Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
In the grand history, tragedy, and drama that is World War II the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program is very much on the obscure fringes. The unit often engaged the war on the operational level, and only a handful of its officers saw frontline combat. However, its mission was vital and unique in the history of warfare. The 400 plus members of the MFAA were also known as Monument Men and it was their job to protect, save, and recover Europe’s cultural history. One of the elements that makes their story so compelling is that because like all good stories the Monument Men had a natural enemy. The German organization known as the ERR was responsible for looting the cultural treasures of Europe. It’s original yet still dubious mission was to collect Jewish and Free Mason documents, books, and artifacts for destruction or further study in Germany. However, under the leadership of Hermann Goring, the mission of the ERR effectively became the seizure and looting of Jewish art collection and other objects. Adolf Hitler’s vision was to make a giant museum that showcased what he considered to be the best of conquered art, while destroying all that was inferior. In practice the stolen possessions enriched the Nazi occupiers. Historians have called this looting the greatest theft in history.
It was the job of the monument men to undo that theft, and they ended up being incredibly successful in that. It was more than just finding the stolen objects, but the Monument men sought to return them. The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program was officially dissolved in 1946 after the end of the war. However, some of the monument men continued their work up through 1951. At that point they had successfully returned over 4 million cultural objects that had been stolen. Unfortunately, there are still thousands of pieces of treasures stolen by the Nazi that have not been recovered and returned. That number though would be a lot higher if it were not for the heroic and mostly unsung efforts of the Monuments Men.
I find the contrast between the ERR and the monument men to be fascinating. Both organizations sought the exact same thing. They were both organized and tasked with the collection of art. Even though their tasks were similar, their missions and motivations could not be more different. The Nazi ERR existed to pillage, to loot, and to treat cultural objects as conquered loot. The Monument Men on the other hand was dedicated to preserving, to restoring, and they treated cultural objects as enriching art that deserved to be treated as precious.
This is not that different from this morning’s scripture. Both the Magi and Herod sought Jesus, but their reasons for doing so could not be more different. Herod was a lot like the ERR is motivations were self-serving, greedy, and evil. The Magi though sought Jesus for a different and nobler reason. Today people still seek Jesus and people still do so for different reasons. This morning’s scripture challenges us to consider why do we seek Jesus?
It is worth considering Herod and the Magi to better understand who they might have been and what their motivations were for seeking Jesus. One of the things that can come as a bit of a surprise when visiting the Holy Land is how Herod is portrayed. Because of scriptures like this morning, we tend to think of Herod as a villainous tyrant. However, most tours of the Holy Land include visits to the temple mount, the ruins of Masada, and the stadium in Caesarea Philippi. All of which were built under the supervision of Herod the Great. History remembers Herod as great because of the great many public works and building projects he undertook. One of the reasons for doing this, especially the expansion of the Jewish temple, was to win the favor of the people. Herod was not a true Jewish king, but he was a foreign conqueror propped up by the Roman Empire. He ruled Israel as a buffer state on the frontier of the Roman Empire, and as long as he paid tribute and instituted pro-Roman policies he was allowed to rule as he see fit.
This morning’s scripture claims that Herod was disturbed by the new of the Magi, and for good reason. Herod knew that this was not just a political rival, but anyone being honored as a Jewish king would be the promised Messiah. Herod held a contentious rule over a people that were not his own and who did not particularly want him. Foreign wise men claiming the ancient prophecies had been fulfilled was enough to cause Herod with enough panic to take drastic actions.
Herod indeed sought Jesus, but his motivations were completely selfish. He only wanted to find Jesus because of what finding Jesus could get do for him. In his specific case, what Jesus could do was get out of the way. Herod sought Jesus mainly to eliminate any influence he could possibly have.
The Magi, on the other hand, sought Jesus for other reasons. The concept of Magi is hard for us to wrap out heads around. Wise men is an ok translation of the word, and despite what our Christmas carols says, kings is not the right word at all. The word magi appears one other place in the Bible and there the word is interpreted as “sorcerer”. The magi were the scientists of their day, but they also read omens and did divination. They were brilliant astronomers and mystical astrologers all wrapped up into one. They saw a strange, supernatural star appear in the sky, and they clearly had enough knowledge of Jewish culture and tradition to interpret the star as meaning the Messiah had been born. Being gentile star-gazers, the magi may not have understood the true significance of that event but they knew enough to know it was a big deal. I think the question the Magi ask is interesting. They ask “where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” They knew Jesus was king by birthright, not because a foreign power said so. Even though they were not part of God’s chosen people, the magi sought Jesus because the recognized him, at least in part for who he is: The king of kings and the lord of lords.
