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
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)
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.) Really? We have absolutely no idea.
Speaking of kings, the scripture calls them "Magi" which
translators have rendered "wise men" or "astrologers." The warm
and fuzzy interpretation of the story offers these visitors as
paradigms of faith in search of the divine. But the truth is, in
the days of Jesus, these folks were thought of as glorified
fortune-tellers. Our English words "magic" and "magician" come
from this word "magi." They were not so much respectable "wise
men" or "kings" but horoscope followers, a practice condemned by
Jewish tradition. Some have compared them to folks on the
Psychic Friends Network or other "occupations" that foretell the
future by stars, tea leaves, Tarot cards, etc. One writer
describes them this way: "The Magi would thus represent, to the
early Jewish reader, the epitome of Gentile idolatry and
religious hocus-pocus - dabblers in chicken gizzards, forever
trotting off here or there in search of some key to the future." (2)
Astrologers, then, 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 is 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 (Sunday mornings). God can and does speak to us ANYWHERE and
ANYTIME. The lesson is BE ALERT!
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?
Star of wonder, star of night,
- 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
- 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.
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light. (4)
Follow the star!
1. Jean Rodenbough via PresbyNet, ECULAUGH #3921, 1/1/97
2. Brian Stoffregen, "Gospel Notes for this Sunday," via Ecunet, #14225, 12/30/07
3. Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (New York: Doubleday, 1993), p. 170
4. John Henry Hopkins, "We Three Kings of Orient Are," 1857
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