Wise men part 1

  • Christmas seemed to come and go fast this year. The time for singing carols and wishing peace and goodwill to all is about finished. The presents have been handed out. The decorations are coming down. The trees are being dismantled. The checkout clerks are no longer wearing the red hats.

    In the church tradition, however, we celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, being the 12 days after Christmas, recognizing the coming of the wise men who follow the star to Bethlehem to find Jesus.

    I ran across an amusing story a Pastor told about growing up in his home church. He wrote, “I was told that I was a real handful when I was growing up. My home church always put on a Christmas play with the children of the church. And one evening, I was being especially disruptive downstairs as some of the younger children were getting ready for their parts in the play, and my pastor came downstairs to try and bring us under some sort of control. I was playing one of the wise men that night. Rather than yelling at us, he saw a teaching moment in the midst of the chaos of the Christmas program. He found an ingenious way to get the wise men to settle down. He told us that the first one to find the place in the Bible where it spoke of the three wise men would get the $100 bill he flashed before us out of his wallet. I ran around the church looking for the first Bible I could find. I knew it was in the New Testament, but I wasn’t sure where. I also knew that it was in one or more of the first few books in the New Testament. Luckily, I turned to Matthew 2:1-12 and saw the heading printed on the page that read, The Visit of the Wise Men.”

    Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”

    King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

    ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah, for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.”

    Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

    After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

    12 When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

    The Pastor continued, “I read on through the story and I knew I had found it. The other wise men weren’t nearly so wise as I was. I proudly exclaimed that I had found it first and that I would happily accept my $100 bill. But you see, my pastor went to Duke, and he wasn’t nearly so dim-witted as to put $100 of his own money on the line knowing that he might lose it to some smart-alecky kid who got lucky in finding a passage of Scripture. He reminded me of the terms of his challenge. He said that I had to find the section in the Bible where it spoke of the THREE wise men. Once again, I pointed to the section and said, “Give me my money!” He asked me to read it to him. And so I did. And you know what I discovered? I discovered that the Bible never mentions that there were three wise men. It only says that there were wise men from the east and doesn’t include the number of wise men that were there. All that is said is that there was more than just one. I had been had! And when I learned Greek, I realized that the masculine plural could also include women in the group. In Greek, if you have a group of 100 women and only one man, you must put that word in the masculine plural. What my pastor taught me that night has stuck with me ever since. It is of supreme importance that we read what the Bible actually says and not just what we think it might say. If we read what is there, we will quickly see just how little we know about the Magi. We know there was more than one of them. We know they came from the East, which would mean they were Gentiles. We know they brought gifts to Jesus of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The only real place you could get frankincense and myrrh was in Saudi Arabia. But that doesn’t mean the Magi were from there. We know they followed a strange star in the sky that led them to Jesus. And we know they paid the young child homage as though he were a king. We really don’t even know how old Jesus was when the Magi got there other than the fact that he was no older than two because Herod ordered the killing of all children two and younger once the wise men didn’t return.”

    There is a lot of speculation about how far they traveled and how long it took since all we know is they came from the East. I know some things though. Historical records indicate long distant travel of any kind was dangerous with thieves and robbers plaguing many of the roads of the day. Three guys on camels carrying gold, frankincense and myrrh would be sitting ducks.

    There would be a caravan traveling together which at that time could consist of 300 people. That would have explained the stir they caused when they rode into Jerusalem. And the fact that these Kings or Magi had no trouble gaining an audience with King Herod gives us a pretty good idea that these were men of prominence.

    So, we’re looking at more than just three guys out for a ride on their camels. This was a large band of men who’d come a great distance over dangerous roads. Just to prepare for their journey would have taken months. That’s why most scholars believe these folks didn’t arrive until about two years after Christ’s birth.

    Now these wise men had gone to a great deal of trouble. And they’d traveled a great distance. And they’d spent a great deal of money to get to their destination. Why would they? Why go to all the trouble?

    Well, because they’d been reading about Jesus for a really long time. Remember the story about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? How about the story about Daniel and the Lion’s Den? They lived most of their lives in Babylon in that nation in the East. It is a possibility that the Magi may have been the descendants of those Jews in captivity.

    Just like the wise men, we all go on a search to find Jesus as our lord and Savior. Not every search is easy nor is every quest fast. But, the answers that lie at the end of that search are well worth the difficulties that we may face.

    Once we find Jesus as our Lord and savior, he’s worthy of our praise and worship. He’s worthy of our talents and our God given gifts. He’s worthy of our worship both because of who He is, and what’s he’s done on our behalf.

    Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.