In the Bible’s record of the events related to Christmas, there are three important announcements made by angels of God.
One announcement was made to Mary, which was that God had so favored her that He had chosen her to give birth to Jesus, the one who would grow up to be the Savior.
One was made to Joseph who, at the time Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit and God, was betrothed to her. The announcement was that Joseph should stay with Mary and, after the birth of Jesus, help raise the child. The angelic announcement to Joseph also included the news Jesus would grow up to be the Savior.
And one was made to some shepherds who were tending their sheep the night Jesus was born. The announcement was followed by a multitude of the Heavenly host agreeing with the angel that Jesus, who had just been born, would grow up to be the Savior.
Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds all received angelic announcements. In those announcements, Mary and Joseph heard God’s plans for them and the shepherds heard the good news that the Savior had arrived. What a joy to know that Mary and Joseph agreed to God’s plans. They obeyed what God wanted them to do. What a joy to know the shepherds responded to the news they received. They responded by leaving their sheep for a while so they could go meet the very important baby and then, when they returned to the field, telling everyone else they met about the great one who had just been born.
In the Bible’s record of the events related to Christmas, God communicated three times through angels. However, there was another group involved in Christmas who did not receive an angelic announcement. That was a group of men a thousand miles away to the east. It is that group we will consider in this message. How they became involved and how they responded.
For this, we will be in the first part of Matthew 2. There we are told of some Wise Men.
Who were the Wise Men? They were a group of very smart, highly-educated men who served important roles in the Persian Empire, which today is the nation of Iran. Men who spent much of their time studying. They studied things like philosophy, medicine, natural science, astronomy, and religion.
So learned were they in the first subjects mentioned that they had become respected teachers in the empire. So knowledgeable were they in the area of religion that they were accepted as priests. Over time it had become accepted that no religious sacrifice was allowed anywhere in the Persian Empire unless a Wise Man was present.
Their study of astronomy played a big part in the report of Christmas because one night, the Wise Men saw a star in the sky they had never seen before. As students of astronomy, the Wise Men looked at the night skies regularly. They were used to seeing the same stars, the same constellations, the same patterns all the time, month after month and year after year. But one night, they saw a new star. Maybe brighter than any star they had ever seen before, but definitely a new star. A new star that shone off to the west, over toward Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people.
The new star and its position immediately caught the attention of the Wise Men because of what they knew from their study of religion. Their study of many religions, including the religion of the people of God in Israel. A religion that included an expectation of a new king who would come to save them. An expectation that was especially vibrant at that time.
The Wise Men, knowing the religious expectations of the Jewish people and that night seeing a new star off toward Israel, which was the homeland of the Jewish people, came to the conclusion that maybe the new king had arrived. That the star was the sign of that arrival. That the star was God’s announcement that He had sent the Savior to His people.
How did the Wise Men react to the new sight?
They could have treated the star as just an interesting phenomenon to write about in their journals. They could have had only an intellectual curiosity about what they saw.
Instead, they decided they should check out the one the star announced. They decided to take a field trip to where the star was shining.
Think about the costs of such a trip. It was about a thousand miles from where they were in the Persian Empire to Israel. Covering that distance - traveling to Israel and back - would take a long time, and that was after they were ready to travel. Time would be spent getting ready to travel. There would be considerable expense with such a long journey. They would have to leave family and friends. And remember they were responsible for teaching and for observing religious sacrifices in the empire. They would have to find substitutes.
The monetary, time, and comfort costs of making a journey to Israel were significant. Plus, it would have been impossible to find enough substitutes to fill in for all the Wise Men, so not every Wise Man left. However, some of them did make the decision to go see about the king they assumed the new star in the sky announced.
How long it took for the Wise Men to make journey is not given, though there is a suggestion later that up to two years might have passed between the sighting of the star and the Wise Men’s arrival in Israel. Most definitely by the time they arrived, Jesus was no longer a baby. No longer was the Holy Family in a barn. They had a house by that time.
