January 6, 2019
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
One of my friends I spent time with over the holiday was bragging about how last New Year’s Eve she was in bed by 10pm. She is a wise woman. I am envious of her. Of course, I have spent a New Year’s Eve in this very same friend’s basement. This was the same New Years Eve that we freaked out her parents when they heard cult-like chanting coming from downstairs, but perhaps that is a story for another time… or maybe never. In completely unrelated circumstances this is also the year in which a number of pictures were posted to Facebook of many of my group of friends on the basement carpet in exorcist-like positions. But that may also be a story for another time. Accidental cultic behavior is but one of the many memories I have of NYE, even if I would prefer to be in bed.
Staying up for the New Year has never been my favourite, but I feel obligated to spend it with friends or family and usually have a good time in spite of myself. Thankfully, being so tired on New Years Day this year actually helped me repair my fractured post-vacation sleep schedule, and that is a true miracle. God did not set the calendar or the clock but is still certainly watching out for me and that’s a Good Thing. So, on this day that has been assigned the start of a new year, in this year we assume is about two thousand and nineteen years since it happened, let us look at a story of another miracle. This miracle features wise men, people who probably stayed up past their bedtime travelling, reading, and sharing ideas, and maybe we can travel with them for a while.
The central characters in this text are Jesus and Mary (we know them: cool), King Herod (trash), and the wise men (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar). It is these wise men whom we follow in this story though. They are figuring out their own journey, driven by a purpose of finding a Messiah they had read about and set out to find. King Herod is on a journey of his own, driven by a desire to protect his own power. And these are the two forces that are attempting to find Jesus with very different intentions. I think I can safely assume that few people think that Herod is the good guy in this story. So, turning to the wise men perhaps there are a few things to take away from how they act to direct us in this New Year.
The wise men are curious. They embrace curiosity about what they read and what they have seen. There is a tradition that the wise men were Zoroastrian, but we have reason to believe that they were not Jewish, but were aware and possessed Jewish prophetic texts. Wherever the kings are from, they have prophecy about another place and choose to both believe and understand its importance not only for the “Jews” but for all people. SO when they see the star and make the connection, they do not just acknowledge its meaning but then choose to journey out to follow it. Wisdom is continually being curious. It is knowing some things but always wishing to learn more. Wisdom does not end with a fact but continually begins anew with another question.
The wise men seek justice. They respect authority when it is reasonable, and confront it when it is not. When they enter the land of Israel they seek out Herod, in part to make their job easier but also because they ought to do so: they are coming into a country and it seems almost polite to make their presence known and to keep the ruler in the land informed of what is happening. This is respect for authority and leadership and decorum. Civility. HOWEVER, once they learn from their dream that Herod has bad intentions, they no longer pay him the favour of returning to relay their information. It is clear that they no longer want Herod to know of where they have gone and where they are going. Herod gives up his authority after these bad actions and the wise men leave Israel when their work is done by another road. Wisdom is knowing and understanding the status quo, why it exists and why it benefits the world. But wisdom also questions and resists the systems that are unjust and dangerous, never understanding something to be good, sure, and certain simply because of its status. Wisdom makes room for grey areas, and the opportunity to change opinion. Wisdom does not end with a fact, but makes room for a new set of facts.
The wise men accept surprises. They accept what they find as right and correct when it is not what they were expecting. The wise men set out on a journey to find a king, and bring the kinds of gifts one might offer to a king. So when they find a child, it is a different kind of king. But they don’t just leave. They do what they set out to do: they’re like “cool, whatever have some gold,” kneel before a child and let it be what it will be. Wisdom does not end with a fact, it starts something that we could never imagine.
But all this curiosity and flexibility has to mean more than that, right? Because if it was that easy, everybody would do it. We would all work hard to be open to the world around us, use what we know to make informed decisions, and have the flexibility to adapt. We try to do that, but maybe we don’t always succeed. Maybe some of us shy away from wisdom because it feels like a lofty description that we are not worthy to accept. Maybe it seems like wisdom exists in a bygone time before everything can be looked up my computers we carry in our pockets. Wisdom is elusive.[It feels strange as a young person to be talking about wisdom to a community older than I am. Wisdom is a virtue that is said to be related to age and experience. Knowledge only becomes wisdom when there has been time to reflect on past experiences to turn them into useful lessons for the future. But it is something to work towards. It’s personal value to myself and my life was affirmed when a minister I once had praised me for my wisdom. I was filling-in as the church administrator at the time. She had come to me with a situation to do with ordering items in the service and told me about an inter-professional issue she was dealing with. I weighed in on both, offering what I thought was a clear answer. When she thanked me “for my wisdom” it was a weird moment. I felt that initial rejection of the word (“me, wise? couldn’t be) but really appreciated it. Because when we are described as wise, our thoughts and opinions and perspectives are valued. And that feels good. It doesn’t mean we should use it lightly, but I think we need to reintroduce wisdom and wise people back into our culture. Wisdom comes from the people who have taken the time to reflect on what they have learned from past experiences to turn them into useful lessons for the future.
