Sermon from Sunday, December 17, 2023
Speaker: Rev, Doug de Graffenried
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
Our lesson this morning comes from the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the first 12 verses of that chapter. Hear these words in the time of King Herod after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem asking, Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have observed his star and its rising and have come to pay him homage.
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened in all of Jerusalem with him and calling together all of the chief priests and scribes of the people. He inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him in Bethlehem. Of Judea. For so it is written by the Prophet. And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah.
Four from you shall come. A ruler who is shepherding, who is to shepherd my people. Israel. Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star appeared and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, Go and search diligently for the child. And when you have found him, bring word to me so that I may go and pay him homage.
When they had heard the king, they set out and there ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising until it stopped over the place where the child was when they star saw that the star had stopped. They were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage.
Then opening their treasure chest, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod. They left for their own country by another road. Francis is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen. The wise men or Magi are disciples, maybe of those Hebrews who were in Palestine, seen during what we called the captivity, the Babylonian captivity.
They knew about the prophets that a king was to be born among the Jews, and they searched the heavens for signs that he had come and the wise men carried out their task. They saw the star. They followed the star. They worshiped the king.
Now, unfortunately, we preachers don’t treat the wise men very nicely because we basically ignore them. Because by the time they get to us in the lectionary reading, it’s epiphany and the trees are gone and the candles are gone and the hymns are gone. And Christmas is gone. And why are you talking about these wise men who came and worship Baby Jesus?
Because they didn’t come and worship Baby Jesus? I am forming a committee. It is the proper Nativity Committee. And we will travel around to your house and look at your Nativity. And if your Nativity has Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus, the shepherds, some sheep, some animals urinate tivity will receive high marks. But if your nativity has the wise man, we’re calling the homeowner’s association on you.
There’s the wise men, aren’t there? Not at the birth. They come later. But again, the church doesn’t know what to do with them. They finished their task. They’re calling their vision. They’re in the story. They’re out of the story. And just these passages of Matthew, they’ve finished. But Da Vinci didn’t finish in 1480. Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by a group of monks in a monastery in Florence for a painting to go above their altar.
They had a very specific painting in mind. They wanted the adoration of the Magi. And so they told Leonardo, Give us our painting. Do you have a picture of the painting? Watch what happens. there it is. Eight foot by nine foot, four feet if you want it. He started it in 1480. He did the yellow ocher. He did the ink, but he didn’t finish it.
And the monks kept saying to him, Leonardo, when’s our picture going to be finished? He’ll give excuse after excuse after excuse. Any move from Florence to Milan. So he didn’t have to worry about the monks anymore. And the monks had to commission someone in 1496 to come in and redo it. But this painting is considered one of Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest works of art.
And yet it’s unfinished.
How about us? Our greatest masterpieces often lie unfinished. We start a kitchen project. We’re going to remodel the kitchen. We’re going to do it ourselves to. And we start gripping and ripping and pulling stuff out. You know, there’s sawdust and there’s sheet rock dust and there’s all kinds of dust. Meantime, as we were pulling one of the paneling out, we grabbed too much.
We ended up pulling a whole electrical circuit loose. Some of you done that or you cut into plumbing, Did that, too. Or the appliance you thought was going to go right here? No way that appliance will go. And so our great resolve, our great vision is interrupted. Or you decide you’re going to get up early, early, so you can come to the 6:00 prayer meeting starting on January the eighth.
Yes. That’s when it would be the first one would be you make this resolve, you are going to do it. You want to go pray. And the early morning texters getcha. Text messages that come before 8:00 in the morning are never good news. Always something you got to do or take care of or some trauma. You got to deal with.
And your resolve, your idea, your most important unfinished masterpiece lies there. Unfinished. How many projects in your household are not finished? Do you know how many spouses just looked at the other person in their seats? I saw it. not finished. I bet there be some project worked on this afternoon. The 1968 Summer Olympics were held in Mexico City and Tanzanian John Stephen Quarry.
Quarry was a marathon runner for his native Tanzania and he, along with 57 other runners, started the marathon. A marathon is 26.2 miles. Aguirre got to about mile 11 and he was jostled by some other runners and he fell. He took all the skin off of one of his knees. He dislocated a shoulder and he lay there on the ground, writhing in pain for quite a while.
