"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.' When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.' " Matthew 2:1-3
One of my favorite Christmas cards of all time was sent to me by Leon Pepper. It pictured a trio of firemen, covered in soot, soaking wet, and holding axes and hoses. Distinguished by Texas A & M logos on their clothing, they were obviously fresh from battling a blaze. When I opened the card, the punch line said, "We are three wise men, and we have come from a far!" This may have to be explained to anyone outside of Texas, but I think you get the picture. Very funny, Leon. Gotta love Aggies with a sense of humor.
By the time Luke's account of The Christmas Story is completed, the reader is left with the impression that the magi, or wise men never made the trip to Bethlehem to see Jesus. Matthew's version of the story includes these astrologers who had been following the star for approximately two years. They were six miles off course when they pulled into Jerusalem, and when they told the king of their mission, they made quite a stir.
Herod was threatened by the news of a Messiah being born, and called a crisis management meeting of the religious elite. They had no problem pointing him to Micah the prophet. He had foretold of the birth of a child in Bethlehem who would become a ruler of Israel.
"AND YOU BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL." (Micah 5:2)
Herod's response to the word of God was deceitful and destructive. He met secretly with the magi to determine when they first saw the star. He would use this information to murder all the male children born during that time period. (Matthew 2:7, 16)
The Bible records the magi left the court of Herod, and made their way to Bethlehem. "After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming to the house, they saw the Child with Mary, His mother, and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, they opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh." (Matthew 2:9-11)
This is where things get a little confusing for people who have a tendency to put the em-PHA-sis, on the wrong syl-LA-byl. From this encounter the legend of the three Wise Men, with their names and their camels get launched. The three gifts probably led people to believe there were three men. The men would have required three names, and that legend was born. They surely would have needed transportation for a long journey, therefore the camel was drawn from logical minds, if not vivid imaginations and placed in the manger scene. The best guess that the magi were astrologers, and students of Zoroastrianism may have been pretty close to the mark. They were not kings. They were not there on the same night with the shepherds. They did arrive at a house, not a stable. They did worship Jesus, and by virtue of the length of their journey he was two years old.
OK. The record is straight. The stable has been cleared of the camels. The shepherds are back on the front row. Now, what did the arrival of the magi mean? Luke has already made clear that John the Baptist was being prepared to announce the coming of Jesus. He would call out the the people of the land, the peasantry of Israel, to repent. The testimonies of Simeon and Anna, revealed that the message of Jesus would be offered to the remnants of the tribes of the Southern and the Northern Kingdoms. The Gentiles would be enlightened too. The bankrupt religions of the Greco-Roman world had left people spiritually impoverished, and Jesus came to invest His life in them. The coming of the magi, revealed a hunger in the hearts of men who had been been trying to find spiritual nourishment in ancient eastern religions, and philosophies. Isn't it just like God to point hungry people to a little town whose name meant, "House of Bread."
It is so important not to miss the point of the journey of the wise men. It often gets lost in spasms of sentimentality and convulsive creativity. The magi fell face down on the ground, in a prone position, to indicate worship of Jesus. Then they gave Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This simple statement says it all. They came to the end of their journey by coming to the end of themselves. By coming to the end of themselves, they came to the beginning of God.
Much has been made of the gifts they gave to Jesus. Gold is self-explanatory. It could be used for living expenses. They reveal God as Jehovah Jireh, The Provider, who meets the practical and spiritual needs of His family. The poverty of Mary, Joseph and Jesus was revealed by the offering of doves they made at his dedication. It was the best they could do, and the least that could be offered. They had little to offer Jesus in the way of food and clothing but they gave what they could give, their obedience to the Word of God.
God is not limited to the resources of His people, or the resources of the people they know. Long before the arrival of the gifts Jesus received, the gifts were on their way. Mary heard from the angel about her role in giving birth to Jesus. Months before, the magi had seen a star and were on their way with the provisions they would need. Mary and Joseph had been on a journey of faith for about 10 months, the men from the east had been following a star for two years. They were bearing gifts that would meet the needs of this special family. The magi followed the star, and Mary and Joseph followed God's word. These were God given coordinates that brought about the meeting of their needs.
Mary and Joseph did not panic at the requirements of following God's word. There was cost involved in being obedient to The Law of the Lord. There were trips to be made, and sacrifices to be offered. What did they do? They obeyed God anyway. What parent has not questioned whether they could afford children? Children are a gift from God to any family, and those who try to wait until they can afford them are usually called childless couples. Mary and Joseph knew instinctively, where God guides He provides. He knows the needs of His children, even before they ask for their needs to be met. As Jesus was being raised in the home of Mary and Joseph, there must have been many times that He saw God meet their needs. He encouraged His followers, "For your heavenly Father knows that you need these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." (Matthew 6:32-33)
The magi are the ones that can be thanked for introducing gift giving to the celebration of Christ's birth. They were obedient to follow the star, and they found Jesus. When God gets ready to do something great, He points people to the stars. Abraham in the Old Testament, was told to look at the stars, and get an idea of what God was going to do through him. The magi were pointed to a star and it led them to Jesus. At the risk of sounding like a sanctified Scrooge, I want to remind contemporary followers of Christ's star, THEY GAVE THE GIFTS TO JESUS, NOT TO EACH OTHER. This is the divine detail of The Christmas Story that is most often ignored, or lost in translation. Somewhere in the past 2,000 years the focus has moved from "Thee" to "Me."
Nothing will make The Christmas Story come alive like giving your best gift to The One whose birthday you are celebrating. This is not hard to understand, but it is hard for people to get excited about. Christians should be asking, "What are you giving Jesus for His birthday this year?" Wouldn't it be novel if Christ followers would compete in out giving one another in what they gave to Jesus on His birthday. What a shame that Christians are hardly distinguishable from the most commercial crazed consumers during Christmas.
Please listen carefully to me now. I am not suggesting you don't get a party favor at His birthday party. You just don't get to be treated like the birthday boy. Remember this party is not thrown for you. It is for Jesus. Say it with me, softly, "Not me, but Thee!" A little louder now with conviction, "Not me, but Thee!" There you have it.