'We know from experience that there is a difference between intelligence and wisdom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid.’ Or, as the great philosopher Forrest Gump once said, ‘Stupid is as stupid does.’ Perhaps it is for their learning and lore that the Magi are called ‘wise men’ in our Bibles, but we will need to find other qualities in them if we wish to be wise.'
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
A question that would be well worth asking in the New Year: What makes a person wise? After all, we will need wisdom to successfully meet the challenges of the New Year. We pray for wise rulers to govern our nations.
What makes a person wise? We have three characters in our lesson for today who may help us. They are, of course, the wise men. Although there may have been more (or fewer). The only reason we say there are three is that they bring three gifts. Nonetheless, if we are wise, we will stay on task, and inquire as to whether our wise men, however many there were, have something to contribute to our search for wisdom.
The wise men were probably court priests (perhaps from Parthia) who were astrologers and magicians. The Greek is Magi, from whence we get the word ‘magic.’ So perhaps our Magi are accounted wise because of their learning and lore. This may well be the simple reason why our English Bibles have traditionally translated the word Magi as ‘wise men.’
But we know from experience that there is a difference between intelligence and wisdom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid.’ Or, as the great philosopher Forrest Gump once said, ‘Stupid is as stupid does.’ Perhaps it is for their learning and lore that the Magi are called ‘wise men’ in our Bibles, but we will need to find other qualities in them if we wish to be wise.
Certainly we do not wish to look to King Herod to find wisdom. Although he does possess a certain wisdom, one with which we are all too familiar with among those who rule over us. He has a worldly wisdom which has allowed him to gain and keep power in the world. In the arrival of the wise men, he sees a threat to his power, and spins his web of lies in order to try to eliminate that threat before it becomes too much of a problem.
No, it is in the wise men that we must find the wisdom we seek. What qualities do we see in them which we may imitate? For three wise men, we should find three qualities. The wise men are able to interpret signs, they ask questions, and they have the capacity to rejoice. Let’s briefly examine these in turn.
When the wise men saw a new and unusual celestial object, their learning and lore told them that this was a sign of a new ruler being born. Their wisdom said that this was an augur of a change in human affairs, something that would be of meaning not only to the people of Judea but also to the whole world and to them personally.
Wisdom involves being able to read the signs of the times. Not that we think that every single big disaster is the indicator of imminent apocalypse, or imagining that the fact that I’m stuck in traffic means that God doesn’t want me to get in an accident which I would have gotten into if I hadn’t been stuck in traffic. But the things that happen can remind us of truths that we know, that are half-buried beneath the avalanche of lies that are constantly being heaped upon us.
Shouldn’t COVID remind us of the frailty of human life and the inability of human systems to diagnose and treat the problems which beset us? Are not the deaths of rulers signs for us of the limited nature of their authority while they live? Should we not see, in the food that is given to us each day, God’s care for us and for all of his people? This is the kind of discernment that is necessary for being wise in a world that is foolish.
Finally, to be truly wise, we need to have the capacity for joy and worship and wonder. So many people today have no capacity for joy. Herod didn’t. His response to the news of the wise men was completely utilitarian: what’s in it for me? So many other people only find their joy, such as it is, in the misfortune of others. Today, it is sardonic, sarcastic laughter that passes for wisdom. Those who mock faith do so because they think they’re too smart for it.
But if we lose the capacity for joy, worship, and wonder, we lose the ability to learn and grow. We lose the ability to see the world as bigger than ourselves. We become stupid even in our supposed wisdom. We need to be more simple people – people who really believe that God has something to say to us – that he has said something to us in Jesus Christ that goes beyond all worldly wisdom.
Bonhoeffer writes, ‘The word of the Bible that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom declares that the internal liberation of human beings to live the responsible life before God is the only genuine way to overcome stupidity.’ The fourth reason the wise men were truly wise is that they listened to the word of the angel. They feared God more than Herod, the power in the world. And so the child Jesus was spared from Herod’s wrath, for a life of teaching and preaching and healing, to suffer and die for our sins and to rise again in victory over death.
We will pray in a few minutes for Ronel, in the beautiful words of Isaiah, for the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence. We pray that he would see the signs of God’s presence in the world, have the sense to ask questions when he is perplexed, to fall in joy and wonder before God’s love for him in Jesus, and to fear God more than the powers of earth. And the prayer we pray for him we pray for all of us, that God would stir up in us his powerful spirit of wisdom. For though wise men still seek him, it is God who has first sought us out through Jesus Christ our Lord.