TEXT: Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
When you hear this piece of the Christmas story, what do you think of? A Sunday School pageant? You know: three youngsters in costume—wearing makeshift crowns—proceeding down the centre aisle to take their places next to the shepherds and the angels and the baby Jesus and his parents.
Is that what you think of?
Or do you wonder about the real “wise men”—the “Magi” of history and poetry?
Let’s re-examine our understanding of the Christmas manger scene. In actual fact, the shepherds and animals were there—but the wise men probably were not.
If you look carefully at chapter two of Matthew, you’ll notice it says the wise men visited Jesus in a “house”—not in a cave or a stable, which is where a manger would have been. It sounds like they’ve arrived some time after Jesus’ birth—but before Mary and Joseph had thought about returning home to Nazareth. This is later on.
Here’s something else. Even though we love to sing, “We three kings of Orient are”—with or without an exploding cigar—these men probably were not literally kings (although to the local Bethlehem peasants they might as well have been). They are more accurately described as “wise men” or Magi. That is, they were scholars or sages—learned men who sought to understand wisdom and unravel mysteries. Think of them as astronomers, or scientists, or mathematicians.
The sky was their business. They studied the stars and planets, making careful observations of heavenly bodies and their movements. And so—when one particular star started doing odd things—they were intrigued. Here was something their science could not explain.
By the way, our science can’t explain it, either! Nobody knows what the Star of Bethlehem truly was. Some early Christians thought it was an angel, or the Holy Spirit, or even Christ himself in celestial form. More recent theories include a comet or a supernova.
Then there’s this idea that there were three of them. The Bible does not actually say that. Matthew tells us the wise men brought three kinds of gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), but he says nothing about the quantity of these gifts, or about the number of men who came bearing them. Some paintings in Christian catacombs depict two Magi, others have four. One ancient text, called The Revelation of the Magi, lists 12 men—and gives their names—while other Christian writings imagine an entire army of Magi!
So there’s no real agreement on the number of “wise men” who made the journey to visit the Christ Child. Neither do we have a clear idea of their nationality. The most popular theory is that they were from Persia—but some traditions hold that they came from Babylon or Arabia or even China. We don’t really know. And therefore, we also don’t know for sure how far they had to travel, or for how long they were on the road. Many early Christians thought it took them two years, based on Herod’s asking the Magi when the star appeared, coupled with his subsequent command to kill all male infants under the age of two (if you recall that terrible part of the story).
But—however many of them made the trip, or how long it took them—it must have been an arduous journey, fraught with peril. Especially since they were transporting gold and other valuables, they could have been targeted by robbers. Not to mention being in danger from wild animals, inclement weather, sickness, accident—and possibly even starvation, if they lost their way in a desolate region.
I find myself wondering about these travellers. Why would they undertake such a journey?
I suppose it might have been scientific curiosity. As I said, the Magi were among the most learned people of that day. But still, to make a journey of perhaps two years’ duration under those conditions … that’s remarkable. They would be risking their fortunes and their reputations, as well as their lives. And for what? In the end, these men who had travelled so far and so long to see royalty found themselves kneeling before a tiny child born to impoverished parents in an out-of-the-way place.
What stirred in their hearts to compel them to risk so much? What led them to travel so far? What deep yearning for something other than what they had known?
As I ponder those questions, I find myself thinking about … all of us. I find myself wondering about other journeys taken … and about what it is that makes such journeys possible. Or necessary. Or preferable to simply living the life that is set right before us.
What sign in the sky—what communication from God—would make me go that deep, that far, to discover its meaning?
And then it strikes me that those travellers to Bethlehem were simply living out their lives to their natural conclusions. After all, their life’s work was studying the heavens. And so—when they saw a star which appeared to hold such significance—all they could do, if they were to be faithful to their calling … Well, all they could do was follow it.
So—having studied the stars and having felt the prodding of one particular star to make this incredible journey—when they came to the place to which the star led them, they were met there by … God!
Now, that couldn’t have been at all what they expected. At least, they wouldn’t have expected to meet God in the form and circumstances presented to them there. And it may well have been true that things were never quite the same again for them. Yet, in that baby—or, in that toddler, as he may have been when they saw him—they met the Holy One, face-to-face.
All they were doing was what they believed they were made to do. And yet, at the same time, this was probably much more than they bargained for. I mean, packing up to travel to far-flung places was probably not in the job description of a first-century astronomer. No. They were accustomed to life in the academy—to sitting in a quiet, familiar place, making observations and taking notes and sharing their insights with others.
This journey they set out on, though … and all they experienced through it … it must have changed them, stretched them, transformed them. Their epiphany was not only about God being revealed to them; it was about discovering their own true purpose. They might have said it was about fulfilling their destinies. Following a star, they encountered the Maker of stars.
Perhaps this is so for all of us. As we use and develop the gifts that God has planted within us … as we become all we were made to be, with eyes and hearts open … perhaps we will encounter God there, as well.
When we follow a star—especially one which leads us out of our most comfortable zones—we, also, may end up in an unexpected and surprising place. And we just might discover that there—perhaps even within the surprise itself—there is where God resides.
And so …
- for those who teach, and those who preach;
- for those who visit, and those who build;
- for those who nurture children, and those who clean;
- for those who invent and those who heal and those who cook and those who … well, you fill in the blank …
For all of us and for each of us—like those Magi so long ago—our first calling is simply to be who we were made to be, keeping our eyes and ears and hearts open to the Spirit’s beckoning.
When we are called to step out in faith, let’s take our giftedness with us. Let’s carry with us our gifts from God—taking them to their natural conclusions.
Because you know, God will call us. In fact, God will continue to call us, for as long as we continue breathing the air he has made. That’s guaranteed. That’s what discipleship is all about. And when we answer that call, and when we follow God’s leading, it is also a sure thing that we will encounter God. Perhaps in surprising ways and unexpected places, we, too, shall meet the Holy One, face-to-face.
So, then, in this new year—and always—let us keep faith as a quest for a guiding star. Let’s keep moving forward, as the Spirit of God leads us.
Our journey is not finished yet. Thanks be to God.