How long it took is not recorded, but eventually the Wise Men arrived in Israel, the land of the Jewish people.
When they arrived, the Wise Men went to Jerusalem, which was the capital city of the Jewish people.
That was the logical place to go to meet a new king. However, when the Wise Men arrived, they noticed there was no sense of excitement there. They expected some excitement. There should have been excitement if a new king had indeed arrived. But there was no excitement.
I wonder if the Wise Men began to wonder if the star they had seen was nothing but a star. I wonder if they began to question the wisdom of having made a thousand-mile journey. In confusion, the Wise Men began to ask people they met about a new king. They asked, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? We have seen His star. We saw it when we were back east in Persia. We have come to worship Him, but we need to know where He is. Does anyone know?”
Apparently no one knew, but so many people were asked that eventually King Herod - the Roman ruler of the area - began to hear reports about visitors to the city asking about a new king.
When Herod heard about the questioning about a new king, he was troubled. Many rulers did and do worry about rivals to their power. That seems to have been especially acute for Herod, who had a dark history of jealousy. During his reign, King Herod had already killed some family members he did not trust. There were other cases when he had potential rivals outside his family rounded up and disposed of.
When Herod heard about questions concerning a new king who had been born, he was troubled. So, too, did everyone else in Jerusalem become troubled. The people knew of Herod’s jealousy. The people braced themselves for Herod’s violent response to the questions.
However, Herod’s response was not violent. Instead, it was inquisitive. At least, that is how it appeared to be.
What Herod did was assemble the religious leaders of the Jewish people - the chief priests and the scribes. He asked them the question the Wise Men had posed. Where was the Christ, according to Jewish Scripture, to be born?
The religious leaders told Herod the Savior was to be born in Bethlehem.
I know I say this every time the Wise Men are discussed, but I am always amazed that the religious leaders knew where the Savior was supposed to be born.
And they had to have known of the very special thing that had happened in Bethlehem. Remember? On the night Jesus was born, the glory of the Lord had shone around some shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem, which was just five or six miles south of Jerusalem. People in Jerusalem, including those religious leaders, must have seen the light that night. At least it would have been reported, so they would at least have heard about it.
And remember the shepherds, after having gone to see Jesus, had excitedly told others about Him. They were excited enough to have made quite a ruckus, which also must have been reported in Jerusalem, especially since the sheep those shepherds tended were probably eventually taken to Jerusalem for Temple sacrifices, perhaps by the shepherds themselves, who would still have been talking about meeting Jesus.
The Jewish leaders assembled by Herod knew the expectation of a new king coming. They knew the new king was to be born in Bethlehem. They had to have seen or at least heard about what had happened in and near Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth.
And they were still in Jerusalem, rather than in Bethlehem, where they should have been worshiping the new king they themselves hoped for and wanted. I am amazed at the lack of action on the part of the Jewish leaders, but that is the way it was.
After the meeting between Herod and the Jewish leaders, Herod called the Wise Men to a meeting. He said to them he understood they were looking for a new king of the Jews. He told them he had asked around and found out such a king was to be born in Bethlehem.
Herod also asked the Wise Men when they had seen the star. In addition, he invited them to go to Bethlehem and search for the new king. He then said to the Wise Men, after they had found the new king, to return to him and tell him where the new king was. Herod said he wanted that information so he, too, would be able go and worship the new king.
When the Wise Men were dismissed, they left for Bethlehem. On the way, an amazing thing happened. The star the Wise Men had seen when they had been back in the Persian Empire - the new star that had attracted their attention before their journey to Israel had begun - appeared again.
And it did not just appear and hang in place, as it had earlier. Now it moved. It went before the Wise Men until it came to rest over the place Jesus was. No longer a barn, but a house. That is where the star stopped.
Think how important the star was.
As mentioned, when the Wise Men had first arrived in Jerusalem and found no one who knew anything about a new king, the Wise Men might have wondered if they had been silly to have made the journey.
