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Wise Men...and Calling Birds

Wise Men…and Calling Birds


Epiphany Sunday 2017



Today is the last Sunday of Advent. The day we concentrate our attention on the journey of the Wise Men. 


Their story will be the main part of this message. It will be surrounded by two things that have been parts of all our Advent messages this season - a Christmas story and information about a bird associated with Christmas.


First, a Christmas story.


It was the early 1930’s during the Dust Bowl days in Kansas. It was also the midst of the Depression.


The Canaday family - mom, dad, grandma, and two children - were, like most everyone else in Kansas and many other places in America, having a tough time existing, so there were to be no luxuries at Christmas that year. However, the mom told the children to go outside and find a Christmas tree and decorate it.


After a lengthy search, the children returned. They had with them a single dead branch, which was the only thing they had been able to find. They stood it up in a bucket of sand and decorated it with pieces of paper tied with string. 


One of the children, a girl almost four, did not know what a Christmas tree was supposed to look like, but somehow she knew it should not look like that dead branch.


As Christmas approached, the Canaday children - the girl and her younger brother - like children everywhere, pestered their parents about what presents they might get from under their tree, which, for them, was still just a decorated but dead branch. 


Dad pointed out the pantry was bare, they did not have enough money to live on, and there certainly was no money for gifts.


But mom, a woman of faith, told her children, “Say your prayers. Ask Jesus to send us what He wants us to have.”


Dad responded, “Now, Mother, don't be getting the children's hopes up. You’re just setting them up for disappointment.” But mom continued, “Pray, children. Tell Jesus.”


The children heeded their mother’s instruction. They prayed sincerely. Then, on Christmas Eve, the children watched out the window for visitors, thinking they might bring some gifts to put under the tree. But no one came. “Blow out the lamp and go to bed,” dad said. “Nobody is going to come. No one even knows we're out here.” 


The children again obeyed. They blew out the lamp and got in bed. But they were too excited to sleep. Was this not Christmas Eve? Had they not asked Jesus to send them the presents He wanted them to have? Did Mom not say that Jesus answers prayers?


Late that night, one of the children spotted headlights coming down the dirt road to the Canaday house. Both the children jumped out of bed and ran to the window.


The commotion woke up mom and dad. “Don’t get excited, children,” dad said. ‘They are probably not coming here. It’s just someone who got lost.” But the children kept hoping and the car kept coming.


Dad lighted a lamp. The children wanted to rush out the door, but dad said, “Stay back. I’ll go.”


The car stopped. Someone got out of the car and called, “I was wondering if someone here can help me unload these bags.”


The children ran out the door to lend a hand.


The cause of the visit was that the driver of the car, a deacon from the church in town, had gone to bed Christmas Eve, but he laid there, tossing and turning, unable to get the Canaday family off his mind. As he explained later, he did not know what kind of shape the Canadays were in, but he knew there were children. 


The deacon had got of bed. He had got dressed. He had gone around town, rousing people from their sleep to ask for contributions for the Canaday family. Soon, his car was filled with bags of groceries, canned goods, toys, and clothing.


With so much food, dad wanted to have a Christmas feast, to spread it all out and eat as they had never eaten before. But mom, ever the caretaker, said, “No, we need to make this last.” And it did last. It lasted for weeks.


The next Sunday, Mrs. Canaday stood in church and expressed thanks for what the members, especially the deacon, had done for her family. How important the gifts were.


There are a couple points to be made about that story, which will happen during the benediction, but for now, let’s think about some others gifts given. Gifts, not to a family in Kansas during the Dust Bowl and Depression, but to Jesus. Gifts given, not by a deacon and a congregation, but by some Wise Men who are told about in Matthew 2. We will begin with verse 1 of Matthew 2.


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.”


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


However, the Wise Men’s heritage was not Persian, but Median. Sometime in the past, the Persians had conquered the Medes, so those people were part of the Persian Empire.


Sometime after the conquering, the Medes, not wanting to be controlled by the Persians, rebelled.


The rebellion failed. Throughout history, those who rebel, if they fail, have usually been killed. It would have been expected that Persia would have killed all the Medes, but for some reason, they did not.


Interestingly, the Medes did not try another rebellion. Instead, they turned their energy to scholarly and religious pursuits.


The Medians - the men of the Medes - studied a wide variety of scholarly subjects. The subjects included philosophy, medicine, and natural science, plus astronomy and religion. The study by some of the Median men was so intense and included so many subjects, they became known as Wise Men. The Wise Men were so well-educated, they became teachers of others, especially of those who were the children of Persian rulers.

Concerning religion, they had, over the years, become so devoted - so religious - they came to be accepted as priests. So much were they accepted 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, but 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 every 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 appeared to be shining right over Israel, which 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. The Wise Men knew about that expectation because of their study of all religions, including the Jewish faith.


The Wise Men knew the religious expectation of the Jewish people. The night recorded in Matthew 2, the Wise Men saw a new, very bright star, seeming to be 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.


At that point, the Wise Men had a decision to make. Would they treat the star as just an interesting phenomenon to write about, or would they do something about what they saw?


Their decision? It was to go to the area where the star was shining. Their decision was to go meet the new king they assumed the star was announcing. 


To me, that decision is amazing since the Jewish faith was not the faith of the Wise Men. It is also amazing because of the sacrifice that would be involved in going from Persia to Israel, which was a distance of almost a thousand miles. The trip was going to be long, time-consuming, and expensive, but that was the decision of the Wise Men.


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. But some Wise Men did go. Some made the sacrifice to travel from Persia to Israel.


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


However, when the Wise Men arrived, they had to ask about the new king. There seemed to be no excitement, no joy, no knowledge - about having a new king in the area. 


