Behold, wise men from the East came from the East saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2: 1)
A clergy friend was fond of saying that some people know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Some years ago Wendy Jones appeared on the television show “Antiques Roadshow” with a 22 inch plate made of hard paste porcelain. It had been given to her son by his paternal grandmother. For years it sat upon a plate shelf. She wondered if it had any value. When the experts of The Antique Roadshow examined the plate they noted its excellent condition and that it had been commissioned by the Prussian East India Company for Frederick II. They knew this to be so because it bore the coat of arms of the Hohenzollen family, The Order of the Black Eagle and Maltese Cross. That meant that it had to be made between the years 1750 and 1755. Very few pieces are in museums. Two pieces had been sold to the public in the last decade. The value they placed on the plate was jaw-dropping; $185,000!
Often it takes an outsider to show us the value of what we have. It was the wise men from the East, the Magi, who came to Jerusalem seeking “he who has been born king of the Jews”. As the Prologue to John’s gospel reminded us, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not (1:11).
I sometimes wonder if those outside of the Church understand Jesus better than we on the inside do. There is a scene in Sister Act when the Las Vegas showgirl played by Whoopi Goldberg is tucked away in an inner city convent. At one point she challenged the nuns to abandon the safety of their gated walls and walk among the people in the neighborhood. Sometimes we tame Jesus and his gospel in order to protect ourselves and the institution.
I have a friend who remembers a comment that was once made in a chapel service at his Quaker boarding school. “God made man in his own image, and man returned the favor.” In his book Your God Is Too Small J. B. Phillips notes how we have projected onto God our own bias and prejudices. Too often God is presented as loving those who look like us, think like us, and act like us. Jesus knew this too well.
Perhaps you remember his parable found in Matthew 25. On the Day of Judgment when all of the peoples of the world stand before the Son of Man, they are divided into two groups—the sheep and the goats. To the sheep the Son of Man says, “Enter into the glory prepared for you before the dawn of time, for when I was hungry you fed me, when I was naked you clothed, me when I was alone or in prison you visited me.” “When did we do these things?” they asked. “When you did it unto the least, you did it also unto me,” the Son of Man will reply.
Turning to the goats the Son of Man sent them to a fate of their own making. “When I was hungry you did not feed me, when I was naked you did not clothe me, when I was sick or alone you did not visit me.” “When did we ever see you in such a state?” they protested. “When you did not do it to the least, you did not do it unto me.”
The point of the parable is that unless we can see the face of God, the face of Jesus in the least, the last and the lost, we cannot see the face of God. He is not us. He is the other.
The Magi’s question “troubled” Herod and “all of Jerusalem.” The birth of a king troubles the powerful of the world because it displaces them from their thrones of power and privilege. In Luke’s gospel, the song that has come to known as the Magnificat reminds us that the reign of Christ, the reign of God in this world threatens the status quo and the comfortable. “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones…and sent the rich away empty (1: 51b-53)
Jesus echoed the forgotten Old Testament Prophets who criticized the Israel who sold the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes. They trampled on the head of the poor and turned aside from the way of the afflicted. Their courts and business practices were weighted toward those of affluence at the expense of those at lower end of the economic ladder. Profits and business deals became their gods rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Amos, Hosea, and Micah).
Herod knew that a new King would threaten all that he had, and he had a lot. Therefore, he connived. He told the Magi that when they found this “new king” that they should come back and tell him where he could be found for Herod wanted to pay proper homage. When the wise men did not return, Herod took matters into his own hands and issued an order that resulted in the genocide of a generation.
God’s purposes cannot be thwarted. God’s reign may start small like a mustard seed but it will grow. You can either get on board with what God is doing, stand in the way or get out of the way, but like a freight train leaving a station, the Kingdom of God will come.
Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi returned to their home by a different way. Once we have seen the Christ Child we cannot go back to who we were. We must travel a different path, a new path, the Kingdom path.
May you walk that Kingdom path in this new year and beyond. Amen.