The Wise Men! Tradition numbers them as three due to the three gifts given to the Christ child: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If you have seen the Franco Ziffarelli epic, Jesus of Nazareth, you can see how the Wise Men add a wonderfully romantic touch to the birth narrative. Three wealthy men coming out of nowhere, dressed in richly colorful garments with beautiful turbans, riding in on camels, spending their evenings in tents decorated with expensive Persian carpets, bringing gifts to the child Christ – it is a great motif for modern cinemaphotography – but markedly distant from what likely happened.
Who were these Wise Men? And why did they travel to Judea to give homage to the birth of a king of a very small, and in the global scale of things, a virtually meaningless ethnic group, especially at a time when travel was difficult and dangerous? Today travel is so much easier. If the Magi had seen the star today, they would have spent a day getting their visas, done some shopping while they waited for the consulate to process their applications, and in the meantime booked a round trip ticket to Jerusalem and made a reservation for a rental car. The next day they would have hopped on over to Jerusalem, saw Herod, driven to Bethlehem and returned to Jerusalem just in time to catch the return flight. Total time needed to greet the baby king: two days, maybe three at most if shopping was bad or if getting an appointment with Herod was difficult.
However, the Magi’s trip had to have taken a few months through rough mountains and deserts. They would have been in danger of bandits, wild animals, and the elements. Yet, as we see by the narrative, it took them almost two years from the spotting of the star till they arrived in Jerusalem. We know this because Herod killed all the male children under two years old. That means that they saw the star almost two years earlier. If we allow Herod a fudge factor of six months to make sure he killed all the right babies, it still took the Magi a year and a half to get to a place that only took three months at the longest to travel.
What can explain the almost two year gap between the appearance of the star and their arrival in Jerusalem?
Who were the Wise Men?
First, who were these Wise Men? They are called the Magi. Though we cannot be certain, it is likely that the Magi were astrologers who worked in the royal court of Persia. Their job was to study the stars, advise the Persian king and make him look good. The king could not access his horoscope in the newspaper or on the internet, so he had to hire a team of men to get his horoscope.
Since the Magi were astrologers, they noticed the appearance of a new star. A new star then as now would be a cataclysmic event. All the astrologers noticed it. They had to be asking: What did it mean? It was their job to find out what it meant.
In this unbelievably significant moment in their lives, we see God interrupting their status quo and attempting to communicate with them. The question we are inclined to ask is: “What will the Magi do with this significant moment? Will they respond and begin to search for answers?”
In the Magi’s significant event, we discover a spiritual truth that transcends time. God communicates with all of us indirectly. He brings into all of our lives significant moments when he tries to interrupt and impact us. We can say in a general sense: he shows each one of us a star.
What do we do with these moments when they come?
A friend of mine had a very good job in a computer firm. Unfortunately the firm was being sold. As it is in business, when one business is bought out, the upper management loses their jobs. He saw the handwriting on the wall. He knew he was going to lose his job.
He was a very successful man. He graduated from a good college in accounting and got some very good breaks. By 28 he was the financial adviser for a multi-million-computer software firm. By thirty-three he was a vice-president in this firm and had an extremely comfortable position. But he was not satisfied. And since he knew that he was losing his job he called me and asked me if I knew of any good positions in a non-profit organization. He had set out to make it in the world and he had. And it did not satisfy. Now he wanted to make his life count for something more than making money. He had seen a star.
Let me give you another example. My Dad was a bomber pilot during World War II. He flew only two missions, and he was shot down twice. The first time he was able to get back across enemy lines. The second time he was not so lucky. He was captured and was a prisoner of war for a short time. I remember him telling us that when he was freed from POW camp he was on borrowed time. He knew he had been given a second chance in life. He was given a significant moment by God. He had seen a star. The question is what did he do with it?
We all have significant events. Stars appear and make us think differently for a while. We ponder the deeper questions about life and its meaning. We go through a process of reevaluation. What have we done with those moments when they came? Did we allow them to have their full impact on us, or did we allow the impact to wear off and just get back into our old routines?
Let us get back to the Magi to see what they did with this significant moment.
What was the meaning of the Star?
Magi Job Description: Study the stars and come up with a good horoscope for the king. Bennies: Access to the king, access to power, excellent salary, and high prestige level. Fortunately or unfortunately, one night they noticed a new star.
This had to have unbelievable significance for a people who took their guidance from the stars. The appearance of a new star had to have radical implications. Even today, the appearance of something new in the heavens would mean fame and fortune for the astronomer who would be the first to notice and explain it.
