by Pastor Cherie Dearth
We’re beginning a new sermon series this week, The Wisdom of God. The theme comes from that verse in 1 Cor 1:30 that you can see on the front of your bulletin. “… Christ, who has become for us wisdom from God…” Starting in a few weeks, we’re going to spend quite a lot of time in 1 Cor. This is part of a longer section that says, “27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” (1 Cor 1:27-30)
Jesus, himself, says in Mark 10:15, “15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
But wisdom is good right? There are whole sections of the Bible that are referred to as the Wisdom Writings. So, yes, wisdom can be good, but wisdom that comes from God. James tells us in the beginning of his letter. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). As King Solomon was beginning his reign, God told him to ask for anything he wanted. What Solomon asked for was wisdom. This was granted. He was given the wisdom of God, and he is considered the wisest person in the Bible (2 Chronicles 1:10-12a).
So what is the Wisdom of God? Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Am I supposed to be afraid of God? Jesus, especially, as we think of him at this time of year, little Baby Jesus, isn’t supposed to be someone we’re to be afraid of, right? Jesus is supposed to be about love and kindness, right? Well, yes … and no. When Jesus talks about justice and the hypocrisy of the way he finds things in 1st Century Palestine, when it comes to the judgment that is coming, it is rather intense. Some of his parables end with people being put into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (cf. Mt 8:12, 13:42, 22:13, 24:51; Luke 13:28). But that’s not really what I’m talking about.
Think about coming into the presence of a famous person you greatly admire. It might be a favorite author, actor, or even a religious figure. One of those people for me would be Desmond Tutu. (I know that I’ve mentioned him before.) It wouldn’t be that I would be afraid that he could do something to me. I know he wouldn’t, but he has done so much, knows so much, is so much more learned than I am (both in worldly and spiritual ways) that I would be awed by his presence. I revere him. I wouldn’t worship him, but I might be afraid of making a fool of myself. Likely, I wouldn’t be able even to speak to him. I might not even want to look at him directly in case he thought I was staring at him.
Another way to think of this is like a private in the Army being brought before a general. This is a person who has power. I don’t want to do anything improper. I already know that my uniform is not perfect. I’m sure she’ll notice and tell her aide to put it on my record. I’ll just salute. No one ever got in trouble for saluting.
Then, thinking of the shepherds on Christmas night. They were terrified at the appearance of the angel. Yet the angel tells them, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10a).
The fear of God is a combination of all these things: awe, reverence, and (yes) fear … fear of being in relationship with the divine holiness of God the God of power, majesty, wisdom, and righteousness.
So, the Bible tells us in Proverbs 9:10 (and elsewhere) that “fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” and in James 1:7 that if we pray for wisdom, God will give it to us.
This week our Scripture passage features people that are thought of as wise, those people that “traveled a far” that we sang about in our opening hymn [“We Three Kings”].
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod,
This is Herod the Great, who was a vassal of the Roman Empire. He had built a number of cities, structures, and even completed rebuilding the second Temple, that had been started after the end of the Babylonian Exile and was never really completed. This happened near the end of his reign. A man who already had a reputation of being strong and ruthless had become sick and completely paranoid. He executed three of his own sons, his wife, Mariame, and his mother-in-law, when he considered them too much of a threat. Considering the kind of leader he was, they may well have been a threat to him. Continuing on … during this time…
Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
These “magi” may have been priests that practiced Zoroastrianism. It paid particular attention to the stars. So, they could have been astrologers or astronomers, which were basically considered the same thing at the time. So, they could have been priests, but also scientists. Highly revered in their own culture.
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed,
Probably to say the least. They were looking for “the one who has been born the king of the Jews?” He was the king of the Jews, and anyone who thought differently was in extreme danger, but not only was he disturbed.
and all Jerusalem with him.
Was this because “if King Herod’s not happy, nobody is happy”? Or, was it the unsettling idea that there may be another transition in power? That would be a threat to anyone who was doing well under King Herod, or it could just be plain frightening for people who might be concerned that the next leader might be worse.
4 When [Herod] had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
Interesting that Herod thought that “king of the Jews” would mean the Messiah.
5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
Yes, right, and if you believe that, I have a bridge I want to sell you.
