Three Men And A Baby
Just recently, while driving about the city, I was listening to a talk show on the car radio. The subject had to do with space travel. The featured guest on the talk show was a prominent scientist. A listener called in and asked this question: “If someone were to travel to a planet several million light years away, traveling at the speed of light, what would they look like after they arrived? Would they be about the same age or would they be much older, and would anyone they knew be here when they returned?” Well, the expert guest on the talk show responded that that was a good question and then proceeded to give about a ten-minute answer. Now I am a person of about average ignorance when it comes to such subjects, but I can tell you that the answer he gave was so convoluted that when he was finished I had no idea what he had said.
Every year questions are raised about this season of the year. Was Jesus really born on December the 25th? If not, then how did they arrive at that date? How did the star lead the Wise Men? And did they arrive at the point of Jesus’ birth or did they come later? I thought about trying to answer those questions today, but by the time I had written out the explanations, it began to remind me of what I had heard on the radio about space travel. So I decided against it. Besides, I don’t think you want to deal with complex, convoluted issues today. However, I do think that the fact that the Wise Men traveled to see Jesus is important and it’s not complex. It’s really quite simple.
Do you know that if it were not for Matthew we would have no record of the Wise Men? Matthew gives us the impression that they were Persian astrologers. They were called magi, from which we get our word “magic”. However, they were not magicians who were experts at sleight-of-hand tricks, rather they were first century scientists who possessed vast knowledge and wisdom. Consequently, the real significance of the story of the Wise Men is that these enlightened, intelligent, inquisitive leaders of the first-century scientific community would travel more than 1500 miles on foot and camelback to seek out a child born to poverty-stricken parents in a back-water little town. Now that’s worth trying to understand, don’t you think? So let’s have a go at it.
First, look at the visit of the Wise Men. They sought the Christ Child.
The Wise Men may not have had as sophisticated an understanding of the universe as we have today, they may not have grasped the vastness of God’s infinity, (for that matter, who does?) but what they did know was that there was an unusual star in the heavens and they were wise enough to set out on a journey search for the meaning behind that star. Now why would these rich, wise foreigners risk life and limb to travel all those miles across the forbidding desert? The answer is clear. They were looking for the meaning of life. In short, they were looking for God. Like the magi of old, we too are seekers. We too are searching for the meaning of life and for the meaning of our own life. We too are looking for God.
Do you ever wonder why so many people come to church on Christmas Eve? We had multiple thousands here on Christmas Eve. Why? Well if you ask you get all the pat answers: “It’s traditional. It’s a beautiful time with candles and all. The music is lovely. It’s a time to be with families and loved ones.” Now all of those reasons are valid, I’m sure, but I suspect that there is a deeper reason beyond the pat answers. We come to church on Christmas Eve each year because we are hoping that in the mystical, magical, miraculous story of Christmas we can find the meaning of life…we can find God.
There is so much confusion in our world and in our thinking today. There was a time when right was right and wrong was wrong. Things were nailed down with certainty and the teachings of home and church were regarded as authoritative. No longer. Values have changed. Our views have changed. Institutions have changed. Countries have changed. Consequently, recent surveys make it quite clear that in this confused and troubling world people are searching for something to make sense out of life. We have discovered that the answer is not to be found in economic policies or the wealth of nations. It does not come from programs of education or political maneuvering. It does not come from science or technology. It certainly does not come from “star wars” and it definitely does not come from the stars. It comes from Christ. And more and more seekers are discovering that truth in our time. I shared a platform a few weeks ago with the great Peter Drucker and he boldly declared that we are now on the threshold of what may prove to be history’s greatest spiritual awakening. Why? Because more and more people, he says, are realizing that Christ is the only answer to the meaning of life in this world.
In Krakow, Poland, during the Second World War, the cathedral basement was being used a field hospital. There was only one doctor there and a handful of nurses, but there were many, many dreadfully wounded soldiers. The situation seemed hopeless. As the doctor worked feverishly by candlelight, moving from one wounded soldier to another, he noticed that one man was apart, over in a corner. He took his candle and approached the soldier, but he could tell the soldier was dead. The body was still. The pallor of the skin that was showing was white with death. As the doctor reached down to pull back the sheet, he noticed that the hand of the young soldier was wounded. He pulled the sheet aside and stepped back in amazement. You see, there had been much splendid statuary in that cathedral upstairs, and during the onslaught the people had taken down that statuary, wrapped it in sheets, and placed it in the basement. When the doctor pulled aside the sheet, he revealed a crucifix. Falling back in astonishment, he said: “Christ is here.” It was only a whisper, but the nurses and some of the soldiers heard it and it rippled through that basement like a pebble dropped in a pool. It echoed around the cold, bare walls of that place. “Christ is here. Christ is here.” It changed the whole atmosphere of the place. The hopelessness suddenly disappeared.
