Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Dec 24, 2020
Psalm 139: 1-12
Ephesians 1: 1-10
Matthew 1: 18-2:12
Ever since my dad died, I have often had these moments where I’ll think of something, especially about the family, and think, “I know: I’ll call dad!”
And then I remember, I can’t.
Likewise my mom, who died nearly thirty years ago. She was an artist, and I have her paintings throughout my house. They are beautiful, bold, abstract. My mom could see things I couldn’t see. The more I look at them, I think of the depths I didn’t really understand or appreciate, the way too often I simply label her one way or another or make all my assumptions about her entirely based on me—what I liked, what I didn’t like, me, me, me. Her paintings are the expression of her soul, and her soul is a mystery to me.
As is my dad’s. As in many ways are my wife’s soul, my children’s souls—even my own soul. Each of us has depths within depths, and we really don’t even know ourselves very well.
This year has been an uncomfortable direct confrontation with the mysterious. First we are confounded by the Coronavirus. It has hemmed us in behind and before, to quote the psalmist, and done it literally, as we’ve been on lockdown in our own homes.
Then the death of George Floyd has forced us individually to examine our own souls and corporately to look honestly at the uncomfortable reality of implicit bias and institutional racism. This is the sort of thing that forces us to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and likewise to look at others in new ways, through new eyes. This is a reckoning with how poorly we know one another, and poorly we know ourselves, a confrontation with the mystery of one another.
It can expand us to acknowledge our ignorance and what we don’t know. Or it can cause us to shut down because we don’t want to see our shortcomings and be forced to change; such knowledge is too wonderful for us. We’d prefer to be ignorant.
Historian Yuval Noah Harrari writes in his book Sapiens that “The scientific revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the scientific revolution was the discovery that humans do not have the answer to their most important questions.” (53%)
Harrari says that the recognition of human ignorance transitioned us out of the Age of Faith and into The Scientific Revolution. Prior to that humans throughout the world operated on the assumption that “everything that is important to know about the world was already known.” Largely, this is because this is what their religions told them. Whether Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, the great religions of the world told their believers that if it isn’t in our great book of faith, then you don’t need to know it; and furthermore, to delve into such things constituted faithlessness. It was dangerous and could even, ultimately, turn the world upside down. And we can’t have that. So don’t explore your own ignorance. Don’t seek to know what you don’t know. Stick with what you know, because ignorance is dangerous.
And it’s true. After all, ignorance nearly killed the wise men.
They were looking for the Christ child and they got lost. So they thought, “Well, this is the Jewish messiah, so let’s go to Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jewish world, and talk to their leader, Herod the Great, and his advisors, and maybe they can tell us where to find him!”
But then they make a big mistake: they call this mysterious baby “the King of the Jews.” “Where is the child who has been born the King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in its rising and have come to pay him homage,” they say.
Now Herod was touchy about that. Because, you see, HE was the King of the Jews. There were some people who contested that—namely, virtually every Jew on earth—but Augustus Caesar had appointed him King of the Jews, and so therefore Herod was the King of the Jews. End of the story, and keep your mouth shut if you want to keep your head on your shoulders.
But these well-intentioned but politically naïve so-called “wise men” didn’t know that. They were ignorant. And Herod would use that ignorance to his advantage. He would use it to find this mysterious child, this upstart that people might think was the true Messiah, the true King of the Jews, and kill him.
So Herod pretends to be a nice, good person and sends the wise men the right direction in hopes that they will return and tell him where to find the now toddler Jesus so that Herod quote can pay him homage unquote.
And so they go, and they find the Christ Child, this boy Jesus, with his parents in their home in Nazareth. But before they can in their ignorance return to Jerusalem to share their knowledge with Herod, God sends an angel to instruct them not to trust Herod and to go home by another route. And so they do.
The Bible stands in wonder at the wise men. We are told they come from the east, probably what today would be Iraq and Iran, and most scholars believe they were Zoroastrian. Zoroastrians believed in one God called Zoroaster and studied the stars for signs of what Zoroaster was up to. Zoroastrianism was another monotheistic faith and by this time had been around for centuries, as Judaism itself had been.
But when these Gentile Zoroastrian scholars saw this mysterious star in the sky, they did something interesting. They broke out of their comfort zone, their shell of certainty that told them that their religion was the only standard by which to judge what happens in the cosmos. They acknowledged their ignorance. This star in the sky, this mysterious sign, meant something was happening that they could not easily explain without turning to a different religious tradition entirely. They decided, of all things, that this was the work of the God of the Jews and that the star must indicate that the Jewish Messiah had been born.
