Those Wise Guys – Finale

As I watched the wise men head for home in my imaginative musings, I was left with a handful of questions to ponder.  If the Jewish spiritual leaders were aware of the wise men’s search of the child born King of the Jews – in other words, the Jewish Messiah – why did they not show more interest in Jesus and his parents, whose home the magi visited?  Why did they not pay more attention to the details of Jesus’ birth and compare them with the well known prophecies?  History as recorded in the Bible seems to answer this question—they were more interested in protecting their own positions of authority and power.  A real-life Messiah would certainly bring unwanted changes to their comfortable lives, as Jesus ultimately did.

Were the folks living in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the surrounding area changed because of the wise men’s holy visit?  Surely this singular spectacle of exotic looking men in their foreign garb, traveling among a great entourage, was a once in a lifetime sight in the drab lives of the locals.  Shouldn’t it have elicited a heart-change of some sort, as these peasant-folk followed the wise men’s quest to its awe-inspiring conclusion?  Or was it merely a Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey experience…see the queer procession and then go home to bed?

How sad.  Sad for the Jewish leaders who thought only of themselves and completely missed greatness in their midst.  And sad, too, for the peasants, whose only crime was not knowing the right questions to ask.  Unfortunately, we are all guilty of both at times.

One person was dramatically affected by the wise men’s visit.  King Herod took a keen interest in their pursuit to find the child-king, but not for the reason he stated (“that I might come and worship him also”).  History proves that Herod was an evil man.  Not only did he eliminate anyone he remotely suspected as being interested in his throne – including his own family members – it is said that he ordered the destruction of an entire town upon his death to ensure that mourning would ensue.  But he didn’t have to wait until he died to hear those mournful cries.

Warned by God not to return to Herod with news of the One born King of the Jews, the wise men took the round about way home; they were long gone before Herod realized it.  Irate, blind with rage, fear turned to violence.  Herod saw red.  Having already learned from the wise men when the star appeared, he reasoned that the child must now be a toddler.  He would find him and kill him, just as he had killed so many others!

It was the middle of the night, yet Herod wasted no time putting his plan into action.  Immediately he sent out soldiers to search every home in Bethlehem.  Not knowing exactly how old the child-king was, what he looked like or his parents’ names, his orders were wide-sweeping…kill ALL of the boys, 2 years old and younger.

Here’s where Hollywood has lent a hand.  Without too much trouble a half dozen scenes come to mind (for instance George Lucas and Ron Howard’s “Willow”), of soldiers carrying out the crown’s bidding by breaking into homes without warning and tearing goods apart looking for a particular child.  But unlike in “Willow,” where Elora is not found (not then anyway) when Bavmorda’s soldiers come to town, Herod’s soldiers find their prey, and every last boy under age 2 is slaughtered without Herod batting an eyelash.

This isn’t the stuff of movies anymore.  It’s a Holocaust of epic proportions for that era and locale.  If the religious leaders didn’t react to the wise men’s story, or the peasant-folk, Herod made up for them all.

So what about you and me?  How do we respond to this story of the Epiphany?

Probably the most pronounced statement that floated to the surface of my mind from musing about the Epiphany story is this:  The wise men are called “wise” not just because they were learned for their day, but also because they exhibited wisdom, and I would do well to learn from their example.  An unknown 4th Century church leader stated once that “wisdom comes only to prepared hearts.”  A popular bumper sticker says it this way:  “Wise men still seek Him.”  Both show awareness and intentionality, eyes wide open, not a haphazard approach to life.  It shows purpose, and the tenacity to pursue what wisdom reveals.

Thank you for traveling down this dusty Epiphany path with me this past week!  I hope you will join me as I seek holy wisdom this coming year.

This concludes my series that began on 1/8/2015.

 

Those Wise Guys – Part 4

Have you ever faced a situation where you had been rehearsing what you would say, only to find that when the time came, your speech fell flat on the floor?  This is what I imagine (as I participate in this scene from my rocking chair) happened to the wise men when they finally came face to face with the child who was born King of the Jews.

Electric with anticipation, one of the magi raised a fist to the low door and knocked.  Joseph, husband of Mary, answered the door, his strong frame backlit by an oil lamp that lit up the single-room abode from the carved niche in the wall in which it rested.  The light from the lamp shone dimly on the visitors, but it was enough for both Joseph and Mary to realize instantly that these were no ordinary night guests.  They stepped back in awe and allowed the men entrance.

One by one they came in, looking around as they did so.  As their eyes adjusted to the dim room – for they had been staring into the brilliant light of the supernatural star ever since leaving Jerusalem – the men gazed at the boy.  A pregnant moment passed in silence, then one of the men stirred himself, cleared his throat and spoke up.  “We have come to worship the child,” he said, giving a nod toward Jesus.

In unison the men knelt down and lowered their faces to the ground before the child, who squealed and waved his arms in amusement at the sight of the illustrious visitors.  Clumped on the floor as they were, the folds of their robes and capes concealed what they held in their hands.  But once they rose and took a step back, Mary and Joseph could see three decorative boxes made of smooth wood and shining metal left on the ground.  Seeing the quizzical look on the parents’ faces, the same man who had spoken before gestured toward the boxes and said, “These are gifts for the King, to honor him.”

