At the beginning of last month’s Advent season, we considered various sounds of
Christmas. The sound of God’s plan, delivered by an angel to Mary, that she be the
mother of Jesus. The sound of God’s plan, delivered by an angel to Joseph, that he be
the father figure for Jesus. The sound of God’s plan, delivered by an angel to some
shepherds near where Jesus was born, that they go meet Jesus. That message made
even more spectacular when a multitude of the Heavenly host appeared with the angel,
all of them praising God for sending the baby, who was announced, just as it had been to
Mary and then to Joseph, as the Savior.
At the beginning of the Advent season, we considered the sounds of Christmas. The last
two Sundays we have considered the touch of Christmas, representing that Jesus is the
Rock of the Strength, the Protection, and the Salvation we need, and the taste of
Christmas, representing that Jesus is the Bread of Life.
Today, one more Advent message as we consider a special sight of Christmas. A unique,
unusual, never-before-seen light given to some men as many as a thousand miles away
from where Jesus was born. Men called Wise Men.
The Wise Men. As often as we talk about them - which is every year at this time, which
we will do today before getting to what I think is a very important challenge - it seems
important to think about who the Wise Men were. Here is the report.
The Wise Men lived in what was at that time the Persian Empire, which is Iran today.
Interestingly, though, the Wise Men - their heritage anyway - was not Persian, but
Median. At some time in the past, the Persians had conquered the Medes and taken
over the land of the Medes. That land became part of the Persian Empire.
Sometime after the conquering, the Medes, not wanting to be controlled by the Persians,
rebelled. However, the rebellion failed.
Throughout history and even today, those who rebel, if they fail, have been and usually
are killed. So it would have been expected that Persia would have annihilated all the
Medes. But for some reason, they did not.
And for some reason, the Medes did not try another rebellion. Instead, they turned
their attention to scholarly and religious pursuits.
The Medians - the men anyway - showed their scholarly interests by studying a wide
variety of subjects, including philosophy, medicine, and natural science. Subjects like
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.
In fact, they became so wise - so learned and so scholarly - they became teachers of
others, especially of those who were the children of Persia’s rulers.
Concerning religion, they became so devoted - so religious - they were accepted, not only
as teachers of the rulers’ children, but as priests for everyone. So much so that it came
to be that no religious sacrifice was allowed anywhere in the Persian Empire unless a
Wise Man was present.
Again, the Wise Men studied lots of subjects. But as we get to Matthew 2, the first part
of which is today’s Bible passage, it was the subjects of astronomy and religion that have
the most relevance because one night, as the Wise Men studied the sky, they saw a star
in they had never seen before. Because of their study of astronomy, they looked at the
sky every night. But one night, they saw something they had never seen before. They
saw a new star.
It also seems important each time we talk about the Wise Men to point out that
throughout history, there have been various attempts to explain what the new star
Some suggest it was a comet. It has been figured that Halley’s Comet appeared near the
earth about the time Jesus was born.
Others suggest it was a strange conjunction of the planets Saturn and Jupiter. It has
been figured that those two planets were pretty close in the night skies about the time
Jesus was born. Such a conjunction would have been as bright as a very bright star.
But you know what? It could not have been a conjunction of planets because stars
twinkle, while planets have a steady light. The Wise Men, being studiers of astronomy,
would not have been confused by that.
And it could not have been a comet because comets had been seen before, at least by the
predecessors of the Wise Men. The Wise Men would not have been surprised by a
Actually, I am intrigued by another possibility. Remember what happened on the night
Jesus was born? An angel visited some shepherds near Bethlehem and announced that
Jesus had been born. The angel was surrounded by a great light. A light that became
even brighter when the angel was joined by a multitude of the Heavenly host, all of them
I wonder. Was that light the strange sight the Wise Men saw?
Actually, it could not have been that either because, as we will see later in today’s Bible
passage, the star appeared again later. It will once again be described as a star. And no,
there were no angels around the second time it appeared.
One night, Wise Men in the Persian Empire saw a star they had never seen before. Since
they also studied and were experts on religion - as in many, many religions, including
foreign religions such as the religion at the center of the Jewish culture in the land a
thousand miles to the west - the direction of the star - they immediately began thinking
that perhaps the new star was an announcement of the ascension of a new leader in that
You see, the Wise Men knew from their studies that at that time, there was a hope
among the Jews that a Savior was coming. The hope was for a new king who would
overthrow the Roman king who was over them governmentally.
The Wise Men also knew stars were, at least in lore, sometimes interpreted to be
announcements of things. Could it be, the Wise Men wondered, that the Savior had
come? That He had come in the form of a new king? Is that what the strange sight -
what the new star - announced?
Apparently the wondering was strong enough to cause the Wise Men to make the
decision to go see the new king.
Not all the Wise Men in Persia went. Some had to stay behind to continue the teaching
of the children of the Persian rulers. After all, think how disappointed the students
would have been if school was cancelled. Other Wise Men had to stay behind to
continue overseeing religious sacrificing. That important activity could not simply and
suddenly be stopped. And of course, maybe not all the Wise Men were equally
interested in the new star.
