Matthew 2:9-11 …they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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 of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
I imagine that when the wise men saw the star, their joy was related to the excitement of seeing what they had anticipated come to fruition. They were studying and catching on to a move of God in history, he was guiding them, and they were overwhelmed. I think back on myself about a decade ago, standing in the airport in London, eyes wide with the possibility of what it would be like to travel to Uganda for the first time. (To be clear, I don’t think my 22-year-old self was overly ‘wise,’ but I had some things in common with the wise men: the ability to travel, literacy, a good education, and a desire to see God move in the world.)
Gregg Garner, the Founder and CEO of G.O.D. and the leader of my very first trip to East Africa asked me, “Are you ready for this Laurie?” I responded, “I’m not sure, but I hope so.” My anticipation was high, but my expectations were unclear--what was I actually going to see? He told me “Just keep your eyes open. It’s going to ruin you.” I didn’t know what it meant, but over the course of my very first few weeks in Africa, I repeated it to myself several times--Keep your eyes up. Keep them open.
It’s not easy to keep your eyes open in rural Kenya and Uganda. Maybe at the Hilton in the city, you’d be ok. But passing by seas of children with their hands outstretched, for food, or money--whichever we had--and the scene repeating in city after city. I wanted to close them. As we crossed the border to Uganda I remember seeing these elongated boxes painted all sorts of colors and all different sizes, being sold on the side of the road. Caskets. The biggest pile were the smallest boxes. I’d never seen a child-sized casket before in my life. I definitely wanted to close my eyes.
When they saw the star stopping over the place where the child was, they were overwhelmed with joy. They couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do, and they were faithful to follow the sign he was giving them. “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and worshipped him,” (vs. 11). I don’t think that they saw a luminous halo above Mary and Jesus that made them kneel down. I think they were brought low, just like I was, by God pointing them to the humblest of scenes.
We know from Luke that this “house” looked something like a barn--a last resort after they were turned away from every other option in Bethlehem. As Gregg has taught me since that time, the swaddling clothes weren’t comparable to the soft swaddling blankets that we register for in anticipation of our newborns. They were pieces of cloth, probably ripped from their own clothes, because they didn’t have anything else. The manger was not an archaic crib, but an animal feeding trough. The wise men’s eyes were opened, but I don’t think they ever expected for God to show them this. “They saw the child with Mary his mother,”--young, impoverished, probably frightened and traumatized from her first birth in a foreign city with no help--“and they knelt down and worshiped.”
To say that God humbles us by scenes like this is an understatement. If you look, really keep your eyes open in these scenes, he’ll bring you low, just like the wise men. And I know not everyone reading this travels to developing countries, but take my word for it, or sit with these photos for a minute. I was not prepared when I walked into a Kenyan birthing clinic and saw seven moms in one room, some of them with new babies in their arms, others in the throes of labor, blood on the sheets. These were the moms who made it to the clinic.
It’s really difficult to look. But the wise men did, and I did too. And it brought me low, just like them. There’s no passage of time noted. The wise men saw the scene and immediately fell to their knees. They didn’t turn away and look for another house. They worshipped a God who cares so much for the poor that he’ll guide those with access to help to see it with their eyes and let it change them. For those of us on this side of the story, the ones for whom going to school or getting medical care has never been a question, we need our eyes opened.
In order to not let our privilege and access make us people we never wanted to be, we need to take lessons from the wise men who show us a new way: worship and share. When you want to see God in the world, and he points you to an impoverished family, the correct response is to worship, open your treasures, and share with them from what you have. God cares for the poor so much he’ll use stars and mission trips and blog articles and videos, anything, to illuminate those who have to consider how they could be of benefit to those who don’t. There’s this song that my African friends sing. It goes like this:
“I remember I was a nobody
Jesus came and made me a somebody
I’m so glad you live in my heart
Now let you reign here forevermore.”
It’s always stuck with me because it's so different than American songs. I think we would have a hard time singing it. But in their world, that’s a standard evaluation of reality. “I’m a nobody. This is Africa.” Death and sickness and half-built homes and failing schools are the standard fare.
With the shining of the star and God incarnate being born to a poor family, away from home, without assistance, he’s turning our eyes to those whom the world calls “nobodies.” He asks us to consider sharing. Since that time, I’ve been sharing what I have with them. I’ve helped kids go to school, families finish their homes and teachers get the resources they need. I’ve taught them the Bible and sent my husband to visit them dozens of times, bearing gifts of clothes, shoes, tools, books and the know how to improve their access to water and the safety of their homes. There are things that all of us can do if we open our eyes. It’s not just a matter of responsibility (though it is also that), it’s a matter of seeing Jesus.
Matthew 25:44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
Note: I wrote this reflection after discussing this year’s holiday theme with Gregg. I cannot claim to have arrived at the biblical connections independent of his influence, as is the case for most of my writing as he has faithfully taught me the Bible since the 2005 trip mentioned in this article.