THE FACES AND PLACES OF CHRISTMAS: Bethlehem And The Wise Men
Why were the Wise Men wise?
Good question. The Wise Men have both fascinated and baffled Bible students for centuries. Precisely who they were, we do not know. From whence they came, we can only hazard a guess. How they were motivated to follow the star, we can but speculate. How many of them there were, we are not told. They seemed to materialize, quite suddenly, out of nowhere. Then, having paid their homage to the newborn King, just as suddenly, they vanished into the mists of history.
You are no doubt aware that legend has had a field day toying with their origin, their number, their names, their personalities, their purpose. For example, tradition says that they were three in number; that their names were Casper, Melchior, and Balthazar; that years later they were baptized by Thomas, the disciple, as he took the Gospel to the Orient; that after their death they were buried first in Constantinople and then later moved to the Cologne Cathedral in Germany and that their tombs can be viewed in that cathedral to this very day. Frankly, I suspect that most of that is the stuff of legend. It may be part of our tradition, but it is not part of our Bible.
In fact, the Bible nowhere tells us how many Wise Men there were. The Bible nowhere refers to them as kings. The Bible focuses, not so much upon the Magi themselves, but upon the gifts they brought—gold, frankincense and myrrh. That of course, is not legend, that is in the Bible. Furthermore, it is quite clear, I think, that those gifts were more than just gifts. They were symbols of who Jesus was, is, and always will be.
Christmas, of course, is a time of giving gifts, and it actually all began with these Wise Men from the east of whom it is written in Matthew: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, His mother, and they knelt down and paid Him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” Now I’ve been thinking about that verse and those gifts, and while there is no written record of the subsequent history of those gifts, I at least would like to tell you today what I think happened to them. You see, I think the Wise Men deliberately intended each one of those gifts to point to the One to whom they were given.
Gift number one was the gift of gold
Gold is the symbol for royalty. Therefore, with this gift, I believe the Wise Men were designating Jesus as The King.
The visit of the Wise Men was the last of the good times for Joseph and Mary that first Christmas. You see, from that point on, life deteriorated for them rather badly. The jealous king, Herod, launched a massive military search for this child whom the Wise Men had labeled a king. It was at that point, that an angel of the Lord warned Joseph in a dream to take Mary and their child to Egypt in order to escape the cruelty of Herod. Joseph bolted into action. He gathered his young family and his meager belongings and set out on the long, hazardous journey to the land of the pharaohs.
Now not being a wealthy man, it is quite probable that Joseph’s resources already had been strained by the enforced journey to Bethlehem to comply with the census order and by the necessity for his having to secure even temporary living accommodations for his new young family. However, this new challenge would have been infinitely more difficult and thus infinitely more draining. They had become refugees. In such a precarious predicament, I believe that the gold of the Magi became, in reality, a God-sent gift. That treasure, offered to the Child as an emblem of His Kingship, would be used to ensure a safe start in life to this little One who was destined to transform the life of all humankind.
Do you remember the name J. Paul Getty? He was one of the world’s richest men. He created a vast empire and he once observed: “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights. Those are mine.” His greed led him to alienate those who were closest to him. When his twelve-year-old son, Timmy, lay dying of a brain tumor, he refused to visit him. Ultimately, he died alone and miserable. When I think of J. Paul Getty, I think of what Plato once said: “Poverty consists not in the decrease of one’s possessions, but in the increase of one’s greed.”
There was no such greed in these prosperous Wise Men from the east. They were wise enough to see Jesus as King—King forever, and therefore, they gave to Him the best that they could give. We must do the same. I know that it is often said that we can bring nothing to Christ, but I do think that we can bring the same gifts the Wise Men brought. So come with your gold, for gold symbolizes royalty. When you come to Christ with the gift of your gold, you are acknowledging the right of Jesus Christ to rule your life. You are like those Wise Men of old, declaring Him to be, as the carol puts it: “King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.”
Gift number two was the gift of frankincense.
Frankincense is the symbol for divinity. It was an expensive fragrance which in Old Testament times was sprinkled on the offerings at the temple in order to purify them and make them worthy of God. Therefore, with this gift, the Wise Men were designating Jesus as The Son of God.
The years sped past. With the help of the golden treasure, the little family lived quietly in Egypt until at last it was safe for them to return ultimately to their home in Nazareth. Soon life for them returned to familiar patterns. Of course, the dreams and the promises of the night in Bethlehem were not forgotten. Under the careful guidance of Mary and Joseph, the boy Jesus, as the Bible puts it “grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and others.” Youth soon gave way to the responsibilities of adulthood. Jesus eventually took His place at His father’s workbench to support His widowed mother and the younger children in the family. Then one day excitement gripped that family, for Jesus, their own Jesus, was to lead the weekly worship service in the synagogue at Nazareth.