Not all the Wise Men went. But some could be spared. Some were interested enough to
pursue what they took as a special sign. So some Wise Men did make the decision to go
meet the one the star might have been announcing was a new leader of the Jewish
How many went? No number is given Biblically, though it is usually suggested there
were three since, when they met Jesus, there were three gifts given to Him. But again,
the number is not given.
Nor is there information about how they traveled. As in whether they traveled by
themselves or had attendants with them. Since they traveled many miles, often through
desolate regions, it might have made sense to have attendants with them. We know the
phrase, “safety in numbers.”
Some of the details are not given Biblically, but sometime after the night the Wise Men
in the Persian Empire saw a new star, some of them left Persia, headed west toward the
star they had seen, which had shined over the land of the Jewish people.
Sometime after they left, the Wise Men arrived in that land, going to the city of
Jerusalem, which was logical. Remember they traveled to meet the new leader of the
Jews. Where else would they go but to Jerusalem, which was the capital city of the land
of the Jews?
The Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem. The way I have it in my mind, they must have
expected great excitement in that city. The type of excitement that should have
accompanied a new leader - a new king - the one hoped for for a very long time.
But apparently there was no excitement, which led the Wise Men to start asking, “Where
is He who has been born king of the Jews?” They explained about the star they had seen
- about what they took the star to mean. They added they wanted to find the new king
so they could worship Him.
Apparently, no one the Wise Men asked had any clue, even concerning what they were
talking about. But the Wise Men asked enough people, doing so persistently enough,
that eventually they and their question became the talk of the city. Talk that eventually
reached the ears of the king. The king who still was king. King Herod.
As soon as that happened, there were lots of troubled spirits.
Herod was troubled. He still was the king over the Jews, and he had no plans or
intentions of stepping aside any time soon. And even when that time might come
sometime in the distant future, he intended to be the one to name his successor. He had
not done that. Was someone trying to overthrow him?
Herod was troubled. So, too, was everyone else in Jerusalem. Their troubled spirits
were based on the history Herod had. A very violent history whenever he felt his power
was threatened. Many times in the past he had reacted violently. The people of
Jerusalem were fearful he would react violently again, which would mean they would
suffer from his anger.
Everyone in Jerusalem was troubled. But this time, Herod was able to hide his anger.
He did so twice. Once when meeting with Jewish leaders and again when meeting with
the Wise Men.
First, Herod assembled all the chief priests and the scribes of the Jews. He inquired of
them where the Christ was to be born.
I am intrigued by Herod’s use of the title “Christ.” That is of course what Jesus was and
still is. As the title announces, Jesus was the one set aside by God to be the Savior. But
apparently, Herod knew that. He knew what the Wise Men meant when they asked
where to find the King of the Jews.
Herod asked the Jewish religious leaders about the Christ - where the Christ was or is to
have been born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea. That was predicted in an Old
Testament prophecy. In fact, the birthplace was only five or six miles to the south of
where they were in Jerusalem.
I am also intrigued, as often as I think about today’s passage, how interesting it is that
those leaders - some of the Jewish people who had waited for centuries for a Savior -
some of the Jews who must have seen at least a reflection of the light that shone the
night Jesus was born - who must have at least heard reports of what the shepherds that
night had been told about the Savior being born - how interesting it is that those leaders
were still in Jerusalem. Why had they not gone to Bethlehem? Why were they not still
in Bethlehem, rather than in Jerusalem? Why were they not worshiping and serving the
very one they and their ancestors had been awaiting?
But no, the leaders were in Jerusalem. Even then, they simply reported what an Old
Testament prophecy said about the Savior. They had not and they did not put it
together that the one predicted had come and was less than an hour away.
With that information, Herod summoned the Wise Men. It is recorded he did so
secretly. I wonder the significance of that word. Was Herod trying to pretend he did not
care about who might be a threat to his power? Or did he want to keep the CNNs or the
Fox News stations of his time from making more of the story than he wanted made of it?
Herod summoned the Wise Men. He still hid his troubled spirit - his anger - as he tried
to get more information from the foreigners.
Actually, Herod shared his information with them. He told the Wise Men he had
learned the one for whom they were searching was in Bethlehem. In fact, he invited
them to go there.
But in exchange for his information, he asked for information from them. He wanted
them to tell him when they had seen the star they had been talking about.
The Wise Men gave Herod what he wanted, after which they answered Herod’s
invitation, which was to go to Bethlehem and search diligently for the child.
And, in continuing to hide his troubled anger, listen to another part of the invitation.
What Herod announced was the reason for the invitation. Herod said to the Wise Men,
“Go to Bethlehem - search diligently for the child. When you have found the new king,
bring me word that I too may come and worship Him.”