Their possible discouragement was eased a bit when they had met with Herod and were told where to go next.
But now the star re-appeared. What a wonderful sight it was. What an encouragement to them that their trip was not a stupid, wasteful mistake.
And yes, the star moved, which means the Wise Men did not have to search. They were led right to where Jesus was.
Upon arriving, the Wise Men entered the house Jesus was in. In the house, they worshiped Him.
Think of that. 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 child. The new king. They worshiped Him because they knew the one they met had come to save God’s people.
And yes, they gave Jesus gifts. Gifts they had brought with them on their 1000-mile journey.
One of the Wise Men gave Jesus some gold, which means they knew he was a king.
Another Wise Man gave Jesus some frankincense. That was a gift appropriate for a priest, which means they 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 back then to anoint the body of a person who had died.
Those gifts are interesting. Even though the Wise Men were from another culture and a different religious background, they knew Jesus was a spiritual king who had come to save people by making a way for them to be right with God. Something that would cause the new king to die.
The Wise Men worshiped Jesus and gave Him gifts. Then they left.
Remember the Wise Men had been instructed by Herod to return to Jerusalem and tell him where the new king was.
I am sure the Wise Men intended to do that. Jerusalem was kind of on their way home. And it was someone with authority who had asked them to return to Jerusalem. And Herod had asked nicely. He had said he wanted to worship the new king, too. That was a good thing.
I am sure the Wise Men intended to return to Jerusalem, but shortly after leaving Jesus, they each had a dream, in which they were warned to not return to Herod.
The Wise Men obeyed the warning. Instead of going straight north to Jerusalem, they veered to the northeast, leaving for the Persian Empire that way.
* * * * *
To complete this part of the Christmas report, Herod eventually figured out the Wise Men had disobeyed him. The result was a very violent murder spree in which many baby boys in and around Bethlehem were killed.
But for now, some questions. Will we believe in Jesus enough to go out of our way to meet Him like the Wise Men went out of their way, doing so even if it causes us to have to make some sacrifices?
If you are not a Christian, going out of your way means to accept Him as the Savior He came to earth to be. The Savior you need.
For those of us who are Christians, going out of our way might mean to look for continued opportunities to serve Him or study about Him or tell others about Him.
Will we believe in Jesus enough to worship Him like the Wise Men did. Even if you, like the Wise Men were, are smart and rich, important or older, or not any of those things, will you worship Him?
He is worthy of our worship. Will we worship Him? Will we keep worshiping Him, even beyond Christmas?
And will we believe in Jesus enough to give Him gifts? Maybe not gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but again, if you are not a Christian, the gift of your heart. Then the gifts of time, attention, study, sharing of resources so His work can continue.
Let’s believe in Jesus. Let’s know His love. In return, may we love Him and others.
Today’s closing carol is a summary of today’s passage. It is As with Gladness Men of Old.
As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold;
As with joy they hailed its light,
Leading onward, beaming bright;
So, most gracious Lord, may we
Evermore be led to Thee.
As with joyful steps they sped
To that lowly manger bed,
There to bend the knee before
Him who Heaven and earth adore;
So may we with willing feet
Ever seek Thy mercy seat
As they offered gifts most rare
At the manger rude and bare,
So may we with holy joy,
Pure and free from sin’s alloy,
All our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to Thee, our Heavenly King.
Holy Jesus, every day
Keep us in the narrow way;
And when earthly things are past,
Bring our ransomed souls at last
Where they need to star to guide,
Where no clouds Thy glory hide.
Lord, the Wise Men 2000 years ago were considered wise because they were so educated. We know they were wise because of what they did, which was to be curious about You, to be intent on meeting You, then to worship You, then to give You gifts.
Lord, help us to have the desire to keep learning. Help us to be intent on keeping our relationship with You strong. Help to always see worship of You a great privilege. Help us, today and always, to give You gifts we can provide, which include our hearts, our love, and our service.
Thank You, Lord, and Merry Christmas. Amen.