What are you doing, O Magi? Do you adore a little Babe, in a wretched hovel, wrapped in miserable rags? Can this Child be truly God? … Are you become foolish, O Wise Men … Yes, these Wise Men have become fools that they may be wise. — St Bernard of Clairvaux, from a sermon on the Epiphany
Today, we come to the bit about the three wise men.
Of course, that’s an unbiblical thing to say. We always think ‘three wise men’ because three gifts are mentioned.
I have another reason for not wanting to speak of three wise men.
I’m not sure they were all that wise.
Matthew doesn’t say they were wise, did you know that? Matthew’s word for them was magoi. That’s our word magi. So let’s call them magi.
We know that word magi, it’s where we get our words magic and magician from.
Nonbiblical sources reveal that magi were associated primarily with Persia, where they were members of a priestly class learned in astrology and other magical arts, including divination, dream interpretation, and the concoction of potions.
Magi were often lampooned as deceivers or fools, so Matthew may well mean to show God’s gracious revelation to Gentile ‘experts’ in nonsense.
So the magi follow a star which they believe heralds the birth of a new king. Where do you go to find a king? To the palace.
So the magi stumble in to Herod’s place.
Now, Herod was not a nice man. He killed his wife Mariamne and a son in order to safeguard the throne for himself. He didn’t like this news of a newborn king. He wanted to get rid of him.
That wasn’t very wise of the magi, was it?
In the end the magi arrive at Bethlehem, just over fourteen kilometres south of Jerusalem. They see this new king in a feed trough, amid the animal sights and sounds and smells.
It’s not what they expected. They had brought their gifts for a king. When important people gave gifts to important people, it was for a purpose. There was something expected back. Gifts were given to ensure friendship, to cement an alliance.
If the baby were born in a palace, the magi would have won themselves more friends in high places. But the baby was born in the room with the animals.
There was no obvious advantage in making an alliance with this baby.
But there he was, right in front of them. And the magi did begin to become wise. They give their gifts to the baby. Gifts that would no longer be of any advantage to them. And in doing that, they didn’t make a friend in high places. They made an enemy of Herod.
And still they needed a dream to instruct them to go home another way. Don’t pop in on Herod on the way back! the dream told them. Really, they couldn’t figure it out for themselves.
They just had a lot of esoteric knowledge, but they weren’t all that wise. Still, they ended up on the right side. They followed the star, they gave their gifts, they listened to the dream.
They saw the King of kings, and started to become wise.
The Apostle Paul tells us what true wisdom is in 1 Corinthians 1.22–23:
…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Who is God?
God is able to stoop low—indeed, to the lowest place—in order to save the creatures God loves.
When God took human flesh in Jesus, it happened not in a palace but with the animals. And his mother was a village girl.
When Jesus died, it was not a glorious death in battle, and it wasn’t of old age after a life of achievement. It was the death of the lowest of the low, it was death on a cross.
Who is God?
God is the One who empties himself of all dignity and power to win our hearts.
Christ shows his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, he died for us.
The wisdom of God is the wisdom of the cross, where God gives everything to win us back.
It is not the wisdom of the powerful, who give gifts to get favours in return. That’s how the magi started out, but in the end they gave gold, frankincense and myrrh to a baby whose family could not give them anything in return.
Except their Saviour. They could give them that.
Our Saviour declares God’s love to us in what the world sees as foolishness and weakness. Our task is to learn that this is God’s power and wisdom.
We show the power and wisdom of God today by serving those who cannot return our gifts. By giving to the needy, by serving in ways that enable the poor to have a voice.
The magi returned another way. They certainly did! They travelled out as men of worldly power, wealth and wisdom, all of which mean nothing to God.
They returned as different men. Men transformed by a baby in a manger. Men who faces had beheld the glory of God in a humble place. Men who could never see the world the same way again. The worldly wise would say they had become fools. It they were, they were holy fools.
Let us become holy fools in 2018, seeking the true wisdom of God in the little and ordinary things of life, where God is present.