The story goes that the little boy attending his first ever Christmas pageant was amazed by the beautiful story of Jesus’ birth and everything that goes with it: there were angels, shepherds, a stable with live animals; it was really quite a production, and the boy was clearly moved by the experience of seeing the nativity drama unfold. But then, toward the end of the play the stage went dark and a spotlight shone toward the back of the church; and when the boy turned his head to see what was happening, he caught sight of the three royal looking figures entering the sanctuary from the rear. “Don’t look now,” he whispered to his mother, “but I think God just got here… only I’m not sure which one he is!”
Actually, I’d have to say that was an easy mistake to make! There’s just something about the arrival of those “three wise men” that brings any retelling of the Christmas story to a powerful, regal climax. I mean, up till now the story has been a rather quiet and earthy one, hasn’t it; the focus on two young parents, their new baby and the shepherds and animals who’d come to see. But now, suddenly, there’s an air of worldly significance about what’s happening as these three visitor come from a faraway place bringing not only gifts of great value, but also some sense of validation as to the utter importance of this child in the scheme of things! The kings’ arrival at the manger, with all of its flourish and drama, plays like the grand finale of the nativity story; and it’s no coincidence that John Henry Hopkins, who composed the song we’re looking at today (“We three Kings”), wrote it intending that it be performed at a Christmas pageant, and to that end, made sure that each of the three kings got his own solo verse in order to make a grand entrance!
And yet, who were they really? We call them Kings; yet nowhere does Matthew refer to them as such. Tradition has gone so far as to give each a name and a distinctive characteristic: Caspar (who is the oldest of the three, with a long, white beard), Melchior (who is African, black skinned with no beard, and the youngest), and Balthasar (who has Asian features and a black beard). But the Bible says nothing of this; there are no names mentioned, nor of how many of them there were (some works of art that date back to the second century suggest that there may have been only two wise men, while there are some medieval resources that depict twelve gathered around the Christ child!). They probably weren’t from the Orient, either; at least not the Orient as we think of it, that is, the Far East; moreover, their arrival was likely not on the night of the birth itself, but later on (that’s traditionally been depicted on the Christian calendar as happening on Epiphany, twelve days later – hence the “12 days of Christmas” – but some historians even suggest that they might have arrived up to two years later!).
We just don’t know for sure; basically, all we do know is that Matthew’s gospel refers to them as “wise men,” or “magi,” and that they were indeed “from the East,” probably Persia, where they most likely high priests of the Persian Empire who were often used as envoys for the Royal Family of Persia. Thus after a fashion, they were royalty themselves, and carried power and influence that extended to courts of Herod the King, and beyond. These Magi were, in fact, respected scientists, scholars and learned students of the stars and their movements in the night sky: astronomers, which would explain both their fascination and their utter diligence as regarded “the star they had seen at its rising.” This in and of itself was enough to make Herod sit up and take notice, and such was the wisdom of the Magi that after they’d seen this child “who [had] been born king of the Jews,” they knew to take heed of a warning in a dream to go home to their own country “by another way.”
It’s a small verse there in Matthew, and marks the last we ever hear about the three wise men; but for me, it’s the verse that tells us everything. You see, this story of the magi comes down to more than simply their journey following the star or finding “the child with Mary his Mother,” more than even the gifts they brought of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The importance of the magi has to do with what they knew to be true about this child and what he represented to the world. And the beauty part is, they knew this even though they themselves were from away; and that, dear friends, is no small thing!
In my native state of Maine, of course, being “from away” is synonymous with being considered an outsider, apart from the dominant culture and out of touch with how things really are. Maybe you’ve heard the story about the old-timer in town who finally passed away at 100-plus years old, and how the day after the funeral all the other old-timers in town were hashing over the deceased’s life and times. One of them says, “You know, I thought that Enoch had lived here all his life, but I was shocked to learn in the obituary that in fact he was born in New Hampshire. He didn’t come to Maine till he was almost a year old!” To which the other man says, “Ayuh… What a shame that he was from away!” See, it didn’t matter if he’d lived in Maine for 99 and a half years; by that way of thinking, you’re either a native or you’re “from away,” and that forever rules your destiny!
