Summary: The wise men provide for us an amazing example of true faith and genuine worship.
There are two kinds of people in this world, right? The “haves” and the “have-nots.” Or wait; is it the jocks and the nerds? Of course, there are the men and the women, and Republicans and Democrats. And we have the religious and the non-religious. I guess when it comes down to it; there are a lot more than two kinds of people, right? And the same would have been true about two thousand years ago, but when it came to the Hebrew Scriptures, there really were two kinds of people; those who studied them, and those who did something about them. So it is that we come this morning to the newest characters in the Christmas story, the wise men.
Modern tradition holds that the wise men arrived in Bethlehem twelve days after Jesus’ birth, but in actuality, it was probably more like two years! In fact, tradition has led us to assume many things about these men that the Bible does not tell us. For one, we often refer to them as “kings,” which is probably not accurate. To call them wise is probably fair, as the mostly likely possibility is that these men were astrologers. We have always referred to them as the “three wise men,” but we do not actually know their number; all we know for sure is that they brought three gifts on their long journey from the East.
These men had seen a very unusual star, or perhaps an unusual alignment of several stars. They clearly were quite learned in the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, enough to know that this pointed to a divine birth among the Jewish people. So, like captains charting a course by the stars in the middle of the vast ocean, these men set off to “follow” the star. And that’s the first thing I want to point out about the magi. They were nowhere near Jerusalem. They knew nothing for certain, only that this star seemed to indicate a royal birth among the Jews. Yet, they acted on what they did know from the Hebrew Scriptures and what they saw before them in the heavens, and they set off toward Jewish territory. Their journey brought them to the hillside country of Judea. And assuming that the star indicated a birth in the house of the ruler, they went first to the king, to Herod’s home. “Where is the King of the Jews?” they asked Herod. And with that question, they met those other sorts of people I mentioned earlier: the scribes who were charged with knowing and teaching the Hebrew Scriptures.
You see, Herod knew nothing of which the wise men spoke, but the fact that they inquired about the birth of a new king among the Jews was deeply troublesome to Herod. So it is that Herod calls in the scholars to gather further information. “Where is the Messiah to be born?” Herod asks. Well, to the chief priests and the legal experts, this was child’s play. “In Bethlehem of Judea, of course!” they tell Herod. They had all the information in front of them, the prophecies of their well-studied Scriptures, and the stars in the skies above them, but it hadn’t yet occurred to these Jewish scholars that their very own Messiah was among them. It was the Gentile astrologers from a far off land who embraced the mystery of what was before them and followed in faith.
Could you imagine, being right there in Jerusalem, just five miles from Bethlehem? You know the scriptures and prophecies backwards and forwards and yet, when the Messiah is born, you miss it?!? There is a valuable lesson here, one which those legal experts and chief priests learned on the day the wise men appeared in Herod’s court; sometimes, knowledge alone isn’t enough. Now, don’t get me wrong. Those magi had to know the Hebrew writings enough to piece together the meaning of the sign they saw in the sky, and they needed the help of the legal experts to gain that final piece of information that would lead them to Joseph and Mary’s doorstep. But, ultimately, it was faith that led them to set out on a journey that could lead them to who knows where. And we must have knowledge and faith, too. We must know what it is that God calls us to be looking for. We must know how Jesus has taught us to live. We must recognize the signs of God’s work in the world. And then, when we see the signs, when we feel the nudge of God pushing into new territory, when we hear Christ calling, we must go, even if we are uncertain of all that is to come; we must have faith to embrace God’s direction for our lives. And here’s the thing. If we can follow the example of the wise men in their pursuit of the divine child, we too will encounter the Messiah in new and amazing ways.