O Come, Thou Wisdom from on High Richmond s First Baptist Church, January 7, 2018 The Baptism of the Lord Mark 1:4-11

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1 O Come, Thou Wisdom from on High Richmond s First Baptist Church, January 7, 2018 The Baptism of the Lord Mark 1:4-11 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. Well, here we are, gathered for worship at the beginning of a new year. It seems like the perfect time to do something new, to start something new. So, I m going to start a new sermon series called, O Come, Thou Wisdom from on High. It was my friend Don Flowers idea. Don noticed that on the church calendar we always finish out the old year with a big Christmas celebration and the story of Jesus birth, but often begin the new year with the story of the Wise Men, who saw that star in the east and came plodding toward Bethlehem on their camels, not arriving until sometime well after the shepherds had gone back to their flocks. January 6 is the Day of Epiphany, and when it falls on a Sunday we always tell that story. The Sundays after January 6 are called the Sundays after the Epiphany, and there are usually four or five of them depending on when Easter comes that year. Don was fascinated by the story of the Wise Men. He wondered why we call them wise. It doesn t say that in the text. In the best translations of Matthew 2:1-12, they are referred to only as magi. So, why do we call them wise? Don wondered. What do we mean by wisdom? Do we even care about it anymore? And finally, What would wisdom look like in 2018? Don should be asking these questions. He s a pastor, and he s just left a church in Charleston, South Carolina, for a church in 1

2 Wolfville, Nova Scotia. At this very moment he is probably wondering if that was a wise move. But back in the summer, when we were planning our preaching for the year, he thought it might be interesting to spend the Sundays after Epiphany thinking about what makes us wise and looking for clues in the Bible and I agreed. So, that s what we re going to do for the next few weeks: we re going to talk about wisdom. And a good place to start might be with the story of the Wise Men themselves. As I mentioned, Matthew never calls them that. Your Bible may have translated it that way but the word in Greek is magi, from which we get magician. Scholars think these magi may have been Zoroastrian priests from the region east of the Mediterranean, practitioners of astrology and magic, mysterious figures about whom Matthew s readers may have only heard rumors. We don t really know who they were, or how many there were. We often assume there were three of them, because they brought three gifts, or because of the hymn We Three Kings which is based on the legends that have evolved from this story and not on the Bible itself. No, Matthew only says they were magi, plural: there might have been two, there might have been twenty. But whoever they were, they don t appear to be very wise, not in this story. Or maybe just not very smart. Because they come to Jerusalem, to the king s palace, and ask Herod: Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage. In their defense, they may have assumed that the new king of the Jews was the son of the old king. That s often how it works, isn t it? But not in Herod s case. He, himself, was not born king of the Jews. He was appointed by the Roman Senate and had to throw the old king off the throne in order to take his place. Later he had two of his own sons murdered out of fear that they might 2

3 try to succeed him. When the Wise Men asked, Where is the one who was born king? it s as if they were asking, Where is the real king of the Jews? Herod was troubled, Matthew says, and all of Jerusalem with him because, as I ve told you before: When Herod ain t happy ain t nobody happy. Those Wise Men weren t so smart, but Herod was. Or maybe the word is shrewd. He called the chief priests and scribes together to find out where the Messiah (the true king of the Jews) was supposed to be born. In Bethlehem, they said, referring to an old prophecy from the Book of Micah. And then he called in the Wise Men to find out when they first saw this star, and they told him. And then, having found out when and where his rival was born, he told the Wise Men: Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage. In other words, Identify my rival for me. Come back with a name and a street address. Do you see what I mean? Herod is shrewd! He puts this newborn king in the crosshairs by asking where, and when, and who. So, the Wise Men went off to Bethlehem, none the wiser, and somewhere along the way they saw that star again, right over the house were Jesus was. When they saw it, Matthew says, they were overwhelmed with joy, maybe because their long journey had finally come to an end, or maybe because they had finally found what they were looking for, Jesus, although he couldn t have been what they expected. They were looking for a king, and instead they found a toddler with grubby cheeks. Still they fell down and worshiped him, offering gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Can you imagine how much humility that took? How open-minded they had to be, looking at that little kid and 3