Well, friends, there’s no denying the fact that the three wise men were people “from away!” Not only did they dwell outside and away from Bethlehem, Jerusalem and all of Israel; but they also dwelt outside of the faith of Israel, apart, so to speak, from God’s covenant with Israel and the family of Abraham. They were Gentiles, and thus outsiders; plain and simple as that. And yet, who was it except for these very learned pilgrims from far away in the East who “observed the star at its rising,” who recognized it as a sign from God, and who then followed it!
They’d tracked the light of this star across vast stretches of desert and along mountain pathways that were arduous if not downright dangerous. And yes, they’d also followed the star across national borders, amidst differing cultures that might well have viewed such phenomena with disdain and fear; and they probably kept going even in spite of their own particular brand of scholarly skepticism. And they did so because… because, well, they knew. Somehow they just knew that this wasn’t an ordinary star shining above them, nor would this child be simply another newborn, but rather one unlike any they’d ever encountered before; this child that prophecy had foretold as “a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Which makes it all the more moving that when they finally found the child, immediately they knelt down before him and “paid him homage,” which, more than merely giving the child some gifts, means that they made a pledge of allegiance to him, both spiritually and politically. This, too, was because they knew, and even those oft-remembered gifts showed their understanding of who this child was and what he was to become: gold, representing wealth and royalty (a sign that he would be a king); frankincense, the incense burned daily in the temple of Jerusalem as a fragrant offering to God (which was a sign that he was holy); and myrrh, a bitter spice used to wrap the bodies of the dead (a sign that he was also destined to die).
Not bad for a trio of travelers who’d come “from away!”
And isn’t it interesting that for all the people that Herod the Great must have had around him to keep an eye on such matters as history and tradition and prophecy, it took those considered to be foreigners and strangers – people so out of the “loop,” so to speak, of proper society’s power and prestige – to recognize the truth of what God was doing in the world!
Throughout this sermon series, I’ve been commending to you the wonderful movie made a few years ago, “The Nativity Story.” One of the many things I greatly love about this movie is that the three wise men are sort of there for comic relief (!): we see them several times throughout the course of the film, and they’re never exactly sure where they’re going and how they’re to get there; they bicker with one another the whole journey, and one of them is quite full of himself as to the level of his royal genius! But what’s clear is they’re wise enough to know what they’re doing on that perilous journey from the east, and why. It’s what’s beautifully expressed in my favorite verse of the song we’re going to sing in just a few moments:
“Glorious now behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice; Alleluia, alleluia! Sounds through the earth and skies.”
The magi, you see, knew why they’d come; and moreover, they knew why they then had to go home by another way… and friends, my hope and prayer this morning is that each one of us knows the same.
After all, in our own way these past few weeks of Advent and Christmas we’ve also made a pilgrimage to the manger; to pay our own homage to the child who lay there. But now that Christmas is pretty much done for another year, we find ourselves back on the journey of life and living; trying so hard to take what we’ve received at Christmas so that we can “walk the walk” of our Christian faith! But sadly, ours is a pilgrimage that happens amidst a culture all too enamored of its own supposed wisdom and centered on skepticism, self-aggrandizement and pride. And it would be so easy for us to just go back the way we came; to return literally and figuratively to “business as usual.” But the thing is, once you’ve followed a star; once you’ve been to the manger, beheld the holy child and heard the alleulias that sound through earth and sky, how can you ever go back to the place you were before?
Once all that’s happened to you… what else will do except to go home by another way?
Beloved, with the coming of Epiphany in just a couple of days, we’ve reached the end of the Christmas season; and in terms of our worship, our reading of holy scripture and yes, even our singing, we’ve come to the end of the story of Christmas. But make no mistake; the pilgrimage that brought us to manger has only just begun. And while there may not be a grand and glorious star rising in the east to illumine our way as we set out on that “alternative route of life,” there is nonetheless a light; and it’s a light that shines further and brighter than any other into our hearts; and which spills abundantly outward along every pathway we travel.
It is the light that we’ve seen in Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, and it is ours by God’s good grace. May we be guided to that perfect light, beloved; and may our thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God! Amen and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry