EPIPHANY SUNDAY 2018
“The Way of Wisdom” Click here for audio
Pastor Marty Raths
When I begin thinking about a sermon, I sometimes begin with a google search. So a few weeks ago, when I first started thinking about the story of the wise men, I searched the word “wisdom,” and I found two very interesting quotes. One was from the Book of Proverbs, which is one of the wisdom books of the scriptures, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The other was from the philosopher Socrates, “Wonder is the beginning of the wisdom.”
At first thought these two quotes seemed to be at odds, depicting two very different ways to wisdom. But the more I thought about it, the more fear and wonder seemed to me to be similar paths on the way of wisdom.
In the quote from Proverbs, the Hebrew word for fear does not mean dread or panic, the kind of fear that paralyzes and incapacitates us, leaving us unable to think or act in response to a situation. It is closer in meaning to our English word reverence.
And wonder and reverence have a lot in common with each other. They both require a spirit of humility and a sense of mystery, the acknowledgement that there is a lot in life that we do not understand, or that we only understand in part, and it is wonder and reverence that motivated the wise men in our story to make their way to the Christ Child./
Wonder and reverence take us deeper in life, and depth is an important aspect of wisdom. Wisdom resists the superficial, the petty, the faddish, the passing, the inconsequential . . . The art of being wise, someone has said, is the art of knowing what to overlook. Wisdom looks deeply, towards what really matters in life, and towards what is really deserving of our time and attention and devotion.
In one of his sermons pastor and writer Frederick Buechner meditates on what must have gone on in the minds of the wise men, and at one point he puts this thought into their minds, “The stars said simply that he would be born. It was another voice altogether that said to go – a voice as deep within ourselves as the stars are deep within the sky.” It is the voice of wisdom that takes us to this place of resolve, where we hear within us a voice telling us to go, and as Buechner writes, this is a deep place in life. And this going takes all sorts of different forms, but it always involves leaving behind some old ways of seeing and thinking and doing, old habits and attitudes and prejudices that no longer serve any good purpose, leaving them behind so that we can set out in search of something new in life.
This is one of the things that distinguishes wisdom from information and knowledge. Our world is full of the latter. And we may possess all sorts of information about something, and know all that there is to know about it, but it does not motivate us in any way to seek, or to change, or to grow. Wisdom motivates us. It sets us on a journey to some new place in life. Sometimes it is a journey of the mind or the heart that leads us to new insights or deeper commitments, and sometimes, as it was for the wise men, it is also a journey to a new land.
When the wise men finally arrive in Jerusalem, they come bearing a question. “Where is the child,” they ask, “who has been born king of the Jews?” Wisdom is comfortable with questions. But many in our world are not. Many give into the fear of uncertainty. They want answers, and there are always those who are more than willing to provide them, to settle things, to paint the many shades of gray in life in the stark contrasts of black and white, and to put an end to all debate. But wisdom says it is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.
Where, when, how, why, so what . . . this is the language of wisdom. Wisdom understands that questions are alive. They take us to places where we have not been before, deep places, and faraway places. Qiguang Zhao was a member of our congregation in Northfield, and he wrote a book entitled Do Nothing & Do Everything. And in his preface he wrote, “You do not want to come to the last moment of your life and find that you have simply lived life’s length. You should also have lived life’s width.” I think it is implied in what Qiguang wrote, but I would also add, we should also have lived life’s depth, and it is wisdom that takes us there, to the deep places in life.
The wise men also say that they have come because they have seen his star at its rising. They have been searching for wisdom all along. It has been a way of life for them. They have paid their dues, putting in the time and the effort needed. Wisdom rarely comes to us on a whim. I say rarely because we do chance upon things in life, including upon wisdom. That does happen.
But far more often than not, wisdom is work. It takes effort, and intention, and practice to obtain it, and the wise men had committed their lives to the search for it. They would not even have seen the star otherwise.
But they saw it, and that set them on a journey to Jerusalem where they come asking, where is the child born king that we may find him and pay him homage? And this is how Herod reacts. Though he is the most powerful man in the land, he is frightened by the news that there is a new king that has been born. All tyrants and despots and dictators should be frightened by this news, then and now. As Mary proclaimed, through this child God will bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly . . .
But the powerful rarely give up their throne without a fight, so Herod summons the wise men, questions them, and then he tells them to go and find the child, and then send him word, that he might also pay him homage. Herod feigns devotion. The corrupt often do, but before the end the wise men will see through it.
And the wise men continue on their way, following the star until it stops over the birth place of the child. And when they enter they see the child with Mary, and the wise men kneel down and pay him homage. In my google searching of wisdom I came across a couple of other quotes about wonder and reverence that reveal some of what is happening in this moment. Wonder is the absence of egocentricity, and reverence is the virtue that keeps us from trying to play God. God said it this way through the prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”
We live much of our lives with our ego at the center of things, with everything revolving around us, and when we do, what matters most is how things affect us. As Dr. Phil has been known to say, “What makes a problem big is that it is ours.” But wonder and reverence move us out from the center of things, and in the life of faith they put God into the center. Someone has said that this is the main purpose of worship, a way for us to keep putting God back into the center of things. And whenever we do this in life, or whenever it happens to us, whenever we come to that place where God is at the center, things look different, things are different.
It really is a striking moment in the story, these learned men, these men of reputation and means and influence, these wise men, kneeling down before a mother and her child. Wisdom does that, it gets the perspective right, so we can see things in their proper place and order and priority. It sees what is of first importance in life, as Paul would say, and then it puts these first things first.
Then after having offered to the child their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Instead they returned to their homeland by another road, by a different way. I believe that this was true both literally and figuratively. They took a different route home, but they also went home as changed men. Things looked different now, things were different for them, after their encounter with the Christ Child. As I already said, wisdom does not leave us unchanged. It puts things in a different light, and when that happens, there is no going back to the way things were. Such moments in life are epiphanies, which reveal to us the true nature of things.
In that same sermon that I mentioned before, Fredrick Buechner ends by writing, “In one of her poems Mary Oliver writes of such a moment, ‘Then,’ she says, ‘I go back to … my own house, my own life, which has now become brighter and simpler, somewhere I have never been before.’ “I think,” Buechner concludes, “the wise men in returning home saw everything more brightly.”
You see Christmas is not just a day, or a season, it is a way of being in the world all the time, an ongoing effort to decide which will get the better of us, wonder or certainty, superficiality or depth, reverence or egocentricity. In light of the story of the wise men I would also add that Christmas is a way of seeing in the world, a way of seeing things in the light of this child whose birth we have celebrated once again. And as the wise men found out, things look different in this light, and there is no way of going back to the way things were. There is only the going forward on another road, and by a different way, the way that this child will later show us leads to life. Amen.