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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
I received the following note in a letter from the wife of the former Belgium Ambassador to Lithuania. She was a member of our congregation in Vilnius. She wrote, “I don’t know if this is according to correct theology, but a friend of mine sent me this message for Christmas and the feminist in me just likes it.” If three wise women came to Bethlehem instead of three wise men, “Three wise women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and there would have, been peace on earth.” Instead, we read that the three wise men went home by another road.
I guess in early January, when it’s time to drag out the Christmas tree, to straighten up the house and get back to school and return to work, we can all feel a bit like Wise Men going back home to their own country. We hope that we have been changed by the experience of Christmas, and that we have become better people along the way. Hopefully, there is a vision of the Christ Child that stays with us throughout the year as well. So this morning, I would like to invite you to meditate upon this familiar story again, for I truly do believe that it teaches us to go home by another road.
The Bible’s portrait of the Wise Men in Scripture is rather sketchy. St. Matthew merely read writes, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.” We know nothing more than this. We don’t know the exact day they arrived. We cannot even be certain of their number, but our traditions are rich in detail. Simply look at any Nativity set. The wise men were three and they were kings, they were young and old, Asian, African and European. Their names were Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar and one was black. They arrived by camel with smaller animal to carry their gifts. Truthfully, I think they were merely learned men, university professors in the study of natural sciences. If they were kings, they would have been received openly in the royal court of King Herod, rather than to meet him in secret. No, we do not know much about the Wise Men, but we do the gifts they brought to the Christ Child. Gold frankincense and myrrh. We know as well that when they saw the child in his mother’s arms, “they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Stars, on the other hand, have always been an important part of our human imagination and scripture. From the creation story in Genesis to their appearance in Revelation, stars tell us something about what shall come to pass. Of course, some people feel uneasy searching the heavens for signs from God. Astrology, after all, is based on the theory that the movement of the stars, the planets, the sun and the moon can influence human affairs and determine the course of events. In the ancient world, however, celestial objects served as the messengers from God announcing a great event or the birth of a notable person. So when St. Matthew writes that a star appeared in the East, we should pay attention. The heavens were proclaiming what would soon to come to pass.
Over the centuries, astronomers have tried to determine what great star could have appeared in the eastern sky that would have sent the wise men on such a journey. Some have speculated that it was a comet, or perhaps a configuration of the stars in a peculiar alignment. But I would like for you to imagine instead that God sent the star forth as a unique messenger with the task of guiding the wise men to Jesus. After all, if the star was visible for all to see, why weren’t scores of thousands of well informed and educated citizens travelling to Bethlehem to see the new born king-even from his own ancient Palestine? No, for some odd reason, God seemed to be guiding these foreign wise men to Bethlehem.
The wise men, however, only knew a portion of the story of salvation that was unfolding. They trusted that the star’s appearance in the East announced the birth of the King of the Jews, so they set out. And where else should they travel than to Jerusalem? That was the place that 1000 years earlier King David had established his capital city. It was there that the Temple had been erected and where the God of Israel dwelled. Where else would a star guide them to a new born king of the Jews bin the capital city? So as they arrived in Jerusalem, they began to ask the soldiers on the streets, and bystanders along the way, “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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him- and their fears were justified.
Herod the Great had brutally ruled over the Kingdom of Judea for 30 years. Jewish historian, Ken Spino described Herod in his history of the Jews as “a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis.” In fact, he did not inherit the title of king, but it was given to him by the Senate in Rome. Herod wasn’t even Jewish. He was an Edomite, so he feared the news that a child had truly been born “King of the Jews” and who would encourage the nation would to rise up against.” So calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, Herod inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him that according to the Prophet Micah, as King David before him, the Messiah would be born “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” The wise men then in secret were told by the Royal Court where they should find the new born king, as Herod himself, feigning sincerity, slyly plotted to slay the child.
