what made them so wise?

It was good to be back together on Sunday for “regular” worship after all of the hoopla of Christmas. We slowed the liturgical calendar down a bit and celebrated Epiphany–the day on which we remember the story of the three kings visiting Jesus. The text is Matthew 2:1-12. The audio’s below and the text’s after the jump.

It all seems old hat, doesn’t it? I mean, really. We’re fourteen days past Christmas. Christmas is, by any definition, old news. And besides, everybody knows this story. Wise men, a star, swift-running camels, Bethlehem, a baby. There’s not anything new here.

I wonder if that’s what the religious folks in Jerusalem thought. I wonder what went through their minds when Herod called them together to read ancient scriptures. I wonder if they thought, oh, here he goes again, getting all paranoid and worrying about some Messiah. I wonder if they even had to pull out the sacred texts or if they could, the way many of us could with this story, basically recite it from memory.

Bethlehem, from Bethlehem, that’s where the shepherd, the leader, the messiah will come from. If we’ve read it once, we’ve read it a thousand times. Nothing new here. I wonder if they even gave it a second thought when Herod dismissed them. Maybe night had fallen and their thoughts were already turned to dinner as they hurried home, not even thinking to glance up at the stars. It was just the same old paranoid Herod, same old beautiful but largely irrelevant scripture, same old stars in the sky.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. I sometimes think that that the hardest thing in the world to believe is that there is something new. The cynicism, the boredom comes so easily. Another day, another dollar, new boss, same as the old boss. Endless war, unremitting poverty, mortgage or student loan or credit card debt that stretches out for forever. We have the same conversations over and over again: “Can you believe? No way. Have you read the latest? Wasn’t it great? But did you read? Did you see last night’s game?”

And so why wouldn’t we assume it is the same with God? Oh yes, there’s all that lovely poetry about a new heaven and a new earth, and new life sprouting from old dead stumps, but really, do we deep down believe that God is, or could be, doing a new thing in our midst? Here. Now.

Do we even for a moment dare to hope that God might be bringing new life, a new world into being in our very midst? Are we watching for it? Hoping for it? Looking for it with open eyes and hearts?

Is that what made the wise men so wise? That they dared to imagine that a new thing might be happening?

Because, you know, we remember them as wise. We call them wise. But really, I think they must have seemed pretty foolish—traipsing off on this epic journey just because of some star they saw. I’m guessing more than one friend back home tried to convince them that star had always been there, or wondered why they would even care about this king of a foreign people. I bet their friends back home didn’t call them wise—maybe credulous and wide-eyed—but not wise.

And the folks in Jerusalem—I keep coming back to them as I think about this story. I think we’re probably a lot like them. Like the religious folks we’re on the inside. We know at least something about the Bible, what it says, what God’s promised.

We can’t tell from the story whether or not Herod told them about the travelers and the star. But if he did, if he had, would it have made a difference?

Part of the irony of this story is that then, as now, predicting the future or explaining the present based on the stars wasn’t really kosher. God spoke through Torah, not through pagan means like astrology. And so, I bet, even if they’d known about the stars, they still would have thought the wise men were fools.

The wise men, of course, didn’t know that God was too holy to speak through the stars. They didn’t have any of the “right” kind of knowledge at all. They just saw the star, and trusted it, trusted that something new might be afoot, and so they followed it.

Here’s the thing: I think I’m mostly like those religious folks in Jerusalem. I like to think of myself as open-minded and attentive, but truth is, I’ve got my habits, my routines, my understanding of how God does and does not work. Truth be told, there’s a lot of life I sleepwalk through.

Maybe you know how that is, too. Maybe you live that way also. It’s a reasonable way to live. Reasonable. Rational. Maybe even shrewd.

These travelers, magicians, astrologers, whatever we call them—they were, by many accounts, foolish. They didn’t know God wasn’t supposed to speak through the stars. And they actually spent time gazing at the stars. And then followed one. And when they got to where the star had led them, they fell down and worshiped, worshiped! Not a mighty king arrayed in finery, but a child, and a poor one at that.

Could we be wise like that? How would we start? Do we dare?

Do we dare to open our eyes? And look, really look, for God?

