One of my friends in North Carolina tells of her brother’s family driving into Thomasville [NC], where their cousins and aunts and uncles were, for a Christmas season get-together. As they passed by the Episcopal church where a manger scene was in the yard, her 5-year-old nephew asked about the meaning. “That is Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus, there in the manger,” Jean’s sister-in-law explained.
A few blocks further on they passed the Methodist church, where a scene was depicting the journey of the Wise Men. “Who are they?” the nephew asked.
His mother replied, “Those are the Wise Men, who are looking for the Baby Jesus.”
“Well,” the nephew said, “they won’t find him there. He’s down at the other church.”(1)
The annual observance of the birth of our Savior is almost over – Epiphany, recalling the visit of the Wise Men is commemorated today, January 6, and ends the liturgical celebration, following the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” No gifts of turtle doves, French hens or partridges in pear trees; rather the more traditional gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Lots of legends have grown up around this story of the Three Kings, one of which is that they were “three kings.” The gospel account does not say there were three of them…or five or ten or thirty. The idea of THREE KINGS came when the three gifts were given – one each. (Some wag has suggested that there were actually FOUR kings, but the fourth one’s gift was a fruitcake, so he was not allowed in.) Names and personal descriptions have even been assigned: Caspar – young, beardless, ruddy complexion; Balthazzar – a bit older, dark-skinned, a new beard; Melchior – old, grey hair, long beard.(2) Really? We have no idea.
What about their being kings? Probably not. Matthew calls them “wise men from the East” – MAGOI in the Greek (which is where we get our term MAGI) – probably astrologers which explains why they would have noticed and then been so excited about coming across something unusual in the sky. As they would later say to Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him.” Not unheard of in that day – the idea that heavenly signs marked the births and deaths of great leaders was widely accepted.(3) What they saw excited them, even enough to make them drop what they were doing and follow the star.
There is a wonderful lesson for us right there – these three (or four, or however many) met God in the midst of doing what they were supposed to do: they were at work. God is not limited to meeting with us in a certain place (a church) or at a certain hour (11 AM Sundays). God can and does speak to us ANYWHERE and ANYTIME. The lesson is BE ALERT!
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Another lesson is in their willingness to take action. They could have noted the appearance of the star in their log books, indicated their conviction that this phenomenon probably heralded something or someone very special, and then gone about their business. But no. They put commitment to their conviction, feet to their faith, and commenced a journey (which was no doubt difficult and dangerous at times) all because they knew, at the end, they would finally meet the new king. When God presents us with some new opportunity, are we willing to get up off our rusty-dusty and begin a journey of faith? The story of the Wise Men says there is something special that awaits at the finish.
One of the things that has intrigued me about this story is the incredible wrong turn these folks took as they neared the end of their trip. Instead of following the star to Bethlehem, they stopped off in Jerusalem to ask directions of Herod (which has caused someone to suggest that this is why these folks are famous in the first place – they are the only men in history ever known to stop and ask directions). In a way the visit with Herod might be expected though: after all, they were convinced that they were coming to welcome a new “King of the Jews,” presumably Herod’s baby son. Oops. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we know the trouble that slip caused. But the lesson for us is in noting where the directions to get them back on track came from: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” and the response, “In Bethlehem in Judea; for this is what the prophet has written…” They found their way again when they went to scripture. What does God expect of us? We do not have to guess. The vast majority is found in the pages of this holy book.
Of course, our friends DID get back on track, found Jesus and gave him their gifts. There is even a lesson for us in those. Gold? It is easy for gold to become god; over and over Jesus noted how hard it was for any of us to manage money and keep it in proper perspective. Put it to use in the service of the Christ child, and we begin to break its dangerous hold on us. Frankincense? They burned that in the temple as a symbol of prayer. Bring the Lord your hopes, your dreams, your petitions, and don’t forget your thanks. Finally, myrrh, a spice used by the ancients as medicine and for embalming. Tradition says that the gift was given in anticipation of Christ’s crucifixion and death. Perhaps it was also given to encourage us to bring him our sorrows and sadness, our depressions and despair, because then the “medicine” of the Great Physician goes to work and the healing process can begin. Gold, frankincense, myrrh – not only gifts of the Magi, but gifts from you and me as well. Lots of lessons in such a short passage, but these days, as we approach the uncertainty of a new year, we need all the help we can get, don’t we?
* Lesson 1: Just as the Wise Men, be ready to meet God in the midst of our everyday activities, then get up and follow the star;
* Lesson 2: What you believe should determine how you behave. Be willing to put feet on your faith; then get going and follow the star;
* Lesson 3: Scripture is a wonderful resource if you want to know God’s direction for your life; get good directions, then follow the star;
* Lesson 4: Do not worry about what gifts you bring; each is appropriate in its own way as you follow the star.
Where is the light of that star leading you in 2002? At the moment, it rests above the table, and, as we might expect, it leads us to Jesus. Follow the star!
1. Jean Rodenbough via PresbyNet, ECULAUGH #3921, 1/1/97
2. William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, Daily Study BibleSeries, rev. ed., (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), p. 31
3. Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (New York: Doubleday, 1993), p. 170
— Copyright 2002, David E. Leininger.Used by permission.