By another road
By another road
Many people have already taken down their Christmas decorations. This is one part of the Christmas ritual that many of us do not enjoy; packing and putting things away until the next Christmas season. But the Christmas celebration has not finished for many other people. Their celebration continues through epiphany with the celebration of Three King’s Day. For them the three kings are the ones that that bring children gifts and toys; just like the wise men brought the baby Jesus gifts. Matthew tell us that “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
Only the gospel of Matthew tells us about this event that has fascinated so many people for centuries. We are fascinated with the star that appeared in the east and guided these wise men to the new born child. We are fascinated with the wise men themselves. Despite the fact that Matthew did not give us much information, tradition has filled in the gap in the story. It set their number to three, gave them names, identified the country from which they came, and have even come up with their physical characteristics. But the biggest mystery for me is why did Matthew share this story?
Why would Matthew write about a group of gentiles coming to Jerusalem looking for the new born child? If anyone should have written about this it should have been Luke. Luke was a gentile and would have had an interest in showing that gentiles were there from the beginning. But although Luke writes extensively about the birth, he does not even mention the wise men. I wish there was a way to know what was in Matthew’s mind when he wrote this story. Why would a Jewish tax collector be the only one to talk about the wise men? We may never know; but we can find several lessons in the story; lessons that may be part of the reason that we have the story to begin with.
The first thing we notice in the narrative is that God is always working with those that do not know God yet. God is always seeking to be reconciled to those outside of God’s kingdom. The bigger the sinner, the closer is God trying to love them into God’s kingdom. These wise men had little knowledge about Jewish life and customs. If they had any idea about Israel they would have never asked King Herod about the birth of the king of the Jews. In fact, Matthew tells us that it was because of their question that Herod latter on ordered his army to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity, thus fulfilling the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
Not only were the wise men gentiles, but the star that guided them was prophesied by Balaam, another gentile. Balaam was a non-Jewish prophet of God, who appears to be comfortable speaking to God on a regular basis. According to the writer of the book of Numbers, the king of Moab sent for him so that he would curse a people that had left Egypt and were becoming a danger to all the nations before them. God comes to Balaam and said to him: “You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.” God allows him to go before the king of Moab, but Balaam is asked to bless the people of Israel rather than curse them. It is in that context that Balaam prophesied saying: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” (Numbers 24:17)
Open war has come once again to Israel and Palestine. CNN has begun to count the dead in both sides. And I am sure that God is pained with the death of every Israelite and every Palestinian child just the same. It is God’s intention to turn every terrorist of any nation into a child of God. We need to pray more than ever. If we are not willing to do what is necessary to save and transform the people around us, God will find other means. If we are no longer willing to be a light unto the nations, and salt to this generation; if we are unwilling to speak on God’s behalf, if we no longer want to be witnesses of God’s love and care, then God will use non-believers to tell God’s story of salvation. God wants to bless you so that you can be a blessing. If we believe that we need to retire from the blessing business, God will make a way out of no way.
The second thing that we notice in the story is that the wise men came seeking, not sure of where they were going. They went thorough out Jerusalem asking: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” Matthew tells us that: “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” This was the wrong person to ask about the birth of a king, this was a very disturbed man even before he heard the question.
The point is that they had no idea where to find the new born child, but the people of Israel knew. Herod called together all the experts who were able to tell him exactly where it was. So why were this wise men able to find the child while, those so closed could not? Where were the shepherds that heard the voice telling them where the child was? They heard the angels singing and saw the child in the manger, what happened? This story tells us that passion and commitment to a goal is more important than information. A lot of people knew, only the wise men found him.
We learn latter on that according to Herod the child was a little under two years when the wise men finally arrived. In fact when they arrived at Jerusalem Mary and Jesus were already in a house and not in the cave where he was born. It took them a long time searching. Others would have given up, but they had a burning desire to find Jesus. When you come to church on Sunday, you come with a thirst to find Jesus, or just to get more information?
The third thing we notice is that they were not asking for a child that was born, but for the king of the Jews. Why were they so sure that this particular child was the king of the Jews? The kingdom of God is the central theme of the gospel of Matthew. When Jesus begins to preach he begins by saying: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” In his teaching Jesus told many parables comparing the Kingdom of heaven to what an earthly king would do. The kingdom of God is Matthew’s story.
At the end of Jesus’ ministry, the kingdom of God plays a central role. When Jesus is before Pilate, he asked Jesus: “Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus answered Pilate: “Yes, it is as you say.” In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is clear about whom he is, the king of the Jews. Matthew tells us that the soldiers; “Twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” When they crucified Jesus above his head in the cross, they wrote the reason why he was crucified, what his crime was: “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.”
Matthew tell us that it was not only the Roman soldiers, but that in the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him saying: “He saved others, but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” The experts, the holy people, those who grew up hearing about the prophesies and about the stories of God’s salvation where not able to believe, they needed more proof. They said that if only Jesus would take himself down from the cross they would believe. Yet these wise men, with very little knowledge saw a star and follow it for months believing that they would find the king of the Jews.
Finally we learn that they were looking for Jesus not to ask for healing, or food, or a blessing, or even recognition. They were looking for Jesus to worship and to give him something. They knew that it was more blessed to give than to receive. In the gospel of John Jesus complaints to the people that they were looking for him because of the miracle of bread he had done before. It was not for him they were looking, but more bread. People search for him looking for a miracle, for something. The wise men came looking for him to give him something. Are you looking to get something from God or give something to God?
“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” The feelings of these devout givers are to be seen in the richness of their gifts, and that the gold, at least, would be highly serviceable to the parents of the blessed Babe in their unexpected journey to Egypt and stay there.
What was the difference between the wise men and the people of Israel? They did not know so much that they were unwilling to learn. They were open to the revelation of God. They were willing to believe, even when they did not understand. They had the passion to continue to search, believing that the one who seek finds. There were flexible to change their plans to fit God’s leading. Matthew ends the wise men story saying: “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” Are you willing to take another route or do you need to continue in the same way?