Over the years, I have found that a common practice among believers is to write the date in one’s Bible when a particular passage is used in worship. In fact, some within our own church do this. From time to time, someone in our own congregation will come up to me before or after worship and say “did you know that you have preached on this text twice since you have been our minister. The last time was in March of 2017.”
Honestly, I like this little practice. I find it a meaningful way to keep time and to keep up with where we have been in worship over the years. One of the grand gifts of scripture is that with the passing of time and the change of perspective, the same text consistently offers a different lesson and word for the day.
Today’s passage is one of those texts that the church returns to quite regularly. In fact, often this is our text on the first Sunday of the year like Luke 2 is often our text on Christmas Eve. Today, we bring the Advent and Christmas season to a close on what is called Epiphany. Epiphany, always celebrated on the Sunday closest to January 6, is a day that teaches through the story of the Wise Men that Jesus came as Messiah not just to the people of Israel but rather to the entire world. The text also serves as a way of being clear that even from the very beginning there were some outside of Israel who recognized that something very, very special had happened in Bethlehem with these three mysterious figures from somewhere in the ancient East being the very best illustrations of this fact.
Again, this passage is alive, always ready to offer us something new to hear and learn even as the story remains the same.
This year, I invite us to focus on a figure in the story who is often pushed to the side and rightly so. This figure is King Herod who was raised Jewish and yet who ruled Judea on behalf of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ birth.
Herod was, of course, a bonafide paranoid ruler. Herod thought everyone was out to get him and take his power. He famously went so far as to have members of his own family put to death for fear that they wanted his job. It all led to the statement about him that “it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” As a Jew, he didn’t eat pork and thus his swine were safer than his own boys.
Herod’s paranoia is on full display in our text. When the Wise Men show up looking for a newborn king it sends Herod into a rage. Posing as one who also wants to worship and meet the newborn royal, Herod dispatches the Magi and asks that they come back and share the location of the child. Of course, we know that what he really plans to do is to have the child put to death once he knows the newborn’s location.
Yet, in the midst of the craziness, Herod actually says something right, true and profound. As he encourages the Wise Men and sends them on their way to Bethlehem in verse 8, he tells them to go and “search diligently” for the child.
At least for a moment, Herod is spot on. For what the Wise Men have been doing and what they will continue to do is to conduct a “diligent search” for the Christ.
This is really a wonderful way of thinking about our own lives as modern believers. In essence, our quest, our calling, our job in life and again in this new year too is to live our days on a diligent search for the presence of Christ in our lives and in our world. As we prepare to do so again this year, the Wise Men can help us. They offer us lessons from their own searching. Quickly, here are some truths that they offer to us.
First, the Wise Men remind us that a diligent search is at times a mundane search. To me, one of the most helpful elements of the Wise Men’s story is the reminder that it was a long journey. One has to believe it included lots of days and nights that were rather ordinary and where nothing significant happened. I think it is also fair to assume that they probably had some times where they thought about giving up and going home. They were human after all.
This is life. A lot of life is ordinary, monotonous, the same old, same old. The life of faith can be this way too. Not every morning devotional inspires us. Not every Sunday in worship moves us. Not every study captures our imagination. Yet, growing up and maturing in faith means continuing the search for God in our lives in both the profound moments and in the midst of the ordinary ones.
Second, the Wise Men teach us that a diligent search often demands that we see with different eyes. I can’t imagine that what the Wise Men discovered in Mary, Joseph and the young Jesus in Bethlehem was exactly what they had in mind. I suspect they had an idea of what they were looking for but that they had to adjust when they met the Christ child and his family. In essence, they found the Messiah because they were open to seeing with different eyes.
Like you, over the holidays, we received several Christmas cards with update photos in the mail. Some were from old friends that we haven’t seen in a long time. More than once, I remarked, “if I didn’t know who this was, I don’t think I would have recognized them.” The problem is that in my mind, I know what these folks look like. My trouble in recognizing them is that in reality they are older, carrying a little more weight, taller or now have facial hair.
Most all of us have an idea of what an encounter with God will look and feel like. Yet, part of searching diligently means being willing to see differently. Let me say that again. Part of searching diligently means being willing to see differently. As we look for God in our midst this year, we must learn from the Wise Men and be open to discovering God in new places, new faces and in different ways.
Finally, the Wise Men encourage us that a diligent search means believing that in the end we will find what we seek. Of course, the great lesson of the Wise Men and the good news of the Wise Men is that if we keep looking, we will find the one which we seek which is the Lord. Jesus himself said “seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7). It does not always happen immediately, it doesn’t always happen as we expect but if we keep at it, if it is our focus and if we are in it for the long haul, more times than not, we will have moments this year when we meet the Lord and are able to join the Wise Men in saying that the diligence of our search was certainly worth it.
One of the people that I have become interested in this year is the former American astronaut and US Senator John Glenn. In the early Fall, we watched a series about the Mercury 7 astronauts which featured Glenn. My interest caused me to get a biography of Glenn which I recently finished.
One of the more fascinating elements of Glenn’s life is the fact that he went into space as an astronaut twice. Once at the age of 40 in 1962 and a second time at the age of 77 in 1998. Glenn had wanted to return to space as soon as possible after his original mission in the Friendship 7 capsule. But, that wasn’t to be for a variety of reasons. Yet, Glenn never completely gave up, he remained connected to NASA, passionate about travel to space and open to the idea.
Now, just because we are tenacious, it doesn’t mean that we will always get what we want. And yet, in our lives of faith, more times that not, those who are diligent in the search and who keep the faith are those in due time who encounter God. It may take living through a lot of ordinary moments and it may mean reorienting our understanding, but as Jesus said, “those who seek, do find.” Amen.