Epiphany-2019: Three Wise Men and A Grinch
Surely one of the great stories of Christmas is the story of the visit of the Wise Men from the East. Wherever the story of the birth of Jesus is told, so too is told this delightful tale of strange men from some faraway land who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.
From time immemorial every children’s Christmas pageant has included them–Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the middle, shepherds on the left, Wise Men on the right. Always three nervous little boys bringing gold and two others gifts they can’t pronounce.
All that we know about the Wise Men we find in chapter 2. They show up in verse 1 and disappear in verse 12.
Over the centuries, the Wise Men were given names–Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. They were venerated as saints and a tradition arose called the Adoration of the Magi. In fact, if you go to the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, you will find relics that are said to be the remains of the Wise Men.
It all begins this way:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is he that is born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:1-2)
Right away we discover something interesting. The Wise Men show up in Jerusalem after the birth of Jesus. That runs contrary to the notion that the shepherds and the Wise Men arrive in Bethlehem at the same time. The shepherds were there the night Jesus was born. The Wise Men came sometime later. It may have been a few months later. Some think even a year or so later. It was at least a few days later because when the Wise Men find Jesus he is with his mother in a house in Bethlehem, not in a manger.
That, by the way, fits well with the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church that the Wise Men came 12 days after Christmas–on January 6. And that’s why the Sunday closest to January 6 is called Epiphany in the Church Year. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.
As a further note, that’s where the 12 Days of Christmas comes from. Traditionally, the 12 days of gift-giving lead you from his birth on December 25 to the arrival of the Wise Men on January 6.
Notice that these Wise Men are called “Magi from the east.” The term “Magi” is ultimately a Persian word that referred to a special class of priests in the Persian empire.
We know from other sources that the Magi had existed for hundreds of years before the time of Christ. They had their own religion, their own priesthood, their own writings. It appears from the book of Daniel that they existed in his day and it even seems that Daniel was appointed head over the cast of the Magi in the time of King Darius.
The Magi were the professors and philosophers of their day. They were brilliant and highly educated scholars who were trained in medicine, history, religion, prophecy and astronomy. They were also trained in what we would call astrology.
In our day astrology has gotten a deservedly bad reputation. But in the beginning astrology was connected with man’s search for God. The ancients studied the skies in order to find the answers to the great questions of life–Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?
There is a difference between astronomy and astrology. Astronomy is the science of the study of the stars. Astrology is the belief that there is a connection between the position of the stars and human destiny. The Magi were experts in both astronomy and astrology and claimed to be able to divine the future.
The important fact for us to know is that they were highly influential in Persia. They were in fact advisors to the king. While they were not kings, it would not be wrong to call them king-makers because they functioned as political advisors to the Persian rulers.
Finally, they were highly-educated men who thought deeply about life and consequently it is perfectly legitimate to call them “Wise Men.”
But why have they traveled so far from home? It was a journey of a thousand miles from Persia to Israel. Why have they made such a treacherous journey?
The answer is, they have come to see the baby born king of the Jews. This is fascinating. They knew a baby had been born but they didn’t know where. They knew he was a king but didn’t know his name.
So they come to Jerusalem–the capital city–seeking help. They also assume that everyone must know about this baby. But a great surprise awaits them.
Verse 2 adds a detail that has baffled and intrigued Bible scholars and astronomers for 2,000 years: “We have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him.”
What was “his star in the east?” What did they see and how did they know it was his star and how did they connect it with Israel?
It helps to remember that the Wise Men were students of the sky. That means they would not be frightened or put off by anything unusual that suddenly appeared to them. It also helps to know that in those days it was not uncommon to associate the birth of a great ruler with unusual heavenly phenomena. The star would make perfect sense to them and would in fact perfectly fit what they already believed. You might say that if God wanted to get a message to these pagan priests, he picked the perfect way.
