“They Really Were Wise” was a sermon preached by Pastor John Valentine in conjunction with our celebration of Epiphany on January 8, 2023. The upon which it was/is based is Matthew 2:1-12. To access a copy of this week’s worship bulletin, click here: Worship Order 20230108
They Really Were Wise
Epiphany Sunday John B Valentine
Matthew 2:1-12 January 8, 2023
“THEY REALLY WERE WISE”
So it’s Epiphany Sunday around here ... right?
Granted ... it’s two days PAST Epiphany Day ... which was actually January 6th .... the Twelfth Day of Christmas and Orthodox Christmas and all that ...
But ... in any event ....
It’s the end of the Christmas season ...
It’s the day we celebrate the arrival of the magi to the manger.
And ... it’s around about the time that a half dozen of my Facebook friends posts some iteration of that classic joke as to why the magi ... the so-called ‘wisemen’ in the Christmas story ... couldn’t possibly have been women!
You know that one???
• How ... if the wisemen had been wise women ... they would have arrived in Bethlehem in time for the baby’s arrival rather than afterwards ... because they would have stopped to ask directions.
• Because if the wisemen had been wise women ... they would have cleaned up the mess and Jesus wouldn’t have had to have been born in a barn. And ...
• Because if the wisemen had been wise women ... they would have brought much more practical gifts ... like some candles and a comforter and at least a couple of casseroles.
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Actually ... we don’t really know too very much at all about those so-called wisemen ... at least not from the biblical witness.
• Matthew tells us that they were “from the east” ... but how far East? Sacramento? New York? Baghdad? Bombay?
We don’t know anything about their itinerary except that they came from somewhere to the East and that they came a significant distance.
• Then again ... we don’t actually know how many of them were there either!
One early Christian theologian ... a fellow by the name of Tertullian .... suggested that there must have been three of them ... because they brought three gifts .... gold, frankincense and myrrh ...
And song writers and stained glass windows painters and the like followed Tertullian’s lead ... and so you always see three wise men ... but the Bible doesn’t actually tell us how many of them there were.
• And ... for that matter ... we don’t even know who they were either!
Somebody ... in like the sixth century ... determined that their names must have been Melchior, Baltshazzar and Caspar ...
And that one of them was Asian in appearance ... one of them African ... and one of them Caucasian ... but no one really knows.
One could ... I guess ... legitimately object that we don’t even know that all of them were male persons ... because the words used to describe them only imply that there was more than one of them ... and that at least one of them was male.
• Honestly ... we don’t even really know that they were really ‘wise’!
The Bible calls them “magi” ... from an ancient Iranian word which was used to describe people who acted in very strange ways ... who were captivated by astrology, spells and incantation ... and who dressed in a very bizarre manner.
The Greek word “magi” eventually becomes “magician” ... and you who’ve ever read any of the Harry Potter books know exactly how oddly magicians dress by our Muggle ways of thinking.
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• We don’t know who they were ...
• We don’t know where they came from ...
• We don’t know how many of them there were.
But this ONE thing we do know ...
That ... to Matthew ... the ONLY detail worthy of being emphasized ... the only detail worth focusing on is contained in their declaration “we have come to pay him homage.”
The point which Matthew is trying to make here is that these folks from the East ... strange-customed ... weirdly-dressed folks ... really were WISE ... because they came to worship this newborn king.
• To be “overwhelmed with joy” in his presence.
• To “kneel down before him”.
• And to offer him their gifts of “gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
In other words ... while many of the details of this encounter are unclear ...
The challenge which it lays before us is crystal clear: “CAN WE BE AS WISE AS THESE MAGI?”
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I mean ... what’s the first thing Matthew notes the Magi as doing?
THEY SEEK HIM ... don’t they??
They invest themselves ... they put some serious effort into ... understanding the deeper truths that shape the world in which they live.
This isn’t just a casual ... happenstance ... encounter with the truth which occurs here.
No ... they’ve invested themselves fully in seeking something of the truth that ungirds their world.
You might well have missed it ... but Matthew is doing a little not-so-light-hearted finger-pointing in the way he tells this story.
After all ... if the Magi ... these “professional truth seekers” ... came from near where we might assume that they came ... they probably traveled round about a thousand miles to pay their visit.
Now contrast them with “the chief priests and scribes of the people” of whom they ask their questions.
• They weren’t the least bit interested.
• They didn’t care about the star.
• They wouldn’t travel the six whole miles down the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to check out what was happening.
They knew the right answers. They just weren’t willing to make the effort.
And so ... one of the things that Matthew is telling us is that WISE people sought him ... searched diligently for him ...
And that ... if we wish to be numbered among the wise ... we best do the same.
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What then is the second thing which the Magi DO?
When they find the Child ... THEY WORSHIP HIM ... no???
This is the part of the story which ... it seems to me ... we have so much trouble with today ... this part where the magi get down on their knees and worship Him.
Not that there are a whole lot of people in our society who are “seeking after the truth” ...
Not that there are whole departments at prestigious universities committed to “seeking after the truth” ...
Not that there aren’t whole laboratories affiliated with that not insignificant just over the hill devoted to “seeking after the truth” ...
But we seek the truth in order to figure out how the truth might be of service to us ... how we can utilize the deeper truths of Creation to:
• lengthen our lives ...
• facilitate our national defense ...
• improve our environment ...
• limit our dependence on foreign oil.
The truth ... for us ... is something to be sought in order to get something out of it.
But the truth ... for the Magi ... was something to be sought in order to worship it ... and acknowledge ourselves as servants of the Truth ... rather than the truth becoming a servant of us.
Martin Luther once said that God ... for us ... is that which “we fear, love and trust above all things.”
Truth be told ... by that definition ... ALL of us have gods.
But if our purpose for “seeking the truth” is in order to “get something out of it” ... then what is our god is really just US!
The WISE people in this story worshiped the Truth ... and that is what wise man and women still do today.
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And finally ... the wise folks in the story offered their gifts in service of the Truth which they had found.
Now granted ... we just completed our societal “season of giving” ... wherein:
• We gave gifts to those we love ...
• We gave gifts to those whose services we appreciate ...
• We gave gifts ... many of us ... to people lesson fortunate in the context of what was a very difficult year.
But giving ourselves in service to others ... and giving of ourselves to the One who is the Truth ... doesn’t end when we take down the Christmas tree and stop singing Christmas carols.
If we’re committed to lives which really matter ...
If we’re committed to seeking and worshiping the Truth ...
Then our lives are necessarily shaped by doing premeditated acts of kindness to those around us.
Wise people don’t just SEEK Him ...
Wise people don’t just WORSHIP Him ...
Wise people ... WISE people ... SERVE Him!
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So let me leave you this morning with a thought first thunk by a theologian ... who ... in considering this story of Epiphany ... wrote:
“We read of no greater faith than this in all the Bible. It is a faith that deserves to be placed side by side with that of the penitent thief. The thief saw one dying the death of a malefactor and yet prayed to him and called him ‘Lord.’ The wise men saw a newborn babe on the lap of a poor woman, and yet they worshipped him and confessed that he was the Christ.”
We don’t really know how many of them there were ...
We don’t really know where they came from ...
We don’t really know who they were or what language they spoke or what they wore ...
But we do know that they were wise ...
Wise BECAUSE THEY SOUGHT THE TRUTH ...
Wise BECAUSE THEY WORSHIPED THE TRUTH ...
Wise BECAUSE THEY SERVED THE TRUTH ...
And ... if we would be numbered among the wise ... then we best do the same!