stopping for directions: wise

Matthew 2:1-12

Starstruck, the magi left home—
setting off on their quest to find the king of the Jews.
And we honored the chronology and geography of that story
by having our magi move all the way from Fellowship Hall
through the lobby, the narthex, into and through the sanctuary
to finally arrive, today, at the stable in Bethlehem,
and so to conclude the tableaux
of all the expected and beloved seasonal visitors to the manger.

But some of you remember our Daniel worship series last fall, don’t you?
Daniel was introduced to us as the epitome
of the wisdom of the Jewish faith heritage, right?—
as faithfulness made manifest.
And his advice to the kings of Babylon, all three of them,
was always countered by the various and sundry wise of Babylon—
including the astrologers—or the magi.
They were the antithesis of the wisdom and faith of the Jews.

The biblical response to magi is definitely weighted
toward the negative—
whether that’s back in the Old Testament—in Daniel—
Isaiah, too, had some withering words
about those who look to the heavens (Isaiah 47),
or in Acts—where we find the only other two uses
of words from the same root as magi
in the New Testament (Acts 8:9-24; 13:6-11)—
and used with respect to false prophets.

So we hear magi, we think wise.
We think respect for the wisdom of other traditions.
Not so much for those earliest readers and hearers of Matthew.
“Magi? You’ve got to be kidding me!”
And it is, after all, the root for our words magic and magician—
not wise and wisdom.

This cherished integral part of our Christmas story
is rooted in the careful perusal of the ancient horoscope.
It’s someone in line to check out at Gigantas
(that’s Greek for Giant!)—
looking at the magazines
you wouldn’t be caught dead looking at anywhere else,
saying, “Oh, look, I’m going to go on a long journey
to find royalty.”

These are idolators—ones we mock—
those in relation to whom it’s so easy to feel so superior.
They’re the ones who don’t belong.

And yet—and yet it is precisely a star rising—
the abomination of one of their idols rising—
that prompted the magi to leave home—
to travel in hope and expectation of seeing the king of the Jews—
that’s so much a part of our own Christmas story.

And don’t forget this is chapter two of Matthew’s gospel,
and that there were rather unexpected people included
in the genealogy of chapter one:
Tamar, Ruth, Rahab, Bathsheba (or the wife of Uriah)—
all women—all Gentile women—all Gentile women of some reputation.
“What? You’ve got to be kidding me!”

One of the things I love about Scripture
is how, no matter how many times you approach it carefully
and thoughtfully and prayerfully, it always gets you with something new.
As if there’s not one meaning,
but different perspectives for different times.

So still on the way,
in Jerusalem—so almost there, actually,
some six miles from where they were going,
the magi stopped for directions.
Now according to popular wisdom,
that means at least one of the magi had to have been a woman,
right? Because they stopped to ask for directions.

And it does require a certain humble honesty
to admit you’re lost—
prioritizing the destination
over any possibly perceived expertise of the traveler—
“Oh, I can get there.”
Humble honesty evidently not high on the list
when it comes to all things male—
at least in popular wisdom.

It does lead me to ask, when do you stop for directions?
At the first sign that you might be lost?
Or only once you’re completely and thoroughly lost?

With GPS, you may have noticed, it’s now sometimes only when you arrive
at whatever your device tells you is the right place
that obviously isn’t
that you realize (with a sense of betrayal)
that you’re lost.

The magi, of course, had their own GPS—
their own global positioning star!
So why did they stop for directions?
Having traveled as far as they did,
now only, as mentioned, six miles from their destination,
why stop now? Why ask now?
Did they lose their trust in the star?
Did it disappear—
too much light pollution from the big city to see it clearly?

Because the question they had for Herod was, “Where?”
That’s the first word, by the way, of any human character in the gospel—

That’s an incredibly important question.
Not when. Not how. Not why. Not if. Where?
Yesterday at the reception at University Baptist for Jack,
he was talking about ministry,
thinking through the history of the Shepherd’s Clinic,
and he repeated, several times, “You have to have a place”—
a place to encounter people—to invite them in.
You have to have a where.
It’s indicative of incarnation.
It’s a good first word of the gospel.