It is the Wise Men, better than anyone else, who point us to where the world’s best hope, the world’s only salvation comes…the baby in a manger. They found the Christ. That’s the message of Christmas—Christ is here. Remember, those who are wise enough to truly seek Him, find Him.
Next, look at the gifts of the Wise Men. They were committed to the Christ Child.
The Magi did not come empty-handed. One does not come into the presence of royalty without gifts to show honor and to express gratitude. The Bible tells us that Wise Men brought three gifts, but I’ve always believed that the magi actually brought a fourth gift. In addition to the gold, frankincense and myrrh, they brought the gift of themselves. They brought their commitment, their desire to serve this child of God.
I will confess to you that there are days during the Christmas season when I think that I cannot possibly listen to “The Little Drummer Boy” one more time. But then just before I switch it off, I remember that it is one of the most beloved legends of Christmas. According to the story, when the Christ child was born, many beautiful gifts were brought, including the magnificent gifts of the Wise Men. But there was one small boy who was very poor and had nothing of value to offer. He then thought that he would play his drum for the Christ Child. And so he did…pa rum pa pum pum, pa rum pa pum pum. He played it with all of his heart, and according to the legend, the infant Christ smiled in gratitude. The gift of love is the best gift of all. Like the magi of old, we too bring gifts to the Christ Child, but the best gift is the gift of all is the gift of love, the gift of ourselves. I so love the words from that hauntingly beautiful hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter”. “What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would bring Him a lamb. If I were a Wise Man I would do my part. But what I can, I give Him. I give Him my heart.” Yes, in the gifts the Wise Men brought, especially the gift of themselves, we see their commitment to Jesus Christ.
And then look at the departure of the Wise Men. They were transformed by the Christ Child.
We are told in the story that they departed to their own country in a different way. They followed the star and the star led them to the Christ child. They would be forever changed by that experience. The way they came was not the way they returned. They returned home different people following a different way.
Of course, that’s one of the bedrock beliefs of our Christian faith. Paul said it best: “If anyone be in Christ they are a new creation. All things are passed away. Behold, in Christ, all things become new.” Once we have encountered Jesus Christ in our lives, we cannot be the same. We are changed. We are transformed. We cannot go through life the way we did before. Like the Wise Men of old, we return home in a different way than the way we came.
In the next few days we will cross the threshold to a new year. Mark this down, Beloved. 1998 does not have to be a repeat of 1997. We can return back to our families, our jobs, our schools, our neighborhoods and our church as different people determined to follow a different way. We can approach every day in this new year with new attitudes, new directions, new desires, new dimensions once we have encountered the Christ Child, put Him at the center of our lives and let His transforming touch change us for the good and for good.
There’s a beautiful legend about a king who decided to set aside a day to honor the greatest of his subjects. When the day arrived, there was a large gathering at the palace. Four persons were to be presented to the king for the honor. The first person presented possessed immense wealth. The king was told that this man deserved this honor because he had devoted his wealth to meeting the needs of the poor. The second person presented was a celebrated physician. The king was told of this man’s inexhaustible service to the sick. The third person presented was a distinguished judge. The king was told that this man was noted for his fairness and his wise decisions from the bench. The fourth person presented was an elderly woman. Everyone was truly surprised, for her manner was quite humble, as was her dress. She hardly looked the part of someone who would be honored as one of the greatest subjects in the kingdom. The king was somewhat puzzled by her presence and he asked why she was being presented with the other three. The reply came: “She was their teacher.” The king then decreed her to be the greatest of all his subjects.
The Wise Men traveled more than 1500 miles following a star that led them to a child lying in a manger. That child is our teacher. If we are wise, we will come and kneel before the Christ, experience His transforming touch in our lives, and then leave here as different people following a different way in life.