But he decided he would go ahead and get up and try to finish the marathon. The winner of the marathon in 1968 at the Olympics, the winning time was 2 hours, 20 minutes and 56 seconds. The camera crew had left the stadium. They had gone to the presentation of the medals event. They had done that. They were packing up from that.
And somebody said, there is a runner. One more runner coming into the stadium. And it was a quarry. His finishing time was 3 hours, 25 minutes and 27 seconds. They all knew he had fallen, but they thought, well, he just got up, went to the hotel or to the team venue. He’s not going to finish. So one of the questions the sports writers ask him is why being in so much pain, which he obviously was.
Why did you finish? The quarry said this My country did not send me 5000 miles to start a race. They sent me 5000 miles to finish a race. The writer of Hebrews says, Because we’re surrounded with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance, the race that is set before us looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.
Let us run with perseverance. Perseverance means that we keep going, we keep plugging away. We don’t quit and we don’t stop. Paul said it this way Let us not grow weary and doing what is right, for we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
Da Vinci couldn’t finish a lot of his works in his lifetime. Several entities commissioned works for him and he would take the money and he would do some sketches. But so many of them he never finished. Something always popped up. Something always happened to knock him off of his path. But you and I are called to have the perseverance of the Magi to keep following Jesus.
Or if you want to keep following the star that points to Jesus. Until that task for us is completed. Eugene Peterson talks about the long obedience in the same direction. We keep plugging away. We keep praying. We keep reading Scripture. We keep doing the things God has called us to do until he calls us home. We practice perseverance.
It’s not easy. We had a bishop in Louisiana that always wanted reports. He would always ask for these lengthy monstrosity. It months atrocities of reports, footnoted bibliography. And then when she’d given you the assignment of writing the big report, she always said, But I don’t want to read the report. I want the executive summary. And that’s our world.
Give it to me and 30 minute segments. Give it to me in sound bites that I can digest. Don’t make me deal with the whole story. Just tell me what my part.
Church tradition knows. The Three Wise Men is Baltasar Milker and Gaspar. That’s church tradition. A fellow named Henry Van Dike in the 1890s wrote a short little novel entitled The Fourth Wise Man. And it tells the story of Arda. But the fourth Wise man, the three that church knows about are from Babylon. Art Oben was from Persia, and I want to borrow Van Dike story a little bit to illustrate this idea of perseverance.
These Magi were watching the heavens for the sign that the King of the Jews would be born, and they saw it and they had agreed upon a meeting place that was about ten days journey from Artibonite. And from that they would gather and they would go to Jerusalem and they would worship the King of the Jews and art above and sold all that he had.
He purchased three gems. He purchased a sapphire for Ruby and a pearl gifts he was going to give to the king. So he set out with his horse and he and his horse were making great strides. He was pushing the horse for as much as the horse could do in a day. And he got to that ninth day and it was evening time and they were coming on to this palm grove.
And the horse suddenly stopped and sniffs the air anxiously. And Auburn saw in the shadows of the night a figure laying right across the road and an art of an figured. It was one of those people who was so unfortunate out in the desert, someone who had died in the journey saw him and lift the reins to move the horse past the figure laying in the road.
And he heard the man groan. He was not dead. Magi were also healers and Art of A knew that he had to push his horse hurriedly to make the the rendezvous to get there to his other friends, and that if he stayed in and help this man, he he might miss his friends and thus the journey wouldn’t work out the way he originally planned.
But he could not let this individual will die alone. So he dismounted the horse and he took his robes and he put the robes across the man and he began ministering to the man. The way his art had told him to. He brought out his healing, healing herbs and potions and and now nurtured the man back to consciousness.
And he left the man with all of his wine and all of his bread. And he urged the horse, Onward. They arrived at the place that they had agreed to, and there was no one there in Oregon. Looked around and grieved and thought of how fickle fate was. They took from his pocket the sapphire, and he knew what he had to do.
He had to go back to Babylon and buy camels and supplies and journey alone across the desert, because in that little oasis, he had found a note from his friends that said, We had waited for you as long as we can wait, we can wait no longer. Join us on the trip across the desert.
So Arvin sells the sapphire, buys the camels, travels across the desert, and he does make it to Bethlehem.
He’s late, though. And as he goes through the streets, looking, hoping to find his friends, hoping to find the king, he goes past a little dwelling place and. And the doors open. And there is a mother cradling her infant and she’s singing lullabies to the child in order, then goes in and he introduces himself and he asks about visitors from the east.
