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Let’s begin by setting the record straight as to just who these visitors from the East where and where not. First, there may have been more or less than three of them. Three is just a guess based on the number of gifts they gave to the Christ child.
Second, we’re never told what their names were, so Melchior, Belshazar and Casper could just as easily have been Curly, Moe and Larry.
Third, they were not kings. The idea that they were ‘kings’ doesn’t appear until the 6th century AD. That explains why you won’t find, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” in any good Lutheran hymnal.
Fourth, they did not possess any special or secret wisdom. There are several accounts of Magi in the Old Testament. They serve kings, such as Pharoah in Egypt and Nebucahadnezzar in Babylon – which may explain where the idea that they were kings came from. They’re job is to interpret the king’s dreams. In both examples in the Scriptures, this is something which they could never seem to do. If they possessed some special wisdom, they would have surely known where to find the Christ child without having to ask? And really, how wise could they be if they asked King Herod of all people for advice? In fact, unless an angel had warned them otherwise, they would have reported back to Herod where the Christ could be found, and blown the whole under-cover operation of God.
Fifth, these men were Magi, which is the basis for our word “Magician.” They were astrologers, which is a whole lot different than an astronomer. Astronomers study stars and planets and other objects in outer space in order to better understand the universe in which we live. Astrologers study the stars and planets in order to print ridiculous predictions in the newspaper for those who are gullible enough to read horoscopes.
Why is it important to set the record straight on these men like this? It’s important because we shouldn’t think that these men came to worship the newborn king because they were royal or because they were wise. In fact, God is bringing ignorant and foolish gentiles to Christ. And that is important good news for all of us, for if God can lead these Magi to Christ, then maybe He can lead us to Christ too.
Matthew tells us that a star in the sky caught the attention of the Magi. Lots of astronomers have given lots thought to what that star could have been. And there are several possibilities based on actual historical, astrological events. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if at least one of them was actually correct.
In fact, find it entirely within the realm of possibility that the same Creator who made the sun and moon and the stars and put them in their places to be “signs for the seasons” could have just as easily and purposefully arranged those stars in just such a way that “when the time had fully come” there would be a particularly bright light in the sky to catch the attention of certain oriental star gazers who would be so moved to pack up and head out on a holy pilgrimage.
After all, it was just during the Christmas season just ended that we heard about how God moved the entire population of the Roman Empire, each to his hometown, just so a humble man named Joseph might take his humble wife named Mary to Bethlehem so that Jesus would be born exactly where the prophet Micah said He would be born. (Micah 5:2).
What we are touching on here is the 1st Article of the Creed and the ‘providence of almighty God, “the maker of heaven and earth.” When we confess what we believe to be true in these words, we are saying that we believe that God has ordered His entire creation in just such a way so as to accomplish His purpose. In other words, He creates all things in the beginning with the end clearly in sight as well as everything in between the beginning and the end.
Not only does He order all of human history to accomplish His purpose, but also all galactic history as well. Granted, this kind of divine control and management of “all things” can only be seen with the eyes of faith. Apart from faith, the whole idea of a divine designer and director is pure foolishness and the course of world history is explained by the consequences of previous actions and the effects of global warming.
But as we heard last Sunday in our Epistle reading from Ephesians 1, “In Christ, God has made known to us the mystery of his will… His plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph.1:9-10).
So, when you look at world history and the natural sciences with the eyes of faith, it not only gets a whole lot more interesting, it becomes a whole lot more meaningful.
Take for example the history of the nation of Judah. In the 6th century B.C. the nation of Babylon conquered Judah and deported it’s people to Babylon. The people of Judah were God’s chosen people. Now granted, that seems like a very strange way for God to treat His chosen people. And I’m sure that if we were one of those Israelites taken away into exile in Babylon, we would have wondered what going on? And we would have asked all of those questions that start with “why” and “what” like, “Why is God letting this happen to us?” and “What’s God’s purpose in this?”
And certainly, the mystery of God’s will in the Babylonian captivity is made known to us in the Bible and in Jesus Christ. God was disciplining His people for their unfaithfulness and disobedience.
