Today we celebrate the last event in our Christmas narrative – the arrival of the wise men. There is something about these three men that vividly draw us in to the story. The years of seeing pageants, singing the hymn “We Three Kings,” or seeing varied artistic renderings of the kings have filled our minds with myriad images. You may imagine the men as varied ethnically. You may imagine their fine clothing and expensive trappings. You may imagine them as learned men on a life quest. What I like about these wise men is that their intriguing story not only invites us all into the posture of a spiritual seeker, but also their story gives us a picture of what being a seeker entails.
From the very beginning of the Christmas stories, we learn that all are welcome to a spiritual encounter with our Lord. With Mary we learned that the young, the faithful, and the unexpected can have intimate encounters with God. With the shepherds, we found that those who are on the margins of society can be recipients of divine revelation. And with the wise men, we learn that outsiders – people from the East – or in biblical terms, Gentiles, can be led to a spiritual connection with God.[i] What we learn from these three distinct groups is that relationship with the Christ Child is open to all. No matter who you are, where you are from, or what your social standing is, you are welcome with Jesus. The Episcopal Church, whose famous signs read “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You,” learned this very basic way of being from Jesus – who welcomed all to his birth. The magi this week teach us this core value once again – all are welcome to an encounter with Christ.
The wise men also teach us that seeking is active. Nowhere in the text does the text say that the magi stumbled upon Jesus by chance. The magi were looking for Jesus. In fact, they were so bold in their seeking that they came into King Herod’s empire asking where the King of the Jews was – clearly implying that King Herod was not the king they were seeking. They seek this king of the Jews in full view of all – not afraid or embarrassed, but boldly owning their search before others. They continue their search, following that star for who knows how long, without the promise that they will find the Christ Child, but with a hopeful, active searching.
The behavior of the magi teaches us that we too are to be active seekers. But being active seekers can be tricky for us, because we are easily distracted – so busy with family, work, and life that we forget the foundation of that entire life. Seeing Christ in our lives requires active seeking. A relationship with Christ is mutual – the richer our contributions to that relationship, the richer our relationship becomes. We too are to be active seekers of Christ in this life.
Third, the magi teach us the posture of humility while in the presence of the sacred. The gifts that the men give are those kinds of gifts that are humbly given only on the most special of occasions.[ii] The magi recognize the amazing thing that God has done in Jesus Christ, and they offer the most special of gifts. But even more than the gifts is the nature of the wise men’s response. When they see the Christ Child and Mary, they do not congratulate themselves for a search well done. Instead, the magi fall to their knees, on the dirty, filthy ground, sullying fine garments, in order to pay homage to Jesus. That these three powerful men could be brought to their knees by a mere child shows us the power of Christ, and the humility we all can show before God.
The Episcopal Church has often been teased as being an aerobic church – with so much switching between standing, sitting, and kneeling that you actually get a workout. What I love about our piety is that the physicality of our worship invites us into the kind of humility that we find in the magi. Kneeling especially requires humility and sacrifice – our bodies rarely enjoy kneeling. Through the discomfort and distinctiveness of kneeling, we discover new things about ourselves and about what we are doing – whether we are praying, confessing, or receiving the body and blood of Christ. The magi remind us of how this simple posture can reorient ourselves toward God.
Finally, the magi teach us about obedient listening. Now unless you are a dog owner, or the parent of a little one, obedience is not a word we particularly enjoy. As individuals we like to think of ourselves as not needing to “obey” anyone. Even when we think of God, we prefer words like cooperation, sharing, or advising rather than the word “obedience.” But the magi remind us that obedience toward God is essential. Social mores, and even the fear of punishment, could have led the wise men to disregard their dream warning them about returning to Herod. But instead, the magi obediently listen to their dream – to the word of God that comes to them in the night – and they leave from the country by another road. Just verses later we discover that their dream was a most helpful warning; Herod had nothing but ill-intended wishes on his mind when he asked the wise men to return. That is the way with God though. We are not given the future, only the current word of God for us. We are encouraged to trust and obey God when God speaks.
The magi did not just bring gifts for Jesus today. The magi give us gifts too. Through them we learn that the kingdom of heaven is a welcoming place for us. We learn through them that the faith journey is one of active seeking after God. Through them we learn the posture of humble reverence before God. And finally, we learn through them that obedient listening is the most direct way to cooperate with God. We are grateful today for the witness of the magi, who teach us the best ways to seek and find God. Their instruction today gives us permission to be the seekers that Jesus invites us to be. Welcome to the journey, seekers! Amen.
[i] William J. Danaher, Jr. “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 214.
[ii] Paul J. Achtemeier, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 215.