A Light Unto the Gentiles

Matthew 2:1-12
© Stacey Steck

Much has been written through the years on the journey the wise men took to arrive in the barn at Bethlehem, but comparatively little about their journey home. Even in the Bible, all we have is that one cryptic line, “And then, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they returned home by another route,” compared to the elaborate lead up to the arrival at the manger. But isn’t what happened after the visit what is really important? Isn’t the route they took home, and the journey they followed the rest of their lives, what really matters? Coming to Jesus is relatively easy. Going out into the world is a little tougher.
But we are in luck this morning, because as a Christmas gift, I received a rare copy of an ancient manuscript which may shed some light on that journey home by the wise men. It turns out even though we don’t have any words actually written by the wise men, we do have the account prepared by the head steward of the expedition, the one charged with the logistics, and making sure the trip went off as planned. He apparently wrote a report that was recently uncovered in a cave in Iraq, during the war there, the very same cave where Saddam Hussein was finally captured. It has now been translated and made public to a select group of pastors, so consider yourselves quite lucky to be here this morning. So here now are the relevant sections of the report of the Chief Steward of the Magi.

“We three kings,” as they used to call themselves, had never been particularly close. They were simply learned astrologers thrown together for this mad journey by their kings who wanted to make sure they has all their political bases covered. Oh, they talked along the way, shared a few Magi secrets of the trade, lamented how long it was taking, but they weren’t what you could call friends. There was no lingering around the campfire swapping stories before calling it a night. It was just dinner and bed, and the road again in the morning with the occasional occupational hazard of stargazing keeping us all up late.

But something changed when we arrived in Judea. I think the first sign was when Herod took of them one by one in for questioning, to see if they could keep their stories straight. As each returned from interrogation, and yes, that is what it was, an interrogation, we learned that Herod would begin each as if it were a conversation over a cup of coffee, as if this were going to be a friendly, getting to know you kind of chat. But he never seemed satisfied by their answers, never convinced by our simple curiosity to see where the star would lead us. And when he finally sent us on our way, we began to feel a little nervous, like someone was following us, although we all did wonder aloud what kind of buffoon Herod had for a security chief who couldn’t find the boy even in such a small, nearby town. But on we went until the star stopped over a certain dwelling, and with no small amount of trepidation, we prepared ourselves to enter into the indicated residence, if that is what you could call it. Our hearts were pounding.

When we finally went in, I have to say it was actually kind of anticlimactic. I mean, it was just a baby and his parents in a small, plain kind of place. I guess I’m not sure what we were expecting, but after you ride a camel for that many months, I suppose you create a picture in your mind’s eye, and this wasn’t it. All we found was a baby and his parents. If he really was a king, it certainly didn’t look like a great start to his reign. But we’d come all that way, and carried all those gifts, so what else could we do but give the gifts, and so we did. When we brought out the gold, I thought the father Joseph’s eyes would burst out of his head. He just kept muttering, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.” And when we brought forth the frankincense, Mary had this adorable sweet smile on her face. It was priceless. I'll never forget that smile. Like she was treasuring away that moment in her heart. They were a little mystified by the gift of myrrh, but then again so was I, the Magi having convinced me that it was somehow appropriate. I never did see their point since it is used to prepare dead people for burial, and this child had just been born, but whatever, let them think they know everything; I suppose he won’t live forever anyway, and will need it sometime. Yes, for all of us, it seemed just a little underwhelming, and we left wondering if it had been worth the trip.

But it was on the way home that something changed for us, especially the Magi. At first, I thought that they were just really focused on getting home again. But after a while I could see that with every passing mile, every day we were further and further away from Judea, that they were each deeper and deeper in thought than they normally were. And then something extraordinary happened. One by one, each of them came to me, of all people, to talk about what they had just experienced. I say it was extraordinary because these were learned gentlemen who needed nothing from me except their food prepared on time, and to have the camels fed and saddled. They barely spoke to one another, much less the help. But for whatever reason they did, I am glad they came to me, so that I might share with you, gentle reader, the secrets they learned in Bethlehem.

The first Magus to open my tent flap was the one they called Melchoir, I believe he was the eldest, and certainly the most learned. It was he who had assembled the gifts we brought. He was a student of the teachings of Aristotle, and was much influenced by the Greek line of thought that gifts were really best only given to equals, especially extravagant gifts. That was why he brought gifts reserved for royalty, since we had heard that the child Jesus was to be the King of the Jews. He began by admitting some uncertainty when we walked into that quite modest dwelling. He said, “What were we thinking? What will happen to these very expensive gifts? Surely they will be stolen. And if not, they will probably be squandered by his parents.” But, he said, “Those feelings later gave way to a more profound reflection. We thought we were bringing gifts to an equal, in the tradition of Aristotle, where gifts are really only given to friends, which is to say, peers of equal social standing. But now I see that we misjudged him. He may have been a king. But seeing him there in that cradle, all that I can think of him now was that he was a human being, and it should have been on the basis of that equal standing between us, before his God and ours, that we should have brought him gifts. We brought gifts fit for a king, but all we really needed to offer was ourselves. And might that not be true for everyone, king or not?” I must say I was dumbfounded. Melchoir took his inspiration from the stars, not from mere mortals.

