Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Magic of Wisdom

The Epiphany of Our Lord
Sunday, January 6, 2008
Matthew 2:1-12

The wise men who visited Jesus are so often simply known as “the wise men”. These were people from a far country who came bearing valuable gifts to the baby Jesus. We’re so familiar with the angels and the shepherds and even the animals that were there at the birth of Jesus that oftentimes we don’t think twice about them. But how do these wise men fit in? Who were they? Why did they come? How did they know about the star?

Matthew doesn’t give us a lot of these details. But there’s something I wonder about even more: when they came to Jerusalem and talked to Herod about the “king” who had been born, I can understand why Herod was troubled, but why was all Jerusalem troubled with him? Herod wasn’t exactly a compassionate king. That he would be disconcerted at the news of a new king is understandable. But wouldn’t it appear that the people might want someone other hand the ruthless king Herod? He had no compunction about killing even his own sons at the thought that they might murder him to take over the crown.

We’re familiar with the traditional cast of characters of Jesus’ birth. But of the Epiphany, we know little about the wise men, Herod, the chief priests and the scribes. Even the common people of Jerusalem. Let’s start with the “wise men”. The Greek term for these men is magi. And that they’re called wise men so often is probably pretty accurate since they certainly were the wise ones in this whole episode.

So who were these Magi? Well, we know they were from a different country. We know they were Gentiles, in other words, they weren’t Jewish. They were also apparently men who used astrology to gain their wisdom. Another interesting thing with the term Magi is that we will recognize that our word magic comes from that Greek word. Now I’m not suggesting that these guys were magicians. But there is an aspect of magic to their type of occupation. Just think about how things were back then. With certain people seeking signs and wisdom from the stars, isn’t there a magical quality about that?

In fact, the mention of another king might not have been the only thing that disturbed King Herod. When these visitors from a foreign country come to his city with a mysterious message they got from the stars about a king, he wasn’t exactly sure what he was dealing with. Perhaps that had a little something to do with how the common people reacted as well. Herod, for all his cruelty, did provide many opportunities for them, especially with his rebuilding of their great temple. What was to happen to them if some new king came out of the blue that was designated by some star and foretold of by these mysterious men? The chief priests and scribes, of course, quoted to Herod from the Scriptures. But basically what we see in the rest of the four gospels from these religious leaders is opposition to Jesus.

In the Magi we see true wisdom. And what is that wisdom? Listening to the Word of God as opposed to the word of men, even if it is the word of kings. The Magi had their sights set on Jesus, even if they weren’t Jews, didn’t know the Scriptures, or put their stock in astrology. In all the characters of the epiphany story the wise men are the ones shown to be truly wise. And that is the magic in all of this. We wonder at times how God works. Here He worked in a truly mysterious way. But it was all grounded in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ Himself.

Herod was wise to bring in the religious leaders to get the details. But he was too blinded by his own power to seek true wisdom in the King that was born who would eventually die for him. I wonder if the chief priests and scribes thought that these men who had traveled so far were a bunch of crackpots, talking about a star pointing the way to a king.

But wisdom doesn’t look at what appears to be strange. Wisdom looks at the Word of God and the Otherly way God works in this world. Didn’t we hear in our Old Testament reading this morning of the prophecy of the coming of the wise men, with their traveling from far countries and bringing gifts of gold and frankincense? Didn’t that very same prophecy prophesy of the Light that will shine upon the people of this world, and the darkness of sin that envelopes it?

Paul speaks of this kind of magic, also, in the Epistle reading. It’s not in sorcery or spells or illusion, but in the mystery of God’s love being revealed in the flesh of His Son. That so many when Christ was born missed this magical moment, what it meant for the world, is understandable. We so often seek the wisdom of the world. That most missed the working of God in human history in the person of Jesus Christ in His life and Ministry, isn’t surprising. Shouldn’t God have made more of a splash than just the three years where He gained a few followers? That everyone missed it that God’s love for the world was revealed and displayed in Jesus’ sorrowful suffering and death makes sense, since a king would be expected to put up more of a fight than just willingly let his enemies run all over him.

But what do we see in the Magi? Wisdom. What does it say about these men who bore valuable gifts and bowed before this infant? What does it say about the joy they had and the decision to not return to Herod? It says that they found something better than astrology, stars, or whatever else they may have put their trust in in the past. It says they now saw the true king. They had just stood before a very powerful king in Herod who had proven his power. Now they knelt before a baby.

The magic of their wisdom is in God coming into their world. They were likely highly regarded in their country. What would their countrymen think of them as they knelt before a Jewish baby and gave Him gifts? They’d probably renounce their status as wise men. But in these wise men we are given a picture of wisdom. Of the mysterious and Other-worldly way God works in this ordinary world. He gives us His Scripture, ordinary words on a page, which bring forth life and salvation. In simple water He raises us to new life by Baptizing us. With ordinary bread and wine He comes to us again. Where the Magi asked where He was who was born king of the Jews, we might ask today, where is He who has been born, who has suffered, died, and risen from the grave? He is here at His altar, ready to give you His body and blood. It’s not magic by any means, but there is a mystery about it, God loving you so much that He will come to you where you’re at to give you life and salvation by His very hand.

Wisdom sees God’s love where it is to be found—in God born in the flesh. Wisdom rejoices in this very One dying and rising so that we may enter into the place where there is no more darkness and wisdom sees only Christ. Amen.



Melodee said...

Last paragraph, I query the line,
"the place where the darkness has no end". Must be a typo of some sort???
Thanks again for posting.

rev.will said...

Oops! Thanks, Melodee, for seeing that and bringing it to my attention. It's amazing how these eyes can miss something like that!

rev.will said...

Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, also, that I changed it to: "where there is no more darkness".

Kurt Onken said...

Greetings, Paul from Washington state. Haven't checked out much of your blog...just saw your name on Aardvark Alley. By any chance is your dad Lloyd, lately of Seattle?

Your blog has some great links on it. I think you'd also enjoy joining the Wittenberg Trail. Check it out at

Kurt Onken said...

I probably should have introduced myself first...I'm pastor of Messiah Lutheran in Marysville, WA, about 40 miles north of Seattle.

My blog address is

rev.will said...

Hi Kurt: Thanks for checking out my blog and also for the link to the Wittenberg Trail, I'll check it out. I'll also check out your blog. Yes, Lloyd is my dad. Good to hear from you. Paul