And she said, Yes, they’ve been here. There were three of them. They came and they found Mary and Joseph. They found the baby and gave their gifts and they disappeared as mysteriously as they had appeared.
And she said, and we’ve heard that Joseph has taken Mary and fled to Egypt. Hardiman listened and couldn’t believe his misfortune.
He took the baby from the lady at one point, and the baby just reached up and felt Audubon’s beard. And the baby made sweet cooing sounds. And Hardiman handed the baby back just in time to hear the screams coming from other parts of the community. Screams from homes of mothers saying that Herod’s soldiers had come after the children.
What was he to do? Hardiman went to the doorway as a band of soldiers came hurrying down the street and the captain approached the house, ready to push Hardiman to the side. But Art did not budge. Suddenly, outside, in the midst of the wild confusion, Hardiman became perfectly tragically aware of why Herod soldiers were there and what that soldier wanted in that house had already been took the ruby from his pocket and thrust it out to the Roman and said, I’m willing to give this duel to a prudent captain who will march on.
And the captain shouted to his troops, There’s no child here. Let’s move on. And Van Dike goes. And he paints the picture of Hardiman, who is always trying to follow Jesus, always trying to find Jesus, but appears one step behind. He goes to Egypt and he misses them because they’ve gone back to Nazareth. He goes to Nazareth and he misses them again.
But the stories of Hardiman are stories of love and grace, because in his missing of Jesus, something else is happening. And here’s how Henry Van Dike finishes the story. Vardaman. 33 years have now passed since Art then began his search. His hair was white as snow. He knew his life was coming to year, coming nearer to its end.
But he had to go to Jerusalem. One more time to look for the king. It was the season of Passover and the town was thronged with strangers and there was a group of very excited people all running, walking quickly in the same direction and said, Where are you going? And one of them answered, We’re going to go to Gaza.
Two thieves are being crucified along with Jesus of Nazareth, who has done miracles. Who claims to be the son of God? Who the chief priest have said must die.
These words sounded familiar to Urban. He had looked a lifetime for one who was the king, the son of God, as it were. He had searched over land and sea. But now the message of hope comes with despair. The king had been denied and cast out. Perhaps he was already dying. Could he be the same one that the star pointed to?
Almond’s heart beat loudly within him? He thought maybe, maybe with the Pearl, I can ransom him. But his heart even started toward Calvary. He saw a troop of soldiers coming down the street, dragging behind them a sobbing young woman as urban poor. She broke away from her tormentors and threw herself at his feet, her arms clasped around his knees.
Have pity on me, she cried and saved me. My father was also a mad GI, but he’s died and they’re going to sell me as a slave to pay his debts. Amen. Trembled again, feeling the conflict in his soul. The conflict he felt in the palm grove. The conflict he felt in the cottage in Bethlehem twice. The gift he had consecrated for the king had to be used to help a human.
And now would he feel again. But it was clear what he must do. He took the Pearl and he gave it to the girl. And he said, This is your ransom daughter. This will pay your debts.
While he spoke, the sky darkened and the shuddering tremors of an earthquake ran through the ground. The houses rocked and the soldiers ran an and and sank, but sank down beside a protecting wall. But what did he to fear? What had he left to hope for? He’d given away the last tribute he had for the King. The quest was over.
He failed. What else mattered? The earthquake quivered beneath him and a heavy tile shaken loose from a nearby house, fell and struck him. And he lay there on the ground, breathless and pale. And there came a still small voice through the twilight. It was like distant music. The rescue girl leaned over and heard him say, Not so, my Lord, not so.
When did I see you? Hungry and feed? You were thirsty and give you drink. When did I see you? Sick or in prison and come to you? 33 years. I’ve looked for you. But I’ve never seen your face. I’ve never ministered to you. My king. And then from heaven. Very softly, the rescue girl heard. Because you did it to one of the least of these.
A calm radiance of wonder and joy lighted the face of Vardaman as he exhaled one long last breath.
His journey was over. His gift was accepted. The other wise man found the king.
Now, if Henry Van Dike can imagine that in the 1890s, I want to imagine something for you that you are the fourth Magi. What gifts are you bringing to the King of Kings?
Would you stand and pray with me?