But why bother? Because wisdom helps. Wisdom does not sit back and exist for its own sake, wisdom helps people. It is knowledge mobilized, turned outward, and connected to others—it demands to be shared. Wisdom calls us to create a culture in which ideas are valued so that we can come into a place where we can, as a community, come up great things together. Though great in isolation, there are some things that will come more quickly if we listen to each other and value our unique perspectives.
The wise men of this scripture text are a traditional sort of wisdom, maybe what we think of when we think of wisdom at first. They were scholars, who took the time to read, know, and understand the prophecy and all else they needed to know to make the journey that they did. Though wisdom requires knowledge and reflection which a scholar makes their life’s work, that does not mean that only scholars are wise. To that end, I would like to tell you of two people, two women, who’s wisdom has had an impact on my life and how I approach the world and the search for wisdom myself.
The first is a professor I had during my undergraduate degree. She was a professor of British history, originally from the UK and exceptionally brilliant. She was an older woman, maybe a little small in stature. She always wore these black suits, really well tailored and put together. But when she stood at the front of a room to lecture, she commanded attention. She was in a room with a group of young students, but you could tell that she was the kind of woman who when she entered a room, she was going to be the one with the most knowledge in that place.
But it wasn’t baseless. I had the opportunity to take a seminar class with her on the Tudor and Stuart monarchs of England and I can remember in particular I meeting I had with her in her office. I was explaining to her what I was planning to present for my seminar presentation, and she really let me fully explain what I was trying to get at. She asked me a few clarifying questions, which I realize now were her way of trying to get me to move in the right direction. She wrote down a list of a few books that she thought would be helpful and that was that.
I think why this stuck with me was the way that this professor employed wisdom. She knows the answers, she knows the topics all her students are doing inside out. But she never pushed me in one direction or another, she used all she knew in order to assist me in doing my own learning. It was a demonstration of how wisdom goes beyond knowledge, beyond the facts, to meet the situation at hand. This professor turned curiosity and flexibility into tools for teaching, using wisdom to direct me along my own journey towards greater knowledge.
The second person I want to talk about is someone my own age. She is a friend I have known for more than ten years now. The wisdom that she has is not built upon years of scholarship or life experience. But it is built upon the experience she does have. She has a way of seeing people when they are upset, isolated, and withdrawn. She has a way of reaching out to those people, knowing how to engage with them in a way that lifts them up and connects them back with the world where that connection is lost. She is able to do this because of her own life experience. She has had many moments of feeling this same distress, isolation, and withdrawal. But what she does so well is take those experiences and makes use of them. In talking with her about these things, she does not realize how wise she is. When she looks at her action, she seems them as natural. But when I see them, I see how she has taken the knowledge she has gleaned from her life and formed into the wisdom of how to meet people where they are and be a light for them. When she enters a room, you see her because she is a light, and she is illuminated by the wisdom of her experiences.
Sage, professor, colleague, friend—wisdom springs from all places. It is within me. And it is within you. Wisdom is not clear all the time where it works, it is subtle. But when I think of how wisdom works I think also of God. I think of how God works in ways that are sometimes strange to us, and other times in ways that sit clearly in front of us as the most obvious thing in the world. God can be subtle, and works within us great things for us to provide to the world. God is in wisdom. This is because wisdom comes from God, and is God, as are all things of the world from the Creator and Mother of this universe.
But wisdom is also Jesus.
The wise men of scripture are not the central part of the story. Their presence is not for their glory or benefit. Their place in the narrative is to help us to understand the importance of Jesus. These wise people took a long journey to reach Jesus and honoured him with their praise and their gifts. This story tells us that Christ, even as a child, before he did anything extraordinary himself, should be looked at as important because these wise men, these important figures have demonstrated that it is so.
This story comes from Matthew’s gospel. There are no heavenly host of shepherds to demonstrate the divine impact of this birth. That role is filled by the magi, the wise men. Their coming affirms the message that Mary and Joseph receive before their son is born: that he is a savior for their people and is also the son of God. Wisdom approaches the child Jesus and kneels down before him and offers itself up to Jesus for him to use at the appropriate time.
Other gospels approach this in other ways: Mark shows how the Holy Spirit enters into Jesus at this Baptism, empowering him to begin his teaching. John in the first chapter says that Jesus is the Word, something that was with God at the time of time of creation but was sent to earth in the form of Jesus. Luke details the episode where Jesus, as a child is in the temple and conversing with teachers of the scriptures at an astonishing level.
Christ and wisdom are intertwined. They cannot be separated out. The gospel writers want you, in this time, to know this: the things that Jesus will say over the course of his life are not just new ideas thrown haphazardly to the wind. These are things that have been reflected upon, that are in touch with and bound to divine intention for humanity. They are wise teachings that all who hear them should consider. That is the way to best honor them.
If you take anything away from all of what I have said, I hope that it is these two things. First, I hope that you remember all of the wisdom that you have received over the course of your life and all of the wise people who have passed through you life and left a part of themselves in you. I hope that you feel uplifted and surrounded in those experiences and that you can experience all over again and the care and compassion that came with it. Second, I hope that you hear me when I say that the same root of wisdom that is in the wise men, that is in Christ, is inside of you. You have wisdom to give to world, and I pray that in your journey you come to a place where you can continue to share the precious gift of your light with the world.