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Please turn your attention to our Gospel lesson for today as the example of the Wise Men is held up as something we will follow if we are truly wise.
How wise are you? Let’s see how you do on a little quiz. Who were the Wise Men? If you go by the song, they were kings. But the Bible never calls them kings. How many were there? Again, if you go by the song, there were three. But the Bible never tells us how many there were. Where did they worship Jesus and present him their gifts? They are almost always pictured with the Shepherds at the manger. But the Bible makes it clear that they were definitely not there on Christmas Eve. The Bible says that they worshiped Jesus at a house in Bethlehem. It tells us that, from what Herod learned from the Wise Men, Jesus could have been almost two years old when they came to visit him. So, how did you do? If some of your ideas about the Wise Men were wrong, it’s a good reminder to make sure what we think we know about Jesus and the things that happened in his life are actually true. And the way to make sure they are true is to read what the Bible says for ourselves.
From studies that have been done, and from experience, it is clear that many people in our world today are Biblically illiterate. And it’s not just unbelievers. Many faithful church members just take what they are told for granted and have not actually opened their Bible themselves to make sure what they are told is what the Bible really says. If you really want to be wise, you have to read the Bible for yourself.
How did the Wise Men know to look for some kind of sign in the heavens that would indicate the birth of the King of the Jews? Again, the Bible doesn’t tell us. It says they were from the East, but it doesn’t say which country. Maybe through Daniel who was the head of the Wise Men in Babylon 400 years earlier, or maybe from some Jews who had traveled in the East and shared some prophecies of Scripture? We don’t know for sure, but somehow God saw to it that people other than the people of Israel knew about the promised coming of a savior. That’s one of the comforts of the season of Epiphany. God doesn’t restrict the message of salvation to just one group of people. He sees to it that the good news about Jesus spreads throughout the world.
When they saw an unusual sign in the sky the Wise Men trusted that God had kept his promise. The special child who would be the King of the Jews, the promised Messiah who would sit on David’s throne and rule forever, had been born. They could have just said a prayer of thanksgiving to God from the comfort of their homes in the East, but they weren’t satisfied with that. This was such an important event, not only for them, but for the world, that they wanted to see it with their own eyes. They packed their bags and left for what must have been a long and dangerous journey to Jerusalem.
I find it interesting that the sign, called a star but certainly no ordinary star, seems to have disappeared before they arrived in Israel. It didn’t lead them directly to Bethlehem. So, they went where they would expect to find a king, to the capital city, to Jerusalem. There are probably a lot of reasons God would want them to go to Jerusalem- to be a witness to Herod, to be a witness to the religious leaders of the Jews- Just think of the irony. Wise Men from the East, non-Jews, had to alert them to the fact that the Savior had been born! But what strikes me most is that God didn’t want them to be guided completely by some miraculous sign. It was through the Jewish scholars that they received guidance from God’s word. The Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. They were directed to Bethlehem, not by the star, but by the word. Only then did they see the star again which led them right to the house where the Holy Family was staying.
Still today, that’s the way that God wants to lead us. He doesn’t want us to rely on signs. He has not promised to guide us by means of signs. In fact, Satan can manufacture things that look like signs from God just to lead us away from God. In our outreach calls we have come across people who believe they have received a sign from God and have concluded that they no longer need to listen to God’s word. Many others think that their feelings are a sign from God and that they should do what “feels right” even if what feels right contradicts what God has clearly said in his word. God may have gotten the attention of the Wise Men by means of a sign, but he made sure that they found Jesus based on a prophecy from God’s word.
When they realized that they had found the right house in Bethlehem and saw Jesus with their own eyes, they rejoiced with overwhelming joy. The Greek has to pile up three different words to describe how filled with joy they were. One word just wouldn’t do. They were filled with Joy because they found Jesus- but is that really a correct way to say it? Did they find Jesus? Certainly not on their own. Think about all the ways that God guided them to Jesus! They didn’t really find him, they were guided by God to him.
The old bumper sticker said, “I found Jesus.” The former criminal or the popular sports figure might declare, “I found Jesus.” But that’s really never the case. No one is able to find Jesus on their own. All people are born blinded by sin and enemies of God. Left on our own we would never look for Jesus, and even if we did, he could be standing right in front of our nose and we wouldn’t recognize him. If we have come to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, as our Savior, it’s only because the Holy Spirit has somehow gotten our attention, and then brought us into contact with the word and Sacrament so that, by his power, we have been led to Jesus and had our eyes opened so that we could recognize him. If that doesn’t make you rejoice with overwhelming joy it may be that you are taking Jesus for granted, or you are thinking that you found him because you were smarter or looked harder than everyone else. If that’s the case, remember the message Jesus brought. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” Confess your sinful pride and look to Jesus for forgiveness.
When they were able to contain their joy, we are told that they bowed down and worshipped this child who wasn’t likely even walking yet. He didn’t look like a king. He wasn’t living in a palace. His mother was a simple maiden, not a lady of the court. Yet they worshipped him as a king. That was an act of faith. And as part of their worship they gave him gifts – Gold, frankincense and myrrh- expensive gifts. That was a fruit of faith.
Like the Wise Men, our worship of Jesus is an act of faith. We worship someone we can’t see. In faith, we take God at his word when he tells us that Jesus is his one and only Son, and that he lived a perfect life in our place, suffered our punishment on the cross, and then rose from the dead on the third day. We have no way of proving these things are true. In faith, we take God at his word when we worship Jesus as our King and Savior.
Now the Wise Men could have thought to themselves that making a long and dangerous journey and bowing down in worship would have been more than enough to show their faith and appreciation for all that God had done for them and all that Jesus would do for them. But, in addition to all these things they were moved to give Jesus gifts.
Like them, our giving is to be a fruit of faith. We don’t think, “well, I showed up at church. I made the trip. I took the time to actually come to worship Jesus. That should be enough.” No, when we realize what Jesus came to do for us, what he has saved us from – the eternal fires of Hell – we too are moved to give of our best, gifts that reflect that we appreciate how much Jesus has done for us.
We don’t know how long the Wise Men stayed at the house, or in Bethlehem. The Bible doesn’t say. But it doesn’t seem that it was very long. Herod had asked them to return to Jerusalem and let him know where Jesus was. They didn’t know it, but the reason was so that Herod could have Jesus killed. In a dream, God let them know that they were not to return to Herod, and, again they demonstrate their faith. They took the risk that Herod might send soldiers after them when he realized that they had not returned to him. They obeyed the word of the Lord and returned to their country by a route that avoided Jerusalem.
These men from the East were truly wise. Think about what we can learn from their example. Like them, God has given us signs of his second coming. We are wise when we are always looking for the fulfillment of those signs so that we recognize them when they appear. When they recognized the sign, they acted. They dropped everything so that they could see Jesus in person, and God made sure that they were guided to Jesus by the word. If we are wise, we will make being guided by the word one of the most important things in our lives. When they saw Jesus, even though he didn’t look like a king, they worshipped him and gave him expensive gifts. When we see Jesus through his word and realize all that he has done for us, we too are moved to worship and give him gifts. These men obeyed when God gave them instructions to return home in a way that avoided Herod. We are wise when, even if we don’t understand why, we obey, we do what God tells us in his word.