As I studied Mary and Joseph’s faces, I saw bewilderment and astonishment as the couple tried to take it all in, processing the obvious details while tucking the vast meaning of it all into their hearts to ponder later, and later.

Turning to the wise men in my mind’s eye, I was surprised to see their suddenly animated expressions.  Their eyes gleamed beneath delighted eyebrows.  One of the men continually struggled to wipe a grin off his face as it kept breaking through his serious façade.  Another didn’t even try to conceal his pleasure, his entire body moving as if to music as he reveled in meeting this little One whom God had ordained for greatness.

The whole visit took no more than 20 minutes.  Not wishing to dishonor the child-king by showing him their backs, the wise men backed out of the doorway with low bows.  As they prepared to mount their camels, giving instructions in a foreign tongue to their guides and servants, the crowd of peasants that had been following them saw their chance to see this boy who would someday be King.  In solemn procession, they filed past the doorway and peered in.  Some bowed in unpretentious humility.  Others bowed as well, but hesitantly, their minds filled with doubt as though questioning, What will this child-king mean for me?

This is Part 4 of a series that began on 1/8/2015.  It is a description of my meditations on the events of Epiphany and does not necessarily represent actual events.  Tomorrow will conclude this series.

Those Wise Guys – Part 3

The landscape deepened into tones of gray as the wise men on their camels, their entourage in their midst, lumbered along the western road.  Knowing that their journey was almost over, the men were anxious to reach their goal—the home of the One born King of the Jews.

A crowd of curious onlookers that had been following at a distance since leaving the safety of the walls of Jerusalem now quickened their pace to catch up to the foreigners, as for the first time they, too, saw the dazzling star in the darkening night sky.  It reminded them of those eerie times when the moon seemed to hang like a giant white ball as it rose above the eastern horizon, illuminating everything in its path.  The difference here was that while the star was incredibly brilliant, its light only shone in one direction, downward.

“What does it mean?” the crowd began to cry.  One of the onlookers stirred up the others like a swarm of bees, his voice thin and shrill.  “It’s an omen of our destruction!”  The women among them began wailing, but stopped abruptly when they saw the looks on the wise men’s faces as they stopped in their tracks and turned to face them.  One of them, stern yet kind, replied, “If it is an omen, it is an omen of your new King.  Prepare yourselves to meet him.”

As the sojourners entered the streets of Bethlehem, they saw the star’s light narrow until it enveloped a single dwelling.  The crowd of peasant followers let out a gasp and stood still.  The air around them felt hushed and alive with anticipation; no one spoke a word or moved a finger as the wise men dismounted their camels and strode toward the door of the house.

This is Part 3 of a series that began on 1/8/2015.  It is a description of my meditations on the events of Epiphany and does not necessarily represent actual events.

Those Wise Guys – Part 2

“Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?  For we have seen his star as it rose, and have come to worship him,” the wise men said.

I love astronomy, though I am a novice.  Yet I know that stars don’t move like planets do.  Stars are in fact suns in far-off galaxies, with their own orbiting plants.  Scientific theories suggest that the “star” seen by the magi was not a star at all, but possibly a very bright comet or a triple conjunction of the earth with Jupiter and Saturn, which happens about every 900 years and is thought to have occurred around the time of Christ’s birth.  Another theory is that the star was actually light emitting from the birth of a new star, or nova, such as a new star that supposedly emerged in the night sky in the small, northern constellation of Aquila in 4BC.

I am not opposed to any of these theories.  As we read the Bible, it is important to keep in mind that the authors were real people who wrote from their personal perspectives and did the best they could to describe things they were unfamiliar with.  I have seen a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, for instance, and to the naked eye it is spectacular!  I can easily imagine someone seeing this phenomenon in the night sky and exclaiming, “Look at that star!”  Even the magi, who were thought to be learned astronomer/astrologers who studied the stars and planets and interpreted the meaning behind cosmic events may have seen one of these theoretical events and considered it a star of supernatural birth.

While I am not opposed to these theories, I also believe that God is in complete control of the universe and could easily have set a special heavenly light in motion to draw the attention of the wise men from their homeland (most believe Babylon).  They may have walked by day, following the direction their instruments or senses pointed, or considering the arid terrain they crossed they could have walked from dusk late into the night or even early morning, guided by the light that had captured their imaginations.

What captures my imagination about these men is their tenacity and persistence to follow their hearts and their guts against great odds.  This trip across desert wasteland could not have been easy and was likely filled with tremendous perils…wild beasts (we have a mountain lion that sometimes roams our neighborhood at night and you can be sure we are all cautious when night wandering!), venomous snakes, spiders and scorpions, intense heat and cold, long stretches without food or water.

Driven is a good word to describe these men…driven to find whoever is at the end of their journey, believing indeed that this king (surely God revealed this truth to them)  must be someone extraordinarily special to have his own star to herald his coming.