4 mouthing the word king? But that s what they did. And then, Matthew says, being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went home by another way. They weren t all that smart, but they were wise, and what made them wise I think was this: when they saw that star burst into existence like a firework over Bethlehem they said, Let s go. They probably didn t say it right away. They had to spend some time figuring out what it was and what it meant. And once they did they probably spent some more time thinking about what a trip like that would require: weeks and weeks of travel in less than favorable circumstances to an unknown destination and an uncertain goal. They probably had the same kinds of conversations Lewis and Clark had before starting out on their expedition. But eventually they said to each other, Let s just do it; let s go! They packed their provisions, climbed on their camels, and started off with no idea where this journey would lead them, or that they would come home not only a different way, but different people. They went as magi; they returned as Wise Men. Let me suggest to you that wisdom begins with an open mind, with a willingness to go and see something you ve never seen, to encounter something you have never encountered, and to learn something you have never learned. There is no place among the wise for those whose minds are already made up, for those who have put their thoughts into logic-tight compartments in their brains where they can t be contested or contradicted. We don t call such people wise; we call them stubborn and opinionated, unwilling to hear anybody else s point of view. What I love about these Wise Men is this: that they see that star and say, Let s go! Let s go see what that is! Let s go find out more! There is a childlike wonder in that response, an insatiable curiosity. In that 4

5 respect they are just like the shepherds in Luke s version of the Christmas story, who hear the good news that unto them is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord, and instead of rolling over and going back to sleep they say to each other, Let s go! Let s go and see this thing that has been made known to us! And just like that they jump up from the ground, leave their sheep behind, and go racing off toward Bethlehem, tripping over roots and rocks on the way. When they get to the stable they find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, just as the angel said. But it must have taken some humility, some open-mindedness, for them to see in that poor peasant child the savior of the world. They, too, are wise men: wise because when they sense that God is up to something in the world they are willing to go and see. Just like the people in today s Gospel lesson from Mark 1:4-11. When they heard that there was a man named John out there in the wilderness, wearing camel s hair with a leather belt around his waist, snacking on locusts and wild honey and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins they said, Let s go! Let s go and hear more! Let s go and see who this crazy Baptist is and what he s up to! And so they did, Mark says. They went by the hundreds, by the thousands, and if we can trust Matthew s account (and I think we can) what they heard was this: John the Baptist saying, Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. As I ve told you before, there are two Greek words that are translated repent: one is epistrephein, which means to turn around, and the other is metanoia, which means to change one s mind. Can you guess which one John uses here? Metanoia! Change your mind! he says. Stop thinking that you know everything about who God is and how God works. Give him a little room to do something new and different! And the wise among them did exactly that: they repented. 5

6 They opened up their closed minds to make some room for God, to allow him to do a new thing in a new way, and he did. I baptize you with water, John said, but someone who is more powerful than I is coming, someone who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. I am not worthy to untie his sandals. And, sure enough, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan, and as soon as he came up out of the water he saw the sky torn open like the top of a circus tent, and the Holy Spirit fluttering down like a dove, and a voice from heaven saying, You are my Son, the Beloved; in you I am well pleased. I m sure there were some there who said, That couldn t be God s beloved Son. That s Jesus, the carpenter, from Nazareth. Everybody knows the Messiah will be a descendant of David, from Bethlehem, the city of David. That couldn t be him. But there must have been others who said, Maybe God knows better than you who is, or isn t, his Beloved Son. Maybe we should trust him with that decision. It s true: Jesus probably wasn t what they expected; he probably didn t look like the Messiah they had in mind. But they were doing what John had suggested: they were changing their minds; they were letting God have his way, in the world and in their lives. They humbled themselves and waded out into the waters of baptism saying, Whatever you want, Lord. Whatever you say. And I think this is how you get wisdom. I was telling someone just last week that it s hard for people who have it all together to experience God s grace. Their life is like an uncracked egg: it s smooth and beautiful, but nothing can get in. But once their lives have been broken open by tragedy, or heartbreak, or repentance the grace can get in, and when it does it changes everything. The same is true for wisdom, and especially the wisdom from on high. If we think we 6

7 already know it all, if our minds are already made up, then how will God s wisdom get in? We ve got to have some humility about this. We ve got to be willing to find out that we were one hundred percent wrong about everything, and then repent, turn around, And go home another way. Jim Somerville

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