Today people still seek Jesus. Some seek Jesus the way that Herod did and some seek Jesus in the way of the magi. Placeholder for possible paragraph on historical Jesus folly.
King Herod’s reason for seeking Jesus was selfishly motivated. Unfortunately, there are a lot of way that people seek Jesus for selfish reasons. We thank God every week for all that God has provided us with and blessed with. We should be cautious though, and guard our hearts to ensure God’s blessings is not our main reason for seeking Jesus. In our modern day culture, it seems a lot of people seek Jesus because they want stuff. A disturbing number of tv preachers and more proclaim horrendous theology that states God will give us what we want all we have to do is name it and claim it or believe it and receive it. Methodist Pastor and author Mike Slaughter writes about this bluntly in his book Christmas is Not Your Birthday. He writes: “We have created this Santa Claus Jesus in our own image, a golden-calf messiah who promises to fulfill all our earthly wants and wishes, an idol of consumption who supports the human quest for meaning and purposes in material things outside of a relationship with God.”
I really like the power and truth behind Mike Slaughter’s phrase a “golden-calf messiah”. When people seek Jesus selfishly, with their interest and their desires first then they tend to create Jesus in their own image. There is fortunately a good test to see if we have done this or not. If your idea of Jesus approves of all your life style choices, agrees with everything you agree with, and dislikes all of the people you dislike then you are not really worshipping Jesus. You are worshipping yourself in Jesus cosplay. Following Jesus should always lead to be more a more loving, more compassionate, and more sacrificial version of ourselves. If we are taking that seriously it should be a life long journey to be more Christ like. If our understanding of Jesus only affirms us and never challenges us, then we have sought Jesus selfishly and completely failed to find him.
Instead we should seek Jesus as the wise men did, they sought to honor Jesus because Jesus is worth honoring. They recognized that Jesus is king at birth. They did not to see if Jesus was going to prove himself. Instead these magi entered the home of a humble carpenter and in a worshipful reverence typically reserved for royalty they presented gifts. Our motivation for seeking Jesus should not be about what we can get. We should seek Jesus because he is worth finding. We should seek Jesus because Jesus, by his very nature, deserves our respect and honor. We should seek Jesus because Jesus was faithful to God, is faithful to us, and proved that faith by going to bat for us on a cross. We should seek Jesus because as Philippians 2 states, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
The Magi were not seeking Jesus selfishly, because instead of coming to see what they could get from the young king, they brought gifts. The valuable gifts they brought were exactly the kind of gifts that one would bestow upon royalty in the first century. In the same way we should seek Jesus with gifts, but we do not need to bring myrrh with us. It tends to be green now a days, but we still can offer Jesus our gold. We can give of our resources to help others in the name of Jesus. Another gift we can offer Jesus is our time. In fact, for a lot of us that might be the greatest gift we have to give. For a wide variety of reasons more people today feel busier than ever before. From long work hours, to kids needing to be three places at once, to never ending doctor appointments, many of us feel a greater demand on our time than we want. On top of that, there is always something that needs to be done, dishes that needs to be washed, and laundry that is waiting to be folded. Most of us probably feel that constant demand on our time, so really what better way can we honor Jesus in our lives by giving our time to him. We can do this by being more intentional of seeking Jesus’ examples through reading the scripture, we can do this conversing in prayer, and we can do this by going out and serving other people in the name of Christ. Time is a precious resource that all of us have available to us, and it can make a great gift to give to him was born as king of the Jews and the savior of the world.
The beginning of the year is a time that a lot of people like to make changes, and adopt new habits so I challenge you to make one of your goals in 2019 to give Jesus the gift of your time. If you already spend time regularly in prayer and bible study or if you already spend time serving others in an attitude of Christ following love, then I challenge you to consider upping that commitment a little. If you do not yet regularly do those things, then I challenge you to set that as a goal for this year. If that is something you want to do, then may I recommend a tangible goal to achieve? There are 105 days between now and Easter this year. In the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John there are 89 total chapters. At less than a chapter a day, you could read all four gospels this year. That is one small way that you could honor Jesus with the gift of your time in 2019.
It is my sincere prayer and hope for everyone here today, that we would all seek Jesus. May we not seek Jesus as Herod did though. May we not be selfish in our motivations to find Jesus. Instead may we be like the Magi. This morning’s scripture records how wise men sought out the king. Today, the wise still seek that same king. In this new year may you find him and follow the Lord Jesus better than you ever have before. Like those wise people of the scripture, may you find Jesus, bow down and worship him. Because he is worthy of all worship, all honor, all glory, and all praise because he continues to be the king of kings and the Lord of Lords.