Just in case you’re interested, Mark’s first human word is “see”
if you count quoting the prophetic words of Isaiah
or “is coming” if you don’t (John the Baptist speaking of the one
who was more powerful than he who “is coming”).
Luke’s is “how”—Zechariah asking how the impossible can be.
And John’s is “this one” (John the Baptist testifying to Jesus).

Matthew’s first human word is where.
Where is this child who will be king?
But did the magi stop for directions?
Or did they think they had arrived?
They were following the star to the king of the Jews,
and they were in Jerusalem.
Maybe they stopped because they thought they were there—
that they had arrived.
And they went to the king to ask of the king.
So maybe the where question was more specific than we tend to hear it—
not where do we go from here,
but now that we’re here, where do we go? Where’s the nursery?

It’s sometimes only when you arrive
at wherever you think is the right place
that obviously isn’t
that you realize (with a sense of betrayal)
that you’re lost.

Either way, where was an absolutely unnecessary question
for the magi to ask!
Because they didn’t need anything they got in Jerusalem.
They didn’t need anything they got in Jerusalem.

We tend to focus and think it significant
that Matthew has the magi in Jerusalem
not just with Herod, but also with the gathered faith representatives—
who quote the relevant holy text about Bethlehem.

So it is written by the prophet, they say.
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
But it’s not. It’s not written by the prophet.
The quote of the experts is actually one of those put together Scriptures
that doesn’t have one antecedent, but two:
one from the prophets and one from the histories
(Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2,
if you want to look them up and put them together yourself).
Scripture doesn’t always have one meaning,
but different perspectives for different times.

We like to think in terms of Jesus fulfilling the prophetic texts.
And Matthew really likes to detail that as well.
“There are forty-two explicit citations of the Old Testament
in Matthew compared to nineteen in Mark and Luke
and fourteen in John” (Charles Talbert, Reading Matthew:
A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel

[New York: Crossroad, 1995] 28).

And the scholars I read this past week
all emphasized the significance of Scripture.
Tom Long wrote, “Without the defining and clarifying word of scripture,
however, we could not recognize these holy moments for what they are;
we would not be able to see God’s face clearly in them”
(Tom Long, Matthew in Westminster Bible Companion
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997]19).
And Eugene Boring, “What astrologers are looking for is actually found in Christ;
at Bethlehem, astrology surrenders to Bible and Christ”
(Eugene Boring, The Book of Matthew:
Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes,
Volume VIII
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 144).
And Frederick Dale Bruner, “The star brings us to Jerusalem;
only Scripture brings us to Bethlehem.
Creation can bring us to the church;
the church’s Bible brings us to Christ” (Frederick Dale Bruner,
The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 [Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 2004] 59).

But in quoting Scripture, Matthew also makes it irrelevant.
Whew. Did I say that?
But the magi didn’t need the confirmation of Scripture.
When they left, our story indicates
not that they were following the directions of Scripture,
but that they followed the star again.
The star that led them this far
led them the rest of the way
stopping over the stable in Bethlehem.

I mean, I guess you could read the story
as if the star somehow disappeared over Jerusalem—
which is why they had to stop for directions—
whereupon it reappeared after they received Scripture’s clarifications.
But it doesn’t say that.
They didn’t need the confirmation of Scripture.

And they really didn’t need the conversation with Herod.
Herod asked them, we read, when they noticed the star rising.
And the magi thought why not share the details of our experience?
Why not share our excitement and our hope
in our quest for this king?
This king who would grow up to counsel
be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).
The magi were not as wise as serpents.

And what was Herod thinking?
He was calculating.
He was figuring how old the child would be—this king.
How else did Herod know to kill
all the up to two-year-olds in Bethlehem?
The slaughter of the innocents goes back
to the innocence of the magi who were not wise.
And remember, they didn’t receive the vision
warning them to go home another way
until they were in Bethlehem.

