A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 3, 2015
Matthew 2:1-11 KJV
This coming Wednesday, January 6, is Epiphany, the day that much of the Christian Church celebrates the visit of the Wise Men to the Baby Jesus. When it comes to the Wise Men among students and scholars of the Bible, there is a wide divergence of beliefs. On the one end of the spectrum you have those who interpret the story quite literally and who go to great lengths to try to determine precisely who the wise men were, where they came from, the exact time they traveled, the nature of the star they followed, how they were destined to visit Baby Jesus in Old Testament prophecy, and so on.
Then on the other end of the spectrum you have scholars who see the Wise Men more as a literary device of Matthew, as being symbolic in nature; in short, a wonderful story created by Matthew in order to make a profound theological statement. Well, it is up to each of us to “pay our money and make our choice,” as the saying goes. And I imagine that if we took a poll in this United Church, we would find a wide divergence of beliefs here as well.
Regardless of where each of us comes down on the literal nature or the symbolic nature of the Wise Men, at the very heart or core of this story is profound truth. And I hope to explain why.
There are many words or ideas we could pursue in considering the story of the Wise Men’s visit to the Baby Jesus. But it occurred to me this past week that one word, one idea, or one indisputable truth that is at the heart of this story is fascination. The journey of the Wise Men, and the intrigue with which they searched for the Child, and the exotic gifts that they gave him, are all indicative of a keen fascination with Jesus. It was fascination that led them to travel the great distance in search of the Child. And fascination that led them to say, “we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.” And the fascination illustrated in the story of the visit of the Wise Men is a fascination that only grew stronger with the passage of time. And that continued fascination is at least one truth at the heart of the this colorful story.
This extreme fascination with the person of Jesus was what led the gospel writers to set down their own unique accounts of the birth, life, teachings, and death of Jesus some 35-60 years or so after his death. And I am not just talking about the four gospels we have in our Christian Bibles. I am including the numerous other gospels like the gospels of Thomas, Judas, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and others who were just as fascinated with the Jesus persona, but gospels that the powers that be of the times were not considered worthy reading for the faithful; and so, they were not included in our Christian Bible.
Since the first and second centuries, this fascination with Jesus has led to the publication of countless books about him, one who has not only been a most popular figure in human history, but also one of the most fascinating, mysterious, and elusive ones as well. And the Enlightenment, modernity, and post-modern world have not tamed this Jesus fascination in the least. In fact, it only seems to grow stronger with the passage of time. Borg, Crossan, Levine, Spong, Wright—such are just a few of the contemporary biblical scholars who have devoted their lives to understanding the real Jesus and the biblical world in which he lived.
A long article in the current issue of Smithsonian magazine titled “Unearthing the World of Jesus” quotes John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed in their book, Excavating Jesus, by saying, “. . . archaeologists and historians are [still] searching for the man of history as much as the figure of faith.”1 Such is to say that 2,000 years after his birth, the fascination with Jesus, the world in which he lived, who he really was, and so on has not waned in the least. To reiterate, the fascination with Jesus seems to grow even stronger as time goes on.
As John Dominic Crossan points out in Excavating Jesus, there is a marvelous complexity that went into the makeup of the four gospels in our Bible with which we are all familiar. It is not as simple as Matthew’s story, Mark’s story, Luke’s story, and John’s story. Biblical scholars are still trying to unravel and understand the many different traditions that went into the formation of those four gospels. To give you just a taste of the complexity, both Matthew and Luke relied upon Mark’s gospel (the earliest one of the four we have preserved) for their stories. But both Matthew and Luke also relied upon another lost source known as Q, which includes common sayings in both Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark or John. But to go a step further, common sayings from the so-called Q source and sayings from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (that was only discovered in the mid-twentieth century) were drawn from yet another lost source. On a personal note, this is a source I would like to have access to, and I would like to know more about its origin and the context from which it came. Hopefully someday hidden material will come to light to help us better understand this piece of the Jesus traditions puzzle.
But getting back to the primary point of the sermon, the fascination with Jesus, his teachings, and the world in which he lived and the world that revolved around him is as keen today as it ever has been. And what all of this says to me is we all still have much to learn from Jesus and from and about the teachings attributed to him that have come down to us through several different early Christian traditions that merged together to form the books we have today.
We may take comfort in that simple picture of Jesus that we may have learned in children’s Sunday school some fifty, sixty, or more years ago. But today we realize that the Jesus we learned about in our childhood was much more complex than we might have ever imagined.
When we join the caravan of modern day wise men and wise women scholars who have also searched diligently for the Child of Bethlehem, in one sense of the term we become wise men and wide women with them. May it be so as we enter this Epiphany season and the New Year ahead of us. Amen.
1Ariel Sabar, “Unearthing the World of Jesus,” Smithsonian, January-February 2016.