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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE DR. TODD B. JONES JANUARY 6, 2019 Following Where the Star Leads ISAIAH 60:1-6 MATTHEW 2:1-12 Today we turn to that singular account in the New Testament, of those mysterious travelers from the East, who follow a star in the sky that leads them finally to Bethlehem. It is an account found only in Matthew’s Gospel, and it is a story surrounded by charm, mystery and immense beauty. We really know little about these figures; nothing more than Matthew tells us. Matthew does not even tell us how many of them there were! It is the Church that somehow later decided that there must have been three of them. The text itself does not number the wise men; it numbers the gifts that they offered. And even further, the Church over the years filled in names for them, and many of you could even recite those names: Gaspar and Melchior and Balthasar. It is a further tradition of the Church that grew out of this incredible account that Gaspar came from Europe, Melchior came from Asia, and Balthasar came from Africa. I love this notion of wise men from afar coming from all over the globe, from different races and different continents in order to worship Jesus as the King. But all of this is embroidery by the Church around the edges of Matthew’s remarkable and beautiful account. Truth to tell, the story does not need embroidery; it manages in just twelve short verses to express some profound and incredibly important truths for us all. For instance, the truth that people came from afar, from many different roads, and many different directions, in order to worship the Baby Jesus as King. The truth that there is no place on earth too lowly or too humble in which to kneel and to worship. The truth that there is great wisdom and great joy in giving. The truth that wonder, curiosity and mystery broaden and deepen us, making us more humane and more alive for our wonder. And what truth is expressed by the star set in the sky over Bethlehem, a star more than a few astronomers have wondered about? (If you are interested sometime in learning some of the theories, just Google “the star over Bethlehem,” and you will be knocked out by the variety of astronomical guesses about this phenomenon in the sky!) At a deeper level, doesn’t the notion of this star beckon to our deepest longings? Among all the things that these travelers from the East were, they were, above everything else, seekers after truth. They were looking for ultimate meaning in life. They were open to the fact that there could be a sign sent by God in order to lead us to the very threshold of truth itself. And following that star, they discover the truth that God wills and wants to be “God-with-us.” Surprisingly, they found this truth “wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.” Yet the star was still only a sign. The choice to follow it was up to the wise men, they had the wisdom to see it as a sign. Think how many other people either did not notice it, or in noticing it, did not think it was important enough. Maybe because they were too fixed on life on this earth to look up to a world beyond this world, or maybe because, like us, they were too caught up in the busyness of life to care, to even stop to wonder about things like ultimate truth, or the notion that a God might actually will and want to be “God-with-us.” Saint Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” On this first Sunday of a New Year, I want to say, “Thank God for restless hearts that lead us to search for larger and deeper truths!” Mostly, these Wise Men, who are also called “Magi,” or by the Church, “Kings,” as some have called them, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that was read to us today, teach us some important things about wisdom, if our hearts and our minds are open to their lessons. (It is not a bad thing to think about your life as a long journey in search of truth and wisdom and grace!) Even as we know that there are things that are larger and greater than we are, the star set in the sky reminds us that we worship and serve a God who wants and wills to be known by us, and this God is worth the search. First off, wisdom always leads us in the direction of compassion and gentleness. We are told in the story that the Wise Men go to Jerusalem, and are summoned before Herod, who is not at all interested in wisdom. Herod is frightened, because as long as your life is all about the love of power and control, you are always going to be afraid. The Wise Men see Herod, in all his splendor and power, and they recognize immediately that this is not the truth or the wisdom, or the way that they are seeking. They have probably encountered Herod’s like countless times before. Wisdom is never about the love of power; instead it is always about the power of love. The Wise Men find the truth that they are searching for in the Baby, and His peasant mother and father, who in great love, are simply trying to protect this bundle of love entrusted to them. This is wisdom, dear friends! There is more beauty and truth in the manger than can be found in any of the world’s most exquisite and extravagant palaces. Second, wisdom also always leads us on the path that ends in humility. When they find the Baby, they kneel down and they worship Him, but they do so only after they recognize where the star has stopped. We are told they respond to that moment by being “overwhelmed with joy” at the realization that they had found the truth and the wisdom that they have been seeking. There is a joy that comes in humbling yourself before something greater than yourself that is freeing. This is the sheer joy of worshiping Almighty God! It is why Jesus said once, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus said that in Matthew 23, then in Matthew 18 Jesus said, “Unless you turn, and humble yourselves, and become like little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.” So wisdom leads us always in the direction of compassion, and always in the direction of humility; but wisdom finally leads us ever and always in the direction of giving. The wise men bowed down themselves, they knelt before the Baby, and they worshiped the Baby that Herod wanted to kill. But they also gave Him gifts, precious gifts of self and substance, because the end of all of our seeking, if we are seeking wisdom, is always going to be generosity of spirit. You know it by heart: “They brought gold, and frankincense and myrrh.” Gold represents our worldly wealth. Money can either be a great blessing, or it can be a terrible bane, and a source of contention and endless division, which is why it is more important than ever for us to dedicate our wealth, all of our wealth, to God, “from whom all blessing flow.” “It is only in giving that we receive.” Saint Francis got it right in his prayer. Our worldly possessions, all that is entrusted to us, needs to be offered, dedicated to God, “from whom all blessings flow.” We need to discover, not just in feeling, but in action, that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Frankincense stands for our deepest and innermost thoughts, which also need to be dedicated to Christ. It is why John Calvin spoke often about what he called “the life of the mind in the service of God.” Truth is not something slippery or evasive. Ultimate truth, which we find in Christ, is one that searches relentlessly for us, seeking to deepen our awareness of God and the life of beauty that God has created for us to enjoy. Finally, they brought myrrh. Myrrh was used for embalming. It stands for the suffering and sorrow, and even death, that every last one of us must encounter on this journey. If God can bless our wealth, and if God can bless our innermost thoughts, how much more can God bless and use our suffering and sorrow, and in God’s good time, even our appointment with destiny and death, if we entrust them all to God’s providence and care? For it is in handing over our broken and wounded hearts that they stand the best chance of healing and wholeness to be found. Wise ones still seek Him! May 2019 be a year of wisdom and of growth in grace for us all. AMEN.
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