As we know - as the Wise Men would later be informed - Herod’s intent was not to
worship the new king. Instead, it was to kill the rival to his authority. But the Wise
Men, after meeting with Herod, did indeed answer the invitation. They left Jerusalem,
headed toward Bethlehem.
Shortly after they left, the Wise Men received a very wonderful sign. A wonderful
affirmation of their intent. Shortly after they started off for Bethlehem, lo, the star
which they had seen when they were in the East appeared again.
As often as I think about the Wise Men, I wonder what their trip was like. As in, were
they ever discouraged ? Did they ever wonder, as they traveled, if they were being
foolish? If all this was just a lark and they would be laughed at when they returned
Then in Jerusalem, did they have concerns about their mission? Again, no one seemed
to have even heard about a new king. And when they asked about Him, the only
reactions the witnessed were troubled spirits.
I wonder if the Wise Men doubted. I am guessing they might have. But even if they did,
think how encouraged they became when suddenly, the star they had seen once again
And get this. It did not just shine. It moved. Not the way or the direction stars usually
move, but slowly and southward, doing so until it came to rest over the place where
Jesus was. Which means the Wise Men did not have to search at all. They were led to
the place they needed to be.
Of course, the Wise Men rejoiced with great joy when they saw the star. They rejoiced as
they followed the star. Then they went into the house to which they had been led. In the
house, they saw Jesus, with Mary His mother. Whereupon they did two things.
First, they fell down and worshiped Jesus. Which is amazing because they were
important men and because they had not worshiped Herod.
The Wise Men worshiped Jesus because they knew He was even more important than
they were and because they knew Jesus was more powerful than Herod. They knew
Jesus was the one - the only one - who deserved to be worshiped.
Second, they offered Jesus gifts they had brought with them, each one with special
significance. Gold, which was a gift fit for a king, which Jesus is. Frankincense, which
was a gift fit for a priest, which Jesus is. And myrrh, which was a gift fit for someone
who was to die, which foretold what Jesus would do as the sacrifice for sins.
It was then time for the Wise Men to return home.
Their plan was to return to Jerusalem and meet again with Herod. Remember he had
asked them to report back to him so he would know where to find the new king. Since
Herod had asked nicely, that is what the Wise Men intended to do.
However, they were warned in a dream to not return to Herod. Of course, God knew
Herod’s true intent. That is why God spoke to the Wise Men as they slept.
The Wise Men were warned. They heard the warning. They heeded it. They returned to
their own country by another way.
Which brings us to what was announced earlier in the message as being a very
important challenge, which has to do with what we are to be like after meeting Jesus.
Positively, let me draw our attention for just a moment back to the shepherds who met
Jesus the night He was born. Remember what they did after meeting Jesus? They
returned to the field in which they had been shepherding. But they were different in
how they returned. Before meeting Jesus, they had been bored and discouraged and
outcast,but after meeting Him, they were excited. In their excitement, they glorified
God and praised Him. In their excitement, they told others about the Savior. The sense
I get is they told everyone they met. Whether anyone wanted to hear or not, they heard
Obviously, that is how we are to respond when we meet Jesus, either for the first time or
every week as we worship and even daily as we pray. We should be excited that we know
Jesus. We should glorify God and be so excited that we tell others about the Lord.
Compare that to what the Wise Men did - or what they did not do. And I know. This is
simply conjecture. There is nothing in the Bible about it. But do you notice, as do I, that
all that is said is that the Wise Men returned to their own country? There is nothing
about them being excited. There is no report of them telling anybody else about the one
they had met.
Even today, in and around Iran, which is present-day Persia, the predominant religion is
Muslim. And yes, there are Christians there. But I wonder if there would be more
Christians there if Christianity would have got a foot hold there. If the Wise Men had
been like the shepherds. If they had returned to their work with different attitudes.
Please know I am not criticizing the Wise Men. I mean, I do not know them. In fact, I
do not know what they did or what they faced when they got back home. In fact, maybe
they did tell others about Jesus and no one responded. It is just that I am intrigued by
the differences in what is reported about them and what is reported about the
The challenge is this. Let’s be like the shepherds. Today and throughout this new year,
let’s take advantage of every opportunity we have to see Jesus. To see Him in worship
and in study and in prayer and in fellowship. And after each of those things, let’s be as
excited as were the shepherds. May our excitement be seen in our attitudes and in our
willingness to tell others about Jesus. May excitement and telling others about Jesus be
our goal - our resolution - for 2014.
Today’s closing song is As With Gladness Men of Old. It summarizes today’s passage. It
does that in the first part of each of the first three verses. At the end of each verse, and
in the fourth verse, there are prayers that this year and always, we will be true and stay
true to Jesus. Because of the prayer parts of the song, we will sing the amen, making
this also today’s benediction.
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 whom Heaven and earth adore;
So may we with willing feet
Ever seek Thy mercy seat.
As they offered gifts more 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, ev’ry day
Keep us in the narrow way;
And, when earthly things are past,
Bring our ransomed souls at last
Where they need no star to guide,
Where no clouds Thy glory hide.