Put yourself in the shoes of the Persian astronomers. Think of the excitement they must have experienced. A new star! They couldn’t wait to talk with one another and determine its significance. It could even mean a pay raise and more prestige for all if it meant good news for the king.
In all probability, as anyone would do, the Magi would have begun initially to search for the meaning of the star within their own circles, drawing from their own understanding. Remember, they were educated men for their time, educated in religion and philosophy. But their understanding undoubtedly led to a dead end. Nothing in their realm of experience could have adequately explained the sudden appearance of a new star. The explanation, to be viable, had to equal in magnitude to the effect. Being primarily religious in worldview they would eventually have had to humble themselves and begin to research other religions in order to find the meaning of the star. In their search, since they went to Jerusalem to look for the king of the Jews, they had to have come across the writings of the Jewish faith. Something Jewish led them to the capital of the Jewish nation.
How then did they, in Persia, far from Jerusalem and Judea, discover the writings of the Jewish faith?
To answer this we must recall an incident that happened in Jerusalem almost two hundred years earlier. In the year 168BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes set up an altar in the Jerusalem Temple to the pagan god, Zeus. This event was considered by the Jewish people to be the “Abomination that causes Desolation”, prophesied by Daniel (11:31) in 530BCE. The Jewish people considered this to be the turning point in history that was to usher in the Messianic Age. This age was to be characterized not only by the rising of a Messiah, but also a time when all the nations of the world would recognize the beauty and wisdom of the Law of God and submit to it. This event and its interpretation ignited a spiritual revival among many of the Jews who were scattered all over the Mediterranean and Middle East. Wherever they lived they fervently taught the Law to any and to all. This evangelical movement gave birth to the Pharisees, who took the teaching of the Law and the making of proselytes as two of its primary responsibilities. These are two sample passages that ignited and inspired their hopes and beliefs:
Isaiah 2:1 This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
2 In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
Isaiah 51:4 “Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations.
5 My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.
In the midst of this evangelistic fervor and messianic anticipation the star appeared and the Magi were thrust. The Magi only had to go out of their compounds and into the capital city of Persia to find Jewish people who were teaching the law and the ancient promises of their God to send the Messiah.
And what would the Magi have discovered?
Let us briefly look at the promises God had been giving since the time of Abraham, over two thousand years before. I will bolden key parts of each of these passages.
Genesis 12:1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Isaiah 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.
Isaiah 11:1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him– the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD–3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. 6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. 9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.
Psalm 72:1 Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness.
2 He will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.
3 The mountains will bring prosperity to the people, the hills the fruit of righteousness.
4 He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor.
5 He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations.
6 He will be like rain falling on a mown field, like showers watering the earth.
7 In his days the righteous will flourish; prosperity will abound till the moon is no more.
8 He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
9 The desert tribes will bow before him and his enemies will lick the dust.
10 The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts.
11 All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him.
12 For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help.
13 He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death.
14 He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.
15 Long may he live! May gold from Sheba be given him. May people ever pray for him and bless him all day long.
16 Let grain abound throughout the land; on the tops of the hills may it sway. Let its fruit flourish like Lebanon; let it thrive like the grass of the field.
17 May his name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun. All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed.
18 Praise be to the LORD God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvelous deeds.
19 Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen.
The Jewish people, relatively insignificant in number and low in Middle Eastern status and prestige, had incredibly global expectations. Their writings indicated that a Jewish king would rule over all the peoples of the earth – not in a tyrannical, oppressive manner, but rather, bringing peace, wholeness, order and blessing to all.
To the natural mind, such an expectation is rather remarkable. Either these people were drastically deceived or their god was telling them the truth.
Why did it take the Magi so long to get to Jerusalem?
Through their study the Magi came face to face with a new god and ancient promises. The Magi were probably Zoroastrians. If they should accept the truth of these Jewish prophecies, they had to accept that their beliefs and practices were all wrong. The prophecies could make sense out of the appearance of a star – for only the coming of an international messiah, the king of the whole earth, a king to establish justice and peace for the nations, could explain the appearance in the heavens of a new star. The Jewish god had spoken in the past; and he was now fulfilling his word. It had to have seemed preposterous; yet, they had seen the star.
Getting interrupted by God is never easy.
If this were true, then the Magi were going to immediately face certain problems. The Persian king went by the title, King of Kings. How could the Magi explain to him that the real King of kings has just appeared on the scene, in a lowly backwater city called Jerusalem? Would the Persian king accept the idea that he and his people would eventually have to submit to a Jewish messianic king?