But in looking back on this episode in human history, we notice that Babylon is a country to the East of Judah. And among the many wonderful things that Babylon was known for, one of them was their famous astrologers.
And one of the Israelite exiles to Babylon was a young man whose name was Daniel. And in Daniel, chapter 2, we read this, “Then the king [of Babylon] placed Daniel in a high position and …made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all it’s Magi.”
And don’t you just think that this holy and devout man of God would surely have told these Magi about the coming of a great king who would set the whole world right with God?
And if there was one prophesy in particular that would have certainly stuck with these astrologers it would have been the prophesy of that unwitting prophet named Balaam, who said, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: A STAR SHALL COME OUT OF ISREAL, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and it shall crush the forehead of [His enemies]…” (Numbers 24:17).
Let me ask you, when we read that strange story about this strange prophet in the the book of Numbers, did we ever consider that the Holy Spirit had inspired Balaam to make such a strange prophesy, so that centuries later a boy named Daniel might recite it to some Magi in Babylon, so that centuries later they would be moved to come from the east to worship the One who would be the King of the Jews?
I wonder if we ever realized the profound depth of meaning in that gospel song that we love to sing, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.”
What this means of course is that when these Magi pack up and head west, they do so on the basis of the Word of God that was proclaimed to them. They act on pure faith that is based on the Scriptures alone. And so maybe they were wise men after all.
St. Matthew reports the details as follows: the Magi saw the star “WHEN IT ROSE.” He doesn’t say that it remained in place for the duration of the journey. Most likely, the appearance of the star simply alerted them that the fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy as they had learned it from Daniel had finally arrived. There was no need to follow a star in the sky because they knew that the coming King would come from Judah.
And where else would you expect to find a king but in the capitol city, and so they went to Jerusalem.
But when they arrived no one seemed to know anything about it. Luther says that the Magi must have been amazed and disappointed when they arrived in Jerusalem. They must have expected a royal celebration with dancing, music and parades. Instead they found a lot of blank looks and strange questions that seemed to make everyone very nervous.
But once again, they hear the Scriptures proclaimed to them. “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 will shepherd my people Israel.” And on the basis of faith in God’s Word, they left Jerusalem for Bethlehem.
The sighting of the same star that put them on this journey when they were back East caused them to “rejoice exceedingly.” That it led them right to the “place where the child was,” prevented them from having to ask anymore embarrassing questions that could have exposed the child’s location to Herod.
“And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
So, what are we to make of this? What does the visitation of the Magi have to say to us? It says a couple of things.
First and most obvious is the fact that the first who are invited to come to Christ are shepherds and Magi. Rather than royalty and the religious leaders, it is the the lowest in Israel and the gentile from afar. It may seem that this is a strange way to introduce the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, but this is entirely consist with God’s approach to mankind. Jesus says, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
The Magi are the first of many gentiles who will follow in their footsteps, including you and me. Right from the start, we see that Jesus is not just the king of the Jews. He’s the king of the Jews and the non-Jews. No one has a monopoly on Him. He has come for all mankind, every race and language and color, every age and gender and background, every social standing and I.Q. level. He has come for the whole world.
And that leads to the second thing that we see here. Here we see God bending over backwards to reach out to those who live far away from Him. To the shepherds in the fields, He sent an angelic choir. For the Magi from the East, He provided a star in the sky. God subjected His own people to the Babylonian exile so that, in time, the Gentiles might know and be partakers of the mystery of the “unsearchable riches of Christ.”
As God called these gentiles to Christ by a star in the sky, He continued to call gentiles to Christ through the apostles and their inspired Word. He continues to call you and me to Christ in the same way.
As spectacular as that star in the sky must have been, the Holy Scriptures is the light that outshines that star by far. Peter writes to the Church saying, “We have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your heart.” (1Peter 1:19).
How fortunate we are, that simply by reading the Bible and hearing the Word, we are led to the same Christ as were the Magi. And not for the gifts that we would bring to Him, but for the gifts that He would give to us, the gifts of forgiveness and life and salvation are greater that all of the gold, frankincense and myrrh in the world could never buy.