“Longing, Wondering, Searching Together”
Perhaps especially as we begin a New Year, and as we reflect on the challenges of the year past, people today are longing to make sense out of life and to find hope for the future. In the midst of the conflict, strife, and violence of our world… In the midst of personal issues and family struggles, they are looking for meaning, for hope, and for peace.
But I don’t think that this is new. If you follow humanity back hundreds, even thousands of years, you find that people have always been longing for something more, and wondering what it’s all about. We have questioned our gurus and wise ones, speculated about the gods, and struggled to make sense of our little place in this vast universe.
The Gospel reading today is about some men who must have had just such a longing. The scripture calls them, “wise men from the East.” They were foreigners, Gentiles. They probably came from somewhere East of the Jordan river, from Babylon or Syria maybe.
The main thing that always gets pointed out about these men is that they were not Jews. They were Gentiles. They were Gentiles in the extreme. Not only did they not worship the one God of Israel, and they didn’t follow the law given to Moses and the Israelites, but one commentary describes them as, “characters who could not be more remote from the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem in heritage and worldview.”
They were Magi, magicians, sorcerers. They watched the stars and the sky, and predicted what the future would bring. They interpreted dreams, and were guided by what they learned through them. They weren’t exactly like the psychics of today, who are mostly just trying to make a buck by making up a story. They were high class, and well respected “wise men,” but by the Jews, they would have been described as pagans – putting their trust in dreams and constellations, instead of in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And we all know the story of the wise men so well. They see a new star rising in the sky. And perhaps they consult their charts to figure out what it means. “Ah! Here it is. A new star means a new king. A child must have been born under it, and the star tells us that he will be great. He will grow up to be a mighty ruler. Perhaps the king of Syria, or Israel, or maybe he’ll be the King of the world!
“We should go and find him, don’t you think? We could be the first to honour him, and perhaps receive some of his reflected glory. All we have to do is follow the star. It should lead us to the place where he has been born. We can bring him gifts, and later he’ll remember our kindness, and treat us well in his kingdom.”
And so they went. As they followed the star, they soon realized that it was hovering over Israel, and so the king that was born must be the future king of the Jews. They went to Herod, (the king at the time) and made enquiries about the “New King.” Understandably, Herod was a little upset by the news.
He hadn’t had a son born recently, so they weren’t talking about an heir to the throne. They were talking about someone who would overthrow him, someone who would rise against Herod and gain the title and power of being king. He was well aware that he wasn’t very popular among the Jews, especially since he wasn’t even a Jew himself. Last thing he needed was some Jewish boy starting a revolution and dethroning him from his position.
So he went to the chief priests and the scribes. Those were the people to be trusted in Jewish society to know the answers. They were the wise men of that time and place. Surely they would know if a new king was prophesied to be coming.
And they did know. I bet they didn’t even have to go look up the scripture references in which the prophets were proclaiming the birth of a new king. Because, just like the wise men from the East, they were longing for something new as well. They were waiting and hoping, and searching the scriptures for some kind of sign, and praying for a Messiah, for a new king, for someone to free their people from oppression and poverty and despair.
The priests and scribes told Herod right away that a king was expected to be born. The scriptures didn’t say when, but where was clear enough – in Bethlehem, in the land of Judah. And as you know, with a bit more information, the Magi went out and found the newborn king under the star, in the town of Bethlehem. And they knelt down and worshipped him, and gave him their gifts, and then went home by another way so that Herod would not find the child.
This story seems kind of out-of-place in the Gospel according to Matthew. It’s a story about Gentiles who come to worship the Christ-child. It actually indicates that Gentiles were the first to come and worship the Christ-child. It’s strange that these foreigners are the first to believe that there is something special about Jesus, because the way Matthew tells his Gospel story, Jesus came for the Jews.
Jesus was a Jew. And Jesus came to save the Jews. He went throughout the land of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing the people of their diseases. He said, “I haven’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfil them,” and he told his people to keep on living by the law of Moses.
In chapter ten, when Jesus sends out the twelve apostles for the first time, he gives them these instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” As you read the stories of Matthew’s Gospel, it is clear that the Jews were Jesus’ primary concern. He came to reveal God to his own people, and to tell them that the Reign of God was near.
