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Advent 2019 #7

The Wise Men

A few times throughout this Advent season, the point has been made that God, in Christmas, used so many common, ordinary people.

People such as Mary, a young woman who lived in the northern Israeli town of Nazareth, far away from the big capital city of Jerusalem.

And Joseph, who was self-sufficient economically. He was a carpenter, but he had little wealth. He, too, was a resident of Nazareth.

And some shepherds in a field near Jesus’ birthplace of Bethlehem. A group looked down upon by most normal Jewish people because the shepherds, out in fields, could not follow Jewish laws about things like proper hand washing and worship and resting on sabbath days.

Bethlehem is another example of God using what was common and ordinary. Bethlehem was near the capital city of Jerusalem, but it was not Jerusalem. It was another small town, little regarded by most people 2000 years ago.

Over and over again, what was common and ordinary was used by God in Christmas. A point made in one of our Advent messages is that what God did is encouraging for people like me who, in the eyes of the world, are unimportant. If God could use people like me 2000 years ago, people like me can still be used by God. That is good news.

However, it was not only common, ordinary people God used. Today, we consider another part of the Christmas report. A group that was anything but common. A group of extraordinary importance. A group we call the Wise Men. For them, please open your Bible to Matthew 2. 

Matthew 2 begins with the words, “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold, men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?’”

The men from the East were the Wise Men. Part of a group of men who lived in what was at that time the Persian Empire, which today is Iran.

Here is a description of those men. That group in the Persian Empire.

First, they were not Persian men, but Median. Some time in the past, the Persians had conquered the Medes, so the Medes were part of the Persian Empire.

Sometime after the conquering, the Medes, not wanting to be controlled by the Persians, rebelled. The rebellion failed, which normally at that time in history would have resulted in mass executions of all Medes. However, that did not happen. Instead, the Medes were allowed to live, which turned out very well for both the Medes and the Persians.

The benefit for the Medes was that they survived. The benefit for the Persians was that the Medes reacted to the mercy shown to them by giving up rebellious ideas, instead turning their attention and energy to scholarly and religious pursuits.

The Medians - at least some of the men of the Medes - studied a wide variety of subjects, including philosophy, medicine, and natural science, plus astronomy and religion. The studying by some of the Median men was so intense and included so many subjects, they became known as Wise Men.

How that helped the Persians was that the Wise Men were so well-educated, they became teachers of others, especially of those who were the children of the Persian rulers.

Concerning the study of religion, the Wise Men had, over the years, become so devoted - so religious - they became accepted as priests. So much so that it had become the rule that no religious sacrifice was allowed anywhere in the Persian Empire unless a Wise Man was present.

As mentioned, the Wise Men studied many subjects. In Matthew 2, it was the subjects of astronomy and religion that have the most relevance because one night, the Wise Men saw a star in the sky they had never seen before. Because of their study of astronomy, they looked at the stars in the sky each night. That night, there was a new star. A star that was very bright. Brighter than any other star they had ever seen.

The star was off to the west. It was right over where the Wise Men knew Israel was. Persia was east of Israel, hence the wording that they were from the East.

The star especially attracted the attention of the Wise Men because there was, at that time, an expectation among the Jewish people that a new king was about to come to save them. An expectation the Wise Men knew about because of their study of religion. All religions, including the Jewish faith.

The Wise Men knew the religious expectations of the Jewish people. The night recorded in Matthew 2, the Wise Men saw a new, very bright star shining over Israel, which was the homeland of the Jewish people. The Wise Men put those two things together and came up with the conclusion that maybe the new king had arrived. That the star, which was an amazing change in the normal patterns of the sky, was the sign of that arrival. That the star was God’s announcement He had sent the Savior of His people.

How did the Wise Men respond to what they saw? They could have treated the star as just an interesting phenomenon to write about. Or they could do something about what they saw.

The Wise Men became part of Christmas when they decided to go to Israel, over which the star shined. Their decision was to go meet the new king they assumed the star announced.