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
This story we find in Matthew is about kings and wise men, but they’re not the magi. What? These learned men from the east are not kings or wise men? They may have been considered wise by their society, but they aren’t for the purposes of this story. Let’s think about this for a moment.
The kings in this narrative are Herod and Jesus. Herod is the one who through Roman political maneuvering, intrigue, and ruthlessness was allowed to be king in Palestine under the authority of the Roman Empire. He was a tyrant that oppressed his people rather than serving and shepherding them, as described in the prophecy we hear in verse 6, “for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” No instead, he sends his troops to Bethlehem to kill Jesus, kill his rival. He doesn’t know which child is it, and he doesn’t know exactly when Jesus was born. No problem, he will just have all the children two years and younger killed. That ought to take care of it.
Contrast that with the newborn king, Jesus, who is a baby or very young child. He is in no position to be any of the things that Herod has been his whole career. He is vulnerable and helpless. He needs his human parents to whisk him away to Egypt to protect him when Herod sends troops to kill him. But, he will grow into the kind of man, the kind of king that will shepherd and take care of his people. He will lay down his life to protect them, to save them, to save us.
The wise men here again are not the magi. They are the chief priests and the scribes. They are the ones that Herod calls to find out where the Messiah is to be born. Herod does not ask them in a vacuum. They all knew why the magi were there. “3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”
One thing that intrigues me is why weren’t the priests and scribes at least curious about who this newborn king of the Jews might be? The Jewish people had been waiting for their Messiah for centuries, potentially since the passing of King David or his son Solomon, but really since the end of the Babylonian Exile when nation after nation came in to rule over them, with only the current one being the Romans. Yet, they seem to dismiss the idea that the magi could be on the right track. Herod believed these magi knew something, or he would not have sent his soldiers to Bethlehem. Were they too prideful? These foreigners couldn’t possibly know anything about our Messiah. Or, had they been waiting so long that they really didn’t believe that the Messiah would ever arrive? Do we ever get caught in that trap waiting for Jesus’ return? It could be that they were just too afraid of Herod because any indication that they thought that this new king could be legitimate could cost them their lives. The unfortunate truth is that we will never really know until after Jesus does return.
Never-the-less, these chief priests and scribes are the wise men in this narrative. They know the Scriptures. They can provide the answers that both Herod and the magi need, but how does that help them? They cannot recognize their Messiah or celebrate his arrival. In fact they wind up becoming part of the plot to kill him by providing Herod the location.
If the magi are not kings or wise men, who are they? They are most like little children. They may know much about astronomy and their own culture, but they do not know the Jewish Scriptures. Moreover, they are from the outside world. They are not of the chosen people with God’s law and prophets. They come seeking knowledge and discernment. They come naïve in the ways of God. As Jesus says in Matthew 11:25, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” In this passage, he is not talking about literal children.
So, these magi come. With all the “wisdom” and learning of their position, they had not found that which they longed for. They mount this long and arduous journey that may have taken as long as two years. They come and worship Jesus. In this child, that might not even be able to talk yet, they find what they had been missing.
How does any of that help us? The Wisdom of the World says, Jesus was a kind man, who had some really good advice for how to live a moral life. He was a great example and a teacher. The Wisdom of God says that Jesus was so much more than that. He was a teacher of wisdom, true, but he came to do what we could not, cannot. He came to pay a debt we could never pay and to give us new life.
The Wisdom of the World says things like, “No pain. No gain,” or “God helps those who help themselves.” (You know that’s not in the Bible, right? Benjamin Franklin said that.) God says, “Trust me” (Jeremiah 39:18), “Turn to me and be saved” (Isaiah 45:22). Jesus says starting in Matthew 11:29, “29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt 11:29-30). The Wisdom of the World says that it has to be difficult, not “easy” and “light”.
The Wisdom of God is to come before God with the loving awe and reverence, the trust of little children, like these magi did who have become known the world over as “wise men.” They were people who followed a star, who followed the light, and who bowed down and worshiped a child. Can you come before God like that? Can we put aside pride and all that we think that we know and come before the Lord in a state of vulnerability and trust? When we can do that, we may begin to see the wisdom of God.