectations are almost always dashed. “I thought the person I was going to help was going to be nicer! I thought the place I was going to was at least going to be clean. I thought that there would be a little more gratitude when I showed up.” The truth is that God leads us to where God needs us and that is rarely where we thought we were going. Do you think the wise men left the comfort of their homes with dreams of standing in front of some little bungalow in Bethlehem? I don’t think so!
All of which leads us to our final insight: they had no real idea what they even had to give once they got there. They dropped to their knees and humbled themselves, which is a terrific place to start! They gave their gifts but it would be years before anyone would really understand their meaning. Think about it… The man who would reject the wealth of the world was given gold as a baby. The man who so loved the world that he was willing to die for it was given burial spices as a child.
May we all be wise enough to do something at least as foolish as following a star. May we all have the honor of being considered clueless by world-weary people. May God give us the courage to show up and give what we’ve got and to trust that someday we may come to understand why it mattered.