They weren’t kings, they didn’t visit Jesus on the night that he was born, and there probably were not three of them. There. That should shatter at least some of the myths that we have about the wise men. Unfortunately, much of what we do tend to believe about the wise men comes from some really bad Christmas carols written by some terribly misinformed authors who didn’t bother to read their Bibles before they sat down to write their hymns. And that’s why, even on the Sunday that we celebrate the coming of the wise men, that we usually don’t sing any carols about them.
So, who in the world were these wise guys anyway? Modern scholarship has some pretty interesting theories that range from a band of traveling thieves who ditched their loot on a brand new family in Bethlehem, to escape prosecution, to something that actually resembles the truth.
We don’t know how many wise men there were. Matthew, in his telling of this story, did not bother to tell us. It is somewhat likely that there were more than three who mistakenly arrived in Jerusalem, but not all of them may have been wise men. Some of them might have been thugs or goons, or even soldiers who had been hired for protection. It is reasonable to assume that the wise men were on the road for somewhere between 18 and 24 months, and that they would have needed some sort of protection for their journey. The 18 to 24 months that I just mentioned factors in the distance that they probably traveled, some generous space for Herod’s paranoia, and the age of Jesus when they arrived, at last, in Bethlehem.
The wise men were probably astrologers by trade, if not by hobby. The Bible calls them “Magi”, which is a very uncomplimentary term. Magi means “magician” at best, and “deceiver” at worst. Even today, a magician is someone who successfully deceives us. The magi who visited Jesus were likely highly venerated in their own land, because they might have been experts in extracting information from people’s horoscopes, which is for me, an absolute hoot! It is mind bending. From a biblical point of view, the study of astrology is an abomination. Consulting the stars, foretelling the future, anything that has to do with astrology, is strictly forbidden. From a biblical point of view, the stars have nothing to say to us, other than that, like the rest of the heavens, they declare the Glory of the Lord.
And yet, the God who created the heavens and the earth, the God who created you and me, the God who often does things in a way that is strangely reversed from the way that we might expect or demand, put a star up in the sky that caught the attention of some pagan, Arab astrologers, who furthermore determined that the star’s rising indicated that a new king had been born in Israel.
Now, how did they know that? What made them think that? I haven’t a clue. But this I do know. The God who so loved the world, and who is constantly wooing the citizens of this world into relationship, wooed those ancient wise men by agency of their pagan astrology. They had no Scriptures, they had no concept of prayer, they did not know the God of creation, and yet they heard and they understood. Our God is a God of glorious paradoxes. What makes no sense at all to us, makes perfect sense to God. We must learn to allow God to surprise us. For it is not we who determine the ways of God.
And so, in obedience to a God they had never met, the wise men made the journey. It is possible that they came from Turkey, or Iran or Iraq, or some other place. If not for God’s wooing, one would have to have an awfully good reason to make that journey; it is always much easier to stay put, even if a new king has been born. None of us has ever traveled to see a new king. The wise men might have been better served if they had simply noted the significance of the star, and jotted it down in their log books. Perhaps a lot of sorrow and grief would have been prevented. But because they had been wooed by God, because they felt the tug, they responded.
God is constantly tugging at us. God is continually wooing us. God is always inviting us into a deeper, yet more challenging relationship. But God’s tug, God’s woo, while it is always present, is also very much resistible. And we do, all too often, resist it. And we resist it, because we know all too well, that to respond to it, will require some change; some type of transformation in our lives. Perhaps for purposes of our setting this morning, we could say that God is wooing us to embark upon a journey of faith. That journey will take us to places that we cannot yet fully imagine. But there will also be challenges; there will be challenges to our comfort, challenges to our perceived place in this life, perhaps even to our power and authority that we have used until now to direct our own lives and the lives of others. Challenges can be frightening, but if there is no challenge, there can be no transformation.
And having been wooed and challenged, the wise men headed for Jerusalem, because it made sense to them that a new king would be found in the capital city of Israel. But when they arrived, after many months of travel, there was no new king in evidence. I wonder what that felt like? How could something that seemed to be so right, have turned out to be so utterly wrong? Where is he who is born king of the Jews? We’ve come all this distance to find nothing? Nothing at all? That question, though, stirred up the paranoia of man who fancied himself as a king. Herod is suddenly interested, but like the rest of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, he has heard nothing about the birth of a new king. For Herod, though, there is a problem, and it is a big one. If there is, in fact, a new king, Herod needs to act. Because of his over-inflated ego, Herod will tolerate no competition to his power and authority at all. He has killed before, and he will kill again. Even Herod’s own son did not escape Herod’s paranoia. The son died while he and dad wore cavorting playfully in Herod’s swimming pool. And when Herod is upset, the whole nation is upset, because nobody wants to witness another fresh exhibition of Herod’s anger. Usually there is much blood and much death involved, when Herod gets angry, as we will very likely discover next week.
Herod calls, then, for the chief priests and scribes. He asks them, where is the Messiah to be born? Now don’t miss this. Herod is much more intelligent than he looks. Herod’s not asking about a king. He’s asking about a messiah. Somehow, in a way unknown to us, Herod has made the leap from king to messiah. Herod knows where kings come from, and they really don’t trouble him all that much. But somehow, Herod knows that a messiah is something else altogether. Perhaps he’s heard rumors that among the common people that there is a high expectation of a coming messiah who would set all wrongs right and who would establish a kingdom that would abolish all others. If the rumors are true, Herod would consider that to be a problem. Kings can easily be dispatched. Messiahs might present more of a challenge. And so Herod goes straight to the source. He goes to the religious leaders and inquires about a messiah.
The answer is very easy. The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. It has been prophesied. And so Herod sends the wise men off to Bethlehem to find the child, with strict instructions to report back to him with their findings.
And so the wise men go. And they find the house, and they kneel down, and they worship, and they present their gifts.
The wise men came to Jerusalem looking for a king. When they arrived in Bethlehem, they found the Messiah. They made their journey to pay homage to a king, but they worshiped the savior of the world. They were looking for a king in a palace, but they found the Son of God in what was probably a rented house.
What else did they learn about Jesus? As the wise men spent time with Mary and Joseph, they must have learned everything that Mary and Joseph knew. What a story of hope, tragedy, and joy the two of them must have shared! How amazing that Mary and Joseph had also been on a strange and wondrous journey; a journey different from the one the wise men engaged in, but bringing them all into the presence of the savior. All of them had lives that were radically and dramatically transformed. All of them, at some point, chose to become participants, with God, in the most amazing event in all of human history. Participating with God always involves risk. And that risk is abundantly clear in Mary’s life, in Joseph’s life, and in the lives of however many wise men there may have been. The invitation to participate with God has always and always will involve risk taking. Signing on with God is never safe. But in that risk, there is profound blessing.