When Balthazar, the second of the Magi, sought me out, I was even more amazed. He was always a very serious presence on our trip, brooding about whether we were on the right track following the star, a real worrier. When he called for me, I was expecting a tongue lashing about the pace of our return, but he greeted me with an enormous smile, and even offered me an elixir from his cabinet. Then he went on to tell me how ever since the visit to the boy, he had felt his heart expanded, and a great burden lifted. “All these years,” he said, “All these years of study and watching the stars were of the utmost importance to me. I sacrificed much for the wisdom I believed was available in my books and star maps. But perhaps I have sacrificed too much. In the presence of that boy, I felt the wonder of my own childhood. When I looked at his mother, I saw my own mother. I feel that he has turned me from the stars back to earth, and for that I will always be grateful. Here, have another drink!” Well, this Jesus was certainly having an effect on the delegation.

A few days later, it was the third Magi, Caspar, who shared his thoughts with me. Caspar was the one who was most concerned about the politics of the day, who wondered aloud before the trip if it was a good idea to visit an infant labeled a king by some, but who was found in a territory already ruled by a properly installed king. “I am most glad to have made his acquaintance,” he said, “and to have seen with my own eyes the one whom the Jews proclaim will be responsible for bringing the nations together. The heavens know we need it now more than ever. I used to believe that it was impossible for there to be one king of us all, and I still believe that if you mean one king to rule our kingdoms. We are just too divided. But I saw in that child one who can rule all our hearts, and with such an allegiance, imagine how great all of our kingdoms could be. And yet he possessed no force of his own, except what has become evident in his effect on me. And in that there is more power than even King Herod can imagine.”

We learned after our arrival home that we were the first people outside Jesus’ own people to meet him. I cannot yet speculate what historical importance this may have, except that if the experience of the Magi is any indication, he will have an influence on the world much wider than his own nation. In any case, he has already done what I thought previously to be almost unattainable: to turn the hearts and minds of our greatest sages from their contemplations of the heavens to the contemplation of the Kingdom of Heaven, and all its benefits.

Well, there you have it. All you need to know about the journey home of the wise men. The Christmas season has come and gone. We have made our way to Jesus. What will you do on the journey home? Amen.

Where Must You Be?

Luke 2:41-52
© Stacey Steck

This story of Jesus being “lost” for three days never would have happened in our day and age. First of all, Mary and Joseph would have given Jesus a cell phone for just such an occasion. I mean he was twelve, after all, and I’ve seen kids a lot younger toting around their means of communication. And since Jesus always seemed to be ahead of the curve, I’m sure he would have just sent a text or tweet, like “Hangin’ w/the teachers at the “T”, or maybe updated his FaceBook and Instagram accounts. Can’t you just see the update?: “At the Temple seeking and giving instruction on the weightier matters of the day and the Law. It’s all good.” And there would be, of course, at least 12 “Likes.”

Of course, he wasn’t “lost,” and parent-shaming Mary and Joseph for losing track of him will get us nowhere. In Jesus’ day and age, there were no helicopter parents or tiger moms; there were just the kind of extended families that could be trusted to take care of children without getting a specific charge to do so. It’s just that in this case, Jesus slipped through the cracks, and so since they didn’t discover he was absent until after they’d walked a day, and it took another day to walk back to Jerusalem, and a third day to track him down, he was separated from his parents, and indeed, his whole family for three long days. As with many things, like first days of school, it is the parents who suffer more separation anxiety than the children, and we find Mary and Joseph filled with anxiety, and Jesus just chilling out.

The truth of the matter is that this story is not about Jesus being lost. It is about him being found, and specifically about where and how he is found. “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them.” Although I’m willing to give Mary and Joseph the benefit of the doubt and put down their misunderstanding to their panicked brains, the truth is that what Jesus has revealed to them about his finding really does make no sense to them, even with what they have been told by the angels about the nature of his humanity. They cannot wrap their minds around the divine nature of his life, especially since he’s still just a child, and clearly a disobedient one for wandering away from his family. They likely said to themselves later, “What kind of nonsense was that ‘Father’s house’ talk? As long as he lives under the roof of this father’s house, he’s going to play by my rules.” And later on it says that Jesus was obedient to his parents, so maybe they did give him a little talking to once they got home.

