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Looking for Jesus

A Homily from Matthew 2:1-12

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

January 2, 2005 (Epiphany of the Lord)

In the season of Advent, the Church focuses on expectation. We contemplate our future as hopeful children of God. When the Christmas season begins, we emphasize how that hope was made possible in the arrival of God in the form of a tiny infant. Now, we close the season of Christmas with Epiphany – the day which traditionally celebrates the arrival of eastern astrologers to the town of Bethlehem.

Epiphany is the day when we say, “Have you been looking for Jesus? Are you expecting a Messiah? Here he is!” “Here He Is Day” sounds a bit too prosaic, so we call it “Epiphany” from the Greek word for “manifestation.” Liturgically, this is the day that we honor Jesus’ arrival being made manifest to the rest of the world. For those of you who were looking, here he is.

So, who is looking for him in the first place? Who is seeking the Messiah? Who is hoping to find God in the flesh?

In our text for today, it’s a group of magi. That word can mean astrologers, wise men, soothsayers, sorcerers or any number of related terms. Perhaps I follow politics too closely, but this Christmas, at the close of a bitterly contested election year, I found myself thinking of them as “pundits”: George Will with a camel instead of a bow tie.

The analogy is not far off. The magi of the first century were scholars and royal advisors who, lacking opinion polls and demographic studies, followed the movements of the stars and the records of sacred texts in seeking to understand the world. In certain circumstances, their opinions could carry considerable weight in influencing both public opinion and government policy.

However inaccurate their methods might have been in the past, they worked quite well for the magi in today’s text. Having seen a new star, a moving star, in the sky they realize that such a dramatic event could only herald the arrival of a new king; so they follow it and it leads them to Jerusalem.

As several commentators point out, the star that they followed there was not a natural phenomenon. A “star” that stays in one place and then moves and then stops again is not a star. Nor is a comet or an asteroid. It is a loud and obvious proclamation from God: “I am doing something here and you should notice it. Pay attention. Something important is going on.”
That God would give such a sign to Gentile sorcerers is an amazing reminder of the expansive mercy of God. As one commentator [Boring] points out, the first words spoken by a human in Matthew’s gospel are by a Gentile asking where the new Jewish king might be found. They aren’t asking because of any special wisdom on their part, but because God took the extraordinary step of making it obvious to them – even though they were not part of God’s chosen people – that God was doing something new and amazing.

That’s one kind of person who still comes looking for the Messiah. Someone who has sensed God reaching out to them. Someone who realizes that God is at work in the world and in their life. Someone who knows that there must be more to life than what they have.

In the first century if you were that kind of person and you were looking for a king you went to the capital city and visited the palace, which is what our friends the magi did. It turns out that they were in the wrong place, since the kind of king that God had provided wasn’t the kind who dressed in silk robes and lived in a mansion.

Yet it’s still hard for us to understand just what kind of savior Jesus is, so we keep looking for him in the wrong places. I once listened to a colleague, an ordained minister, talk at length about the need for people to find “God inside each one of us.” Quite frankly, if the only kind of God I’m going to find is one who only knows the things I know, and who is a product of my own subconscious, I’m going to look for a new line of work.

Other folks look for hope and salvation in mind warping cults, or in their professions, or in bottles, pills, and syringes. When they do, they’re making the same perfectly understandable mistake that the magi did. They are assuming that God works the way the rest of the world does.

God doesn’t, and one place to be reminded of that is in our Scriptures. So, when the magi arrived at the palace of King Herod and asked him where the new king was; he knew where to look. He asked the chief priests in his court to search the scriptures and tell him where the Messiah was to be born.

How odd that the people who were actually seeking the Messiah didn’t know where to look, and the person who did know where to look had no interest in actually doing the will of God. Like the magi, Herod wanted to find the new king whom God had sent, but only because he wanted to eliminate the competition. Herod was looking for the Messiah all right, but to get rid of him.

We have those kind of “seekers” today too. Some of them even stand in our pulpits or sit in our pews. Surrounded by all of the head knowledge we need to follow the will of God, we remain so distracted by other things that we instead work against God’s will. Those distractions come from all directions. They may be the mundane issues of survival – paying the electric bill and keeping the roof from leaking. The distractions can also be more dramatic. Very few of us will wield the power over life and death that an ancient king like Herod controlled; but following the path of Jesus always require that we give up some of the power we have in this world so that the power of God can work through us.

Herod had access to the scriptures and the best interpreters of those scriptures. He lived near the Temple – the Temple he had rebuilt – where God’s presence could be physically felt. Yet he still chose sitting upon his throne over kneeling by the crib of the commoner’s child whom God sent to save humanity.

