Have you ever walked into a room only to forget the reason why you came? You walk downstairs and all of the sudden whatever seemed so pressing, so urgent, simply evaporates into thin air. You frantically search in your mind for whatever it was that brought you into this place and at this particular time and your mind becomes as blank as newly fallen snow. Common wisdom says that if you retrace your steps, you will remember what it was that set you on your journey in the first place, and usually that will help matters, but do you ever wonder what it is that makes us forget in the first place, or what kind of thought we suddenly had that temporarily hijacks our ability to remember what it was or is that we are seeking? And why are we distracted at that moment or that time, and not another?
When those Magi finally show up at the scene of Christ’s birth, we tend to remember and focus on the gifts they give. Gold to honor him as a king and ruler. Frankincense to honor Jesus as priest. Myrrh to symbolize his eventual death and resurrection. We watch the Magi as they look adoringly at the baby Jesus and then we forget the real reason that those foreign emissaries were there. Not that they could forget the reason that sent them on such a long journey. The Magi, unknown in number but who were cast as astrologers in Matthew’s story, were there because an evil king had secretly summoned them and then sent them on a reconnaissance mission “to search diligently” for the child. Not just any child, but the One who would shepherd Israel, as prophecy proclaimed.
Now, King Herod—like many folks in power—was an insecure king. Herod had a cruel tendency to wipe out those whom he deemed a threat to his power. The list ultimately included his wife, his mother-in-law, a brother-in-law, and his own two sons. Herod tells those wise men that he wants to find Jesus to honor him, but he actually has ulterior motives that have nothing to do with kneeling at the Messiah’s crib.
Ulterior motives are those hidden—and sometimes harmful–things that motivate our behavior. They are frequently hidden from public view and scrutiny. Sometimes they are hidden from our own awareness as well, though I believe Herod actually knew all along what he was doing. What motivates us? Although I hope that none of us would go to the extremes of Herod, perhaps a lesser kind of insanity can grip us when we feel threatened or insecure. We may say hurtful things that we wish we didn’t. We might manipulate events and circumstances to our advantage and to our benefit. We can hide important information. We might have actually wished someone dead. A woman once went to a dream therapist because she kept dreaming that she wanted to kill her mother. Naturally, the woman was deeply troubled by this. Sure, she had volatile disagreements with her mother, but she truly loved her. She thought to herself, “What kind of person would dream such things?”
Yet, this is part of being human.
Here’s a story: A man has a dream. It’s a very dark night and, because he struggles to see, he walks slowly. Feeling like a fool, he chastises himself, ‘Fool, what are you doing out here without a flashlight?’ Trying to find his way back home, he becomes aware of a presence at his side. At first, he thinks that it is a dog—but soon discovers that it is a wolf. Initially, he wants to kill the beast, but then he decides that, in order to survive, he must befriend the wolf. Upon waking from the dream, he realizes that the wolf represented his secret shadow, the savage part of his soul. He thinks to himself, ‘The wolf is my own dark brother. Instead of trying to overcome the terror of my hidden self, I must learn to own it, to make friends with it, so I can come to love the rest of myself’
As we grow older, we learn to acknowledge our darker side—safely acknowledging those parts of ourselves and resist God’s meddling. We need to do this with help from others. Part of seeking truth is seeking the truth about ourselves in varied contexts and situations. Christianity recognizes this darker side of human nature; it doesn’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, or that we can reach some kind of Christ-like perfection in our souls. It says that we all have the capacity to sin within us. It teaches us to say, “there but by the grace of God go I.”
The hope is that, as we grow in Christ, we will resemble less the Herods of this world and grow to be more like Jesus in our desires, thoughts, and behaviors. Sin might continue to knock at our door, but we’ve hung out a sign “No Solicitors.” So if you have ever wished someone dead, or blurted something terrible out in the heat of an argument—you are not alone. Thinking these things doesn’t make us sociopaths; acting on them does. Which is why it is important to acknowledge before God that we can have such hidden thoughts, ulterior motives, things that we would squirm to admit publicly. Because if we can bring before God the fact that we really can’t stand our boss or our sister’s husband, or that we are jealous of best friend’s extreme makeover, then we have a chance of working it through with God—warts and all.
The very best part of our story regarding the Magi is not the bucolic image of wise men kneeling in the muck and straw. After all, one could say that they were just following the orders of the one who had sent them. They were performing a military errand for the King. You might even say that the gifts were tainted with their real mission—if they indeed knew it. WE sometimes say that we are just following orders too, to our detriment.
The GOOD news in this story for us is that they had a dream—a vision– that ultimately changed the original reason for their journey. It was as if they walked into that cave where the Christ child lay and simply forgot the evil schemes of the King who sent them. They thought better of the message that they were to deliver to Herod concerning the child’s whereabouts. Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went home by another road. They took another path in their journey and in their lives. Awakened to the promise of a new day and their dark mission, they chose differently – and it made all the difference in not just their lives, and everyone with whom they came into contact on the way, but also our own.
Tomorrow is the feast of Epiphany which traditionally marks the official end of the Christmas season. Some of you may rest easy knowing that you can take down the Christmas decorations officially after Monday, though I took mine down already this past week when I had the help. Not that Christmas should ever really end– we hold the true meaning of Christmas close to our hearts, no matter the season. But the Epiphany season is a special time, wherein the meaning of who Christ is becomes more evident to Jesus’ followers and seekers. Indeed, the very word, “epiphany” means—to make manifest, to reveal what is hidden, to show and make evident. Epiphany is a good time to ask ourselves what we are seeking for ourselves and for others and why. It is a good time to speak openly and honestly about the roads that we have taken, the choices that we have made or been a part of, and the purpose for our journey here at this time in our life, and on earth. It is a good time to admit to ourselves that we all have a mixture of motives: some hidden, some dangerous, some honorable, some selfish and some self-less. Sorting through these motives is deeply spiritual work which requires one to be both honest and self-forgiving. One of the benefits to seeking diligently for God’s presence is that our motives become clearer as we get draw closer to Jesus. Epiphany is also a good time to do a little star-gazing.
We can find ourselves in seeker-mode at any point in our lives, not simply during Epiphany. A major crisis—either public or private—can thrust us into complicated questions about who we are and who we want to become and the gaps in our values. Like the Magi, we may have started down an evil path directed by insecure rulers who court destruction, but like the Magi, after we meet and kneel before Jesus and recognize the limits of our power, some options don’t appear so desirable any more and we can consciously and deliberately travel a different way home.
Finally, a story for you:
“A seeker after truth came to a saint for guidance.
‘Tell me please, wise one, how did you become holy?’
‘And what are they, please?’
‘And how does one learn to choose correctly?’
‘May I know it, please?’
‘How does one grow?’
‘What are those words, pray tell me?’
Sisters and brothers, we can refuse to grow by refusing to own the poor choices that we have made and by refusing to take a different way when we are on a path of destruction. It sometimes takes a great deal of mental and spiritual resources, as well as consulting with wise women and men living in community, to discern when and if our choices are wrong or leading us astray. But following the Prince of Peace means using good to resist evil and not the other way around. This Epiphany season, if we choose to seek, may we first examine ourselves and avoid the evils we deplore.
 Sheldon Kopp, quoted in Spiritual Literacy, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, eds.
(New York: Scribner, 1996) 281, 286.
 Cited by William Boggs, Sin Boldly: But Trust God More Boldly Still, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 48.