A sermon for Epiphany at Saint Clement's by the Sea, San Clemente
We don’t know much about the wise men in today’s Gospel story. Generally Magi came from the area we now know as Iran or Persia. Magi were men of learning: Doctors, teachers, and especially priests. In this story tradition tells us that there were three Magi and that these magi were not just wise, but they were also Kings. One day, off in the distance, a new star appeared in the sky. When the three magi saw that star they knew that somewhere, far away, a king had been born, and not just any king, but a messiah. They did not really know where they were going, or how long the trip would take. And they did not know what they would find when they got there. But they knew that they must go. The trip would not be an easy one. They would be travelling west through dangerous wilderness and mountains. At that time, Persians and Romans had an antagonistic relationship at best, and the magi would be walking straight into Roman territories. Their families and friends must have thought they had all gone crazy. What could possibly drive these men to make such a long and treacherous journey?
Wisdom is not a simple concept. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he says that “you should become fools so that you may become wise.” He says that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” We see this in the story of these three magi. The wisdom of the world would say that these men were the greatest fools ever. There is nothing sensible about travelling nearly a thousand miles through wilderness and mountains in order to see a baby. There is nothing sensible about a King from a completely different land and culture paying homage to a Jewish King, or a Jewish Messiah. What could they possibly gain by doing such a thing? Even the gifts they bring seem foolish. Gold is a gift for a King, Frankincense is burned as an offering to God, and Myrrh is used to anoint the dead. Gold Frankincense and Myrrh are hardly appropriate gifts for a child. Of course, as Christians we can see how appropriate these three gifts are for the Christ child, but that only goes to show how foolish the wisdom of God, (who chose to become human and then suffer and die) must really seem to those who only know the wisdom of the world.
The question is, and you can think about this while I continue in Spanish: What makes the wisdom of God so different from the wisdom of the world?
The wisdom of the world can be static and unmoving. It does not tolerate change very well, and it seems to fear mystery and ambiguity. It is this way because it wants absolute and unchanging answers. It does not like the grey areas of life and cannot tolerate paradox.
But God’s wisdom has a different perspective. In God’s wisdom there is room for variety, for change and mystery. God’s wisdom encompasses the search for order and meaning, as well as all those things that cannot be easily explained, or put into words. God’s wisdom is more than an intellectual pursuit to assign or discover order in the world around us. It is also the perceiving of the mystery that is beyond our ability to fully comprehend or categorize. God lives in the grey areas and thrives in the paradoxes.
The wisdom of the world tries to replace passion and the imagination because it is a wisdom that insists on absolutes. It insists on the world being one way or the other. And its struggle for absolute mastery serves only to divide us and distance us from each other, from the world, and from God. The wisdom of the world cannot abide ambiguity. It requires that we either be dominant or submissive, active or passive, but not both.
But the Wisdom of God needs us to be both. We must be grounded in certain truths but always unsettled by the moral quandaries that we see in the world. We should be awed by God’s transcendent majesty but always determined to encounter God in the world. True wisdom ‘is the celebration of order and the cry of protest at what is without order,’ it is both the calm stillness and the burning desire.
Side note: I want to point out that what I call ‘the wisdom of the world’ can be seen in the harsh dogmas of religious fundamentalism just as much as it is seen in the stark materialism of certain neo-atheist movements. In the same vein, just as ‘the Wisdom of God’ can and should shine through in the lives of Christians, it can be seen in the actions and philosophies of the non-religious as well. God is funny like that.
The Wisdom of God is the wisdom we see in the three magi. They were led by hope and faith, but were not blind to the wickedness of Herod. They did not travel with any absolutes, just a mysterious sign shining in the distance, and a hope for something new. They left behind their kingdoms, and their families. They left behind all the comforts and certainties of home. The journey challenged them in all sorts of ways, tested their faith and their ability to hold on to hope, it must have. It must have changed them in ways they could not have predicted, preparing them for their encounter with God.
What the magi encountered that day in Bethlehem was the Living Wisdom. They looked into the eyes of a child and saw God.
In ‘The travels of Marco Polo’ there is a legend about the three magi. The legend states that in return for their gifts Christ gave them a stone, a stone that represented the rock on which they should set their faith. But the Magi, not understanding what the stone meant, on their way out of Bethlehem cast that stone into a well where it turned into a great pillar of fire. Gathering some of that fire they took it with them on their journey home.
Christ is that stone for us; that stone that became fire. He is the secure footing on which we stand, and the passion inside that encourages us to move, to act in this world with open eyes and hearts. He is the Wisdom of God revealed to us in all of its rich variety.