As an act of devotion, I think Mary went to the chest where the family’s choicest treasures were kept and from that place she took the precious box of frankincense which had been given to her Son at His birth. I believe she then carried that frankincense to the synagogue and used it lavishly there so that the fragrant odors of oriental spice, prepared that place for the special worship of God. There, in His hometown synagogue, Jesus first delivered the message that He was the Son of God—God come to earth in human flesh. The people in that synagogue were so stunned by His unbelievable claim that a tumult broke out. They turned on Jesus.
But that didn’t stop Him. You see, you can’t stop God. There was no beauty in the worship of that Sabbath day in Nazareth, but I would suggest that the fragrance of the frankincense that was associated with His appearance, ultimately went forth to permeate the whole world. His neighbors repudiated Him that day, but you and I know that since then, multitudes without number have proclaimed Him Lord. He claimed to be what the Wise Men knew Him to be—the Son of God. And today, all over the world, wherever people have opened their minds and their hearts to His message, the fragrance of His spirit has transformed their lives. Matthew tells us that when the Wise Men saw the Child, “they knelt down and paid Him homage.” God, in His grace, opened their eyes to something many people never see—that Jesus was God in human form. And I take it from their response, that their lives were transformed.
The same thing can happen when we come to worship here. For here we can experience a first-hand, personal encounter with God’s Son, Jesus Christ. It has happened to me so many times in this place. It has happened in a hymn or an anthem. I will be sitting up here in the pulpit listening to our choir and some particular turn of a phrase, or some look on a choir member’s face, or some riveting chord on the organ will open a hole in my consciousness a mile wide and the Spirit of Jesus Christ will come flooding in, stabbing my soul with joy, filling my eyes with tears. And I will know in that moment that I am in the presence of the Son of God. If it happens to me, it can happen to you. The Wise Men were wise enough to see Jesus as the Son of God. So like the Wise Men of old, come with your frankincense. It symbolizes divinity. Like the Wise Men of old, fall down and worship the God who has come to us in Jesus Christ.
Gift number three was the gift of myrrh.
Myrrh is the symbol for suffering. It was a substance used for deadening pain and for embalming the dead. With this gift the Wise Men were pointing toward the sacrificial death of Jesus, and they were designating Him as The Savior of the world.
I think that Mary understood what most people miss—that Jesus Christ was born to die. I think she tucked the urn of myrrh away knowing—though thinking of it was like a stab to her heart—knowing that one day she would have to use it to prepare her Son for burial. I think that when she joined Jesus for that last trip to Jerusalem, she packed it with her things, suspecting that His time had come. And I think that on that Sunday morning after His crucifixion, Mary took the um of myrrh and with her friends, hurried through the early dawn to the garden tomb ready to prepare her Son for final rest—only there to be greeted by the thunderous announcement: “He is not here. He has risen.” As a result, I believe, the myrrh was the only gift of the Wise Men which was never used.
My beloved, here is the side of the Christmas story not often told. Those soft little hands fashioned by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, were made so that nails might be driven through them. Those baby feet, pink and unable to walk, would one day climb an awful hill to be nailed to a cross. That sweet infant’s head with sparkling eyes and easy smile was formed so that one day a crown of thorns might be jammed down upon it. That tender little body, so warm and soft and wrapped in swaddling clothes would one day be ripped open by a spear. Jesus was born to die. Yet His death was in no sense a tragedy, for out of His death and subsequent resurrection, there came nothing less than the salvation of your soul and mine. The Wise Men were wise enough to see Jesus as Savior. So like the Wise Men of old, come with your myrrh. It symbolizes suffering and salvation. When you come to Jesus with your myrrh, you are claiming Him as your Savior. You are saying to Him: “Lord, you took my sin and died in my place, now I ask you to take me as Your own forever.” You see, Jesus not only was born to die, He also was born to save.
Let me finish like this. On Manger Square in Bethlehem today, there stands the oldest Christian church in all the world. It is called the Church of the Nativity. Underneath that church there is a crypt, and in that crypt is where you see the spot where Jesus was born. It is a deeply moving thing to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Remember, though, I said it’s the oldest Christian church in the world. All of the other Christian churches in that part of the world were destroyed by Muslim warriors who swept over the middle east in the years before the dawn of the second millennium. The Church of the Nativity is the only church which was spared. Why? Because when those warriors from the east entered the Church of the Nativity, they saw a painting on the wall. You can see that painting in the Church of the Nativity to this very day. The painting is a picture of the Wise Men from the east and they were dressed in the clothing much like the clothing those Muslim warriors were wearing. And therefore, because that church contained a picture of people who were native to their own lands, the Muslim warriors made the decision that they would not destroy that church. Remarkable, isn’t it? The Church of the Nativity still stands because it contained a painting of the Wise Men from the east.
There is one other remarkable thing about that church in Bethlehem. The doorway to the church is so low that in order to enter the church you have to bend; you have to bow.
You cannot just walk in—straight, tall and proud. You have to humble yourself. Isn’t it appropriate that as we consider the birth of Jesus, the first thing we do is to bow down. The Wise Men were wise, because as Matthew tells us, “When they saw the Child, they knelt down and paid Him homage.”
O, come, let us adore Him—Jesus the King, the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
O, come let us adore Him.