The Advent Worship at Crafton Heights in 2011 will consider the various people who wind up gazing in the manger. On the first Sunday of Advent, we considered the Magi, who had to leave home a long time before they ever thought about Bethlehem.
I would imagine that there are very few in the room this morning who are unfamiliar with the Gospel reading. The story of the wise men, the Magi from the East, who came to worship the Christ child is one of the most enduring images of our holiday celebration. This is one of those comfortable stories that we expect to hear in this room at least once a year…although those of you who pay attention to the church calendar might be surprised to hear it in November, on the first Sunday of Advent. We are more accustomed to seeing the three kings in January, as we celebrate Epiphany.
Yet as I mentioned to the children, the Wise Men belong to Advent, too, because they had to plan. They were on a trip that lasted a long time. We don’t know how long they were on the road, or when they got home. But of all the people who crowd our nativity scenes, the Magi are definitely the people who had the longest trip (with the possible exception of the angels, but I’m not going to argue about that with you!).
Think about this: what do the wise men have in common with Patrick Daniel Tillman, Jr., Jimmy Swaggart, and Steven Georgiou? Do you know these men?
Pat Tillman played football – and played it very well – for the Arizona Cardinals. Following the terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001, he walked away from a $3.6 million contract with the NFL and enlisted in the Army. He served several tours, including both Iraq and Afghanistan, and was killed in action in April 2004.
Jimmy Swaggart was one of the most successful evangelists of the 20th century. By the mid-1980’s, his television program was carried on more than 250 stations; he had founded the Jimmy Swaggart Bible College, and his empire included a printing plant, a recording and television studio, and a $2.5 million collection of private planes and classic automobiles. Yet his world collapsed in 1988 when he was photographed at the Travel Inn in New Orleans with a prostitute.
Steven Georgiou was a coffee house singer in Britain who had plenty of talent, but felt uncomfortable with his name. He said, “I couldn’t imagine anyone going to the record store and asking for ‘that Steven Demetre Georgiou album’.” With that, he changed his name to Cat Stevens, and became one of the most popular musical acts of the 1970’s. But in 1977 he converted to Islam, and in 1979 he stopped performing and auctioned off all of his guitars for charity. He entered into an arranged marriage and moved to London, where he devoted his time and energy to his family as well as to studying religion and practicing philanthropy.
Pat Tillman, Jimmy Swaggart, and Cat Stevens. You have probably never heard those three names in the same sentence before, but their lives bear witness to a common theme: they all chose to walk away from something at which they were successful and to which they gave great worth so that they could get closer to something – positive or negative – that they desired more. It might have been duty, or sex, or faith that called them – but each of these men felt the strong call of something powerful enough to change the fabric of their lives.
Now, think again about the story of the wise men from Matthew 2. Don’t they have a lot in common with these other three men? Look at what they left behind in order to journey to Bethlehem and worship the newborn Christ.
First, they left their comfort behind. I want to tell you that when I was in the Middle East last year, I had the opportunity to ride a camel all the way up Mt. Sinai. And I’m here to say that while riding a camel up Mt. Sinai is probably better than walking up Mt. Sinai, I would never use “comfortable” and “camel ride” in the same sentence. It took about two and a half hours to get up the trail. My ideal time in a camel saddle, unfortunately, is somewhere around forty-five minutes. It is not an easy mode of transportation.
While we don’t know where these Wise Men came from, the fact is that they came from somewhere else in a caravan of some magnitude. I am positive it would have been more convenient for them to stay at home.
In addition to their comfort, the Magi also left their security. Back in the East, they were the ones who everyone knew. They were the folks to whom people brought their problems and their hopes, their fears and their dreams. They were known. They were respected. They were trusted. But here in Palestine, they are just another group of wealthy foreign tourists. They don’t know where they’re going, exactly. They don’t know what they’re looking for. But they are willing to enter into this new place because they believe that here they will find something – and someone – who will change the world.
Of course, we think about the Wise Men as leaving their wealth. That’s one of the things that we can easily see in the story: we know that they left some costly gifts behind when they visited the Holy Family. In addition to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that they gave away, of course, we’ve got to figure in the cost of the trip itself – what percentage of their personal fortune did they spend in order to make this pilgrimage possible?
And let’s not forget that the Magi were willing to leave their accumulation of knowledge behind as well. These strangers were renowned in their homeland for having accumulated a vast amount of wisdom and learning, and yet they are here because they believe that there may be something more to be learned. They are open to the idea that they have not figured it all out yet – they were able to leave their answers at home and come and ask some new questions.
Do you see? They were on the way – they left home believing that One who was worthy of worship could be found – and that would change everything for them. And so they were willing to leave most of what they had accumulated in their lives in order to find that One Thing, that ultimate Presence and Power, that had eluded them.
Do you see why I think that these Magi are good Advent companions for 21st-century Pittsburghers? We are here this morning because we confess that there is something more. We have come from great places…but there is something greater that we hope for.
As Advent begins, we announce to our culture that there is One who is worthy of worship. And you and I both know that the world around us is looking for something to fill the holes in our lives. Think about what’s gone on in the past couple of days. Friday, November 25th was called “Black Friday” because it was such a crazy time of buying and spending. In fact, we bought more stuff on Friday than we buy on any other day of the year…and it’s ironic because we do that less than 24 hours after setting aside an entire day to give thanks for what we already have. “Congratulations, America! You have more than anyone in the history of the world ever has!” “Great. Thanks…thanks a lot. Um, now, can I get some more?”
No matter what we have, it would appear, there is one thing missing…one thing that we can never have… “enough”.
The Wise Men ride off into the sunset in Matthew 2:12. We don’t know anything else about them…only this telling phrase: “they departed to their own country by another road.” I suspect that means two things: first, that instead of taking the turnpike, they went over the scenic route, and secondly, that they themselves went home differently. The time on the road, the time searching, the time they spent together, and the encounter with the Holy Family had left them changed. They were different men when they arrived in their own towns. The journey, and that which they had left as well as that which they gained, had changed them.
This Advent, let me invite you to see yourself as someone who is on the way. Let me challenge you to risk leaving some of what is for the dream of what might be. Let me invite you to open your heart to the reality that your comfort, your security, your wealth, and your knowledge are incomplete – and that there is One who waits for you and who longs to bring you into a new sense of who you are and who you can be in this world.
In a few moments, we’ll be sharing in the sacrament of Communion. Typically when we do this, we sit in our seats and wait for the elements to come to us. We receive them in the midst of our own comfort and location. But this morning, we are going to invite you to come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper.
Already today, you have left your home. You have left your stuff behind; many of you have left family, friends, and other scheduled activities to participate in worship. Wonderful. In a few moments we will invite you to come forward, and when we do so, let me ask you to leave even more of your stuff behind. Don’t bring your purse or your bulletin or your cell phone with you. Leave that stuff in the pew, and come forward – bringing nothing – to receive the elements of communion.
Don’t do that because we are here to worship the bread or the cup – but do so because that is a physical way to demonstrate a spiritual truth: we are sustained in this life and in the next, not by the stuff we manage to accumulate or even the people who tag along with us, but by the presence of the living Christ. As the Magi found the Christ child worthy of their worship, so we, too, confess that He alone is worthy of our worship. Our lives may not be as noteworthy as those of the wise men, and certainly not as dramatic as the three examples we considered above, but we, no less than any of these other people, have the chance to leave behind that which does not satisfy in order to gain that which will. In this room, at this time, through these elements, Jesus the Lord promises to be present to you. That is something worth traveling for. That is something worth having. That is something worthy of worship. Thanks be to God! Amen.