Rev. Dr. Raymond Cuthbert 6 January 2019
Matthew 2: 1-12
In 1991, horror novelist Stephen King wrote a book entitled Needful Things. The story is set in a small fictional New England town, Castle Rock, Maine. In the town a new gift shop is opened by a seemingly kind older gentleman named Leland Gaunt. The allure of the shop is that for each of the townspeople the shop’s inventory includes an item thought to be the thing most wanted in life. However, none of the people can afford to buy the item. The shop owner offers each of them a trade. A favor done for him will secure the most wanted item. Each is to play what appears to be a simple prank on another of the townspeople. Then the residents of Castle Rock begin to turn on one another until at last the whole town is in chaos. Leland Gaunt turns out to be none other than the devil himself. Traveling throughout the countries of the world, the Devil has been selling junk to people who thought they were purchasing the item they most wanted. What the shoppers failed to notice were the words printed above the shop’s entrance…Caveat Emptor… “Let the buyer beware.”
In these opening days of the New Year, as we anticipate the unfolding of 2019, let us consider what it is you and I “buy into” as the most important thing in life…the principal thing, the chief, the main thing in life. A.J. Jacobs, in his book A Year of Living Biblically, confesses that he is a reverent agnostic. “Whether or not there is a God,” he said, “I believe that there is something important about the idea of sacredness.” What do you consider to be sacred in your life?
On this Sunday in the church calendar, we observe annually the day of Epiphany. Literally “epiphany” means “fantasy from the outside.” We celebrate the belief that in the birth of Christ at Christmas, God has entered into our world and into our lives. Epiphany asks the question: Where do we see God to be present among and in us? What are the signs of the sacred among us? It is with that quest… that search… that discovery, that we concern ourselves today as we consider the main thing.
Using Matthew’s story of the Wise Men as a guide, let’s think together about this quest. The story tells us that the Wise Men came to Jerusalem in search of the One who had been born King of the Jews… because they wanted to worship Him.
In other words, they, like us, were searching for the object of their worship… the most revered thing… the main thing.
First of all, according to Matthew, the Wise Men’s quest began with a star in the sky. The search for the main thing begins for them with an upward look, a glance toward the heavens. Less about astrology and more about attitude, their discovery started with what might be called a posture of prayer. Sometimes in the midst of everything else going on in the midst of our lives, we forget about developing a posture – or an attitude towards prayer that always keeps us looking up.
Years ago, I did a lot of reflection about what the Apostle Paul calls “praying without ceasing.” I take that to mean that whatever we do in life, we try to remember that God is first and foremost in helping us make decisions.
The discovery of the chief thing in Matthew begins with a star. This search for the principal thing also involves a journey. Matthew states that the Wise Men started in the east and moved west. They left home, the most familiar of places, the status quo, and ventured out toward a yet unknown destination. It would be a journey not unlike that of Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament.
Abraham and Sarah began the journey of faith that the rest of us are now following. At the call of God, Abraham and Sarah departed their native land and traveled toward a land of promise. Like any journey, this journey for the principal thing in life involves enduring some rough spots along the way, negotiating a curve or two, climbing some hills, and passing through and out of dark valleys.
There is a term called “outward bound.” It is a nautical term used when ships leave the certainty of the harbour. Journeys of faith need to be outward bound. They need to take us to places we’ve only dreamed of and leave us with things that last a lifetime. We are outward bound to become inwardly free. The search for the principle thing begins with a star and also involves a journey.
The discovery of that which is most sacred frequently takes us through and comes out of some of the darkest times and events of our lives. Consider, for instance, the role of King Herod in today’s gospel story. As the account of the Wise Men’s quest is reported, no fewer than five times is Herod spoken of in these twelve verses. His reign provides the context in which the Wise Men’s quest and discovery takes place.
It is Herod who is threatened by and resistant to the news of the birth of the new king. Herod consults with the religious authorities and then receives and deceptively advises the Wise Men concerning the birthplace of the Messiah. It is Herod about whom the Wise Men are warned in the dream. For sure, like so many of the hurtful powers in our own lives, this tyrant king plays a significant and yet secondary role. Herod may even claim the “Best Supporting Actor” prize in this drama, but his role remains secondary. As in any drama, supporting roles are never to upstage those lead players. No matter the stage, be it in the school auditorium or the one upon which the drama of our lives is lived out every day, the truth is the same. The darkness shall not overcome the light. As the Apostle Paul declares in his letter to the Romans, the redemptive power of God works all things together in a pattern for good in the lives of those who love God and who are called according to God’s purpose (Romans 8:28). The discovery of the main thing frequently takes us through and comes out of some of the darkest, most dangerous, and deceptive times of life.
Matthew declares that the Wise Men arrive at the place above which the star was located. Their quest has brought them, their search has led them, to the discovery of life’s main thing. What is the main thing? The Christ.
To say that the Wise Men obtained what they most wanted is gross understatement. The gospel declares that they “rejoiced with a great joy.” Exaggerated language for sure! That is a literary device used when mere words simply will not tell the story. Further, the Wise Men fell down before the object of their worship and before their Saviour they opened and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The needful things of this world and their value always pale in comparison when cast in the light of the main thing in life.
The magi were searching for meaning in life outside of themselves. They were seeking the One who made life meaningful. Money was not an issue to them. Power was not an issue to them. Position and titles were not issues to them. They were seeking for something that would help them make sense out of what was going on in life. Perhaps you’re one of the ones who fall into this drive. Maybe you’ve tried the self-centered approach and it has left you empty and lonely. Maybe you’ve tried to figure it all out and it has left you cold and full of questions. Now, perhaps, you are seeking for something that would help you make sense out of life.
Notice the results of the actions of these three characters.
Herod, the self-absorbed and power-hungry, was led to frustration, failure, and loneliness. The chief priests and teachers of the Law, the “I’ve-got-all-the-answers” people, found cold hard facts but they missed the meaning, they never really got it. The magi – sincere seekers of truth, meaning, and substance in life – discovered what they were looking for.
Look at the actions of the magi. They saw what was going on around them. They saw where they were. They saw the star. Something in life got their attention – the star. Something caused them to question meaning – the star.
What is your star? What is it that has you questioning meaning? What has seized your attention and made you start wondering what’s going on? Has God used a situation in life, a tragedy, a sickness, a financial crisis, a friend, or a book?
The magi started on a journey for truth, meaning, and substance in life. God led them on their journey. God has led you to this place, this morning, on purpose. Not one of us is here by accident.
The magi searched in the wrong place – Jerusalem. It was logical to go to Jerusalem.
Jerusalem was the capitol city, so naturally you’d go there to look for a king. However, it was not logical if you knew the whole story. The Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. The logical thing would have been to go to Bethlehem. We often think we know more than we know. As a result we search where we think we ought to look, but it’s the wrong place.
If we knew the whole story, we’d know to go to Jesus to start with.
Where are you going to choose to search for meaning and purpose in life? Are you just going to look inside yourself? Are you trying to figure it all out in your own mind? Or is faith in Christ something that can help with that?
God put the magi back on course. God looks at the sincerity of our hearts and guides us in our search for truth, meaning, and substance in life.
When God gives us something bigger than ourselves to look towards, new options open up for us.
It is entirely possible that if we listen to God, we, like the Wise Men, will go home a new way than the way we intended.
- Raymond A. Cuthbert
(adapted from a sermon by Randy Calvo)