Whose Side Are We On?

Julius Caesar knew that people wanted to kill him.  There were few men he could trust.  But one was a young man named Brutus, whom Caesar had treated practically as family.  And so when, on the Ides of March--that fateful day when the Theatre of Pompey became place of violence and blood--the mortally-wounded Caesar looked up as this very Brutus turned the knife in his side, Caesar lost the will to resist. 

Shakespeare immortalizes Caesar's final words as "Et tu, Brute?" meaning "You too, Brutus?"  But the ancient Roman historian Suetonius reports an even more wilting response.  According to Suetonius, Caesar looked upon his friend and asked plaintively, "You too, my child?"

Benedict Arnold was friend and protégé of General George Washington, one of the few with whom Washington could trust his very life.  Except that he couldn't.  Arnold, as you know, was in fact a spy for the British and his most intimate correspondences with George Washington he turned over to Washington's most dangerous enemies.  Arnold's plot to facilitate George Washington's capture or assassination and surrender West Point to the British crushed the proud general. 

In fact and in literature, Brutus and Benedict Arnold are both intriguing and loathsome figures.  They symbolize betrayal, but more than that they represent characters whose allegiance leaves one unsteady and unsure.  More recently, fantastic characters like Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books are also presented in this way.  Until the very end of the story, we're not sure whose side they're on--and that makes us nervous: What are their intentions?  Will they help or harm?

It is with this in mind, I suggest to you on this Sunday that is the Eve of Epiphany, that we look with fresh eyes at the story of the Magi.  Forget for a few moments the wonderful Wise Men costumes that children wore in last month's Christmas pageant.  Set aside even the words of the hymn "We Three Kings" that hone our minds to this story in this season.  Let's look at this account as Holy Scripture gives it to us.  When we see it this way, one conclusion is inescapable: The Magi were spies.

We don't know their original intention for seeking out the baby Jesus.  We know that their stated intention was to pay the baby homage.  But it is also the case that they emerged in a geopolitical situation that was fraught with intrigue.  They are "from the East," which means they are likely Parthians, the ancient and vicious enemies of Rome.  No doubt they are genuinely in awe of the star's heavenly sign.  They surely have a tentative appreciation for the God who could cause such a sign.  But it's also not far-fetched to suppose that they are agents of their own empire, sent to make sense of this unusual sign in the heavens--this star--that they have seen.  Is this baby, whom their astrological readings tell them is a king unlike all other kings, a threat to them?  Is he one who will change the razor's edge balance of power in their world?  They come to find out.

The Magi arrive at King Herod's court and tell him about this newborn king, Herod that megalomaniac who is not beyond murdering his own children and, just a few verses after today's reading, all the children of Bethlehem.  No doubt Herod is wary of these strange men from the East.  But Herod also knows he can't send his own thugs tromping around Bethlehem without sowing fear and flight, and consequently he sends the Magi to collect information for him.  Herod conscripts them to be his own agents.  Herod is the epitome of chaos, and the Wise Men become his spies. 

And so to the first hearers of this story, unlike those of us who have told and retold it a thousand times in our nativity pageants, there may well have been ominous background music when the Wise Men finally arrive in Bethlehem.  They are overjoyed at finding Jesus, but why?  Why are they really here?  Who do they really work for?  Whose side are they on?  When they lift their hands from their traveling chests, will those hands hold gifts or a knife?

The text is tantalizingly sparse at this point.  Scripture tells us, "On entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts."

No matter the Magi's original intention, no matter their conflicted and questionable allegiances, when they meet Jesus, something happens.  The most important line in this story is the final one: "They left for their own country by another road."  The Wise Men won't turn the knife in Jesus' side.  They won't betray him to his enemies.  Even if their original plans included both, meeting Jesus changes everything.  Can you imagine crazy Herod's anger when they don't return to him?  Chaos can't stand not to have its way.  I bet he spit and stammered and threw things around the room.  But the Wise Men do not return that way.  They walk a different road, beginning that day and continuing all the days of their lives.  No matter whose side they were on, in the end they choose the side of the child over whom the star shines.  They refuse to comply with the plot to destroy him.  They choose Jesus. 

It is a story told in countless ways throughout Christian history.  It is your story and my story.  It is the story that every Christian must confront in his or her own life.  Because, you see, we come with mixed motives and our intentions are not clear.  Why are we here?  Why are we in the church?  Undoubtedly, we, like the Magi, have wonder and a vague appreciation for God.  But there is also social status in being a member of some churches.  There is business cache.  There is cultural privilege to identifying as a Christian, at least in Southern culture.  It carries political umph.  It makes us feel good about ourselves relative to others.  And I'm willing to admit that all of these things apply to being the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral as well. 

But none of these things--none of them--is the same thing as being a disciple of Jesus.  None of these things has anything at all to do with loving or following him, with truly being on his side.  In fact, sometimes our real reasons for being here undoubtedly give pain to Jesus.  Like Caesar to Brutus, he may say to us, "You too, my child?"  Sometimes we're like spies pretending to cleave to Jesus but secretly serving chaos instead of love.

Soul-search for a moment.  Why are you here?  Why do you call yourself Christian?  Down what road did you come?

Here's the wonder and grace of it all: It doesn't matter!  It's possible that the Wise Men may have been spies twice over, double-agents for their own kingdom and that of King Herod.  But when they met Jesus, that road changed.  Forgetting about all that went before, they experienced new joy, and they knelt before the new lord of their lives, and they opened the treasure of their hearts and laid it at that king's feet.

 That's why we're in church, even if it's not what originally brought us.  The King of Love is born.  He is real, and he is the Lord of the world.  The pivotal question for us is not why or how we got here, but what road our lives will take now that we've met Jesus.  The encounter can be momentary.  We can leave this place and walk back into the intrigue, wrong intentions, and mixed motives of our prior lives.  That's what the chaos of our old lives wants us to do.  Like Herod, that old master will spit and stammer and do its best to call us back.  Or we can, with all that we are, humble ourselves before this newborn lord, handing the whole treasure of our hearts over to him.  We can rise and walk a different road, guided by the light of Jesus.

The child is born.  Whose side are we on?  Amen.