Sunday, January 2, 2022
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! As we recover from our holiday celebrations and perhaps overindulgences, today is the day our thoughts typically turn toward new goals and making wiser choices for our health and overall well-being. Our scriptures for today tell the story of wise men from the East who come to visit the child born the king of the Jews, bringing him symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Wisdom is an ancient spiritual value, from King Solomon who asks God not for wealth or power but for wisdom to Christ who is described throughout scriptures as Holy Wisdom. As we enter a new year, let’s ponder for a few moments what it means to be wise through the lens of faith. Why do we call these visitors to the newborn king Jesus wise, and what can help us be wiser, too, today?
As we look back on 2021, who is someone you have been blessed to know whom you would call wise? What makes them wise? In the last year, we have lost some famous people whom I would call wise, people like authors Beverly Cleary and Larry McMurty, Stephen Sondheim and bell hooks, E. O. Wilson and most notably for me, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Our family was blessed to have my parents stay with us for a week, and as may be with your family this time of year, we enjoyed telling stories of grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings who were silly, quirky, cantankerous but also wise. It’s hard to put a finger sometimes on exactly what we mean when we call someone wise – they’re usually older, definitely mature, smart but not just intelligent…you can definitely be a know-it-all but not know much about wisdom, if you know what I mean! If we consider someone like Archbishop Tutu, he could be serious and solemn but also full of joy and almost a childlike-playfulness, too. It’s almost like you just know a wise person when you meet a wise person.
The wise men who visited Jesus were smart – they were the scientists and scholars of their day, experts at studying the sky and the stars in particular. The Greek word to describe them is “magi;” today, we believe them to be Zoroastrian priests or astrologers. They were definitely not Jewish and while they knew a lot, did not know much if anything about the Hebrew scriptures. They were potentially nobility or advisers to kings in the East. In other words, they were knowledgeable in some areas, but they didn’t know everything. And they were humble enough to recognize in Jesus that one greater than they had come. They were humble enough to recognize that God was doing something big outside of their religious boxes and typical understanding. They paid attention to the signs God gave them in the Bethlehem star and in King Herod summoning them to find where Jesus was. They were wise not so much for what they previously knew, but for paying attention to the signs God gave them to find what was most important: a young boy with his mother in Bethlehem. And they recognized Herod for who he was: a desperate, power-hungry despot who will go to any length to maintain his power rather than humble himself to worship the Messiah alongside these visitors from the East. In fact, they return to their home country by another road to avoid revealing Jesus’ location to protect Jesus from the blood-thirsty King Herod.
The wise men are wise not because they know something about everything, but because they know what is most important: this baby Jesus is the Messiah and God’s gift to the whole world. Their gifts are strange for a baby. Honestly, Mary could have used diapers more than gold, frankincense and myrrh. Their gifts, however, tell the world and us who this baby really is: gold was the traditional gift for royalty. Frankincense was used in worship of the divine. Myrrh was a fragrant resin used to prepare a body for burial. In their wisdom, the wise men give gifts to tell us that Jesus is King of the universe. Jesus is not just any baby, but fully human and fully divine, Emmanuel, God-with-us. And as a human being, Jesus is born and Jesus will die on a cross and be buried in a tomb, for us and for our salvation.
This is the kind of wisdom that we are called to live our lives by in this new year: not to know something about everything, but to turn our focus towards what is most important. To look for signs of God’s activity in our everyday life, using the gifts that we’ve been given. God used the wise men’s gifts in astrology to tell them about the baby Jesus. God can use whatever you’re good at: in medicine, in accounting and business, in music and art, in tending your backyard or cooking for your family: God still gives us signs, if we are wise to pay attention and look. God calls us to humble ourselves to recognize that it’s not all about us, but about God’s larger plan of salvation for the entire world. And finally, wisdom includes discerning how those in power use their power; whether it promotes life and well-being for all like Jesus’ self-giving death on a cross, or seeks selfish, death-dealing power for the sake of a few, like King Herod.
We are wise when we put God first, looking to God as the source of all wisdom. And from there, may we begin this new year seeking Christ revealed to us still today. Wise men and women still seek him, God’s greatest gift to us and our most precious treasure. Amen.