Wise Men Search for the Baby (A Sermon)

Wise Men Still Seek HimThis season has always been a time of searching. My favorite example is an Ethiopia custom that is acted out every Epiphany. These very tall black men dress as Wise Men to go through the villages in a search for the baby Jesus. In the middle of the night, they stop at every hut, knock at each door. Those inside open with a question asked in soft whispers, “Whom do you seek, Christians?” And the Wise Men answer, “The Savior, Christ the Lord.” In the last hut of the village, they finally find a baby representing Jesus.

In the quiet of our worship we ask one another, “Whom do you seek? For what God are you searching?” To simply answer, “The Savior” is not enough. Then we must ask, “From what do you want him to save you? For what are you praying?”

Matthew offers two responses. We can be a seeker like Herod or a seeker like the three wise men. Our hopes and fears meet in this choice.

Our fears meet in Herod. Matthew says that he and all Jerusalem are frightened at this new kind of king. Herod personifies all those seeking a savior who will ensure things remain as they are. He pretends to love babies and might even convince himself he does. “Oh, when you find the child let me know, so I can come and worship him.” But when his power is threatened, Herod will massacre children to eliminate Jesus. Matthew says all the mothers of the world wail loudly, refusing to be consoled, because their children are no more.

There is a great deal of Herod in me, and I imagine in us all. We want things to remain as they are. We pray for success, for survival, for happiness, for health. And we sacrifice everything, and some days everybody else, to have these.

On the other hand, our hopes meet in the Wise Men. In W. H. Auden’s “For the Time Being,” the three Wise Men describe what they are seeking. The first says, “To discover how to be truthful now is the reason I follow this star.” The second, “To discover how to be living now is the reason I follow this star.” And the third, “To discover how to be loving now is the reason I follow this star.” Then all three in unison, “At least we know for certain that we are three old sinners, that this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners, and miss our wives, our books, our dogs, but have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are. To discover how to be human now is the reason we follow this star”.

In order to find this truth and love, the Wise Men must put their fears aside to make a long and difficult journey. They must encounter resistance, deceit, and danger. But in the end they are on their knees before the Christ and find another way to live. They never return to the Herods of this world. They leave him alone in his palace, surrounded by flatterers, wallowing in his fear.

There is Herod and Wise Men in us all. We do not want things to change, but at the same time we want peace: peace in our world, peace in our homes, peace in our hearts. We want our children to be safe at night. We want all children to sleep in heavenly peace, and we know to achieve this, Jesus needs to change us and our world.

In the past few years, that conflict has created a haunting scene for me. Remember the Wise Men were from the East. Scholars say that probably means Iraq. I imagine a dark house in Baghdad. A full geared Special Services Officer, who has the face of my own son, breaks down the front door, thrushes his gun into the room to find a father and mother holding a newly born child. They whisper. “Whom do you seek, Christian?”

The scene ends here. The conflict between Herod and Wise Men in me and all of us prevents me from knowing what the soldier replies. I know too well the Herod in me leads to wars in which half the people killed are civilian women and children. I know too well the Wise Man in me and all of us demands a better way.

Of course, I am not only talking about military action. Jesus said it is not enough to refrain from killing. We are not even to be angry with each other. I learned about the Ethiopian search at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which should be holiest place on earth as it is built over the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. However, it is a place of constant conflict. Four different Christian bodies have been fighting for centuries over space. These turf wars have forced the Ethiopians to live on the roof. They each jealously guard their ground and only speak to one another in argument. They actually need a Muslim neighbor to lock the doors and referee the disputes. Too often our families and neighborhoods and churches are like that, professing Christ but constantly in conflict.

The way to Jesus’ peace is at the end of a hard road. This baby will grow up to confront numerous Herods. In the end it is Pontius Pilate who wants things to remain the same, is paralyzed with fear of losing power, afraid of truth and love. He kills Jesus as an enemy of the people under the sign, “The King of the Jews”, the very one for whom the Wise Men searched.

But the search continues. Three days later three women hear the question once more, “Whom do you seek in the tomb, O Christians?” The reply, “Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, O angels,” and receive the response, “Then why do you seek the living among the dead? He is risen.” The very one for whom the Wise Men searched lives.

If fear makes enemies out of friends and lies out of truth, then God’s presence in the world makes friends out of enemies and lovers of truth from those who used to fear it. God’s presence gives us the hope that enables us to love. The question is still all around us, “Whom do you seek?” We must begin to live as if the answer is, “The Savior, Christ the Lord.”

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  1. KERRY WALTERS says:

    What a perfect Epiphany meditation! Thanks!!!

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