A sermon by Rev. Mark Pendleton
The wise men--who were they; or, more to the point, who are they? We know that the Lord’s Word is more than a book of stories from the past. Its stories and imagery are full of symbolism and meaning for our hearts, minds and lives today and for all time. Who, then, are we reading about when we read the story of the wise men? Who are the people who would follow a star on a long journey to see their Lord and offer Him gifts? Who are the people, today, who have that kind of devotion to the Lord?
When we read the story of the wise men, we’re reading about the determined efforts that we make to find the Lord in our lives. We’re reading about our efforts to follow a star, to enter His house, to see Him there, to fall down and worship Him, and to present Him with gifts. Another way to say this is that when we read the story of the wise men, we’re reading about wise states of mind and life--states that we all experience as we seek the Lord by putting truth to work in the ways that we think and live. In a broader perspective we’re reading about all people the world over who sincerely try to apply what truth they know to life. No one lacks the means of being reborn (that is, regenerated or created anew) by the Lord, and the means to that end have to do with the Lord’s guiding truth. For us, and for millions of people around us, the journey of the wise men is a daily event.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Herod was king. When the Lord is first born in us as love and charity, false thinking and selfish habits inspired by hell threaten us spiritually.
But despite Herod’s presence, for many of us the Lord has made His coming. We’ve begun to make progress toward better ways of thinking and better ways of living. Jesus has been born in Bethlehem--in a growing life of faith in His Word--and His birth brings a ray of hope which lightens our minds and touches our hearts with the spirit of Christmas.
The wise men who came to worship the Lord came from the “East”. The fact that they came from the East is crucial to our understanding of the story. In the symbolism of the story the “East” means the Lord and His love. The “East” symbolizes all the love that the Lord has planted in our hearts since the day we were born--love for our parents, love for our playmates and friends, love for knowledge--especially knowledge from the Lord’s Word. It’s that love which first moves us to seek the Lord with the intent to worship Him. Love spurs us on to wise living.
But if we’re going to live wisely, we need more than the foundation of love. We also need knowledge. Love can’t come forward in our lives without knowledge to guide it. And so, in addition to love, the “East” also symbolizes all the knowledge that we’ve learned and which the Lord has stored away in our minds since the time we were born.
As we grow, the Lord daily plants the seeds of love in our hearts, and when the time is ripe for Him to be born into our lives his star appears. Knowledge--maybe just one simple truth that we’ve known all our lives, or one that we’ve just read in His Word, or heard from a friend--appears miraculously as a guiding beacon. Suddenly, some simple truth shines in our minds. It has meaning for us, and for the first time we see how that truth can lead us to a better and happier life--closer to the Lord. Not only that, but we also feel an impulse--a longing--to follow that star. We want that star to lead us to the Lord in Bethlehem.
Think, for a moment, of the last time some bit of truth shone brightly in your mind. In the past few months, maybe in the past few weeks, you’ve discovered some new truth, or perhaps some bit of truth that you’ve known for a long time has risen in the night sky. The Lord has caused you to see the relevance of that truth to your life as you hadn’t seen it before, and it shines brightly in your mind, giving comfort and hope and joy. “When [the wise men] saw the star they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.” Maybe it’s the truth of the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have others do to you”; maybe it’s the truth about the importance of being a servant in society around you: “Let him who would be great among you be as one who serves”; maybe it’s one of the moral virtues--the importance of honesty, of paying attention, or of being cheerful. As we begin to see the relevance of truth to our lives, that truth shines in our minds like the star of Scripture. It’s there in our minds, ready to guide us to a better and happier life--it’s there to lead us closer to the Lord.
After the wise men had seen the star in the East, they made their way into the land of Canaan to find the holy Child. They made their way to Jerusalem, and there they announced their intentions: “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” they said, “For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
The wise men’s intentions caused a stir in Jerusalem. “...Herod the king...was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Each time we begin to follow a star--each time we start to draw closer to the Lord, the forces of selfishness are agitated. They can’t stand the Lord’s presence, so they mobilize for war. Feelings and thoughts from hell get stirred up in our minds.