I think the Wise Men’s decision is amazing because the Jewish faith was not the faith of the Wise Men and because of the sacrifices required in traveling from Persia to Israel, a distance of almost a thousand miles one way. There would be another thousand-mile journey back home. Sacrifices of time, energy, and money.

Of course, not every Wise Man in Persia made the journey. Some had to stay home to continue to study and teach and oversee religious ceremonies. And for those who went, it took some time to prepare and make arrangements and pack. But some Wise Men did go - some made the sacrifices to go from Persia to Israel.

How long the trip took is not recorded, though it is implied in the Bible it was two years between the time the Wise Men saw the star and when they arrived in Israel.

Upon arriving, the Wise Men went to Jerusalem. That certainly made sense. Jerusalem was the capital city of the Jewish people. It was the logical place for them to go to meet a new king.

But when the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem, they found no excitement. No joy. Not even any awareness about having a new king in the area.

So the Wise Men asked, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews?” They explained. “We have seen His star. We saw His star when we were back east in Persia.”

The Wise Men added, “We have come to worship the new king, but we need to know where He is. Does anyone know?”

Apparently no one knew. Apparently the Wise Men had to ask many, many people. They asked so many people, eventually King Herod, the Roman ruler of the area, heard about the question being asked by visitors to the city.

When Herod the king heard about the question about a new king, he was troubled. After all, he was the king and had no intention of ever not being the king. Hearing about a new king - one he knew nothing about - was very troubling for him.

Herod had a history of taking violent action to protect his authority, so when he became troubled, so, too, did everyone else in Jerusalem become troubled. They were afraid as they braced themselves for Herod’s violent response.

However, Herod’s response was not violent. Instead, it was inquisitive. At least it appeared to be.

Herod assembled the chief priests and the scribes, who were the religious leaders of the Jewish people, and asked them where the Christ - where, according to Jewish Scripture, the one about whom the Wise Men asked - was to be born.

The religious leaders had the answer right away. They told Herod that the Savior was to be born in Bethlehem, a little town five or six miles south. They knew the answer from Old Testament prophecy.

With that information, Herod summoned the Wise Men to a meeting, at which he shared what he had learned. He then invited the Wise Men to go to Bethlehem and search diligently for the new king. For the one who had recently been born to become the new king. 

Herod added two requests. Herod asked the Wise Men when they had seen the star, which was about two years earlier. He then asked them, after they found the new king, to return to Jerusalem and tell him where the new king was.

Herod was on his good behavior during his meeting with the Wise Men, including his explanation of why he wanted the Wise Men to return. He said he wanted to know where the new king was so he, too, could find Him, and worship the new king.

After the meeting with Herod, the Wise Men left Jerusalem and headed for Bethlehem. As soon as their journey began, a miracle happened. It was another miracle concerning what was in the sky. The first miracle had been the star appearing when they were back in the Persian Empire. Now another miracle. The star the Wise Men had seen - the star that had attracted their attention two years earlier - suddenly appeared again.

And this time, it did not just appear and hang in place, as in over Israel. This time it moved. Remember Herod had invited the Wise Men to search diligently for the new king. They actually did not have to search at all. The star moved, going before the Wise Men, leading them to the very place where Jesus was.

Remember this was two years after Jesus’ birth, so the Wise Men arrived, not at the stable in which He had been born, but now a house. It was over a house the star stopped.

What a wonderful sight the star was for the Wise Men. How easy it made this part of their journey. It is recorded they “rejoiced with exceeding great joy” when the star appeared.

When they arrived at the house where the star led them, the Wise Men entered it and saw Jesus and His mother Mary. The Wise Men then worshiped Jesus.

How amazing it is the Wise Men worshiped Jesus. The Wise Men were educated. They were important. They were rich, which their gifts were about to display. They were obviously a lot older than Jesus. But they worshiped the new king, though He was just two years old. They worshiped Him because they knew the child had come to save God’s people.

The Wise Men then gave Jesus gifts. Gifts they had brought with them on their nearly thousand mile journey.

One of the Wise Men gave Jesus some gold. That gift is symbolic. It was a gift fit for a king, which means that Wise Man proclaimed Jesus was a king.

