Will the Real Wise Man Please Stand Up?
The TV show "To Tell the Truth?" is back on the air. Contestants try to pick which one of the 3 persons is really who they say they are. I don't know how it is on the new show, but the climax in the original series came when the off camera voice said, "Will the real so and so please stand up?" Often 1 of the 3 would start to stand in an attempt to fool you only to sit back down as another got up. I caution you about being fooled as we ask today, "Will the real wise man please stand up?"
Don't blurt out the first thing that comes to your mind. Don't look at those guys with the jeweled turbans on their heads sitting next to camels and expect one of them to stand up. How could you? Don't you see how silly they behaved? Don't you know it's foolish for the astronomers and scientists to follow an unstar-like star for years? Don't you read those articles in the paper that appear each Christmas about the star of Bethlehem? They detail all the possible astronomical phenomenon it could be - a comet, a supernova, Jupiter and Saturn close together, the conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, or Jupiter making a loop. The articles all conclude that the Bible's description of the star appearing, guiding, disappearing and reappearing is "unstar-like."
If 21st century men realize that no star appears, disappears, reappears and stops over a certain point, certainly the brightest and best of 1st century astronomers should of known that. But, no, our so called, "wise men" travel hundreds of miles leaving their homes for two years to chase something they call a "star." Don't be fooled by these guys; they aren't wise scientifically.
They're not wise politically either. You know wise men were regularly in the presence of kings. They were attuned to the politics and protocols of royal courts. Yet what do we find "Larry, Curly, and Mo" doing? Driving their camels into the capital of the King of Judea and asking, "Where is the One who has been born king of the Jews." Daaa! Hell-o! Is this good protocol or politics? A few discrete inquiries would have been in order, not asking the whole cotton-pickin' city! And politically savvy wise men ought to have known that Herod was a monster who slaughtered sons and wives to protect his crown. He's not the kind of guy any person with common sense would want to tell "there's a new king in town." You would realize that; wouldn't you? But not our 3 stooges; no sir, they think, "We're looking for a king, so why not ask a king?"
And if one of these guys is really the wise man we're looking for, what's with their gifts? They give a baby gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The text doesn't say they gave the gifts to His parents but to Him. "Well, we give gold to babies, don't we?" Yes, but I don't think when they opened their treasures they pulled out a gold necklace or bracelet. They didn't travel hundreds of miles to give jewelry. They gave significant amounts of gold to a Baby in a humble home whom nobody recognized as royalty of any sort. Gold was a gift exchanged among kings, and it's listed first in the text because they had more of it than the other two.
They also gave frankincense. The worship of false gods and of the true God was accompanied by the burning of frankincense, but this Baby didn't look divine. The Child was with His mother doing what any 2 year old does: playing, making half words, and crawling in and out of His mama's lap. How do you think it looked when they gave Jesus the frankincense normally offered to deity, and He tried to eat it? "No honey, " says mother Mary, "It doesn't go in your mouth." Haven't any of these wise men heard of age appropriate toys? Does frankincense have to be labeled "Not suitable for children under 3" in order for a wise man not to give it to a baby?
But you know what gift really proves none of these wise men were very wise? The myrrh. It was a spice always used in burial services in the east. If you don't think this was a foolish gift then you try giving a toddler a coffin or burial plot for Christmas next year. After the parents get done with the expletives, you will hear something along the lines of, "What were you thinking?" Or, "Were you even thinking?"
To tell the truth, not one of the wise men appear to be the wise man we're looking for. I think Herod appears much wiser. If you were king, wouldn't it be wise to be disturbed by the news that a new king has been born? Herod knew that this newborn king hadn't come from him. Herod knew that lots of people were not satisfied with him and in fact hated him. Herod knew that news of someone born to be king might be all the spark needed to blow the lid off.
Furthermore, Herod was wise enough to know when he didn't know something. When confronted with the news, Herod didn't ask about Him in the streets of Jerusalem as the wise men did. No he called together all of the chief priests and teachers of the law to ask them. And when He found out, he didn't foolishly run off to Bethlehem. He let the wise men do the leg work.
And isn't the mark of real wisdom to protect your interests while seeming to share the interest of others? Herod is a master at this. Once he knows where the new king was suppose to be born, he summons the wise men secretly. He doesn't want the public to think he believes the newborn king story. Then he finds out from them when they first saw the star so he knows which babies to slaughter. After he has that information from them, he sends them to Bethlehem saying in a pious, emotional way, "As soon as you find him, report to me, so I can go and worship him too." Herod is no stooge. He's a genius!