And they were so excited about discovering this new world of things that they did not know, things they’d been previously ignorant of, that all they could do was joyfully prostrate themselves before a poor Galilean child and give thanks and praise and honor to Yahweh, the God of the Jews.
These wise men, who probably were the closest thing to scientists in their day, didn’t approach life from the perspective that they already knew everything they needed to know about the most important topic of life: the cosmic, the mystical, the transcendent. In a lot of ways they are reminiscent of the Medieval Christians Mystics, people like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, who spoke of God as “the Great Cloud of Unknowing.” God is wrapped in mystery and shrouded in what we don’t understand. The wise men are our guides in this.
But they are terrible guides. Really! They get lost. They ask for directions from the wrong people—see, this is why you should never ask for directions! Their journey constantly teeters on the edge of disaster. Their joyful, childlike wonder and willing naivete as they explore these new ideas leads them to take ignorant risks for themselves and for others, as well. And such terrible risks are exactly why you and I are often so afraid to explore the unknown, to risk venturing off the set paths of orthodoxy and convention. It’s dangerous. That’s why everybody tells us not to do it, and our own souls tremble at the thought, the idea of daring to venture into new ways to see God and the world.
But this story is all about the willingness to take risks—to step off into the unknown—to get lost in that great cloud of unknowing because in that dark and uncertain place, that place filled with risks and dangers, is mysterious and wonderful knowledge beyond anything we could discover on our own—knowledge of God. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it,” says the psalmist. Yet even so we are invited to try to attain it. This story invites us into mystery; in fact, as the psalmist says, it hems us in behind and before, so that there is no escape from mystery.
From the very beginning, we are forced down the dangerous and wonderful path of mystery. Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, is invited by the angel to abandon all his worldly and understandable assumptions about the pregnancy his soon-to-be bride. Forget honor and shame and convention and conventional wisdom, the angel tells him. Stay by Mary’s side and follow this mystery to its very unconventional and unpredictable end.
We then meet these wise men, people who by rights should be completely ignorant of who Jesus is and what God is up to; but then it turns out that they know more than all the Biblical sages who advise King Herod. Their ignorance is a doorway to God, whereas the sages’ wisdom is a hindrance and an obstacle.
Mystery shrouds this story, but also wonder, awe, joy and appreciation for the true depth and meaning of things. The wise men leave the home of Mary, Joseph and Jesus as better people, and they carry this new insight into the world far beyond Nazareth, far beyond Galilee, far beyond Palestine, and into the whole world.
Our epistle reading from the Book of Ephesians tells us that at last in Christ, the great mystery of the universe has been revealed to us. It is the mystery of God’s plan from before time began that in the fullness of time, all things would be united in Christ. The mystery revealed in Christ is the promise of hopes fulfilled, the assurance that love and grace and mercy are the core of God’s being and the axis around which the cosmos spins. It is a mystery that is so mysterious that it seems counter-intuitive: how does God become human? How can this world, in which Herod will soon kill hundreds of children under the age of two, possibly also be a world ruled by a God of grace and love and mercy? How is it that the end of this story, the death of God on a cross, is actually only the beginning of the story of God’s triumph over death for us all? How is it that we in this divided world will somehow find unity and wholeness and fullness in Christ?
God has revealed to us the mystery of God’s will and in the process has only raised more questions and revealed to us the many new and exciting ways we are still ignorant.
Albert Einstein wrote that “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” In our knowledge-focused world, we don’t like the mysterious. We like knowledge; we like certainty. And there is something we can know about the unknowable; there is a mystery that has been made known to us.
It is that God was in Christ, reconciling the world. It is that in the fulness of time, whatever that is, all things will be united in Christ, whatever that means.
This is good news. Good news that is meant not as the end of wisdom, but only the beginning. It is the door opening to knowledge of God. It’s like the first clue of a mystery story: it’s the beginning of the story, not the end.
In this time of pandemic and lockdowns and political division and racial unrest and unemployment and frustration and disappointment, this story invites us all to let go of our certainties and also our desire for things to get back to the way they were, and instead take bold and willing steps forward into the unknown new reality that is before us. It invites us, instead of rejecting this reality, to immerse ourselves in it, to accept it for what it is, to explore its unknowns and uncertainties and mysteries, and find the mysterious God of Grace who is certainly hidden in them. It invites us to see every moment as a doorway to the mysterious, to the unknown, to the awe and wonder and joy of finding God at work in God’s usual mysterious way. It invites us to a hopeful ignorance: we don’t know what God is up to, but we trust that God is up to something, and is guiding us on this path to discover what it is.
God has shown us a star. We can either just stare at it in wonder, or, with the Wise Men, make the star the beginning of our journey, assured that what awaits us at the end is still more wonder, still more mystery, still more awe and still more joy—the joy of God among us.