Matthew 2:1–23 January 3, 2021
Years ago, I was struck by the warning to those of us who were preparing to spend time with our Presbyterian partners in Guatemala. We were cautioned NOT to travel with our hands full of gifts. When visitors from any well-resourced community visit a poorly resourced community anywhere, it is always tempting to bring gifts. Gifts of food, money, tools, computer equipment, ink cartridges and on and on. Arriving with our hands full creates problems right away.
First, when our hands are full, we really have no way to reach out and receive the warm greeting of a handshake or a hug from our hosts. We miss out on developing a mutual relationship between brothers and sisters in Christ when we are too focused on sharing our material gifts of superior quality and quantity.
Second, when our hands are full, we can embarrass our hosts who can not reciprocate.
Third, when our hands are full, we create a relationship of dependence and encourage the expectation that we will be a continual fount of supplies. No, we were told, it is much wiser and much healthier to travel with empty hands, to be able to joyfully greet and hug your hosts (pre or post COVID, of course), to walk hand in hand with your hosts so they can show off their community, and to freely build or strengthen your relationship with one another.
The wise men (and women, perhaps) who came to Bethlehem in search of the king were studiers of the sky. They were Gentiles, non-Jews, outsiders. Today we might call their type pagan astrologers. They knew the star they saw was inviting them to come and meet the king of all kings. Neither the distance nor the difficulty of the trip deterred them. Cost was no object. They packed up the kinds of valuable treasures available to them—gold, frankincense, and myrrh– and followed the star to the place where Jesus was. Their hands were full but take note of their actions upon arrival. BEFORE they offered their treasures, they knelt and paid him homage. They worshiped him. They recognized this king for who he was and went to their knees in awe, gratitude, and praise. Only then did they open their treasures and offer the gifts they had brought as symbols of their devotion and awe.
You see, worship had been their whole purpose in coming to Bethlehem. Something about this king drew them from afar to worship the new king of the Jews, and they knew it was not Herod of Jerusalem. They told Herod that they had seen the star of the king of the Jews at its rising, and that their purpose was to come and pay him homage. We have already been reminded this Christmas season how the presence of this child was divinely revealed through angels to shepherds. Now a star has revealed to outsiders the presence of this child. Herod felt threatened. Of course he does not want anyone else to receive homage other than himself. He wants no other contenders for the seat of power. And it is Herod, Herod himself, who identifies this divinely revealed child as the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for. It is this Messiah who will be a ruler, one to shepherd God’s people. It is usually unnerving to a person in power to find out that their control and authority is eroding due to the arrival of a new leader. We have been watching that unfold in our news in the last weeks, haven’t we? Herod makes it appear like he also wants to pay homage to this new king, but anyone in earshot would have known he was lying through his teeth. As soon as he finds out when the star first appeared, Herod is already devising a wicked, bloody plan to kill any children under two in all of Bethlehem just because they might be his potential replacement some day.
It becomes abundantly clear that no one in this story is indifferent to the arrival of this child. Every player is changed in some way due to his arrival. The people of Jerusalem show just how in step they are with the Roman government as they express fear at the birth announcement because Herod expresses fear. The chief priests and the scribes, Herod’s own “wise men”, know that the prophet Micah has spoken about a ruler coming out of Bethlehem, a ruler who would shepherd God’s people Israel. Could they have been just a little bit excited to hear that God’s long-awaited promise found in the prophet’s words might actually be fulfilled? Herod’s response to this child is to crush and destroy due to his fear and his fragile ego. The angel’s response is to protect and guide Joseph to lead his growing family away from danger into Egypt until they can safely return home. Joseph’s response is to listen and obey the instructions of the angel. Remember that he had a dream before Jesus was born as well, and he followed through on that one, creating a family with Mary even though she was already with child. And the wise men’s response is to be overwhelmed with joy and to worship the king.
The wise men were warned in a dream to go home by another route, avoiding Herod completely. Could it be that once they are exposed to this king, to the Christ himself, once they have praised him with their whole selves, kneeling and giving thanks to God, that there is no way to cover the same road again? From this point on the road will be fresh and new, life will now be seen with different eyes and experienced with different hearts.
These pagan astrologers have had a conversion experience. We can only imagine the story they would tell when they did reach their homes! They found the treasure they were seeking, and that treasure was a child. Not just any child, but a divinely revealed child worthy of worship and praise. They had followed a star and now there was a new light of joy in their hearts and understanding in their minds.
I am sure you have seen the Christmas cards or the yard signs that say “Wise men still seek him”. First of all, I really wish they would say “Wise people still seek him”. The message I take away from that statement is that those who seek to be in relationship with Jesus are the wise ones, and I am sure that those who use the statement are including themselves among the wise. This way of thinking limits those who are included as followers of Jesus, and pretty much leaves the rest of the world out in the cold. It seems to me that the presence of this child is not an exclusive invitation, but a broad invitation to all of us, whether or not we know what or who we are seeking. Instead of looking for the wise ones, I believe that Jesus is looking for the ones who have minds, hearts and hands open, ready to be in relationship, ready to connect, ready to worship and give thanks.
As we begin a new year, one that simply HAS to be better than the one just ended, can we come to God with empty hands? Can we come to God with empty hands, ready to move the boulders of discrimination or prejudice? Can we come to God with empty hands so we ca reach for the hand of Christ as we make our way around the barricades of troubles or grief which we encounter on the path of life? Can we come to God with empty hands, ready for an embrace from One who loves without hesitation, no matter who we are or what we have done? Can we come to God with empty hands, ready to take a piece of bread and a sip of wine as we remember this child who grew up to be a Savior for all the world? I believe we can. 2021, here we come!