19 January 2010

The Journey of the Magi, Part Two

Well. Here's a question that comes from this poem: what do we expect from God, and do we base our expectations on the truth? In other words, is it what He actually promises, or what we think He owes us?

The Magi see a star. "Ah look," they say, "a heavenly sign sent for us, the wise men of the Orient, to see. Surely a great treasure lies beneath." Off they go, and immediately the way becomes difficult. Look, when you're wealthy and respected and accustomed to "silken girls bringing sherbet," you probably expect a few decent rest stops along the way. But no-- just suspicious tribesmen and crooked merchants, who could care less if you and your two crazy friends are searching for the King of Ages. The Magi must have asked themselves a million times if the trip had merit, after all. If they were on the right track, shouldn't things be a little easier? I imagine that around those flickering campfires, night after night, they started to wonder if they were going insane. "Do we have enough water? Is it just me, or has that star led us in a circle? And whose idea was this anyway?"

Then they reach Jerusalem, obviously expecting to find the kingly treasure there. Disappointed again-- Herod hasn't a clue. So off they go, bound to reach the end if it kills them, and finally that roguish star comes to rest in a "temperate valley," not too impressive, though certainly nicer than the desert across which they came. They arrive just in time.

And what does this wise man say about the Christ child? What's his evaluation of this long-sought treasure?

"It was (you may say) satisfactory."

Hold on a minute! What's that supposed to mean? Were they disappointed? Did the Magi miss the point entirely? I don't think so, but I do think this poem makes a pretty realistic guess at their initial reaction to that little peasant baby, lying there helplessly, unable to speak or move, let alone rule the universe. I get the sense that this Oriental king, with his magnificent visions of "summer palaces on slopes" and pompous parades down gilt avenues, was simply confounded. Struck dumb. Oh yes, it was fine. More than fine: it was everything we wanted, and even better. It satisfied us, he declares, and that is a deep expression of approval. If something is satisfactory, it fills you in the most complete way possible, and what more could you desire?

But good golly-- it sure wasn't what we had envisioned.

It's kind of like when you pick up a glass expecting water, and get chocolate milk instead. The first reaction isn't "Oh wow, what a delicious drink!" You're taken by surprise and your reaction is more ambiguous. It's usually "Whoa! Wait-- uh-- what is this stuff-- oh. Um, yeah, that's good. Oh yes, I do like it. I really do."

The vast difference between God's will and our expectations takes us aback far too often. Why? Because we aren't willing to follow: just to follow, not to predict the outcome or get insurance for possible mistakes or make things comfortable for ourselves along the way. Certainly, I love plans, schedules, and predictability. Adventure is fun, but only when I want it, and only when it involves lots of laughter and entertainment. But what if God asks me to follow, doesn't tell me the ending goal, and makes no guarantee that I'll enjoy the journey? What then? Am I willing to embrace it with the same joy that I'd embrace something I planned?

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