Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
On my first ever trip to the Holy Land, on my first day in the Old City, I should have worn a sign that said, “Clueless American tourist. Rob me, kidnap me …” Luckily, I survived. I finally came out of the other side of the old city, having run the gauntlet of ridiculously aggressive merchants (by American standards) which included a strange, semi-harrowing encounter with a man selling rugs (story for another time). I found myself finally at the Lion’s Gate – one of the four main points of entry to the Old City - and seeing the Mount of Olives on the other side of the Kidron Valley. Unfortunately, in the part of my brain that simply doesn’t seem to register direction, I could not figure out how to get there. It was so very close and, yet, so far. At the moment when I was thinking about it, a cab driver pulled up and he rolled down his window. His name, as it turned out, was Adam. He asked where I was going and, silly me, I told him. “I can take you there,” he says. “How much?” I asked (I wasn’t just born yesterday after all). “50 shekels. Ridiculous for literally a three-minute cab ride, but I was still trying to figure out the exchange rate and said, “Okay.” I know, there’s one born every minute. So, Adam and I rode over to the Church of All Nations at the Mount of Olives, with him carefully shepherding me along the way. And it was there that he hatched a plan whereby he would drive me all over the Jordan River Valley that day, to Jericho and Bethany, etc., and show me the best sites. I did eventually see the tree that Zacchaeus climbed and Lazarus’ Tomb, respectively, among other things.
What I would ultimately see is the inside of a lot of seedy souvenir shops in which lots of hand signals passed between Adam and the proprietors and I am convinced that Adam got some kind of kickback for each little figurine that I bought, glue still drying on it, or the many cups of Turkish coffee I purchased. I kept telling Adam I was a poor graduate student there on a grant from my seminary, but he seemed mot to believe me. I was an American after all.
But the great point of this humbling tale is really, Adam. He declared to me that he was a Messianic Jew, “Jews for Jesus” (his words, not mine) and that he was also in recovery for alcoholism. Why is this important? Well, Adam intimated to me that, when he was first in recovery, he had found some comfort in camel’s milk. Yes, he had become quite passionate for the milk of the camel. And so, as we careened down the super highway toward Jericho or elsewhere, each time he saw a group of Bedouins, roaming nomads who herd sheep, but use camels oftentimes for transport and work, he would madly pull over and begin speaking to the Bedouins in Arabic, seeing if they had any camel’s milk for sale. And he was pretty good-natured when they (always) didn’t, but it didn’t stop him from trying the next time we saw Bedouins. Adam, you see my patient friends, was a seeker, desperately looking for a camel, any female camel, who might have a baby she was nursing, from whom he might gain his desired prize.
Now, realize that this may all sound a bit odd and, trust me, more so when I was going through it. And I have recalled this story many times to many people over the years and not just for comic effect, but to speak of the passion of the desert seeker, moving about Israel, looking for something for which he would travel many, many miles …
Okay, perhaps not a perfect segue into the story of the three kings, the star, and a baby. But I cannot help but think of Adam, the man who carries the name of the first man of Genesis fame, as I imagine the Magi traveling from points east looking for the baby that the stars had told them would be born. And, all I have is questions: who told these men of the east that a baby of importance would be born? Probably more to do with their history and astrology than with the baby Jesus. Did they know something of Jewish prophesy, that a child was to be born, a la Isaiah, and that he would bear the wounds, the sins, the weight of the world, and save the people thereby? What did they know and when did they know it? I am not sure how much of that really matters. For Matthew, at least, it seems important that these non-Jewish men of influence and wealth came from a faraway place as a sign that the Messiah and Savior of all God’s people – Jew and non-Jew alike – and would identify this baby, born into poverty, possessing nothing material, as a king worthy of gifts. What does this story of the three wisemen that we have romanticized into infinity, really mean? What does it mean to seek the star that is Jesus Christ in our own day?
I came across an article in the Episcopal Church Foundation’s archives in which the writer recounts receiving a gift of frankincense in a beautiful little box from a friend at Christmas. The writer teased her good friend by saying, “Hey, where is the gold?” to which the giver quipped, “That wiseman got lost. He was a man after all, and he wouldn’t ask for directions.” Do we get lost along the way in our search for the One in the manger, the One whom the wisemen, shepherds, and so many who have followed have found in the two thousand years since that fateful night and birth? Are we like Adam, looking for something that, even if we find it, obtain that thing, whatever it, is a poor substitute in the end and does nothing to slake our thirst for the living water that is Jesus Christ? Don’t we wish that we had a star to follow, something big and bright to guide our way to Jesus? It can be so hard to find Him amidst the noise and storm of the world.
We hear the word “seeker” often, don’t we? He or she is a “seeker.” What does it really mean? I don’t know. But it does put me in mind of the wonderful old Methodist hymn that we have in our Hymnal that cries out, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness. Then all things will be added unto you. Allelu – Alleluia.” When we seek the kingdom of God, the One who is our Lord and Savior, it makes a difference in what we find. We can be a seeker of many things in this life but, like the woman Jesus met at the well in John 4, if we are seeking something to simply fill the hole in our lives, who knows what we may find. But when we seek the living water that is Jesus Christ, then we seek that thing which always gives life and promises the love, hope, and fullness of God that Paul sings of in his glorious letter to the Ephesians today.
Our yearning, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is the key to seeking God’s grace in Jesus. The woman that Jesus meets at the well has had five husbands and perhaps seeks security and safety in a world that was not very safe for a woman alone. But Jesus promises her the living water that he offers and provides – in Himself – in the love and forgiveness that He brings with him. He brings freedom, purpose, and life. Our Baptism reminds us that we don’t just follow Jesus; we seek the life and hope that He offers us in His own grace and truth. We are seekers, but not in the generic sense of the term. We seek the One who can transform our lives with His love. St. Augustine famously wrote in his Confessions, “My soul finds no rest, O Lord, until it rests in thee.” Our restless hearts will never truly find fulfillment and the blessing they seek, I would contend, until we find ourselves in Jesus Christ.
The shepherds, Joseph, Mary, the wiseman, even Herod in Matthew’s story, all seek the life that Jesus provides. Some are too afraid to embrace that life – the grace of God’s only Son – and they cause huge pain instead (see Herod). But Scripture tells us over and over again that seeking Jesus is an intentional act, one that God is constantly calling us to, like a siren who never fails: come and see the life that I offer — one of completeness.
Note that I did not say one of perfection, carefree possibilities or freedom from suffering. Jesus’ life reminds us that struggle, suffering, betrayal, disappointment, and pain are guaranteed us. But we are also reminded in Christ that we are redeemed in suffering and made complete, at the end of all things, in the goodness and saving love of God. Our freedom in Christ’s love, no matter who we are, is who and what we seek. And, as we celebrate the Epiphany of God through Jesus Christ – God showing forth himself in the world – I have to smile as I imagine the wisemen journeying to Bethlehem. And, as they travel down the road, seeking the baby behind the star, particularly if they are riding camels, encountering a man named Adam, seeking a glass of milk. How will we seek the baby behind the star, in our own life, this New Year?