How many of us have built churches with our labor and tithes, sat inside them every Sunday, and still never listened clearly or obediently to the voice of God. How many of us were willing to give a little of our time or our money to appeasing God; but have never been willing to surrender everything to God’s plan, to God’s authority? How many of us are willing to write a check, but not hand over the checkbook? How many of us are looking for Jesus, but are only looking for a Jesus who won’t be too upsetting, too dangerous, or too challenging to the things we value?

Ironically, many of us who come to church on “Here He Is!” Sunday will leave having only seen the kind of Jesus we were looking for. In conservative churches, he will be the kind of Jesus who condemns those who are not like the people in their pews. In liberal churches, he will be the kind of Jesus who doesn’t condemn anyone or anything. In “moderate” churches he’ll be the kind of Jesus who just wants everyone to get along.

Those are gross over-simplifications; but I’ve been in all three kinds of churches and I’ve been guilty of looking for all three of those messiahs; so I’m willing to guess that such stereotypes aren’t too far off either.

As the magi quickly learned, however, the true Son of God does not fit any stereotypes. The scriptures that the chief priests had interpreted had pointed them to Bethlehem; and – with their miraculous star leading the way – the court sorcerers from distant lands headed south to the small town. They didn’t arrive at a stable – that’s in Luke’s version of the story, the one with the shepherds. They came to a small house where a working class husband and wife were adjusting to life with a newborn infant.

I imagine that the neighbors around that house knew the couple. New babies have a way of drawing attention whether the parents want it or not. Any number of Bethlehemites probably stopped to smile at the little infant, let him squeeze their finger, and compliment his parents; and not a single one of them realized that they were looking at the hope of all humanity, God in person.

Those folks don’t make it in to our story today, but they were probably looking for the Messiah as well. Their king, Herod, was a puppet of Rome. Perhaps more significantly, he disregarded the Law that was part of their covenant with God. As other writings from the time attest, the God’s faithful people in that time were eagerly awaiting the Messiah.

But they had no idea what they were looking for or where to look; and so they very likely passed him by every day on the streets of Bethlehem. They were, in fact, no better off than the people who were not looking at all.

So, by the close of the text, there are at least four types of people around Jesus. There are the magi, who only knew that God was trying to get their attention and so they did everything they could to answer God’s call. There are the leaders of the land, the priests and the king, who have access to everything they need to know what God is doing; but they don’t want to listen because obeying God would cost them too much. There are the suffering masses, who deeply desire the arrival of someone to fix their problems; but never expected that God would send a defenseless child. Then there are those who aren’t looking for any kind of messiah at all.

Of them all, at the end of the story only the magi have the privilege of kneeling in the presence of God. Knowledge without obedience had proved worthless. Piety without understanding the same. Ambivalence had accomplished as much as it always does. Only those who had seen the work of God (mercifully made so obvious that they couldn’t miss it) and acted to follow God’s lead had reached their heart’s desire.

This is perhaps too easy to read a simple moral into such a story. After all, elsewhere in Scripture we see that the wise and the wealthy can learn to follow Jesus. The spread of Christianity itself is a testimony of the ability that we ordinary folk have to finally figure out that a Messiah who dies for us is better than one who conquers for us.

But, as Neil Armstrong will tell you, there’s something to be said for getting there first; and the first ones to get to the baby Jesus knew only that God wanted them and that they were going to try to obey God, even if they didn’t fully understand who God was. For those of us whose job it is to interpret Scripture, there is some comfort in the fact that the message of the scriptures was so powerful that even priests corrupted in the service of Herod couldn’t screw the message up. Despite the messed up priorities of the preachers, the Bible still did its work and sent the magi on their way.

There can be no better place than the one to which the star led them. It is the same place to which our worship on Epiphany Sunday, and on any Sunday should lead us: the presence of God in a way we could never have expected.

There is more of Herod in each of us than we would like to admit. There are also times when we are too busy or too self-absorbed to notice the presence of the Messiah. How many times have we walked past a simple door, never noticing the star shining overhead, and missed the opportunity to step inside and see the living God?

Well, here he is. A little baby may not be the kind of God we thought we were looking for, but he is a reminder that God is much more than we could have hoped for. God may not magically take a way our grief, but a God who lived and died a fleshly life understands our grief. God may not give us the money we think we need, but a God who worked for each meal understands what it is to be hungry and in need.

Here he is. It is tempting to try and create the kind of Jesus who will be the perfect answer to all of our problems or who will never threaten the comfortable lives that we enjoy. But that is not who God is. Whatever kind of Jesus we came looking for, our Scriptures remind us that God does not become who we want; God is who we need.

The people who were closest to where Jesus was, never knew God was there among them. In the first days of Jesus’ arrival, however, God reached out to the farthest reaches of the known world and called to people who had no idea who God was or even why they were being called; and, because they acted faithfully they were able to give their gifts to the work of God.

On this and every day God likewise calls to us wherever we may be. Even in our ignorance, may we answer with the same faithfulness and effort that the magi showed.