There are lots of good stories - news stories, historical stories, made-up stories - about heroes, but the best stories are the ones that also make room for the sidekicks, oddballs, and the sorts of people that leave us saying “I want to know more about them.” If you’ve been watching the last month’s worth of bowl games, you may have found yourself confronted with two teams you didn’t even remember existed and yet by the second half of the game you were rooting for one over the other because the TV producers did their job well and found some unknown player whose backstory hit you right in the feels, or whose quirky style of play didn’t seem like it should work.
Great storytellers know that it’s the characters who make the story, and some of the best characters don’t even have to stick around for very long. When JK Rowling wrote the first book in her world-dominating Harry Potter series, she created a character in its fifth chapter who was able, in fewer than 30 words, to set himself apart and add a new depth to the entire story. The hero of the story, of course, is Harry Potter, and up to this point in the novel, all that Harry knows about the magical world he has just discovered is that he is already famous in it for reasons he doesn’t understand. Strangers bow to him and give him gifts. He will soon discover that he is so celebrated because of how his family defeated a villain whom everyone fears and no one will name. But when young Harry wanders into the shop of the wandmaker Ollivander, he finds someone who treats him rather differently. Ollivander goes to great lengths to find Harry a suitable wand, and when the one he finds turns out to be very similar to the wand of the great villain Voldemort, Ollivander is not frightened by this. “Curious, most curious. I think we can’ expect great things from you, Mr. Potter - for he-who-must not be named did great things. Terrible, yes, but great.”
Ollivander is not only an interesting character, he is interested. He is interested and intrigued by power, the part of us who admires those who seem able to make their own will into reality. He speaks for that part of us that will forgive almost any transgression except being boring. Curious. Most curious… That may as well have been the serpent’s first line in the garden.
You know who I find incredibly fascinating? King Herod. I’ll be honest, I never thought much about Herod before I had the chance to travel to Israel several years ago. In the scriptures, Herod is kind of a one-note villain - murderous, jealous, fickle, impulsive and paranoid. And all of these things are consistent, not only in the scriptural accounts of him, but also in the other histories we have from that time period. But do you know what else Herod was? He was a baller. When I read scripture commentaries, I always wondered why the religious authorities were so willing to play along with Herod, and prop him up - I assumed it must have been straight fear that kept the Pharisees and Sadducees on his side. But when I went to Israel, I quickly discovered what everyone else learns when they visit — Herod built all the cool stuff. When you walk in the footsteps of Jesus, all that you see are grass-covered hillsides and walking paths, and you go to the lakeshore and say “Well, this might have been where Jesus stood, but it could have been a half-mile down the way.” Herod, on the other hand, left his mark everywhere he went. He built stuff on on a scale that people could hardly believe. The Western Wall of the Second Temple - the place where every Jewish and Christian pilgrim goes to pray - Herod built that. The fortress of Masada, built on top of a mountain that goes straight up on every side - Herod built that. He built an entire city - Caesarea Maritime - and the ruins of it are one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen. Before Herod came to Caesarea, it was just a beach, exposed to the Mediterranean. But Herod built a massive wall that went right into the sea, it was the largest artificial harbor ever made, bigger than anything that even Rome had managed. In Caesarea, Herod didn’t just build his palace on the land. No, he wasn’t that basic. He built a jetty 100 meters into the ocean just so that he could have a palace surrounded by water, and so that the ocean itself could be routed to fill the Swimming pool that he built where anyone else would have put a courtyard. As we were driving away from Caesarea, I made this note in my journal. “If you were invited to party with Herod, you would do it. This guy lived large.”
So is it any wonder that the wise men — these curious scholars, people who searched the stars every night to try and see something new, something amazing — is it any wonder that they came to Herod when the star appeared in the sky and told them that a great king had been born. They went to see the most interesting man they could imagine finding in the otherwise pretty underdeveloped nation of Judea. But they did not find what they were looking for.
One of the great Christian characters of the last century was a woman named Simone Weil, she was a genius, a humanitarian, and a charismatic worshipper of Jesus. She had a masters degree before most of her peers had their bachelors, she fought in the Spanish Civil war, she worked in an auto factory so that she would not be trapped in an ivory tower. She brought her family from France to the US and then died at age 34 while waiting in Great Britain to return as an agent of the French Resistance. In her classic book “Waiting for God” Weil wrote this about what she had learned in the course of following Jesus - she said
“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”
The wise men found pretty quickly that they were more interesting to Herod than he was to them. They found that the mere rumor of a rival would send Herod into a panic. He was just another ruler like the others, as wealthy as they were, a little more fearful, a lot less curious than they were. They went on their way, and found something more interesting than anything Herod could build - they found that the sky itself was leading the way to a little house, in a little town, where a mother was holding her child.
And they fell to their knees because they had finally found the one who was worthy of all their curiosity, all their searching, all their wonder.
There is something unsettling about Ollivander in the Harry Potter books, from the moment we meet him it is deeply unsettling in the curiosity he shows in he-who-must-not-be-named. And if I’m honest, there’s something challenging about these wise men, too. I mean, let’s call them what they were. They were astrologers. All through the Old Testament, the fortune tellers and stargazers of Egypt and Babylon are set up as the false prophets — when the one true God has something to say, the Word comes to the true prophets directly. If you leave here today and your take away is that you need to start reading your horoscope or reading the stars to make your own, then you have badly missed the point.
The good news to be found here is that no matter how badly we misuse it, God has given us a capacity of wonder, and our ability to wonder, our longing for wonder, our deep, restless curiosity to discover something new, is not an obstacle to faith but it can be a three camel power engine of our faith. Herod heard about a new king and thought “How is this going to mess me up;” the magi heard about this king and thought “Cancel our plans, clear the calendar, we’ve got to see this.” And the king they found was more wonderful than they ever imagined precisely because he was nothing like what they had imagined. how marvelous, how intoxicating.”
Today we’ll come to a table set with the simplest of gifts; it’s not exactly what we would have chosen for a feast. It won’t ever be featured on the Food Network. But don’t be any less in wonder because of that. Christ is present in this holy mystery.
Today, we’ll go into the world, and Christ will go with us. We’ll try to think the right thoughts and do the right things, and all the while Jesus will be inviting us to wonder. Could your way really be more satisfying? Could your glory really be more interesting than the picture perfect vision someone else taught me to envy? Could you really be right in front of me, not hiding, but overlooked because I was too easily impressed or satisfied.
Of all people, the followers of Jesus should be curious, most curious. For he is most wonderful.