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Visit of the Wise Men"
Every year during Advent and Christmas, I like to point out, and even emphasize, the humility of the context into which Christ was born. His was a humble world: the status of his parents, the location of his birth, the circumstances of his birth, his first visitors.
Indeed, one might conclude that God went out of Godís way to ensure that this birth would be of the lowliest estate.
And this all fits in quite well, I think, with the life and teachings of Jesus. He was baptized by John, a model of humility. He chose twelve disciples who really did not seem to have anything in particular to recommend them.
He opened his sermon on the mount by pronouncing blessings on the poor, the meek, the mournful...well, you get the idea. He preached that the last would be first. For Jesus there was no place for selfishness or arrogance.
And Paul said of him, in his letter to the Philippians, that he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death.
But into all of this context of humility, scripture throws a wrench. And in the second chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, we discover that Jesus had some visitors who did not fit the pattern.
"In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem."
Now, we take these fellows pretty much for granted. They decorate our nativity scenes and our Christmas programs almost as if they showed up at the same time as the shepherds. We enjoy their colorful robes and hats. We sing a Christmas carol which turns them into kings, although they probably were not. My Bible footnotes them as being astrologers, and they probably were.
And we are told that they came from the East, probably another country, and I think that is especially important.
So, what are they up to? They are 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."
Now, the ONLY folks who could be saying "we observed his star" are astrologers, even though most of us look down our noses at astrologers nowadays. The only folks who might observe in the stars that a king has been born to a nation would be astrologers.
But what on earth are we to make of the statement that "we have come to pay him homage"? Why would they do that?
I think there are a few reasons for this somewhat offbeat story being tied in to the birth of Christ.
For one thing, I think God wanted us to know that knowledge of the birth was available to more than the shepherds in the fields, even though we may find it odd that astrologers were the ones to have this knowledge.
For another, I think God wanted us to know that knowledge of the birth was beyond Judea, beyond Israel.
And one more thing: I think God wanted us to know that there were those beyond the boundaries of Israel who considered this birth so important that they should make a pilgrimage to find the child and pay him homage.
Well, these guys ask lots of questions. They have a general idea of where this new king has been born, but they figure that once they get close they can just ask around and folks will KNOW where that child is.
"When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him."
Now, I suspect that this is a bit of overstatement. Herod may have felt threatened, but most of the folks in Jerusalem who heard about this may have been more puzzled than anything. Sure, they were looking for a Messiah, but a new-born child?
And what did these strangers know, anyway?
So Herod "called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, and inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born."
Well, these are the ones who are supposed to know. But isnít it interesting that in the birth story in Luke, God doesnít bother to send out messengers to the chief priests and scribes. But God DOES send messengers to the shepherds.
I suspect that God put this event on a "need-to-know" basis. And the chief priests and scribes didnít need to know. But the shepherds did.
Now, think about that. How has God chosen whom to tell and whom not to tell? Why the shepherds and the wise men, but not the chief priests and the scribes?
In a prayer in the eleventh chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will."
But in the birth story, news of the birth has been made known to those who are grateful to hear such news: the shepherds and the wise men from the East.
Well, the chief priests and the scribes have an answer for Herod:
"They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: "And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel."
The prophet is Micah, who, in the second verse of the fifth chapter, proclaimed, "But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days."
So the chief priests and the scribes do know their prophecy. They just donít know when the Messiah will be born.
But again, notice where God has chosen to have the Messiah born. Not only is Bethlehem a humble place, but it has an inferiority complex. Micah identified it as "one of the little clans."
But the chief priests and scribes recalled the prophet as saying that Bethlehem was "by no means least" among the rulers of Judah, as if to reaffirm that it did have some value.
Now, I said that the news of the birth had been made know to the shepherds and the wise men; but we might also think of the wise men as secondary messengers. By asking the question, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?" they are, in effect, telling others that this birth has taken place, even though they donít know where it is.
So Herod has this information from the wise men; and he has information of the location from the chief priests and the scribes. He should be all set to find this child.
"Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared."
And we immediately know that Herod is up to no good. Why else would he "secretly" call for the wise men? Learning the "exact time" that the star had appeared is probably necessary to Herod to find out how much of a head start this birth has on him.
If a child was born, WHEN was it born? How old would it be now?
It is not difficult to understand Herodís position in all of this, from those first words, "he was frightened." But do the wise men understand this? What, exactly, is their relationship to Herod? How do they see him? To them, is he a known or an unknown quantity?
And what do they know of the Jewish people, of their expectations for a Messiah? When they look for a child who has been born king of the Jews, how do they understand that? There is much here about which we can only speculate.
But when meeting with the wise men, Herod
"sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."
Yes, the king who was frightened by word of the child who has been born king of the Jews wants to know where he is so that he may also go and pay him homage.
And we should have our doubts. But isnít it interesting that if these wise men had not shown up asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?" Jesus birth might have been a secret for years beyond his family and the shepherds.
So maybe it was necessary for the wise men to arrive in Judea so that this birth could become a subject of public conversation. At least for a while.
"When the wise men had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was."
So the wise men have directions from King Herod, who got them from the chief priests and the scribes, but as they continue on their way, the star is still with them.
And I have to wonder: which was more important, the information regarding Bethlehem or the guidance of the star?
So often in life we go looking for specific instructions from others to get to where we think we need to be going, while God continues to provide signs and symbols for us. But are we aware of how important, and how useful, Godís help is to us?
Personally, I think that the wise men would eventually have found the child even without directions from Herod. But, they probably thought that asking directions would speed them to their destination.
"When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy."
The journey is at an end. They have reached their destination. But more than that. This is not just any trip.
And I doubt that these wise men, these astrologers, did a great deal of long-distance traveling from country to country. It simply was not done in those days, except by armies. This was a very special trip to begin with. And, it is a divinely-guided trip.
They place their trust in stars, and they have been following a star.
Now, scripture tells us, "the star had stopped." But there is more than an end-point to this journey. The wise men have been journeying not to find a place, but to find a person. And, it is their understanding that this person is destined to be a king, the king of the Jews.
I really think that they had no idea of the messianic implications of this childís birth. And how could they have known the meaning of this childís birth, and life, and death carried across two thousand years?
They were overwhelmed with joy, just to have found "the child who has been born king of the Jews."
"On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh."
And we have gifts fit for a king. But for an EARTHLY king! And, as I noted earlier, these wise men have broken the rules for a humble birth.
"And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road."
No, the wise men donít fit the formula of the second chapter of Luke. But Matthew has given us another perspective, has opened our eyes to another way of viewing this miraculous birth.
Persons who are NOT Jewish, who are NOT looking for a Messiah, have journeyed to a foreign land to find a king. They find him. And they are overwhelmed with joy. Amen.
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