Do you wander? Do you wonder?
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that “not all who wander are lost.” Think about that for a minute. Are you willing to wander or are you someone who has to know exactly where you’re going and exactly how to get there?
I admit that personally, I am most interested in the route from point A to point B. I don’t wander enough – and I think (unfortunately) it impacts my wondering.But – and this may surprise you coming from the pastor – I am still seeking. I still want to understand better what Christmas and Christianity are all about.
U2 wrote the following, and it speaks to my search for what is true, for where God is, in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”:
I have climbed highest mountain; I have run through the fields, only to be with you.
I have run, I have crawled, I have scaled these city walls. Only to be with you.
I believe in the kingdom come, then all the colors will bleed into one. Well, yes, I’m still running.
You broke the bonds, and you loosed the chains, carried the cross, of my shame. You know I believed it.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…
Consider the wise men with me. Think about their importance to our story – what they add to the otherwise short birth narratives included – just narrowly – in the gospel story. Think about their wandering – and their wondering.
To be clear, I don’t mean what we popularly believe, that there were three of them because of the number of gifts (and because they’re commemorated in We Three Kings of Orient Are) or that they arrived at the same time as the shepherds. Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but we’re always getting our translations mixed up, aren’t we?
Reminds me of this story:
In a small southern town there was a “Nativity Scene” that showed great skill and talent had gone into creating it. One small feature bothered me. The three wise men were wearing fireman’s helmets.
Totally unable to come up with a reason or explanation, I left. At a “Quick Stop” on the edge of town, I asked the lady behind the counter about the helmets. She exploded into a rage, yelling at me. “You Yankees never do read The Bible!”
I assured her that I did, but simply couldn’t recall anything about firemen in The Bible. She jerked her Bible from behind the counter and ruffled through some pages, and finally jabbed her finger at a passage. Sticking it in my face, she said, “See, it says right here, ‘The three wise men came from afar.
Who or what occupationally they were isn’t as important to me. Maybe they were astrologers, or mystics, or some kind of combination of science and religion. Whatever their occupation was, they had seen a star that was of epic proportions and they knew that whoever the star shone for was important.
These were the best of the best of the East: the smartest, the brightest, the most intelligent, the most forward-thinking. Maybe they were traveling by camel, maybe not– we know the Cadillac hadn’t been invented yet, so what else could a bunch of wise guys be driving around in?
Speaking of wise-guys, A mafioso’s son sits at his desk writing a Christmas list to Jesus. He first writes, ‘Dear baby Jesus, I have been a good boy the whole year, so I want a new…’ He looks at it, then crumples it up into a ball and throws it away. He gets out a new piece of paper and writes again, ‘Dear baby Jesus, I have been a good boy for most of the year, so I want a new…’ He again looks at it with disgust and throws it away. He then gets an idea. He goes into his mother’s room, takes a statue of the Virgin Mary, puts it in the closet, and locks the door. He takes another piece of paper and writes, ‘Dear baby Jesus. If you ever want to see your mother again…’
Okay, let me stick to the script here. We know the wise men were looking, and we know they were willing to go. But what else?
We know that these men were not Jewish, not God-worshipping in the way that we or the Jews would’ve expected, and their travel was totally based on the signs they had seen and the star they had followed. They were scientifically, practically, searching, not out of religious fervor. Worship for them was human-to-human, honor and gift-giving, not holy religious wonder. These men were practical – not necessarily religious
The wise men travelled many miles from the east to track down this “king of the Jews,” to come and worship him. Many miles… to worship.
We can only definitively know that the wise men were:
1- Not Jewish because they didn’t know that Bethlehem was the place to look
2-From far away because they were from ‘the east.’
3-Not satisfied with the life they lived…
because if they had been, they would not have come. If they had everything they needed, everything they knew to be important, then why would they have travelled to Bethlehem to find this king of the Jews? If all of their questions could be answered where they were, then why would they go?
What were they missing in their lives that made them go searching, to go follow a star, to a place they’d never been with people they didn’t know?
While we bounce that question around for awhile, consider that they also say they’ve come to worship a king. Up until they arrive, we have an understanding that God has divinely caused Mary to be pregnant with a baby who will be full of the Holy Spirit, and we know from Joseph’s vision that he will save his people from their sins. But the wise men understood that this person, this Messiah, wasn’t just a prophet; he was a ruler.
Now, we might get it mixed all together, this Messiah-savior-king-prophet bit, but for a bunch of out-of-towners to show up in Jerusalem and ask where the “king of the Jews” was going to be, that was taking it to a whole new level. Because there had been heroes, and prophets, and miracles before, and the wise men would’ve heard of those people, maybe even met them. There was something different going on here.