Herod called the wise men to a secret meeting. He asked the wise men to tell him what time the star appeared. Then he tried to trick the wise men into telling him where the Child was, once they had found Him. “...When you have found Him,” he said, “bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”
But that was a lie. Hell doesn’t want to worship the Lord; it wants to kill Him. It wants to kill him in our hearts and minds. Once we’ve started to follow a star, hell tries to win us over. Evil spirits call us secretly and try to trick us into betraying the Lord. They entice us to use good living as a front--as a means for achieving self centered ends. ‘Go ahead and live a good life’, they say: “Go and search diligently for the young Child”. But always there is the subtle command and deception, “and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”
Think of a person who is trying to act sincerely. After he’s started to make progress, he might feel tempted to use the appearance of sincerity to his own advantage. He may learn, for example, that a sincere looking smile can be used to hide misconduct or even contempt. He can use his smile as a front--as a false cover up, or as a method of manipulation--rather than as a sincere display of feeling or affection. King Herod calls to him secretly.
On our journey to see the Lord evil spirits try to win us over. They try to have us betray the Lord not only in our lives but also in our thinking. They try to twist true thinking into false, negative and destructive thinking, or they try to make us forget the truth altogether. They try anything they can to derail us on our journey. Think of how easy it is to justify selfish behavior or a negative attitude. Sometimes it’s hard to keep telling ourselves the truth. Sometimes we’re tempted to use the truth to cut other people down rather than to see our own blackened thoughts and intentions and to do something about them. Sometimes it’s hard to keep a clear sight of “the straight and narrow”. Our vision becomes blurred, or we completely lose sight of the road we’re following. When the wise men were in Jerusalem, the star wasn’t shining. From time to time hell is able to darken our new sight of truth.
But the wise men left Jerusalem, and when they did, the star appeared a second time to lead them to Bethlehem. We act wisely when we keep on course to find the Lord. Hell is still there. It’s waiting in Jerusalem, and it hopes that we’ll eventually betray the Lord. But that doesn’t stop the Lord’s star from shining. In our efforts to stay on course the Lord’s star can appear to us and show us the way.
When the wise men saw the star, “they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.” Think of how good it feels when clarity returns to our minds. After we’ve met with a selfish king in Jerusalem, we can have a renewed vision of what we’re trying to accomplish in our lives. Once again we see hurtful habits and motivations and false thinking for what they are. Our perspective returns, and we rejoice.
Finally, the wise men came to Bethlehem. They “saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshipped Him.” Our first attempts to live our faith lead us to see the Lord in His Word. We see Him revealed in the pages of His Word and we feel His presence there more clearly than before.
“And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” We enter the Lord’s house and worship Him when we offer Him gifts--good deeds done from the heart--good deeds which show devotion to the Lord (gold), commitment to our fellow human being (frankincense), and commitment to following the truth of the Word (myrrh). There’s no other way to truly worship the Lord. Doing our work from these kinds of motives is the sign of any sincere effort to find Him and worship Him.
But the Lord’s star by itself isn’t enough to bring us into the Lord’s house. True--it can lead us to see the Lord, but only if we are willing to have it do so--only if we make the effort, day by day, to follow that star. We can’t enter the Lord’s house or truly worship Him unless we follow His lead. The wise men followed the star. They searched diligently for the Baby Jesus until they found Him.
But the story of the wise men doesn’t end with their presenting gifts to Jesus. Herod was still alive in Jerusalem, and he was still king. So the wise men were warned in a dream that they should not return to him. The wise men returned to their own country--to the East--by another way. Each time we search for the Lord and worship Him He protects us. He takes the memory of the star, and the memory of the gifts we’ve offered, and the memory of the joy that we’ve felt, and He tucks them away safely in our minds where they can’t be violated by hell. Every effort we make to find the Lord is stored up in our minds so that it can be used again and again--tomorrow or the next day--to help lead us to Him.
When we read the story of the wise men, we’re reading about just that. We’re reading about wise men--wise people--here in this room and in the world over, who wake up each morning hoping and determined to find the Lord in ways that they think and live.
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, `Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’“
“When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshipped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.”
Lessons: Matt. 2:1-12; AE 422:20; AC 3762:2