Dr. Margee Kerr is a sociologist who studies fear. She says we need to confront the fears that keep us from achieving our goals—confront them, figure out if the fear is rational, and then take steps to overcome the fear. Overcoming fear gets us on the path to meaningful change.
In today’s Gospel, we get to see fearlessness in action. We get to see how fearlessness in seeking the holy leads to freedom and joy.
First a little background on these fearless worshippers from afar. Contrary to the familiar hymn, in Matthew’s gospel, they aren’t kings, and Matthew doesn’t tell us how many there are. The idea that there were three of them probably comes from the three gifts they bring. What we know about magi before the Christian tradition is that as early as about six hundred years before Matthew writes his gospel, magi are known as a group of religious experts in Persia advising kings, performing religious rituals, watching the stars, and interpreting dreams. So, the magi were from the East. They were Gentiles. They were educated. They were wealthy. They were self-assured. They studied the stars. They believed in signs. They were not afraid to travel. They were adventurous. They were willing to seek guidance from others. They were treated with respect by those in authority. They were generous in giving gifts.
If they had been satisfied and content with their situation, why would they have been studying the stars and looking for some heavenly sign? Why would they have gone on a quest with no certainty of success and with the high risk of being attacked or robbed, getting lost, or even being killed? Why would they have desired to seek the newborn king of a conquered, insignificant people? Certainly, there were far more powerful kings, rulers, and emperors they could have visited?
Obviously, they believed there was something special about this child, something that made him worth searching for.
So, in what ways are the magi fearless?
The wise men are not afraid to stop and ask for directions. They are not afraid to ask for help, get more information. They don’t neglect the use of basic common sense. Looking for a king? Go to the king’s house. Ask for help there. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? We observed his star, and here we are, ready to do him homage.”
When Herod hears about this, he is terrified. King of the Jews? I’m the King of the Jews! Herod thinks. The position is filled. There is a young pretender to my throne out there somewhere. Herod is fearful, scared, but he knows where to go for more information. He knows scripture will have the details he and the wise men need.
This is important. The wise men know something of God’s grace through nature. Through the appearance of the star, they know that the Christ has been born, but their knowledge is incomplete. They need scripture to tell them where. By the star’s guiding, they are close—they’re about fourteen kilometres away from Bethlehem—but experiencing God through nature isn’t enough. They don’t know enough to get to the full manifestation of God. They don’t know enough to be able to truly worship.
On the other hand, Herod can get a room full of Bible scholars together and still not truly worship. One can memorize verses from the Bible, but miss the Good news of God’s redeeming love for all people in Jesus Christ.
Herod doesn’t question the authenticity of the star or scripture. But he is so certain of his own importance that he won’t even go with the magi to see the child. He would rather stay in Jerusalem, send others, go, do this and that, and then come back and tell me. He isn’t seeking God’s truth, he spends his time and energy scheming and deceiving.
The wise men, who were not afraid to ask for help, direction, guidance, and not afraid to trust the witness of scripture, continue their way, filled with great joy.
They follow the star and the guidance of the scripture to Bethlehem where they find the Christ child. They worship and offer their gifts – gold, for a king; frankincense, to honour his divinity; myrrh, because this divine king will die and myrrh is used to anoint the body of a king. The wise men achieved their goal: worshipping the true king of the Jews.
Then, they show fearlessness in two more ways.
First, during the night, they receive word in a dream not to return to Herod. And they obey. The wise men are not intimidated by worldly power. They aren’t afraid that Herod told them to come back and they’re not obeying him. Second, they return home by another way. They are not afraid to incorporate new information when it’s given to them, even if it changes their plans.
Today, we live in a society in which many people seem to be restless and discontented and afraid. They have a feeling that something is not quite right or that something is missing. But that restlessness, that discontent can only be filled by the One for whom the magi searched. For God, has made humanity with a restlessness inside its soul that can only be truly satisfied by a relationship with him.
With their departure by another way, the wise men exit the story.
But they don’t have to exit our lives as witnesses and examples. After all, they were the first of all the people, through the generations and throughout the world, who worship Jesus Christ and find that perfect love casts out all fear.
May we have the sense to do what the magi did, the sense to continually seek out the Lord.