But, a little later in the Gospel, there’s a story that hints that maybe Jesus’ ministry is going to be extended beyond just the Jewish people. It’s the story of a Canaanite woman who comes out and starts to shout to Jesus. She cries out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” And it seems like just the sort of problem that Jesus is practised at dealing with.
But instead of stopping to ask her about her problem and without pausing to touch the daughter or to pray for her, Jesus ignores the woman. He tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the Gentile woman pleads her case. She kneels down in front of the Messiah of Israel, just like the Magi had knelt before him as a tiny child, and she says, “Lord, help me.” And somehow, Jesus is convinced. He sees her faith in her seeking, in her determination, in her longing for a Saviour. And he becomes the Saviour that she is looking for. He says, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed instantly.
Both Jews and Gentiles were waiting for a Saviour. Both Jews and Gentiles were longing for some kind of hope, for some kind of Messiah. Though Jesus came for the lost ones of Israel, though he came for his own people, Matthew’s Gospel shows a broadening of his mission.
The Gentile wise men who bring him gifts and worship him are just the foreshadowing of the people of all nations who will hear his gospel and worship him in the years to come. They are just a sign of the universality of this Christ – the Saviour who is hope for all the world.
By the end of the Gospel, Matthew’s Jesus understands his mission quite differently. When he sends out his disciples once more, after his death and resurrection, he sends them not just to the lost of Israel, but to all the world. Jesus came and said to his disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
There is a longing for God that is shared by all people in all times and places. And it is a longing that can be filled by Christ who brings us good news. And so this is sounding like a pretty typical sermon message. We know that our job as Jesus’ disciples is to go out and spread the message to everybody else. You’ve heard it before. I’ve preached it before.
But there’s something else that struck me about the Gospel reading that adds a twist to this very familiar message. It’s the wise men. It’s the pagan magicians who searched the stars for signs and followed a new star in the sky until it led them to the Saviour of the world.
A few years ago, back when I was living in Saskatoon, I had occasion to take a taxi from my home to the church. I didn’t live in walking distance like I do here in Regina, so when my car wouldn’t start one Sunday morning, I had to call a cab to make it for worship.
It was a quiet ride down to the church, but as we pulled into the church parking lot, the driver asked me, “What kind of church is it?” When I said, “Presbyterian,” he told me he didn’t know all the types of Christian Churches. “I know Catholic and Protestant,” he said, so I explained, “It’s a type of Protestant Church.”
Then he told me, “I am a Muslim.” I nodded. “We are brothers, you know,” he continued. “Muslims, Christians, and Jews… We are brothers and sisters because Abraham is our Father.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “We are sisters and brothers, and we share a faith in the One God who is the Creator of all that is.”
“Yes, we believe in One God who speaks to us through many prophets.” And he started to list some of them, including both Mohammed and Jesus in the list.
I suppose I could have stopped him there and said, “Well actually, Christians don’t believe that Jesus was just a prophet, but that he was God’s Son.” But I didn’t. I thought it was better to celebrate what we share in common. So I said, “If we would all live according to our faith, then we would get along well.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “We should love one another.”
We are not the only ones who are longing and hoping and praying for meaning and hope and peace. We are not the only ones who are searching for a sign of God’s presence in our world. We are not the only ones who are looking for Emmanuel – God with us. As Christians, we have the commission to proclaim the good news that God has come near to us in Jesus Christ. We must proclaim it to all nations and to all people.
But we also might want to listen to our neighbours, who are also searching and longing and praying for some kind of hope. We have the scriptures and traditions and stories of Jesus that point to the good news that God is with us.
But we also might want to pay attention to the outsiders, to the others, who are pointing to God-in-our-midst. Because it was the Gentile foreigners, not the Jewish religious leaders, who first found their way to the Christ, and bowed down to worship him.
Today we are reminded that we are not alone in our quest. We are all searching and longing and hoping. Maybe together we will be able to find the newborn king, to see God-in-our-midst, and to kneel down and worship God together.