A little while before Christmas this year, I received a card from someone with a picture of the Magi (aka the Three Kings) from the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel and the words “Wise men still seek him.” What a clever turn of phrase for the Christmas season! Those of us who follow Jesus Christ as contemporary disciples certainly see much wisdom in seeking Christ. However, as is often the case, the wisdom of Christ is not necessarily the wisdom of the world.
The Magi came to Jerusalem from an unnamed eastern land because they saw a star, which they interpreted to signify the birth of a new Jewish king. It probably seemed wise to the Magi to inquire about the new king from the already-ruling king. Unfortunately, he neither knew of the new king nor supported one. I doubt that the Magi meant to disturb the ruling king with their discovery, but disturb him they did. “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him,” records the Gospel of Matthew (2:3 NRSV).
And so the Magi unintentionally caused the first confrontation between Jesus called Christ and the powers that be. It eventually led to refugee-status for Jesus and his family and the massacre of infants in the little town of Bethlehem. Could not the Magi have avoided such a tragedy if they had been just a bit wiser?
Seeking Jesus necessarily puts people on a collision course with the status quo and all who defend it. Seeking Jesus is necessarily and unavoidably political. To declare that Jesus is Lord is to deny the lordship of present powers, be they Herod, Caesar, or some contemporary power broker. And this may not seem terribly prudent. Would it not seem wiser to appease the corrupt tyrant and live to praise Jesus another day?
Christian scholars debate how submissive to present powers disciples of Jesus ought to be, but the history of Christian martyrdom is undeniable. Indeed, Jesus teaches that we are blessed when we are persecuted on his account (Matt. 5:11). I do not encourage the deliberate antagonism of authority, yet following Jesus often means that we resist unjust laws and advocate on behalf of and alongside marginalized and despised people. It may not make sense, yet it is the wisdom of the cross.
The end of a calendar year is an appropriate time to reflect on one’s values, and the values of some of the first Christ-seekers such as the Magi are an appropriate standard for our 21st century ethical contemplation. I pray that you do seek Jesus during this season, despite the risk of persecution. If you already follow Jesus, I pray that you find the strength to endure the temptations of comfort and security. I pray that you follow Jesus wherever he leads you. It is the wise thing to do.
-Pastor Joseph Hopkins, Avis United Methodist Church