I wonder- did you ever stop and about what would have happened if it had been three Wise WOMEN instead of three Wise MEN? Here’s how I imagine things would have been different. If they were Wise Women, they would have asked directions, they would have arrived on time, they have helped deliver the baby, they would have cleaned the stable, they would have made a casserole AND…they would have brought PRACTICAL gifts!
With all of that in mind, today we look at the Wise Men- men who were willing to follow a star…a STAR…to find the King Who had been foretold, to find a better way to live. Imagine these exotic strangers showing up, speaking a foreign language, bringing extravagant gifts- all for this …peasant child. The only thing that could happen today that would approximate the degree of wonder Mary and Joseph must have experienced would be…aliens in a spaceship.
History tells us that 3 Wise Men came to the stable to worship the baby Jesus. But the Bible makes absolutely no mention of how many Wise Men there were. The number 3 was chosen simply because that’s how many gifts were brought: 3- gold, frankincense and myrrh. And why THOSE 3 gifts? Gold was a gift reserved for royalty. Frankincense was reserved for the worship of God. And myrrh was usually reserved for use in…burials. The 3 gifts seem incredibly…appropriate, don’t they?
The Wise Men are an interesting lot. As I said, historically there are 3 of them. But did you know that, according to legend, we know their names? Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar. Legendary explorer Marco Polo, in his book “The Travels”, claims to have seen their perfectly preserved bodies on display in their tombs in the 13th Century.
Our Christmas season sermon series is Silent Night, Holy Night. Tomorrow marks the 200th anniversary of the beloved hymn that has become a bedrock of the Christmas season. We have spent the weeks leading up to Christmas looking at this hymn and how its words impact our holiday season.
Each week, we’ve focused on one of the 4 verses of this classic hymn. We have sung that verse, acapela, and then heard part of the Christmas Gospel read. We then have talked a bit about the ongoing history of the hymn and how that day’s verse applies to the larger story of Christmas. Here is Verse 4. Would you join me as we sing it together.
Verse 4- “Silent night, holy night! Wondrous star, lend thy light. With the angels let us sing, “Hallelujah!” to our King. Christ the Savior is born! Christ the Savior is Born!”
Matthew 2:1-12 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose 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, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
We’ve talked about Josef Mohr and Franz Gruber coming together 200 years ago this Christmas Eve to write and present Silent Night for the first time. We talked about it being written for guitar because the church organ wasn’t working. We talked about the organ repairman hearing the newly-minted hymn and taking it out into the world. We talked about two prominent families helping it spread all the way to the thrones of Europe. We’ve talked about it being brought to the United States and, in 1863, translated into English. And we’ve talked about it being one of the most-sung songs of all-time- translated into more than 300 languages.
Over the years, because the original manuscript was lost, Mohr’s name was forgotten and although Gruber was known to be the composer, many people assumed the melody was composed by a famous composer, and it was variously attributed to Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. However, a manuscript was discovered in 1995 in Mohr’s handwriting and dated 1820, putting Mohr back where he belonged. “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!”
The Wise Men technically shouldn’t even be in our Nativity sets. Jesus was NOT a newborn when they got there. Instead, He was about 2 YEARS old. And they didn’t find Him in a stable full of hay in Bethlehem. They found Him in a house in Nazareth. And it was not so much their arrival as it was their departure that made this event special. Up until their leaving Jesus to go back home, the news of His birth had remained a regional thing. But with them heading back to…wherever they were from…the came from “afar”….the news of Jesus’ birth was suddenly going to spread to the known world. It was an epiphany- a sudden perception or insight into something.
We usually call these guys kings, but they were more likely astrologers, familiar with the movement of the stars…and the prophecies of a coming Messiah. But whatever their background, they were wise men from the East who were moved into action by a star that signaled the Messiah’s coming. They came to worship at the feet of the newborn King, each bearing a unique and valuable gift.
People walk into churches every week looking…looking for the baby- looking for this Jesus guy Who promises hope, help and healing. But all too often, they’re turned away. Not intentionally, but through their experience at the church…and with the people. A lot of visitors to a lot of churches experience indifference- indifference to the message, indifference to faith, indifference to the baby. The story simply seems like it’s become old hat- a way-too-comfortable shoe. They come to our churches asking the same question the Wise Men asked, “Where IS this child Who has been born a King? I’ve come to meet Him, worship Him…be changed by Him.”
And churches mean well. They WANT to be able to offer the words, the warmth and the welcome that visitors want and need. We WANT to help them pay homage to the One they’re looking for. But we don’t always know how. Therefore, our hope needs to be fresh- fresh enough to allow us to share the Good News that there IS life and hope in Jesus Christ.
This story shows us three different ways people respond to Jesus- three possible ways for US to respond to Him. Herod was antagonistic, the chief priests and scribes were apathetic and the wise men were enthusiastic. The wise men showed us what can happen when God’s Word takes root and the Holy Spirit begins to do some serious work in us. The Holy Spirit moved them to continue their journey, to follow the star, and to worship the one, true King.
The wise men remind us of the fullness of the coming of Jesus. And on this fourth Sunday of the Christmas season, as we remember the coming of the Wise Men and their gifts, I have a question for you- what gifts do YOU bring to the King? God has put gifts of great value inside of each of us. And God calls us to share those gifts for the benefit of His people. But we often mistakenly identify…or completely ignore…our gifts, don’t we? If we’re not careful, we tend to bear our gifts as though they were burdens. A lack of confidence in our ability to use our gifts to serve God reflects more than just a lack of belief in ourselves; it also reflects a lack of trust in the power of God.
But we have at our disposal, fully ready to use, the most power tool in the cosmos- God. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have been given the matchless opportunity to experience and harness that extraordinary power of God working in and through us. This Child that the wise men worshipped is our only path to salvation. And we have been chosen, by God, for just such a time as this. We need to renew the awe and wonder we have for a God Who is willing to break into time and space to change our lives. And a star lights the way.