The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 17, 2017
They were among the first to take in what angels had announced as “good news of great joy”. They were in fact, our scripture says, “overwhelmed with joy”.
The wise men at first glance strike us as weird, even inscrutable people; but, upon closer examination, they look like people we know – and ought to emulate.
The wise men are, in the original biblical text, called magi, from which we get our word magician, because these pagan seekers of truth tried every means for obtaining truth – white magic, astrology and the study of any sacred texts they could get their hands on, including those of an ancient people mysterious to them, the Jews. Those texts seem to have stirred up in them a sense of wonder and a longing for a prophesied arrival of a king greater than any other.
So, when in their study of the stars they spotted an unusual alignment of stars symbolizing royalty and Israel, they immediately packed their bags (making sure they contained, among other things, their most precious possessions to be offered to this promised one they weren’t exactly sure how to identify but who’d apparently ignited a wild hope in their hearts), and they set off on an arduous and dangerous journey of some 1200 miles, following a comet or some other celestial guide, to look for what or Whom they didn’t yet know.
It is interesting to note that people impoverished in their possession of the truth were so passionate in the pursuit of it – even more so than the majority of the chosen people of God, who for the most part slept through the arrival of their Messiah and failed to notice a thing. Often today too, those who know how much they don’t know seek truth with greater vigor than the church people of God who think they have it all figured out.
The “wise men” were wise, not in the sense that they had a lot of wisdom, but in the sense that they loved wisdom, ached for the wisdom they lacked, and threw themselves full bore into finding it.
Moreover, the open-minded and full-hearted search of the wise men for wisdom put them in a position to make a discovery to which the self-satisfied would be oblivious and to become those who were “overwhelmed with joy” when God came in human flesh.
The wise men didn’t know much, but they knew there was something more or Someone more out there worth looking for, the finding of whom would more than compensate for the prices to be paid in the seeking.
To seek, the wise men sacrificed time, money and safety, and embraced difficulty and danger. To find their heart’s desire, they exposed themselves to attacks from hostiles along the way, rejection by those at their destination, the disappointment of their dreams, the discovery of truth that would demand of them a radical rethinking and reorientation of their lives and, when they reached Israel, the murderous machinations of an evil, paranoid ruler named Herod.
Yet, on a wild and outlandish hunch, as a longshot for which they had no guarantees, they defied danger, in the hope that a reward that was only possible would more than make up for the risks that were all certain.
So, when the star stopped leading them and they knew they had arrived at “the place” – and thus near “the Person” – they were, “overwhelmed with joy”. Jubilant with anticipation, they looked around until they came upon a young couple hovering over a barn’s feeding trough in which a newborn baby lay. And, while they could not know much at that moment, they sensed that in that mere child there was the presence of Someone wonderful and awe-inspiring; and they were moved to “pay homage” to that little Nobody by offering Him their most precious possessions.
Despite all the questions racing through their heads, despite all the worries about what further costs their seeking would exact, their eyes were open to see more than met the eye and, in a soul-shaking exultation, they experienced the “good news of great joy”. With gratitude and jubilation, they gave that poor kid a king’s ransom of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then, warned in a dream about everyone’s danger, they hightailed it out of there to escape a murderous Herod in a bloody rage.
To this day still, open-minded and full-hearted seekers find in Jesus an overwhelming but enduring joy that defies dangers and difficulties. A Christian inmate named Roy Borges understands this full well.
Several decades ago, Borges did something terrible. For his crime he’d been convicted and locked up on a long sentence behind the razor-wire fences of a Florida prison. The crisis of his incarceration precipitated a genuine spiritual search in him; and eventually he committed his life to Christ. His wise decision to walk with Jesus, however, did not remove him from the dangers that surrounded him there behind bars.
Fifteen years into his sentence, having survived the constant threat of violence from prison gangs and of abuse from corrupt guards, he was that December bracing himself for the approaching of yet another dreary Christmas, only this year the prospect of it was particularly bleak. For he had irritated the wrong person and been thrown into what the prisoners called “the hole” and the authorities call “confinement”: a prison inside the prison reserved for “troublemakers”. There he felt vulnerable, unsafe, depressed.
Borges was, until after New Year’s, locked in a tiny cell 24 hours day, with the exception of three risky five-minute showers a week. With only a skeletal guard crew over the holidays, there was an unusually high chance for assault and an unusually low chance for protection.
Christmas night, alone in his small, windowless cell, Borges read in his Bible about Paul and Silas locked up in a prison in a place called Phillipi. Despite their miserable predicament and the threat of imminent beatings or execution, they were singing and praising God. His reading ended when, according to the rigid schedule, the central guard station turned off all the lights in his cell block, plunging him into black darkness. Borges stared up at the ceiling and wondered whether he like Paul and Silas could praise God in such circumstances. Borges just lay there and listened to the mice nibble on some crackers he’d left out for them. Then he heard a quiet voice coming through the metal vent above his stainless steel toilet. A nearby inmate was wanting to know if he knew any Christmas songs and if he would whisper-sing a few with him.
The two sang softly back and forth through the vent shaft, fearing to raise their voices much lest they anger the guards. They went through a selection of well-known carols – and gradually, in their pitiful chorus of praise, the Child of Christmas touched Borges’ heart and uplifted his soul, overwhelming him with joy over a Savior who would stay by his side in the “hole”. The joy he felt in Jesus’ presence was so strong and deep that it echoed long in his heart. It in fact endured underneath all the normal anxieties of his situation and carried him through the years remaining in his detention.
From another prison Paul once commanded the Christians back in Philippi to rejoice with him in the Lord. How could he rejoice in all his difficulties and dangers? Because, whatever trials and troubles he might be in, he was still “in Christ” – and in Christ everyone has every reason to exult and be glad.
Let us experience the gift of deep and enduring joy from Jesus. Let us pray.