Have you seen the new Netflix series, “Marco Polo”? Jordan and I only made it through the first two episodes, but setting the premise of the show–how it is that Marco ends up in Mongolia–required a certain amount of time during the first episode to be spent traversing the land between Venice and his new home in the Far East.
Viewers get a contracted look at what was a dangerous, arduous journey at the close of the 1200s. Can you imagine what the mission must have been like back in the first century? These Magi, wise men from the East as Matthew recounts it, traveled through unknown difficulty and harm to follow this sign the stars had given them.
Matthew is telling us that strangers, foreigners, these smart dudes who didn’t quite fit into the Jewish and Roman cultures, overcame ridiculous obstacles to find this new king that they might worship him. Not only are they out of their depth culturally, but they found him using a star, using astrology–what kind of weird religion are they into?
But read the passage–when Herod calls together his own wise men, his scribes and the chief priests, they’re able to decipher the sign, though they haven’t been out to see the baby themselves. It even seems as if they weren’t really aware of the prophecy, of signs, or of Jesus’ birth until these strangers with their weird star-gazing penchant came to tell them about it. Having had to do some fancy mathematical work in verse 7, “when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared,” Herod clearly hadn’t been aware of what happened in his realm, or when it had taken place. He was completely asleep at the wheel, and rightly for him, he and Jerusalem “were troubled” (verse 3) at the news.
The people who were closest to Jesus geographically and religiously were totally clueless about God’s arrival and presence in their midst. They had the sort of background and upbringing–the sort of culture–that was supposed to make them primed and ready to recognize the savior of the world when he came. Then a band of strangers show up on the doorstep, asking directions to the new king, citing the authority of some heavenly body, a light in the sky.
Aside from Herod’s political problem of having an extra–read: competing–king on his hands, these Easterners weren’t the sort who were supposed to be paying special attention to the movements of kings in this area of the world. This was Herod’s turf, or if you wanted to look at it another way, this was a Jewish matter of faith and religion. Whichever way you look at it, the wrong people were noticing and interpreting signs that couldn’t possibly be for them.
What an embarrassment! Leaving Herod’s politlcal issues aside, which is significant enough (a breach of security so grave that there was some rival king right under his nose?), just outside the stronghold of Judaism, such as it was in the first century under Roman occupation, the Israelite God had come to earth, not for a one-night engagement under shining lights, but born, growing up, living everyday life just down the road, and somehow, all the Jewish wise men had missed it.
We’re now here in waning days of Christmas, tomorrow will be the twelveth night, and yet we’re still hearing these Advent themes: stay awake, keep watching, be vigilant, don’t get distracted.
Here in the natal days of 2015, we may be more vigilant, too; keeping our schedules more assiduously, counting our calories more carefully, tracking our exercise, measuring our tallies toward our resolutions.
But our Gospel lesson today is calling us toward a different kind of paying attention, another sort of resolution.
Look again: the Magi left where they were living. They abandoned their homes–to be gone for who knows how long–they gave up whatever jobs they held and thereby, in a way, surrendered their identity. Their trip exposes their willingness to strip away all they knew, all they were, in order to find and follow Jesus.
God revealed the star to them, God made his offer and asked them to follow. With laser focus, they pursued the sign God had given them. They didn’t assume God was already in their midst, or that they should just sit tight and let God come to them. They plunged into the unknown, disregarding fear and death, overcoming whatever obstacles were in their path, that they might find more of what God had shown them.
They didn’t know where their trek would lead them or where they’d end up. Just like their fellow-seeker Abraham, they left their kindred and their father’s house and went to the land that God showed them, though they knew not where that was. They were willing to go and look for Jesus somewhere foreign and unknown.
In an increasingly global society, what’s left “unknown” to us? In a world where I can talk with my sister on a computer screen while she’s half a world away, where can something be found that’s not-home, something strange, foreign, or uncomfortable?
Though we’re more global than ever, we’re also increasingly divided. This is one of the most politically divided moments of American history, and the gridlock in Washington is visited upon our personal lives in our own political and religious convictions. So what about the body of Christ? We pray every Sunday that Jesus’ whole body, the Church, would be made one, that we may be united in Jesus’ sacrifice and made one body with him.
There’s plenty unknown, even in the pews next to us. There are plenty of obstacles to seeing God at work in each other; we perhaps have the hardest time seeing Jesus in those closest to us, in our family and our church family.
The Magi came in humility to the Jewish and Roman wise men, they said, “We’re trying to find God, and we’ve gotten a bit stuck, can you help us?” The Magi didn’t claim to know God better or to speak for God’s purposes more faithfully; they came to fellow seekers and said, “Sirs, we want to see Jesus.” Indeed, the scribes and priests helped the Magi, they remembered Micah’s prophecy which mentioned Bethlehem and sent the Eastern wise men on their way.
Can you imagine what might have happened if the scribes and priests and Herod had dropped all their prideful pretense and their self-serving suspicion and gone with the Magi?
We can’t know whether the Magi asked them to join the jaunt from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but let’s pretend for a moment that they did, and their offer was accepted. Herod, who turned around and tried to kill Jesus in the following passage, would have met God face to face. The scribes and chief priests, those whose successors were thorns in Jesus’ side for all his ministry, would have witnessed the miracle of Emmanuel–God with us–as a disarming baby. How could their lives have not been changed by an encounter with the living God?
What if East and West, Left and Right, one side and another, came together kneeling at Jesus’ feet? What if they’d been led there by their nemesis, the person or people who raise our ire, who make us grind our teeth, throw up our hands?
What if we realized we need our infuriating family members, and our political enemies, and our theological adversaries to lead us to Jesus?
I don’t have God all figured out, I’m no closer to cornering the market on a pathway to Jesus than anybody else. I need to humbly ask others for help. None of us has the perfect picture of God or the secret, back way into his presence, but each of us really truly does need each other in order to find God.
In the midst of disagreement, through information that comes out of left-field, from people who shouldn’t know what they’re talking about, God comes.