You, of course, can see through all of this. You know Herod is a genius as the world judges, and the wise men are the fools. But you know the opposite is the case as the Scripture judges. Herod is not only a fool, but a damned fool while the wise men are really wise. You know what that means? It's only fools in the eyes of the world who are truly wise. To this Epiphany calls us.
Epiphany calls us to do the really foolish thing of casting down our wise ideas of power. These wise men knew worldly power. They knew kings. They knew all the trappings of power: gold, servants, finery. Yet they bend their knees and offer their gold to a powerless Toddler in a hovel. I'm sure many of you have a better idea of worldly power than I do. I'm sure some of you know millionaires, heads of corporations, politicians who snap their fingers and people jump. But Epiphany doesn't call us to those kind of people. It calls us to an all too ordinary looking Kid. It calls us to recognize that real power and wealth aren't found in the palaces or gold of kings but in Christ. It calls us to bring our gold and bow our knees before Christ.
And we do. Not before Christ in Bethlehem but before Christ at our altar. Each week we offer our gold to Him, and each week we bend our knees before Christ in the Holy Communion; even if we can't for physical reasons, we do so in heart. Here we confess ourselves to be fools along with the wise men. They knelt before an ordinary looking baby. We kneel before ordinary looking bread and wine. They gave their gold to a God who didn't have the arms to hold it. We give our gold to a God who doesn't have the arms to take it from us.
Epiphany also calls you to do the really foolish thing of casting down human reason. Human reason would not follow for years a unstar-like star. Human reason would not hurry to a little town like Bethlehem because some 600 year old book had said a king was going to be born there. Human reason would not offer the incense normally offered to deity to a Toddler. But all of this our foolish wise men did and call us to do too. And we do. How many years have you been following the star to Bethlehem? How many newspaper accounts have you read telling you it was impossible for that to happen? Yet, you take God's Word on it and hasten with the wise men to Bethlehem. And not only that, but we're so all out crazy that we take God's Word on the fact that He can forgive our sins by pouring 3 little handfuls of water poured over our head and by means of ordinary words that don't even touch us. We take God's Word that whosoever sins our pastor forgives, they are really and truly forgiven.
True, we look like stooges for finding God in Words, Water, Bread and Wine, but don't you see that the wise men looked foolish for finding God in a shack in Bethlehem? The wise men would have looked very wise if they had stopped and worshiped in the temple or even if they had talked of an almighty, invisible God. And we would look wise, if we said God was at work where people felt His power and spirit or if went on about our big, powerful, invisible God. We would be wise in the eyes of the world but fools in the eyes of the true God who directed the wise men to a little house and us to Baptism, Absolution, and Communion.
Epiphany calls us to the do the incredibly foolish thing of casting down our ideas of power, reason, and wisdom. But it also calls us to cast down something much more important than these. That something is indicated by the last gift the wise men offered, myrrh. The legend of the wise men says that one of them was young and so looked for a king with youthful idealism. He brought gold. Another was middle aged and was looking to satisfy his deep yearning for God. He brought frankincense for deity. The third wise man was old with many sin stained years behind him, and so longed for a savior. He brought myrrh because he felt that any savior of his would have to suffer and die to save him from his many sins.
I like this pious story because it highlights that above all else, these wise men cast their sins before the Toddler. This is the true worship of God. Of all the things that Epiphany calls you to cast down, this is the most important. Throw your sins on the Baby in the humble house at Bethlehem. Throw your sins on this God who is in your flesh and blood to bear them. Don't think they are too heavy for Him, too many for Him, too distasteful for Him. Even as He deserves our gold because He is our king, our incense because He is our God, so He deserves our sins because He is our Savior.
I know that sounds foolish. It seems wiser to try to make up for your sins. It makes more sense to wait till you feel guilty enough to let go of your sins. It seems smarter to just let bygones be bygones and forget about your sins. But wise men and wise women are so foolish that rather than hide their sins from God they confess them to Him dumping them all on Him. They say, "I can't carry them; I can't pay for them; I can't free myself from them. You'll have to carry them, pay for them, and free me from them!"
"To Tell the Truth" is over. The announcer says, "Will the real wise man please stand up?" Herod starts to stand. We gasp, then the three wise men start to stand and we're pleased because we knew that all along. But to our surprise they sit back down and Jesus stands. He is the real wise Man! He alone is called the Wisdom of God. But His wisdom led Him to wrap Himself in flesh and blood and allow Himself to be nailed to a cross for sins He didn't commit just to save sinners. To tell the truth, who could ever be wise enough to see past such foolishness and fall down in worship before Him? It takes a miracle. Just ask the wise men. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Epiphany (1-7-01), Matthew 2: 1-12