As I sit back in my rocking chair in the predawn light and daydream about these wise men and their pilgrimage to Bethlehem, a sweeping panorama fills my inner vision.  I see them battling the elements day-in and day-out, plodding sweaty browed ever closer to their goal, determined to see their quest through to its end.

“You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart.
—Jeremiah 29:13 (italics added)

This is Part 2 of a series that began on 1/8/2015.  It is a description of my meditations on the events of Epiphany and does not necessarily represent actual events.

Those Wise Guys – Part 1

I’m talking about those foreign dignitaries who visited the child Jesus in Bethlehem – the story of Epiphany – as described in Matthew 2.  This past week, rereading this story again, I did something I have never done before (with this passage of Scripture).  I placed myself in the story, like a precocious adolescent who follows the circus as it rolls through town.

As the scene unfolded in my imagination, the details of what I saw were at first simply those found in the Bible and tradition.  Maybe three, maybe more or less, middle-aged men of great distinction, education and wealth, dressed in foreign clothing (toga-like, made of fine beige linen embroidered with gold thread and closed with golden clasps, wrapped in a lustrous wool cape), rode up to one of the Jerusalem gates, then got off their camels and made their way on foot with a large entourage to Herod’s palace.  In Christmas cards there is no one else around.  But this group of beautifully adorned foreigners (no crowns—I do not envision them as kings as the Christmas carol goes, but I do picture them wearing gleaming rings and arm cuffs), with their servants, cooks, etc., was a sight to behold!  As my imagination filled in the landscape, other people appeared and I was not alone.  Among the throngs of people were the chief priests and other religious leaders, also curious about the strange visitors.

The scene I saw in Herod’s palace was different than as depicted in the movies, where the actor Herod displays for the viewing audience some small hint of deception that lets us know he is not sincere.  On the contrary, as I slid unseen along the wall of a portico in Herod’s throne room, his face was not devious as I had imagined, but benevolent and genuine.  Sly man!

In a recent sermon my pastor provided a quote concerning Herod from none other than Cesar Augustus.  “It is better to be Herod’s swine than his son,” the great Roman Emperor had said.  He knew Herod’s reputation well, as a murderer who put his own family members to death in order to secure his throne.  Apparently Cesar thought that such a ruthless, unscrupled man would make a good ruler to keep the Jews in line.

But the wise men did not know this.  As they left Herod’s palace, I could hear them discussing among themselves the humility of this man appointed King by the Romans, who appeared to be truly interested in meeting – even worshiping – the one born King of the Jews.

The chief priests, scribes and Pharisees heard this talk too.  A baby born King of the Jews?  Had the Messiah finally come?  Walking along the western road toward Bethlehem, I saw these men stop and stand in knots, discussing the possibility and arguing amongst themselves while the rest of us strode on, with Bethlehem in our sights.

Wisdom

January 6 was Epiphany, the celebration of the Magi’s visit to the Christ child in Bethlehem.  I use this occasion each year to spend a little more time than usual meditating on the first four chapters of the book of Proverbs, which I call the “wisdom” chapters because they speak specifically of the value of wisdom and the benefit of gaining it.  Admittedly, years ago when I first began reading through the book of Proverbs monthly (there are 31 chapters, after all), I hurried through these first four chapters because I thought they were really boring.

But then something happened.  A movie came out in 1995 called Mr. Holland’s Opus, staring Richard Dreyfuss as the protagonist composer/teacher Glenn Holland.  In a touching scene where he learns his wife Iris is pregnant, Glenn Holland tells her that he is not opposed to her pregnancy, he just needs time to get used to the idea.  Then he relates the story of when the music of John Coltrane first hit the radio waves and music stores.  “I hated it, I mean I really hated it.  I just didn’t get it,” Glenn tells his wife.  But then, he says, he decided to really listen, and try to figure out what made Coltrane’s music so popular.  “And after a while, I couldn’t stop listening,” Glenn said.

The next time a new month rolled around and I began Proverbs all over again, I decided to do the same thing as Dreyfuss’s character did because I definitely wasn’t getting these verses’ message.  There must be some value to these words that Solomon felt were so important to write, which have survived thousands of years, I thought.  So I read, thought about, and reread these four chapters over and over again, both collectively as a whole as well as singularly verse by verse.  This was probably my first experience meditating on Scripture, although I didn’t know it at the time.

The results in my life, over time, have been dramatic.  As I pictured wisdom (personified) wandering the streets and open squares in search of receptive listeners (Proverbs 1), I began watching for God’s language calling out to me throughout my ordinary days.  The effects of this were imperceptible at first.  But ever so slowly, as I persisted, I began to connect the idea that paying attention to God’s wisdom as illustrated in the Bible and living my life according His purposes gave my life direction and meaning, and actually made me feel content and happy.  Really, wealth, reputation, etc. aside, what more can anyone want in life?

These days following Epiphany, I thank God for those curious Magi, whose imaginations God harnessed to not only deliver their precious, prophetic gifts, but who also left us an historic example of a persistent, thoroughly human yet subtly divine quest for God’s wisdom and ways to live it out in our lives.  Our journeys will surely be fraught with uncertainty, but one thing is sure:

“‘You will seek me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart,’
says the Lord.” —Jeremiah 29:13