St Mary’s Lewisham
January 8th 2012
Wise Men of Today
‘When the Wise Men came into the house… they fell down and worshipped Him… and opened their gifts’
Ever since St Matthew gave us his account of the Epiphany, and probably for many years before that, people have been asking questions about the Wise Men from the East who came to visit the Infant Jesus after His birth at Bethlehem. Questions like: Where had they come from? Were they kings? How many of them were there? Which was the star or planet they used to guide them? What did their gifts mean?
Let’s think this morning about what he actually tells us about them and their meeting with Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Matthew describes them as ‘Wise Men’; he tells us that they ‘worshipped Him’; and that they ‘gave Him their gifts’.
They were wise men. Being wise isn’t the same thing as being brainy, or having been well-educated, or simply being clever. Plenty of brainy, well-educated, clever people manage to behave very stupidly. Having such gifts is no guarantee that such people will use them wisely. In fact, the age we are presently living in has been called an ‘Age of Foolishness’ because there are more people who are doing more foolish things today than was the case, say 30 years ago. If you doubt this just read the newspapers and listen to the News!
By contrast there are still in the world of today, as there have always been, many simple, less well-educated, people in the world who behave both wisely and sensibly. So people who have GCSEs, A-Levels, Degrees or Doctorates in this or that, is no guarantee that such people possess wisdom.
For the Bible, in the Book of Psalms, and throughout the so-called Wisdom Literature, tells us that ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ and if there is one thing which many otherwise intelligent people lack today it is any knowledge of, or respect for the God who created them.
Mind you it says that fearing the Lord is just the beginning of wisdom. Gaining Wisdom differs from gaining a Degree or a Doctorate because it’s not a once-off event which happens as a result of a period of study, but it is a life-long process. In our Age of Foolishness, when people have stopped acquiring wisdom at any point of their lives, they become those to whom that well-known proverb There’s no fool like an old fool’ most obviously applies: our fools (like our policemen) seem to be getting younger every day. Like St Paul, I speak as a fool, of course!
But merely believing that God exists is only the starting point of our life’s journey. The next step, so to speak is to look again towards the Wise Men described by St Matthew. Their journey had a stated purpose, which they shared with King Herod. They had come in order to worship the new-born King of the Jews. So their first action when they found him was to ‘fall down and worship Him’.
To ‘worship’ somebody means literally ‘to give them what they are worth’, and that means recognizing what, or who, they really are. We refer to the Mayor of Lewisham or Greenwich as ‘His [or Her] Worship’, not because they are God, but because they are the representative of Her Majesty the Queen in that Borough.
Worshipping someone in this sense involves a degree of obedience on the part of the person doing the worshipping. In the case of God, of course, that means total obedience at all times; but in the case of a Mayor, a Monarch a bishop or a policeman, for example we are dealing with people who are merely human, and our duty to obey them is limited by the authority which they have been granted by us. So if and when they tell us to do something which is morally wrong, or beyond their power to command we have not only the right but the duty to disobey them.
But the Wise Man’s wisdom tells him that God is always to be obeyed, because He will only command us to what is ultimately in our own, and others’, best interest. So it’s a reliable test of someone’s wisdom to look and see whether they fulfil God’s commandment to take part in an act of public worship at least once every week. It’s not an infallible test, mind you, because there are plenty of regular churchgoers, clergy and laity, who from time to time behave pretty foolishly, and, believe it or not, there is one of them speaking to you this morning!
But what else, besides worship, does God expect of His worshippers? We can get some clues from the Gifts which the Wise Men brought and gave to Him.
First they gave Him Gold. Gold has been valued since the beginning of time, and it may be seen as symbolizing all the gifts that go has given to us: our life, our health, our food, our intellect, our talents to name but four. It matters on whether we are well- or ill-endowed with these. Jesus made it quite clear that the poor widow who put her last farthing into the collection had given more than all the rest. So let’s not fool ourselves that because our talents are not outstanding they’re therefore not worth offering to Him. If we continue to develop our relationship with God, He will soon start making demands upon us.
Incense: Incense ‘works’ by creating an atmosphere. Our ‘incense’ consists firstly in becoming masters of our feelings rather than vice-versa. That means that when troubles come to us, as they undoubtedly will, as Wise Men we should take great care not to spread them around like our germs lest we infect everyone we come in contact with like an infectious disease. If we allow every poisonous attitude which afflicts us to spread all over the place, then that’s what will happen. Others will catch it as well.
By all means share your anxieties and griefs with just one other trusted friend, and perhaps with a priest; but don’t go around looking and being disgruntled and handing it on to everyone. Remember that useful saying that ‘when you smile it increases your face-value’
Thirdly, Myrrh. All our griefs, be they disappointments, bereavements, misfortunes, frustrations or doubts come under the heading of Myrrh. But the Bible again assures us that all these troubles, if we offer them to God, will complement the sufferings of Jesus Christ, and be used in the process of reconciling the World to Himself through Him.
God alone knows how often we, as individuals, have been healed, at least in part, by other people’s sufferings which they have offered to God on our behalf. One of the great joys of the Life Everlasting will be the opportunity to meet and to thank those very people whose sufferings on earth have been used by God to further our wellbeing. The other side of the coin, of course, is that we ourselves shall experience the everlasting gratitude expressed by those whose lives our sufferings on earth have helped to transform. In all probability they will be people we have never met whilst we were on earth, but our sufferings, patiently borne for Christ’s sake will have been taken up by Him in his one true pure immortal sacrifice for their benefit.
True Wisdom knows that there just are no ‘ordinary people, least of all ourselves. The worship of God and the gifts we as individuals offer to Him as our reasonable service are not only valuable; they are unique.