Well, I’m going to go WAAAY out of character for me, and out on a church calendar limb. Tomorrow is Sunday, 5 January, 2014, the last Sunday in Christmas this year. So I am going to race ahead and post about Epiphany. “Sin Boldly”; to half-quote Martin Luther.
So why jump ahead two days as if I were impatient for them to be gone? Well, perhaps I am in mid-revelation, and revelation is sort of what the word “epiphany” means. Or perhaps I am receiving my Christmas gift, which also marks it as OK as a Christmas post (now I feel better!). I understand that in many places in the world, in many parts of the Church, Gifts are not exchanged on Christmas, in remembrance of the Gift of the Incarnation, but on Twelfth-Night, Epiphany (“…my true love gave to me, …”) in remembrance of the gifts of the Magi, given TO the incarnate Son of the most High. I sort of like that, in that it puts the focus a little more where I think it belongs, on me giving to God as I seek to serve Him in all people, in recognition of my baptismal vow.
Well, rambling over, on with the point. In Matthew’s account of the Gospel, Chapter 2, he says of the “wise men” (or Magi):
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.
So my summary is that these wise men (probably from Persia) saw something in the stars which told them that there were big doings in Israel. Yes, a new King of the Jews, but what would that be to them? Israel had been a vassal state to Persia centuries before, Darius allowed them to return to the land, conquered and reconquered, now under Rome; What was that to them? But they saw SOMETHING that told them that there was born a king who, even now, in his infancy, was worthy of their worship. And so they went. I don’t know from exactly where they started, as I said, most of the scholars guess that they were Persian, the land which is now Iran, and that is a big country. But to get a rough idea, I googled the distance from Teheran to Jerusalem. It’s an 11 hour flight. That’s a long way! I’ve done that, and you feel every hour. I don’t know how they travelled. I know they were wise men, but even so, I doubt they flew. It’s something over 1500 miles by camel.
To see a baby
To pay homage the “king” of another land
When they arrived in Jerusalem, it seems they didn’t quite know where to go next. Matthew says they were following the star, but as Bethlehem is only about 6 miles from Jerusalem, they may have been confused, and thought, “royal birth, Israel, Holy City, Jerusalem. Yea, this has got to be the place.” They may have been wise, but they were men, after all. Or maybe they had been well-trained at home–because they stopped and asked for directions. They stopped and inquired of, who else? the other people like themselves, the King and wise men in Jerusalem. They will know, they are the locals! And sure enough, they did know.
They knew all about it. Matthew doesn’t even suggest they had to look long and hard –nothing about searching diligently until they came up with the answer. No, Matthew just reports that “They told him” They knew. “Our prophet wrote that the messiah will be born in Bethlehem. That is about 6 miles down this road over there. Can’t miss it.”
Now here is where the story gets personal for me.
After the consultation between the Persian wise men, who had seen the star, and knew what it meant, and the Jewish wise men, who knew the scriptures, and knew what they meant, how many “wise men” (and which sort) went to worship?
As I see it, those who barely knew anything about the God of Abraham, the creator and sustainer of all that is, they were the ones who were faithful to the glimmer of a vision they had received through the natural world. Unless the Persians maintained a memory since the days of the captivity (which could be), they probably never heard of Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
They could not quote this Psalm (the other wise men could), but they were the living illustration of its truth.
They saw something and knew only that they should travel over 1500 miles by camel to worship, and did so.
The other wise men? Well, they were the one’s God chose. A Royal Priesthood. The Apple of God’s eye, given the gift of the Scriptures, given a lifestyle that allowed them to learn and study the Holy Scriptures, so that they knew them, and could give a right answer to those who asked. (Are you starting to get a little uncomfortable? I know I am.) What did THEY do with what they had been given? They did not travel 6 miles; they stayed in Jerusalem. Stayed, perhaps with Herod, stayed to answer questions of anyone else who should come inquiring. They stayed.
They did not go and worship.
The revelation, and the Christmas gift to me in this story is that some years ago I became serious in my Bible study. Learned a lot. Made a huge difference in my faith, in my understanding of God. I started to see a lot about His love and desire for His people Israel, and then that God also had – and has – a people in Syria – in Egypt, and in all of us.
Now in these days, I keep running into things like this story, showing me that reaching for understanding is a good thing. It is a very good thing. But understanding is not God.
Good and Godly doctrine, wise teaching, good and correct biblical understanding will make as serviceable an idol as anything else. Lean on the love of God, through the gift of the Son, in the power of the Spirit.
Let us, too, come and worship.
That’s the Gift.