The Wise Men had to ask. “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For 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. It seems the Wise Men had to ask many, many people. They had to ask so many people so many times that 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. That is because he was the king and he had no intention of ever not being the king. Hearing about a new king - one he knew nothing about - was very troubling for him.


When he became troubled, so, too, did everyone else in Jerusalem become troubled. That was because Herod had a history of taking actions to protect his authority. 


One time, King Herod had five of his family members killed. Five he did not trust. There were other cases when he had potential rivals outside his family rounded up and disposed of. That is how jealous Herod could get, which the people of Jerusalem knew. So when Herod heard the Wise Men’s question and became jealous, the people of Jerusalem braced themselves for Herod’s violent response.


However, Herod’s response was not violent. Instead, it was inquisitive. At least, that is how 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 the one about whom the Wise Men asked - according to Jewish Scripture, was to be born.


The religious leaders told Herod the Savior was to be born in Bethlehem, a little town five or six miles to the south. They knew that 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 - the one who had recently been born to become the new king.


Herod also had two other agenda items at that meeting. 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. With that last point, Herod was still on his good behavior. He said he wanted that information so he, too, could go and worship the new king.


After the meeting with Herod, the Wise Men left Jerusalem and headed for Bethlehem. At that moment, a miracle happened. It was another miracle. There were others, including 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 - suddenly appeared again.


And this time, it did not just appear and hang in place. It moved. 


Remember that Herod had invited the Wise Men to search diligently for the new king. They actually did not have to search at all. The star went before the Wise Men. 


The star led the Wise Men, doing so until it came to rest over the place where Jesus was. No longer a barn. Remember this was about two years after Jesus’ birth, so the family now lived in a house. It was over the house where Jesus was that 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 it appeared.


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


Think how amazing it is that 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. They worshiped Him because they knew the one who had been born 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, which means he knew Jesus was a king.


Another Wise Man gave Jesus some frankincense. That was 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 giving Jesus the gifts they had brought with them, the Wise Men left. 


Their intent was to return to Jerusalem and report to Herod. Remember, that is what Herod had asked them to do. Herod had the authority to make that request, and Herod had been on good behavior. He had asked nicely. Plus, Herod had said he wanted to worship the new king, too. That was a good thing.


However, shortly after leaving Jesus, each of the Wise Men had a dream, in which they were all warned to not return to Herod, which the Wise Men obeyed. 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 today’s passage. The star when the Wise Men were in Persia was a miracle. So was the Wise Men’s response to it. The reappearance of the star, which led them right to where Jesus was living, was a miracle. So was the fact the Wise Men worshiped Jesus. And the dream warning the Wise Men to avoid Herod, and the Wise Men’s obedience to that message.


What wonderful miracles. And one thing that appears to be sad. Something I mention whenever I think or speak about the Wise Men. Something that will lead to a consideration of one more bird associated with Christmas.


It is this. When the Wise Men departed to their own country by another way, that is all that is recorded. 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 is it. At least there is no record that they or others were affected by what had happened to them.


Which does lead us to the Christmas bird for this message. A bird to which we are introduced in the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. The gift on day four. 


Actually, there is some disagreement what kind of birds were given on the fourth of the twelve days. 


Some sing “colly birds,” which refer to black birds. The word “colly” comes from the word “coal.” Hence black birds.

Others sing “calling birds,” which means singing birds.


Singing birds is how I like to think about the gift as it relates to what we are to do with our knowledge and acceptance and worship of Jesus. Let’s avoid being what the Wise Men might have been like after they met and worshiped Jesus, as in quiet. May we sing about Him. may we call out to any and all who will listen. Let’s proclaim, now and throughout this year, that Jesus is the King, that He is the Priest, that He is the Sacrifice needed for us to have our sins forgiven.


And one more thing, which has also been part of each of our Advent messages. What is your decision? For all of us who are Christians, may the joy of Christmas go on and on. But if you are not a Christian, you can change that, even now.


Please do so. Please accept Jesus as your Savior. Give Him the gift of your heart. Even though Christmas Day has passed, it is not too late to give Him that gift. Give Jesus your heart. Doing so will make this year one of your best, at least spiritually.


If you need to, please pray a prayer of acceptance of Jesus. Do that as we sing this Advent season’s closing carol, Glory in the Highest.


Glory in the highest!  Glory to His name!

Joy has come into our lives; we’ll never be the same.

Glory in the highest! Worthy is our King!

Come let us adore Him, and give Him everything.


Jesus, You have found us when we wandered far;

When we could not find ourselves You came to where we are.

“Glory in the highest!” is more than just a phrase.

Lord, we fall before You now, Your holy name we praise.


Glory in the highest! Let the song begin!

Joy has come into our world; let us worship Him!

Gory in the highest! Worthy is our King!

Come let us adore Him, and bring Him everything.


Glory in the highest!  Glory to His name!

Joy has come into our lives; we’ll never be the same.

Glory in the highest! Worthy is our King!

Come let us adore Him, and give Him everything.


Remember the opening story about the Canaday family Christmas in Kansas during the Dust Bowl and Depression? The family who was cared for by others? 


The one who wrote that story adds that it was not so much the food and the gifts that were the miracles, but the fact the mother taught her children to take their needs to Jesus and trust Him to meet them. And the fact the deacon of the church was obedient to the call of God to help. And the fact the congregation was so generous in helping a family in need. Those were miracles.


As were a star appearing twice to the Wise Men, the obedience of the Wise Men in going to Israel and returning home another way, and the gifts the Wise Men presented to Jesus, each one with special meaning.


Let’s call out - let’s sing out - who Jesus is. Let’s do that with such pretty songs that others will be helped spiritually throughout this year of 2017. Amen.

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