During this month of December we’ve shared in an interesting journey. Our journey has included anticipation, preparation and celebration. It began with Advent, a time of anticipation and preparation based on the hopes and promises of the prophets. We considered the preparations necessary for us as a people of faith to grasp the true meaning of Christmas.Last week we talked about the perfect gift that Christ’s birth offers for our lives. The goal of our journey was to claim the Christmas story in all its glory and its message. Today as our journey continues, we address the rest of the Christmas story.
The traditional Christmas story includes the account of the journey of the wise men following a bright star in search for the anticipated new born king. Many of us have heard that story numerous times. Some of us have even played roles in the drama. One of my Christmas memories includes the time when I got to play one of the kings. Of course my costume was a bathrobe and I sang a verse from the song “We Three Kings” that identified the gift I was to present to the Christ child.The story of the Wise Men has many interpretations. Five year old Daniel returned from Sunday school with a new perspective on the Christmas story. He had learned about the wise men from the East who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. Daniel was so excited he just had to tell his parents, "I learned today all about the very first Christmas. There wasn't a Santa Claus way back then, so these three guys on camels had to deliver all the toys. And Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer with his nose so bright wasn't there yet either, so they had to have this big light in the sky to find their way around."
The story of the wise men is found only in Matthew’s gospel. There we find the account of nameless men coming from the East in search of the new born king of the Jews. We know very little about these travelers. Matthew refers to them as “magi” which means “wise men.” Were they kings, or astrologers, dream interpreters, or perhaps Roman advisors or counselors? Matthew doesn’t tell us, though tradition suggests that they may have been any one of these. However, they were probably not kings as suggested by the song of the season, but rather astrologers – men who studied the stars. They were more than likely educated men, trained in philosophy, religion and the natural sciences. They had probably committed their adult lives to the study of the stars in the belief that the heavens held the key to understanding all great events in history. Their journey was motivated by a gigantic star like none they had even seen before. They didn’t know where they were going, or a predetermined destination. They had no idea how long their journey would last. There was no map, no GPS, only the light of the bright star in the heavens to guide them.Tradition suggests that there were three, although the number is not confirmed in scriptures. The number was probably chosen because of the three gifts presented to the Christ child. And other than the reference to the East, we do not know where they came from. Tradition also gives them names, Caspar, Melchoir, and Balthasar, although their identities are not confirmed anywhere in scriptures.
Their journey took them to king Herod residence in the holy city of Jerusalem to inquire about the birth of a new king and promised Messiah. But Herod was surprised and even threatened to learn that there might be a new king to challenge his throne. So he called together his chief religious leaders and asked them what the scriptures had to say concerning where the promised messiah would be born. They in turn, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, told him that the promised Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Herod then told the wise men what he had learned and sent them on their way in search of the new born Christ child, falsely claiming he, too, wanted to go and worship him.Contrary to popular interpretation and pageantry of the Christmas story, the wise men did not find the child in a manger since sometime had passed. The Epiphany, which we celebrate on January 6, twelve days following the celebration of Jesus’ birth is traditionally recognized as the day of their arrival. Scriptures tell us that they were guided by the light of a bright star which went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they went into the house they found the child with his mother, Mary. Their immediate response was to fall on their knees before the new born king to honor him. Then they presented expensive gifts fit for a king: gold, symbolizing kingship, frankincense, an incense symbolizing divinity; and myrrh, a perfume used as an embalming fluid at one’s death and symbolic of sacrifice. Scriptures then tell us that “being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”
And that is the rest of the Christmas story. Now it’s up to us to learn the lessons from the wise men as our journey of faith continues. Let me briefly offer several for our consideration today.First, we learn that life is a journey in search of religious truths that help shape our destination and destiny. In an article titled “The Wise Men”, Frank Fowler suggests that the wise men represent our own search for God. He says that our life long journey is about seeking a deeper understanding of God, and looking for signs of God’s saving presence in our lives. Our journey is a search of something that we have not fully attained, and attainable only through faith. Perhaps the secret to a meaningful life isn’t the destination, but the journey itself. And if life is to have meaning, we must continue to ask questions and seek answers to the complexities and mysteries of life in the context of our faith.
Second, we learn about the importance of gift giving during the journey. Sometimes we only find what we are looking for when we give away what we have. One of the traditional stories of this season is one by Henry Van Dyke called “The Other Wise Man.” In this story the wise man, named Artaban, also went in search of the Christ child. In preparation for his journey he sold his possession and bought three jewels: a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl to present to the new born king. His journey took a lifetime. Along the way he found persons in need, and one by one he gave away the treasured jewels to help alleviate the pain and suffering of humanity. In the closing lines of this wonderful story, Artaban has become an older man, disappointed that he had not found Christ. But when he hears a voice assuring him that he had in his journey, he responds: “Not so my Lord! For when did I see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty, and give you drink, or naked and clothe you, or sick or in prison and visited you? Thirty three years I have looked for you, but I have never seen your face or ministered to you, my king.” Then came the response, “Truly I say to you, as much as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” Van Dyke closes the story with these words: “His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted. The other wise man had found the king.”I suspect that we too may only discover what we are looking for in our journey by giving gifts of compassion to those who need it the most. When our lifestyle is based on the selfless and a sacrificial giving spirit of Christ, we, too, can claim the affirmation, “Well done good and faithful servant.”
Finally, we learn that we do not journey alone. This is the essential message of the continuing Christmas story that is summed up in the word Emmanuel which means, “God with us.” Like the wise men of old, we need to recognize the signs along the way that guide our journey, and listen for God’s voice speaking to us to guide our path toward a destination that God desires for us –a destination based on hope that produces peace, joy, and love.Yes, we must have faith for the journey if we are to realize our potential, achieve our goals, and reach our destination. In faith we find strength for the journey through the promise and abiding presence of the gift of the Holy Spirit which provides us comfort and strength for the journey no matter what life holds in store. Let me remind you: being people of faith doesn’t exempt us for traveling some difficult and painful roads, and encountering difficult times. But it does mean that we have companionship for the journey. For as the song proclaims, we are “no longer alone… In joy and sorrow, today and tomorrow, love will be with us, love’s here to stay. Sing every morning, it’s Christmas today.”
Several years ago I wrote these words for a Christmas greeting message that my wife and I sent to family and friends. As we move through these final days of the Christmas season and prepare to face a new year, may these words challenge you as your journey continues: When the songs of the season have faded, and the star no longer shines brightly; when the angel’s message is but a memory, and the visitors to the Christ child have returned home, it is then the work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry; to bring peace for all of humanity. It is then that Christmas has meaning throughout all the year! Amen!