But still, what was the star? Frankly, we don’t know. I believe it was a Supernatural Star. One that they had never seen before. This theory suggests that the star was not a natural phenomena at all, but rather was a star placed by God in the atmosphere especially for the Magi to see. Those of us who hold this view, point to the shekinah glory of God in the Old Testament. At certain points in history God revealed himself as a cloud by day or fire by night or even a bright light in order to guide his people. In this context, we might think of the pillar of fire with which God led Israel in the wilderness.
A star alone would not tell the Magi all they needed to know. They knew enough to come to Bethlehem to seek a baby born king of the Jews. They didn’t get that from the skies. So here’s the bigger question: How did they know the star meant anything at all?
We are greatly helped by this fact: We know that the Jews and Persians had intermingled for at least 500 years. It seems that they considered Daniel as one of their own. Since the time of Daniel the Persians had known of the Jewish expectation of a Messiah. It is possible that they even knew from the prophecy of the “70 weeks” in Daniel 9, which gives the approximate time of the Messiahs appearing. What they did not know was the exact time. When they saw the star, they knew the time had come.
The reaction of Herod is fascinating. Matthew 2:3 says that “And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” The word “troubled” really means to “shake violently.” You could say that like Elvis, Herod was all shook up.
We do know that he is very old and very sick. He is a dying man tottering on an unstable throne. The idea of a baby “born” king of the Jews was a direct threat to him.
He’s scared, too, because the Magi are also potential threats to him. We don’t know whether there were only three or not, but even if there were, they certainly didn’t travel alone.
Most of our pictures of the Magi show three guys riding three camels across the deserts. Nothing could be farther from reality. There is no way the Magi traveled 1,000 miles across the desert by themselves. In those days, the only way you could travel in the desert was in a large caravan.
The Magi would have swept into Jerusalem with pomp and circumstance and covered with the dust of a thousand miles. At a minimum they would have brought with them a full military escort along with their servants. The total party could have amounted to more than 300 men. No wonder all of Jerusalem was buzzing.
By the way, it’s interesting that the Magi had no trouble gaining an audience with Herod. That fact attests to their importance.
So Herod turns to the scribes and priests for advice. He has only one question: Where is this child to be born? The scribes don’t have to look it up. They already know the answer. 700 years earlier the prophet Micah had predicted the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem. That was common knowledge in Israel. Little children learned that in Sabbath School before they were six years old. It’s hard to believe that Herod didn’t know it.
If you add what the scribes knew to what the Wise Men figured out, you surely conclude that the signs of Jesus’ coming were clear enough for anyone to see.
It is sometimes said that God always speaks loud enough for a willing ear to hear. The Wise Men knew and did something; the scribes knew and did nothing.
Herod now does something we might think strange. He calls in the Magi and asks them when the star first appeared to them. The text (verse 7) indicates he wanted an exact time. He didn’t tell them why he wanted to know and you have to read on in the story to find out the answer:
When Herod realized he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he learned from the Magi.
It appears that the Magi told Herod that the star first appeared to them two years earlier. Does that suggest that Jesus had been born two years earlier? Or did the star appear two years earlier to give them plenty of time to make the journey? Perhaps it took them two years to make the journey from Persia. It seems likely that Herod assumed that the star first appeared when the child was born. If the Magi told him it had first appeared two years ago, then that explains why Herod ordered all the male children in Bethlehem under two years old put to death. Now we can’t be exactly sure about that … but neither could Herod.
We all know what happens next. Herod asks the Magi to go to Bethlehem as his representatives, find out where the baby is, and report back to him so he can go and worship him. Herod is up to no good, and for all their wisdom the Magi fall for his trick. But why shouldn’t they? If they have come so far to worship the child, why wouldn’t Herod do as much? They have no reason to suspect his motives.
At this point, something unusual happens. As the Magi set out for Bethlehem, which was only six miles south of Jerusalem, the star they saw in the east suddenly reappears. I think they first saw it in the east, set out on the their own for Jerusalem, and didn’t see it again until they left for Bethlehem.
