Searching for Baby Jesus
SEARCHING FOR BABY JESUS
Matthew 2: 1-12
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
January 6, 2019
My friend Carl Scovel, who was pastor of Boston’s historic King’s Chapel for 31 years, told me that King’s Chapel did not have a creche when he came there. So without consulting with the powers that be, without checking with any of the appropriate committees, without checking with anyone, he found a creche that he liked, purchased it, and put it in the chancel.
Advent came and went that year, and then came the Christmas Eve service. No one said a word to him about the creche in the sanctuary. When the midnight service was over on Christmas Eve, Carl was shaking hands at the door. The last person in line was the sexton, who said to Carl, “You better come with me—there’s a problem with the creche.”
When he arrived at the creche Carl saw it immediately: the baby Jesus was missing! “Where is Jesus?” asked the sexton. Carl had no idea—the little baby figure of Jesus was nowhere to be found. They searched everywhere they could think of in the church. The thought crossed his mind that this could be some kind of theological statement by some of the members. King’s Chapel, after all, is a Unitarian Church.
Then Carl saw a little slip of paper in the straw of the creche and pulled it out. It had writing on it, and here is what it said: “We have the baby Jesus. Turn up the thermostat in the parsonage, and you can have him back.” Then Carl turned and saw his youngest daughter standing in the doorway with a sly grin on her face.
This is the Sunday when churches around the world remember the visit of the wise men who were searching for the baby Jesus. The biblical story says that they didn’t just search as a curiosity; they searched diligently, but their search for Jesus was not like ours. We search for Jesus through religion, by going to church and reading the stories of Jesus, by singing the story and acting it out in a pageant. Their way of searching for Jesus was not religious at all—it was very secular.
These magi (who, by the way, are never identified as kings in the biblical story; neither are they identified as three in number!) can represent for us the many people who are searching for spiritual fulfillment in ways other than through religion, and obviously that is a lot of people! It was the wonder and beauty of the natural world that inspired them. They looked up at the stars at night and were inspired by the wonder of creation.
When they reached Jerusalem and went to see King Herod, they asked, Where is the child that is born king of the Jews? When King Herod heard that, the story says that he was frightened! How about that: the strongest man in Jerusalem, the man who had the most powerful military in the world at his disposal, was frightened. And not only was Herod frightened, but all Jerusalem with him! ALL!
Maybe all the people in Jerusalem were frightened because they all knew how dangerous Herod could be when he was frightened. The story says that Herod called all the chief priests and scribes together to consult with them. In other words, the religious leaders of Jerusalem had buckled under his power. They had given up their prophetic role of speaking truth to power, and they had become religious lackies to the king in order to protect their own positions of power and prestige.
Here, at the very beginning of the story of Jesus, we have a hint of what happens at the end of the story. At Jesus’ trial, we are told that the secular ruler of Jerusalem met with all the chief priests and elders of the people and conferred together against Jesus. And when he was crucified, the title on a sign over his head was: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. The only other place in the story where this title is applied to Jesus is in the story of the magi.
Even the gifts of the magi are a premonition of the end of the story. Gold is a gift for a king. Frankincense was an incense used in worship, and myrrh was a perfume used in embalming. It is likely that myrrh was one of the spices the women prepared to anoint his body after the crucifixion.
This story is a reminder that there is more than one way of finding the baby Jesus. As much as we would like for our churches to be full, these magi remind us of all the people who are searching for spiritual fulfillment in ways other than religion. One of my mentors in the ministry was a man named George Buttrick, who had three sons. Two of those sons were active in churches. The third son was not a part of any church. Buttrick used to say that the third son “worshipped on the other side of the altar.”
We all know friends and loved ones who worship on the other side of the altar. They find spiritual fulfillment in ways other than church. Even the Lord’s Supper reflects this. The invitation says, Come unto me, ALL who labor and are heavy-laden…. All—religious people and secular searchers, believers and non-believers alike—all can find spiritual fulfillment in the baby Jesus.