“The Wise Men and the Rolling Stones”

The following sermon was preached at the Mid-Week Community Eucharist at Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland on Wednesday, January 10, 2018, it being their transferred celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Collect: O God, by the leading of a star You manifested Your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know You now by faith, to Your presence, where we may see Your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12

“Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the Child who has been born King of the Jews?’”—Matthew 2.1-2a

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Introductory Remarks

Good morning! It is, indeed, an honor and privilege to be here with you. I would like to thank Father Keyes for his invitation to and Father Dunnan approving me to preach the Gospel on your transferred celebration of the Epiphany. As a Priest deeply influenced by the Oxford Movement fathers and the Anglo-Catholic tradition, I have always had great admiration for Saint James School, founded by American Oxford Movement leaders 175 years ago. So, for me, to visit Saint James, proclaim the Gospel in its chapel, and establish new bonds of affection with all of you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, who make up this community is a real joy.

Though this is my first time to visit Saint James, there are two connections that I have had here. The first is with Father Keyes, who I first met in 2013 when I was still a brand-new Priest in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and he the brand-new Priest-in-Charge of Saint Paul’s Church in Greensboro, 38 miles south in Hale County. The second is with one of your classmates in the Class of 2020, Mr. William Topham (known by all of you as “Weezy”), who I had the pleasure of teaching in my 8th Grade Christian Education class at Ascension Episcopal School in Lafayette, Louisiana and was one of my best students prior to his coming to Saint James. It has been a pleasure reconnecting with both Father Keyes and Mr. Topham during this visit and I am glad to have had the honor to meet all of you, their faculty colleagues and classmates. My visit has recalled the words of the Psalmist, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (Psalm 133.1)

So, with all sincerity of heart, thank you for your welcome of me to Saint James School. Now on to the task at hand.

The Sermon

All of you, I’m sure, have heard, at least once, the song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones. It has been rated #100 on the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list by Rolling Stone magazine. We hear these words in the refrain

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometimes

You find you get what you need[1]

As does various other things, song lyrics can have different meanings for different people. For me, “You can’t always get what you want” pinpoints an honest truth about us, the fact that we have a want for and/or a sense of entitlement to certain things. “I want this.” “I deserve that.” “You do this for me, then I’ll do that for you.” It is naturally human to want something in return for something we give or as a reward for doing what we are supposed to do.

For example, Jesus says, “If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16.24) and “I will do whatever you ask in My Name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in My Name you ask Me for anything, I will do it” (John 14.13-14). Many misinterpret the latter in condition of doing the former by bargaining with God, saying such things as “God, if you do… for me/allow…to happen, I promise to serve You for the rest of My life.” In these sorts of circumstances, God is nothing more than a Being of convenience, put away from one’s mind after the desired result is achieved until He is needed again.

But “if you try sometimes, you find you get what you need” reminds us quite matter-of-factly that not everything we want we will get. The good thing, though, about God is that when He doesn’t give us exactly what we want, what He does give is always better than what we originally wanted. To see and fully appreciate all that God gives, we must be willing to come to God without ultimatums. When we come to God with nothing else but open hearts, accepting all that He gives in return, it is in this we see that what God gives is exactly what we need and is much, much better.

Hence, we come to the Wise Men in today’s Gospel. Known also as “Magi,” by reputation as special astrologers, and as “Kings” by way of verses from Psalm 72[2], what comes across quite clearly is that they were not Jewish, nor from anywhere remotely close to Jerusalem. By following a star from the East, these Wise Men traveled no telling how many miles to see “the Child who has been born King of the Jews…and…to pay Him homage.” They willingly made the long, arduous trip and delivered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Jewish Messiah. This foreshadowed what Jesus Himself will say, “All who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23.12)

And that humbleness was displayed by these Gentile visitors offering our newborn King three costly gifts, then leaving with nothing tangible—only spiritual—in return and being completely fine with that. They did not offer their gifts seeking special favor, but as offerings of genuine praise and thanksgiving to God, worshipping Jesus, the true Light that shines in the darkness, who came to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.[3] They gave Jesus costly gifts, left with nothing tangible, but with something even more valuable, rather priceless, in return.

The priceless gift those Wise Men received was seeing in the face of the newborn Christ an assurance of what Saint Paul would later proclaim to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3.28) By God’s grace, the prophecies of the coming Messiah were made known to them and they believed them with all their heart. Now, by that same grace, having been led by a star from the East, seeing in the house Jesus the Messiah with Mary His Mother, all they had been told they now knew was all true and there was rejoicing in their hearts. And from Christ’s face, they were assured that what He came to do, “to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45), would include them and all Gentiles, in addition to the Jews. The Wise Men came in search of Jesus and got exactly what they needed.

Like the Wise Men, our focus should not be on what we could get out of God, but how we can love and serve Him who first loved and served us.[4] To do the opposite is to be selfish and close ourselves off from the real joys of everlasting life with Jesus right here and now. When we come to Jesus completely open and vulnerable, just as He did among us by emptying Himself, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.7-8), we are better able to see that what Jesus gives is “abundantly…more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3.20). That’s what the Wise Men did and everything worked out for them. The same can be true for all of us.

So, the Rolling Stones are right. “You can’t always get what you want.” With Jesus, that should not be our focus. All that Jesus wants from us is our hearts sincerely drawn to Him and our minds focused on Him. He says

“Father, I desire that those…whom You have given Me, may be with Me where I am, to see My glory, which You have given Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17.24)

By doing that, from Jesus, we get exactly what we need.

Therefore, let us all be more like the Wise Men. Instead of worrying about what’s in it for us, let’s just give Jesus a chance, offering to Him ourselves, our souls, and bodies as reasonable, holy, and living offerings unto Him. In return, like with the Wise Men, God’s glory shall be revealed and all of us will see it together.[5] This is His promise to us and God’s promises never fail.

“You can’t always get what you want,” but with Jesus, “you find you get all you need.”

The Lord hath manifested forth His glory; O come, let us adore Him. Amen.

[1] “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” words and music by Sir Michael Jagger (b. 1943) and Keith Richards (b. 1943).

[2] “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render Him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before Him, all nations give Him service.” (Psalm 72.10-11)

[3] 2 Corinthians 4.6

[4] 1 John 4.19

[5] Isaiah 40.5

Published by Brandt Montgomery

I am a Priest and boarding school chaplain in the Episcopal Church (USA).

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