Now you can understand why it took the some of the Magi over a year to solve the meaning of the star. They had to do their research. They had to come to grips with the implications of these Jewish prophecies and laws. They had to evaluate their own beliefs in the light of this new information. Then they had to humble themselves and accept that they had been misguided. Beyond that they had to accept that their people, the magnificent Persian race, were destined to serve a Jewish king who came from an uncivilized and uncultured background. They had to rise above their ethnocentrism, their nationalism, and their proud self-identity. Beyond that, such a decision would affect their jobs and the kind of advice they would give the king. The stars would now become silent, no longer to exert any influence over history, if they really ever had, for the Ultimate Star had come. The Jewish God, Yahweh, was now exerting his power over all the world and over all other gods. Their king would eventually have to submit himself to this new God and this new King of kings.
Try to relate to the implications of all this. Think of how hard it would be for any person in their predicament! Let’s be honest with ourselves. Even in this day and age, many people think the Messiah idea is quite preposterous, even after all Jesus Christ said and did. This idea of a universal king, of peace and justice for all – for even the poorest of the poor – appears to be a bit crazy, if not just naïve and overly idealistic.
Accepting these seemingly outlandish ideas had to have been equally as hard for the Magi. It is not easy for anyone to accept that all I have done and all I believe in is wrong. Such a thing is nigh to impossible. And even if one thought these promises to be true, it would be even harder to admit it to others. Their response would be mockery.
It is much easier to push these God-Messiah thoughts out of our minds and to go on with life, even though life itself is unfulfilled and empty. To be honest, the vast majority throughout time have done it. The famous American writer and philosopher Henry Thoreau wrote, “Most people lives their lives in quiet desperation.”
We live unfulfilled lives, we live within empty emotional spaces, and yet we carry on. The average person, when kicking off their shoes at night and getting honest with themselves, will acknowledge, “My relationship with my spouse and children is far less than I had hoped for, my goals in life are really not worth all the effort. And yet, what can I do?”
So we carry on, living and striving after the wind, all in the hope that things will turn out good. A friend, who is in the seven to eight digit yearly salary range, told me that my life was richer than his. I have nothing materially in comparison to him; yet, I have all that really matters to him. He realized that it has escaped his grasp. Nonetheless, he still goes on, chasing after the wind. He can’t stop the cycle. He has seen the star; but, he won’t follow it.
And as it is now with people, so it was then. Only a few of the educated Magi could accept the truth of the Jewish promises and interpret the appearance of the star as a sign of their fulfillment. These promises offered the only interpretation that equaled the magnitude of the cosmic event. To the others, the promises were too far-fetched. It was too ludicrous to accept that, from an insignificant part of the world, from a small and insignificant people, a baby was to become the king of kings, a king that would bring in perfect justice, a king that would care for the poor and oppressed, a king that would rule forever. Only someone with faith in that Jewish god could accept something seemingly so outrageous. And yet, the Magi had seen the star.
Deciding to accept God is never easy. These few Magi that accepted the truth of the prophecies made the logical next step. They decided to leave the security of their home, leave their jobs, and leave their king, to go and pay homage to a new king, to a baby from an uncultured and boorish background. They left everything to follow what was in the minds of the other Magi, an apparition. And yet, they had seen the star.
When God interrupts our lives, how do we respond? Into which group of the Magi do we fit, the many or the few? I hope all of us will choose to fit in with the few, even though doing this brings its own set of troubles into our lives. For if we are honest with ourselves, each one of us has seen a star.
What they did when they got there
So, the Magi set out to follow the prophecies. They went to Jerusalem, the capital city, the likely place to find the king of the Jews. And they were directed to Bethlehem by another prophecy. But then, something wonderful happened, the star reappeared. And what did the star do? It led them to Jesus.
When they found the child, they paid homage to their king, giving him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
My friends, what have we done with the stars we have seen? Have we allowed them to motivate us to rethink about life? And what did we decide? Did our decision bring us the satisfaction we were looking for?
It is my prayer that you will find the king as the Magi did. I hope that you will allow your star to lead you to Jesus, lead you to pay your homage to him, to give him the gifts you can offer, gifts fit for the King. The only gift he desires is that we choose to live our lives in loving submission to him. As we bring him our willing submission, he will give us his gift in return, the gift of His Spirit.His Spirit will lift our lives out of the mundane into a life in union with him. His Spirit will bring into our lives and into our relationships the justice and loving care for others that he has promised. He will fill us with so much more than we can ever give him.
Jesus is a gentle and gracious king. He will not force anyone to be his subject. It goes against his character. His character is shaped one hundred percent by love and mercy.
Please, the next time the star appears in your life, let it do what God intended it to do. Let it challenge your thoughts, your assumptions, and your understanding. Ultimately it is meant to change and liberate your life.
Have a wonderful Advent Season.