Verse 9 is very specific. It says the star went on before them until it came and stood over the very home where the baby Jesus was. That’s necessary because, although they know the child is in Bethlehem, they don’t know where in Bethlehem, so the star leads them to the right house.
That does not sound like any natural star. It sounds like a miraculous star created by God to lead the Magi to a particular house. No wonder they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. The end of their long, hard journey was at hand.
Verse 11 tells us that “And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him”.
You may ask the question: When the Magi finally found the baby Jesus, were they disappointed? They might have been. After all they been through, after such a long journey, after the detour in Jerusalem, did what they find seem anti-climatic? It might have seemed that way to the average person. But to the Magi, he was a King.
Jesus possessed more royalty in a cradle than Herod possessed in his fine palace. He was greater in his infancy than Louis 14th in his eminency. He was more powerful as a child than Napoleon as an emperor.
But as said, to the normal eye, it did not seem that way. The eyes of flesh revealed nothing but a normal baby, gurgling and cooing, moving his tiny hands side to side, reaching eagerly for his mother’s breast.
Somehow the Magi saw beyond the present and into the future and in deep faith, they worshipped him. They saw that this child would one day rule the world and they were not ashamed to fall on their faces before him.
When they found this tiny baby, not yet two weeks old, rocking in his mother’s arms, these great men fell on their faces before him. To this baby they gave the honor due a king. What Herod craved, the baby received.
Now we come to the last detail, the one for which the Magi are most remembered: Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (vs 11) The gifts in themselves are expensive and represent a worthy tribute. But beyond that, there is a very ancient tradition that sees these gifts as symbolic of who this child would become.
The early church fathers said that gold represented the wealth and power of a king. Frankincense was used in the temple worship of the Lord. It represents his deity–He is truly God born in human flesh. Then there is myrrh–a kind of perfume made from the leaves of the cistus rose. It was used in beauty treatments, but when mixed with vinegar it became an anesthetic. After a person died, myrrh was used to anoint the body and prepare it for burial. John 19:39 tells us that Jesus’ body was bound in linen wrappings along with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. So the gift of myrrh pictures his suffering and death.
You ask, did the Magi understand all this? No, not at all. But God arranged it so that their gifts to the Holy Child would point us to who he is and why he came.
Lastly let me offer three abiding truths from this story for your consideration.
1. If the Wise Men can find Jesus, then so can you.
Think of how many barriers they had to cross to get to Jesus. There was a culture barrier, a distance barrier, a language barrier, a racial barrier, a religious barrier, not to speak of a hostile king and indifferent religious leaders. It wasn’t easy for them to find Jesus, but they did. If they found him, then so can you.
2. If God can use a star to reach these pagan astrologers, then he can use anything to reach anybody.
Sometimes we despair of seeing our friends come to Christ because nothing we say seems to have the slightest effect on them. This story ought to give us great hope. Our God is infinitely creative in the things he can use to break through to people who seem to be so far from him. He can use a star, a book, a tract, a television show, a song, a bow and arrow, a chance comment, or anything he desires. If God can reach the Wise Men, he can reach anybody.
3. If the Wise Men offered Jesus gifts fit for a king, then so should we.
It’s good to remember that the tradition of giving gifts at Christmastime did not start with Santa Claus. It started with the Wise Men. Often we get so caught up in giving and receiving that we forget where it all began.
It is good to give gifts to each other; it is even better to give gifts to Jesus. It is good to show our love to those we love; it is even better to show love to the One who loved us when we were unlovely.
This, surely, is the central meaning of the story. This year and every year, and all during the year, we are invited to return to Bethlehem. A baby lies there who is our King and our God and our Sacrifice. The King in the cradle. The Deity in diapers. The Sacrifice resting in his mother’s arms.- Preached by Father Francis Dominic