So, these wise men show up and tell King Herod, the puppet king the Romans had in place, that there was a threat to his kingdom. But there wasn’t just a threat to Herod, there was a threat to the status quo. Because the people in Jerusalem are upset by this news, too. They don’t need another Messiah, they don’t need another king. Every person who steps up out of line causes the Romans to get angry, and kill some Jews. The people of Jerusalem would just as soon lie low. They are satisfied.
The people are satisfied with how things are– they have settled for oppression and less than. They have figured out how to survive, how to live the way they do, and the habits they have developed have gotten them this far. So why change? (Isn’t that how we are sometimes, settling for okay or mediocre rather than “the best”?)
Herod needs to figure out what the 411, the truth, the information, about this child-who-would-be-king is, because it’s a threat to his applecart, and he knows he could be dethroned and killed if the Romans get upset. Herod is challenged by a prophecy; he’s a Jew who should’ve known what was going on with the prophecy, but instead of being excited about galactic change, he’s worried about how it will affect him right now. So he puts the wise men up to being his spies, and tells them to track down the baby, and says he wants to go worship it, too.
We can see that the wise men keep going until they find the house where the child is, and that they are overjoyed. Their journey in searching is over. They have followed the directions to the end of the treasure map. They proceed to worship Jesus, and to present gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The wise men have been seeking something that they couldn’t find anywhere else. They have been pursuing the truth and the sacred, and they find it here with Mary and with baby Jesus. And they recognize that they are not supposed to report back to Herod, and they go home without going back through Jerusalem.
They came from the east, and they followed the star, and they found the sacred in a place unexpected.
I believe the wise men came seeking the amazing, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that they knew would be unlike anything that they’d seen before. I believe they brought their best: the gold, frankincense, and myrrh were not cheap, Dollar Store gifts, but the best of the best. And I believe that what they experienced that night was so amazing that it caused a group of men who were trained to seek the kings and kingdoms of the world, to change their direction and defy King Herod.
I believe they encountered the sacred, and their worship came from commonplace gift exchange and status seeking, to a mind-blown, wonderful eye-opening experience of the divine.
I think that these wise men thought they were pursuing a king who would need some advisors, that they thought they were headed to a royal court. The wise men didn’t know exactly what they were looking for but when they found it, they knew it. I’m sure they were looking for a palace, something impressive, something spectacular, powerful, and intense.
And they found a baby. I don’t know what made them recognize that this was it but they knew it when they found it.
When they discovered Jesus and worshipped him, they knew that their previous expectations of Herod were faulty, and they literally changed direction. Their attitude and behavior was altered by the seeking and finding of the sacred.
The wise men wondered. Then they wandered. But as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Not all who wander are lost.”
These wise men had purpose. They knew who they were. They didn’t let the evil king control them. They didn’t let their fears stop them. They let God transform them.
They joined a host of people who were changed by the arrival of Jesus. Mary, Jesus’ mother, who found out she was pregnant before she was married. Joseph, who discovered his fiancee was pregnant, but who was called to be her caregiver and the father of her child. The shepherds, who were called out of the fields to be the sharers of this good news (which we’ll get to next Sunday). And finally the wise men who came the farthest, sight unseen, to worship at the feet of this homeless king.
So, I’ll ask you, why did you come here tonight?
“What did you come here looking for?” “What are you looking for in life?” How will you know when you find it?
There’s no star hanging over the church to light the way. In fact, the parking lot isn’t even that well-lit! But you came because you thought you should be here or someone who is cooking your dinner brought you here, right?
I wonder what happens if when we go seeking, whether it’s money, or pleasure, or happiness, or fame, if we found Jesus instead, if that would make a difference. The world says that we should go looking for bigger and better and more impressive, and when the wise men came seeking the once-in-a-lifetime ruler to end all rulers, they found a poor carpenter’s son, a young child with nothing to his name.
I pray that you will engage your sense of Christmas wonder, of childlike desire, of spirit-filled generosity, and fully-engaged participation. I pray that you will seek God with all your heart because the great God of the universe wants to have a relationship with you.
And when you realize that, I hope you’ll choose to “go home a different way.”
I hope it will change what you think about, what you focus on, what you want for your life…
I pray that it will change the things you worry about and what you fear…
I challenge you to let it change how you face today and tomorrow.
I pray that you will take heart, in the words of the angels who came to Zechariah, to Mary, to Joseph, to the shepherds, and to the wise men, and now come to you and me, that you’ll embrace the best that God wants for your life.
Wonder. Have faith. Move forward in God’s love and purpose. Seek the truth. Make changes, be change. Love one another.
Even in the darkness – do not be afraid. Instead, wonder.