Be that as it may, this is the first of many statements Jesus makes about what he must do with his life. A couple of chapters later in Luke, Jesus says, “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose. Several times he says, “The son of Man must suffer many things and be killed and on the third day be raised.” “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” And at the very end, after the resurrection, “Then Jesus said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ ” Each of these musts are translations of the Greek word dei, the divine imperative, the way things must be for God’s plan to come to fulfillment. And Jesus always cooperates with the divine dei, and makes it his business to follow it, his obedience to his earthly parents a reflection of his obedience to his divine parent. Jesus must do what God has sent him to do, and the first must is to be in his Father’s House, learning and growing, and becoming saturated in the history, tradition, and culture of his people. At that important age of twelve, just before the official age of thirteen, Jesus is preparing himself for all the rest of what he must do as the son of God. “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

Every year, Luke tells us, Jesus and his family went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. It wasn’t exactly a family vacation, or a precise parallel to our celebration of Christmas and New Year’s, but there’s a resemblance. These are moments of pausing a remembering that God’s been there in our lives, and that our lives goes on into God’s. The Passover, of course, was the defining moment of deliverance in the life of Jesus’ people, and its celebration each year was a reminder that they had been saved from Pharaoh’s clutches and given the opportunity to become something. Passover was a time of remembering and of giving thanks for life, a natural moment for the kind of adventure Jesus undertook, for what he must ultimately do was deliver the whole world from the hand of sin and shame. And so his escapade in the Temple was a kind of symbol or cipher of things to come, in Jesus’ own life, and in the Gospel story as Luke tells it.

And here we are at one of those annual seasons of reflection, remembering what the incarnation meant to us, and pondering the possibilities it offers us in a new year. That’s why we remember the story of the babe in the manger and sing familiar Christmas songs and make our New Year’s resolutions. We are celebrating what God has done, and what God is doing in each one of us. And though we may not be Jesus himself, because of what he did, each of us has something we must do or must be, some place where we must be, like Jesus says to his parents, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"

In a sense, our New Year’s resolutions reflect our musts, if imperfectly. When we resolve to eat better and exercise, or to stop a bad habit like FaceBook, it’s because we know that we must be healthier or we must make better use of our time. We know that we are created for more than we are just now, and our good intentions lead us in the right direction. And of course, life intrudes and the other musts we decided for ourselves reassert themselves and throws us off course: I must succeed, or I must take care of someone, or I must do this or I must do that, and the next thing you know, another New Year’s Eve rolls around, and we are making another resolution to do the same thing we resolved to do last year.

So what I want to suggest this morning is that we approach the musts of New Year’s Eve not so much from the perspective of what will make our lives healthier, or more productive, or better in some way, all of them noble endeavors to be sure, but more in the sense of what Jesus was doing in that Temple, the first must of his fulfilling God’s purposes. And so it’s a good time to ask yourself, Where must you be? Where must you be? What is the environment you need to be in to thrive in a divine way, for divine purposes? What are the optimal conditions for your growth? What kind of soil, climate, and cultivation will help you grow into God’s purposes? Jesus found his optimal conditions in the temple, among people dedicated to talking about things that mattered. He immersed himself in God’s story, and his people’s story, and his own story. He was remembering and giving thanks in that Passover season, and considering what he must do.
Truly fulfilling a New Year’s resolution really takes some intentionality. We don’t generally change things overnight that we’ve been unable to change over years or decades. If we really want to succeed at keeping our resolutions, we need to structure our days and our thoughts in new ways that give us a fighting chance to do something different. The same is true, I think for our musts. What do you need to do differently, or what different place do you need to be in to live into God’s purposes for your life and our world? Jesus found that he needed to be in the temple, conversing with the people there. According to our recent worship survey, less than half of you experience God most profoundly in church, which means that your deeper experiences of the divine is found in nature or friends, or wherever it may be found, and that’s wonderful, but each one of those places requires an intentionality to be there.

Where must you be to grow in wisdom and stature, with divine and human favor? Where must you be to remember what God has done for you? Where must you be to give thanks for the opportunities your life holds? Where must you be to be part of fulfilling God’s grand purpose for the world? Let me suggest that some of the traditional practices of the faith are a good place to start. Being consistent and persistent in reading the Bible, or praying, or serving is the first step in recognizing, and then living into, the musts that God has placed on each one of our hearts. Those are New Year’s resolutions worth making and keeping. They may not lead us to the health and the wealth we’d like to have, but they will lead us into the kind of faithfulness Jesus displayed in his tender years when he risked his parents anxiety in order to be where he knew he needed to be. They may not make us the perfect people we’d like to be, but they will make us more open to the possibilities for ourselves that God sees even if we can’t. They may not bring the changes we expect, but they will bring the changes God has in mind, the kind remembered each Passover and each Christmas, the kind that change the world. May God bless us in making and keeping the New Year’s resolutions that we must make. Amen.