On Christmas Eve, I admitted to harboring some resentment towards the wise men for their precedent of exchanging gifts on Christmas. I can now add that, as I feared, I once again came up a little short in the gift department this year.
But it is not obvious that the wise men did a lot better. The symbolism of their gifts is great. Gold for the one born to be king. Frankincense for our great high priest. I was fuzzier of myrrh, which turns out to be an embalming oil. Myrrh symbolizes Christ’s death for us and for our salvation. So far, well done, magi!
But in addition to being symbols, these were gifts for an infant and his young mother. I imagine Mary opening the present from the third wise man with some surprise. “Myrrh…. Thanks….” Perhaps Mary went on to ask the wise man if he consulted his wife about what gift might be most useful for a new mother.
It’s fun to play with that scene, but my real focus this morning is the Magi’s journey. I wonder what inspired them to set out in the first place, what they hoped to find by following the star.
They tell Herod they have come to pay homage to the child born king of the Jews. But we can be pretty sure they weren’t interested in the petty client kings of the different provinces in the Roman Empire. After all, they came from an empire that rivalled Rome itself. We can also be pretty sure they weren’t particularly interested in Jews or Judaism. They were not themselves Jews and they don’t show any interest in converting.
So, what drew them to make the months-long journey to Bethlehem? Why pay homage to this child?
They must have felt a deep spiritual hunger, a sometimes overwhelming sense that something was missing in their lives, a compelling drive to seek God wherever God might be found. The star showed them the way to begin. And so they set off.
The wise men model for us the spiritual journey, the literally eternal quest to know God more intimately.
My own spiritual journey began without a lot of fanfare. I had drifted away from Church in my later teens and briefly even flirted with atheism. Outwardly everything seemed fine. But I developed self-destructive habits that indicated everything was not really fine. Even though I didn’t recognize it at the time, I was hungry for God.
Thankfully, a friend suggested we give Church a try. It took a couple of weeks, but we found a Church that suited us.
We were not particularly interested in getting to know the members of the congregation, though we liked the people we met. We enjoyed the sermons, but they weren’t the reason we stuck around.
At least as I remember it, what attracted me was the sense of peace I felt at Church. Looking back now, I see that I was vaguely aware of God’s presence as we worshipped and, at some level, I knew that’s what I had been missing and what I needed.
That’s how my own mature spiritual journey began.
And, in an important way, that’s how it continues. I don’t feel a conscious hunger for God all the time. But I continue to experience moments of deep satisfaction, moments when I feel connected to God, moments when I realize that my life would be meaningless without God and that with God it is at least sometimes full and rich.
I had one of those moments last week after our service of Lessons and Carols. If you count livestreamed services, it was my sixth service in four days. I was tired. But I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the opportunity to come together for worship in God’s presence during this holy and joyous season. In that moment of satisfaction, I was keenly aware of the need for God that keeps me going on my own spiritual journey, that keeps me following the star that leads me closer and closer to Jesus.
My hope and my prayer is that everyone here is prompted by a similar spiritual hunger even if you, like me, are not always consciously aware of it. As such, we continue to follow in the footsteps of the wise men we remember today.
But the wise men are not our only possible models in this story. There is also King Herod.
When the wise men arrive in Israel, they don’t know anyone. They also seem to have lost sight of the star, at least temporarily. So, they go to the man who, it would seem, could best speak for the Jews, King Herod. Surely Herod would know about the ancient hope of the Jews, the hope that the wise men believed was in process of being fulfilled.
Unfortunately, Herod was NOT a good guide. Herod was ignorant. And Herod was a murderous liar, as the wise men learn in a dream. The wise men continue their journey without Herod’s help, and then have to flee the country to avoid Herod’s wrath.
I wonder what the wise men were thinking as they returned home. I have always hoped that they went home satisfied. They had, after all, seen Christ, God in the flesh. It may be that their lives were changed, and enriched, and fulfilled.
But this year I imagine their reaction differently. What if they were coming to stay? What if they hoped to stay near Jesus, to watch Jesus grow up, eventually to hear Jesus teach, to see the adult Jesus in action? What if they intended to join a community of faithful disciples surrounding this child of hope and promise?
If so, their hopes were disappointed. Not disappointed by Christ, but disappointed by the people around Christ, people like Herod. I imagine the wise men returning home distressed that the people who should have known better were ignoring or, worse still, threatening the divine child the wise men had come so far to see.
And I worry that we might sometimes be a little bit like Herod.
Several years ago, I received a call from a woman who wanted to meet with me. We had never met before, but she was in some spiritual distress and thought I might be able to help. As we chatted, I made wrong assumptions about what she needed. Our conversation turned into a debate and even got a little heated. She left, and I have never seen her again.
I thought about that woman this week as I reflected on the spiritual journey of the wise men. She was on a spiritual journey, too, and came to me for guidance, just as the wise men went to Herod. And I failed her, just as Herod failed them. Rather than directing her to Jesus as best I could, I pushed her away. I like to think that God continued to lead her, that she found what she was looking for elsewhere, but I’ll never know.
Experiences like that, stories about people like Herod, are reminders that we who are on a spiritual journey have a responsibility not simply to journey on, but also to help others along the way, as we are able. At the very least, we should do no harm.
Inevitably, we sometimes fail.
Thankfully, we do not rely on our own strength or wisdom. God calls us. Christ accompanies us. The Holy Spirit empowers us.
And so, I pray, in this new year, that we may all continue to journey forward with faithfulness and with courage, and that we can support others in their journeys, always with God’s help. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan