This is a sermon for the feast of the Epiphany of our Lord, given in the “church up the road.” The Scripture it references are is Matthew 2:1-12.
It’s the last finishing touch on the Christmas story; some time after Jesus was born, wise men from the east arrive “to pay him homage.” Homage is a funny word; we don’t hear it often in everyday life, but here it means something like, the wise men came to pay their respects.
But who were they? Why did they come? And what does this last detail of Jesus’ infancy suggest to us for our lives?
Let’s start here. The wise men weren’t kings, despite all the pop culture references which paint them that way. The word used to describe them, magos, (from which we get magi) referred to priests of a pagan Persian religion, educated in science, agriculture, maths, history, astronomy (which at that time was more what today we would call astrology), and the occult. They were also widely noted for their honesty and integrity. Some of the magi were court functionaries of the Parthian Empire, powerful and influential within their own culture, and respected in the surrounding areas. It’s pretty safe to say that they weren’t in the habit of dropping in on random peasant children in the Roman Empire, their political enemies, with whom they were often at war.
So why come? It’s hard to be sure exactly what their motivations were. We know that these men had a role in deciding who would rule their Empire. We know that their Empire was unstable and that the leadership of it was in dispute at about this time. We also know that this culture had had contact with Jews in exile for a bit more than five hundred years, and that Persian scholars of religion and history would be aware of Jewish ideas and expectations around a messiah.
Did they come looking for a king, not for the Jews but for themselves? Were they trying to figure out whether this baby was the real deal, before considering making an offer? Were the gifts not just a mark of respect, but a down payment intended to encourage Mary and Joseph to think about the life Jesus might have in a foreign court, (not unlike his distant relative, the famous Queen Esther)? (And then, of course, there’s the matter of the star. What did these astrologers make of that?)
Lots of questions and no real answers in the text. And then they exit – not the same way they came – and as far as we know, that is that. They don’t return, and when Mary and Joseph do go into exile, it’s Egypt and not Persia that they flee to. Apparently neither the magi, nor the holy family, saw in each other the answer to their particular needs.
But while the magi were in the house, they knelt down and paid Jesus homage. And that’s the part of the story that I want to reflect on, for what it might say to us.
While the magi were on their knees, peering at the infant before them, trying to work out where he fit in their understanding of the world, there would have been a deeper question pulsing behind it all. What are we looking for? What did we come all this way hoping to find?
And it’s the question for all of us who take up religion as anything more than a casual passing fancy. What are we looking for? What have we come all this way – through the waters of baptism and into the funny, quirky, infuriating community called the church – hoping to find?
In John’s gospel it’s the first question Jesus asks those who would follow him. What do you want?
And I think that’s important because it’s what we want – not what we know or what we believe – that will drive the way we actually live. Look at it this way; even if the magi knew that Jesus was the messiah, the promised one who would bring in God’s reign of justice and righteousness, if that wasn’t what they wanted, Jesus would be useless to them.
And it’s the same for us. It’s our wants and longings and desires which are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behaviour flow. Being a follower of Jesus is not so much about what you know or believe – although neither knowledge nor belief are bad – but about learning to want what God wants. To love what God loves.
Jesus’ invitation to follow him is an invitation to line up our loves and longings with God’s; to learn to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he reigns over all; all of what is meant by what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”
So in this sense, the centre of the human person is located not in our thinking but in our hearts. Why? Because the heart is the engine room of our love, and it’s our loves that drive us toward some ultimate concern. It’s our desires that define us; in short, we are what we love.
This idea of the core of our identity being about the things we want carries some implications about human nature. It suggests that to be human is to be dynamic. To be human is to be for something, directed toward something, oriented toward something. To be human is to be on the move, pursuing something, after something.
To be human is to have a heart. You can’t not love. So the questions isn’t whether you will love something, the question is what you will love.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, put it this way. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Why? Because if people long for the sea, they will willingly build the ship.
And this is what I so often am trying to do when I preach, or when we’re working together to plan the parish’s future. I try to put in front of you a vision of who God wants us to be, what God wants us to do, that can spark in all of us a longing for the endless immensity, not of the sea, but of the heart of God Himself. Knowing that if we can catch that vision together, we will willingly do what is necessary to move towards it, out of the dynamic power of our desire to see it accomplished.
The Magi came all the way to visit Jesus because they wanted something; they got down on their knees and offered him precious gifts in hope that he would be a fulfilment of their desires. And they point us to the importance of attending to our own desires, and our own imaginations and hopes and deepest longings; as these will determine where we will go, and what we will do.