And finally, they would, of course,
end up ignoring the request of Herod
to report back to him after they’d seen the new king.
They didn’t need anything they got in Jerusalem.

We do.
Well because we can take good advice from the story—
how very important it is to choose
to whom to listen when it comes to directions.
Okay. No argument there.

I started wondering this week,
how do you know that someone who doesn’t think they’re lost is?
How can you tell someone who doesn’t think they’re lost that they are?
How do you know if you’re lost?
You may not feel lost and yet be lost.
How do you tell someone who thinks they’ve arrived that they’re lost?
For so many are lost and have no idea.

We take from this encounter
the importance of being both as wise as serpents
and as innocent as doves,
the importance of recognizing the significance and power of authority—
of what authority is acknowledged.

But the more important question, I think, today,
comes from noticing that “Matthew consistently calls [Herod]
‘King’ Herod until, significantly, the Magi worship Christ (v.11).
After this worship, Herod is dethroned and never again called ‘king’!
The Magi’s worship is Jesus’ coronation.” (Bruner, Volume I, p.65)
we see from the very beginning of the story,
“the conflict of two kingdoms, which dominates the Gospel”
(Boring, 140).

Now, we can make that anti-Semitic; many have.
But that makes it a smaller story than Matthew intended.
It takes the focus away from us.
We need this encounter because the fear of Herod
and all Jerusalem with him is our own fear—
our own fear of what this child allowed to grow to be our king would mean.

Finally, Tom Long suggests that
“for Matthew the wise … were not only characters
in the story of the birth of Jesus, they were also representatives
of people in his own community” (Long, 16).
They were the Gentile Christians—
those outside the accepted circles
who were fascinated by Jesus—
who sought Jesus—
ignorant of Scripture and faith tradition,
but intrigued

Which for me begs the most important question:
what is the church’s place in this story
as it unfolds today?
Are we entrenched in Jerusalem
ignorant of what’s happening on our outskirts?
Are we keepers of Scripture and tradition
oblivious to unfolding truth?
Or are we restlessly still questing
for where we find God amongst us—
where we can incarnate God amongst others?
Are we open to the movement of God
outside the expected and comfortable?

We have noted before, it’s important, that it’s not always helpful
or even appropriate to blend gospel accounts.
They tell different stories, after all,
and we respect their integrity.
Sometimes cross pollination can be significant though,
and there’s an answer for us in Luke.

After being with Jesus, “[t]he shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20).
They didn’t go off to a holy city
and proclaim themselves authoritative.
They didn’t feel the need to correct everyone
on all matters theological, ecclesial, moral.
They never said they had all the answers.
They rejoiced.

Less and less do I think our responsibility as followers of God
has much of anything to do with saying any particular words—
making any particular professions.
More and more I think it has to do with a way of living—
a way of loving,
that I, personally, have not found better said than in our story—
that I, personally, have not experienced any better than in church community,
but that I don’t think is unique to our story or our churches—
is bigger than anything we can claim.

But at the same time,
at Fay Sanz’ funeral, a couple of days after Christmas,
there was a créche set up in the parlor at the funeral home,
and coming out of the service, a little girl—
six or seven, bright eyes, full of smiles and energy,
seeing the creche, said to her mom, “That’s baby Jesus!”
And the mom said, “That’s right, though I’m surprised you know that.”
And I still feel sad.
Here’s a child obviously not being told the stories—
not being raised on and with the stories.
And that feels empty to me.
And yet—and yet she’s hearing them from somewhere.
She knew it was Jesus.
And her openness
those bright eyes, smiles and energy, may yet take her toward salvation.
Who am I—who are we, to sit in Jerusalem, and think otherwise?
We are those supposed to be marveling at
and praising God—
known in our world
as those overwhelmed by joy.
That’s all.
That’s enough.
May it be so.


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