Since we’re spiritual, we have ideas about how God does and does not appear, and if we’re going to be like these wise ones, we might have to practice looking for God in the wrong places—in fights, or in a bar, or in the parking lot at Target. In the work of artists who would never set foot in a church, or in the words of friends who don’t believe in God.

If we’re going to have our eyes open at the right time, we’ll need to ask ourselves, is there any thing, any place, any person that God can’t use? The wise men found God in all the wrong places—the stars and a dirty stable. We might too, if we dare to hope that God is here, doing a new thing. And so, we might want to practice asking ourselves is it possible, just maybe, that even now, even here—whenever it is and wherever you are—that God is doing a new thing?

And when we see a glimmer of God’s presence, when we hear a faint echo of God’s call, do we dare to follow? Foolish though it may be?

We might have to practice this art of following as well. One way to practice might be to take up a spiritual discipline you don’t understand very well—like praying the rosary, or memorizing Bible verses, or centering prayer—a discipline where other, trusted Christians have encountered the holy, and practice following just to see what you might find. Who knows, you might find God doing a new thing.

Or, maybe a more delightful practice, might be to follow a small child’s lead for twenty minutes or an hour, or a day if you can stand it—stopping to remark on every woof-woof-dog and red-red-robin, and asking every three minutes why are oranges orange. I get the feeling that the wise men’s search had that sort of open-ended wonder and spontaneity. Those might be things we’d want to practice, so that when a new star rises, we don’t hesitate too long before leaping.

The wise men, too, didn’t go it alone. They talked to each other, I’m sure. And they stopped to ask for directions. They studied their own resources, and consulted others. And so too for us. If we’re going to try to live in this foolishly wise way, we’ll need companions along the way, folks to say, you’re not crazy, I saw it too. Folks who will remind us yes, something new can happen.

Oh, how we need that reminder from others. With addiction or depression or dysfunctional relationships, so often the crippling part is a certainty that it can never be another way—no matter what, things will never change, so what’s the use of trying? The same dynamic happens when we work for justice or social change and eventually that nagging fear catches up that no matter what we do, no matter how much, children will still starve and nations wage war, so really, why bother? We should just wise up. Is there anything new under the sun?

Believing that “wisdom” is the temptation. It leads us to sleepwalk through life, through relationships, through this great, good world. It lulls us into a knowing, world-weary complacency that says been there, done that, I’ve seen all there is to see. This way of living may be smart by the world’s standards, but it is also spiritually bankrupt.

Because, friends, the truth, the wild and improbable truth, is that the One who brought this world into being, who in love made life, that One has not been content to sit apart from creation, but has come and entered in, and lo and behold, is here, now, within us, among us. We do not worship a dead God, but the living Lord, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. And this Lord of Life is free in a way we can barely imagine, free and mighty, and is capable, indeed is doing a new thing—a new thing!

Here’s the good news, the Lord of Life and Love is on the move, in our world—yes, this broken, tired, sad world, in our community—in Tacoma and at Bethany, and in our lives—yes, even our lives, and is doing a new thing.


God longs to do new things in your life, to rip out old habits and deep hurts, to heal and birth new life.

God longs to forgive and show mercy, opening up space for new love to grow.

God longs to set our feet on new paths, paths of peace and hope.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine for just a moment that God might be doing something new? Do you dare to follow that wild, improbable hope?

If you can, if you do, beware: you may find yourself seeking God in all the wrong places, hearing the old story with fresh ears, seeing new stars everywhere you turn, and traipsing off on an epic journey.

And what will we get for all this trouble? For looking behind every rock and tree for God? For hoping even when it seems ridiculous that there might be something new at work in the world? Well, all the wise men got was a manger, with a humble family and a tiny baby, and then a long journey home.

Then again, maybe that’s all we need.

by Sarah W. Wiles
January 8, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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3 Responses to what made them so wise?

  1. mahrilf says:

    Beautiful, Sarah. Thank you.

  2. Star Leonard-Fleckman says:

    You slowed me way down this morning, Sarah – thank you.

  3. joanie brown says:

    I bet you didn’t know you had lunch with me today Sarah….. I loved your message, it’s always a joy when Mahri forwards them to me. blessings to you, auntie joanie

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