Another Wise Man gave Jesus some frankincense. That, too, is a symbolic gift. A gift appropriate for a priest. It is what priests used in worship services. That gift meant that Wise Man knew Jesus would be a priest. The one needed to take people’s cares, concerns, and prayers to God.

A third Wise Man gave Jesus some myrrh, which was a spice used to anoint the body of a person who had died. That Wise Man knew Jesus had been born to be the Savior who would die for the sins of the world.

After worshiping Jesus, which included them giving Him gifts, the Wise Men left. Their intent, of course, was to return to Jerusalem and report to Herod. That is what Herod had asked them to do. Remember Herod had been on good behavior. He had asked nicely. And he had said he wanted to worship the new king, too. That was a good thing. And Herod certainly had the authority to make the request to return and expect it to be honored.

However, shortly after leaving Jesus, each of the Wise Men had a dream, in which they were all warned to not return to Herod.

The Wise Men obeyed the dreams. Instead of going straight north to Jerusalem, they veered to the northeast, leaving for the Persian Empire that way.

*       *       *       *       *

What wonderful miracles are found in the Wise Men’s part of Christmas.

One miracle is the unspoken teaching that Jesus had come, not only for common, ordinary people, but for important people, too.

The star the Wise Men saw when they were in the Persian Empire was a miracle. So was the Wise Men’s response to the star.

The reappearance of the star, which led the Wise Men right to where Jesus was living, was a miracle. So was the fact the Wise Men worshiped Jesus.

And the dreams warning the Wise Men to avoid Herod and the Wise Men’s obedience were miracles.

What wonderful miracles. And one thing that appears to be sad. Something I mention just about every year when we think about the Wise Men.

When the Wise Men departed to their own country by another way, there is nothing more recorded about them. Nothing about them being excited. Nothing about them telling others what they had seen and done. They simply returned, I assume to their regular studies and responsibilities.

The way I read it, that was it. At least there is no record that they or others back home were affected by what had happened to the Wise Men.

If that is what happened, it is a sad part of the report. But even then, let’s rejoice at what the Wise Men did in traveling to meet and worship Jesus, and what they announced with their gifts, which is that Jesus is the king, the priest, and the sacrifice we all need.

All of us, common and important alike.

Let’s sing about that. We Three Kings of Orient Are. We will sing verses 1 and 2, then the chorus, then verses 3 and 4, followed by the chorus, then finish with verse 5 and the chorus.

We three kings of Orient are,

Bearing gifts we traverse afar

Field and fountain, moor and mountain,

Following yonder star.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,

Gold I bring to crown Him again,

King forever, ceasing never

Over us all to reign.

O star of wonder, star of night,

Star with royal beauty bright,

Westward leading, still proceeding,

Guide us to thy perfect light.

Frankincense to offer have I,

Incense to a Deity nigh;

Prayer and praising voices raising

Worship Him, God most high. 

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume

Breathes a life of gathering gloom:

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,

Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

O star of wonder, star of night,

Star with royal beauty bright,

Westward leading, still proceeding,

Guide us to thy perfect light.

Glorious now behold Him arise,

King and God and Sacrifice;

Alleluia, Alleluia!

Sounds through the earth and skies.

O star of wonder, star of night,

Star with royal beauty bright,

Westward leading, still proceeding,

Guide us to thy perfect light.

As we are in the beginning stages of a brand new year, let’s learn and apply all the lessons brought to us in Christmas.

Like the Wise Men, let’s worship Jesus, knowing He is our king, our priest, our sacrifice. 

Beyond that, and doing better than the Wise Men might have done, let’s be like the shepherds and tell others about Jesus, doing so with joy. As the shepherds told all those they met the night of Jesus’ birth, may we tell people we meet about the joy of Jesus.

Like Mary and Joseph, let’s be willing to fit into God’s plans for us. Even if we do not understand His plans. Even if God’s hopes for us are different from our plans.

Together this year, let’s know, proclaim, and use the hope, peace, joy, and love brought to us by Jesus. Amen.

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