With the word of Holy Scripture taken to heart, the wise men then went on their way to Bethlehem, and behold, the star suddenly appeared, as it had once appeared in the East and guided them to the place where the child was. When the wise men saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. It is as if St. Matthew wishes to tell us that as long as the Wise Men believed they knew where the child was to be born, that the star was no longer guiding them. It was only when they allowed their hearts and minds to be inspired by Scripture that the star could guide them as intended.
My friends, that is the message for you and me as we begin this New Year. Like the Wise Men of Old, we need God’s Word. That is the nature of faith. It cannot exist on its own, by what it sees and how it feels, or by what is most convenient and most desired. The Christian faith is ultimately nurtured by the Holy Spirit through Scripture. In this way God’s word allows us to see his direction in life.
On that day, the Wise Men had two decisions to make- and both would be based on the Scripture they heard in Jerusalem. It was heart wrenching scene. Upon entering the ramshackle house and stable on the outskirts of the capital city where the star rested, they saw the child with Mary his mother. Yes, there they stood in a meek and lowly home, and were greeted by a young, peasant mother with a poor child in her arms. He was not kinglike at all, and she was perhaps poorer than their own servants. And yet, they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The wise men did not take back their gifts. But with great resolve and confidence, nurtured by the Holy Word of the prophet and the gentle prodding of an elusive star, they accepted the Christ Child as a king and fell on their knees and worshipped him. That is the wonder of Epiphany. The wise men did not find the new born where they expected in the Royal Palace of the King in Jerusalem, or among the priest of the Temple. They found the king among the lowly people of Bethlehem. Rather they found him in the place least expected. That is where we often find God.
And what happened to the Wise Men once they left Bethlehem? They had to make a second choice. They certainly didn’t remain long in the star’s “royal beauty bright.” According to scripture, they needed to return to their home country. You see, as soon as they stopped in that place of overwhelming joy, they remembered their secret meeting with Herod, and they knew that they had to make a decision. At that moment, they were caught in between their joy and their fear. Should they trust the mystery of an elusive Christmas star and the witness of Holy Scripture and walk by faith? Or should they follow the order of a ruthless, worldly king?
In these moments of danger, Wise Men and Women must reach beyond this world for hope and trust and choose. That is how people of faith always live. You have to take a chance – you have to make a commitment before all the evidence is in – before the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted. The wise men of old were led by their hungering for knowledge and truth, sustained by God’s Word and a mysterious revealing star, and they took a chance: they committed themselves to a tiny child. The Wise Men took a chance and worshipped him. In moments of danger, we must make a choice. To choose the way of fear, or the way of hope. My friends, God offers the mystery of his Christmas star and His Holy Word as a sign to give us hope.
We don’t know what it was like for the Wise Men when they arrived back home. After the shimmering splendor of the star’s light and the wonder and mystery of the new king’s birth, the old world of the East must have seemed rather mundane- like going back to work. And after all that…did it make a difference back home on Monday morning, taking out the garbage, changing the diapers, paying the bills, riding the bus, calling on the clients, planning the birthday party, and all the thousand and one things that it takes to live.
And what about the truly anxious moments- the doctor’s diagnosis that seems less than optimistic, the sorrow of the empty chair at your Christmas table, the marriage that is still like walking on egg shells. The message of the Wise Men is that in the painful, dark moments in life, God’s mysterious presence informed by His Word presence inspires us to discover new directions. For the Wise Men, it was about going home another way … about avoiding Herod. God used the star to reassure them on their journey. My friends, the promise of the Christmas star is that God will use equally mysterious ways to inspire and lead you to a safer place.
It is said that life is a journey. The Wise Men knew this truth more than others. It is my prayer this New Year, that you might become more and more like the kingly Wise Men of old … searching, seeking and following the radiance and brightness of God, and listening to His Word. For at the journey’s end you too will be met by a Savior who knows you, and loves and cares for you, more than you know yourself, and he will offer you his overwhelming joy to comfort you all your days. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.