Our Gospel story today is the familiar one about the three wise men, who bring gifts to the baby Jesus. This is a story that is only found in Matthew’s account, and it’s the sort of story that makes us want to ask a lot of questions:
How come we think of them as kings, sometimes? One of the old carols, not found in any United Church hymnal, is called “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”, so we put crowns and rich clothing on them. Where did they come from? The gospel simply says, “the east.”
Who were they?
The notes in one of my bibles say they were a “learned class in ancient Persia.” In another it says that they were astrologers, not the kind who writes your fortune in the newspaper, but people who studied the stars for patterns that could make sense of life.
How many people were there? We always think three, and some traditions say that they were named Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, but Matthew’s story doesn’t tell us that.
Did they represent all the people of the world? Sometimes, in pictures or stories, to be fair to everyone, one of them is Caucasian, one black, and one Oriental. That may make us feel inclusive, but it’s not in the original account.
And what about those camels?
All we really know is that some wise men from the east came to Jerusalem looking for “one who was the King of the Jews.” They were following a special star and wanted to worship him. They came to the court of King Herod and told him about their search. Herod was worried and sent for a bunch of priests and learned people and asked them where the Christ was. “In Bethlehem” they told him and said that this was a ruler who would govern all Israel. Herod pretended to want to worship also, but really, he wanted to kill the baby so it wouldn’t be a threat to his own power. He asked the wise men to let him know when they had found the child.
The wise men followed the star and found Jesus and gave him their gifts. They were warned by a dream not to go back to Herod, and people took dreams very seriously then, so they went home a different way, avoiding Jerusalem.
And that’s all we really know about the wise men. The question that pops up in my mind is: “What happened then?” They fade off into the distance, and we never hear anything else.
So, since we are mixing the actual words of the gospel story with lots of tradition, I decided to tell my own story, and try to imagine who those people were, and how their lives were changed after they saw Jesus.
This is my story, I can tell it any way I want, so I am sticking to the idea of three men, because women in that time would not have made long trips (well, maybe the Queen of Sheba) and why they would bring gifts to a baby. Babies don’t need gold, or holy oil, or expensive perfumes. But those gifts tell us something about the men themselves.
The first man came from a large city. His father was a town leader, rather rich, and the family gave their little boy a good education and brought him up to be polite and well-mannered. After all, he would go into politics too, someday. He thought about all the power he would have, and how he could tell people what to do, when he grew up. If the truth be told, he was sometimes a pushy kid, rather bossy.
When he got older, he married a woman from a good family, who brought him a large dowry – lots of her own family money. He had started out for Jerusalem that cold winter day, to attend a meeting of young politicians, to get some helpful hints on how to govern a province.
The second man was an assistant priest. He didn’t really want to be a priest, but his father was one, and his grandfather, and his mother’s brother, and so on. It was what the oldest son did, in their family. From an early age he had been trained in the temple, and followed his grandfather, the high priest, around, and listened to rather boring sermons, and had to memorize prayers, and learn all the proper motions to use at a sacrifice.
What he really didn’t like, as a little boy, was that everyone thought he had to be good, all the time. And he was full of mischief. He once let a frog loose during a particularly boring service, just to liven things up! As he grew up, he became resigned to his life, and was actually pretty good as an assistant priest. And it made his mother so happy. He was going to Jerusalem for a rally of junior clergy, in which seven new hymns would be taught, and he liked to sing.
The third man was a bit older than the others. He had got a late start on his education, because his family was poor. He came from a little village, where his mother supported their family as a midwife, and made medicines from herbs. She loved her work and was always ready to get up at night to help someone have a baby. She would hold the woman’s hand, and wash her face with cool water, and give her encouragement and strength when she got tired. The best part was when the baby was born, and she heard it cry for the first time. The Song of Life she called it.
Secretly, the man was a little ashamed of his mother, and their poverty, and the fact that he had no father. He worked hard at jobs that no one else wanted to do, until he saved enough money to go to the best medical school, where he never told anyone about his mother and her herbal medicines. He felt good about becoming a doctor, because it gave him some prestige. He was going to Jerusalem for a medical convention, to give a talk entitled “A sure cure for the common cold.”
The three men met on the road, where people traveled together for protection, and although they came from very different backgrounds, they got along quite well. They had all seen that peculiar star and decided to follow it.
Well, we know what happened at Herod’s court. After speaking to the king, the three set out to find the baby. It seemed a good idea to bring a gift, so each one rummaged through his things and came up with something useful. The rich man gave gold, the priest gave incense, and the doctor gave a healing oil.
They were a little disappointed, at first, when they saw the poor conditions of this family, but then, the light of the star fell upon them, and the mystery of God’s love shone in them. They were changed forever, and they knelt down and worshipped the child.
They left that house, as Matthew tells us, and went home by a different road. Somewhere along the way, they said goodbye to one another, never to meet again. But in their hearts, they knew that what they had experienced would bind them forever.
The first man went back to his big house in the city, and his rich wife, and he did indeed become a leader in his community. But whenever he felt too important, or pushy, something inside him would remember that star, shining on him, and a helpless baby and a poor family, and a greedy king, and he would know that his power came from God, and that his wealth was something to be shared. He would try to make decisions that would help everyone, not just the important people. As his own children grew up, he tried to understand them, and to tell them how special they were. He wasn’t afraid of losing his power, the way Herod had been, because the real power in his life came from that moment when God had filled him with blessing.
The assistant priest went back to his temple, singing all the new songs he had learned. They came from his heart, not his sense of obligation. Suddenly, all the prayers he had to say had new meaning, because he found that he could really talk to God. And everyone who heard him felt like singing too, and they began to enjoy sermons, which were about God’s love, and justice, and fairness for everyone. He smiled at little children, and nobody felt tempted to bring frogs into the service. His family grew closer and watched with joy when he was made head priest. He talked of hope, and change, and a day when God would set the whole world right. It was dangerous talk, but he was not afraid. He had seen, in the eyes of that young mother in Bethlehem, the courage that faith could give.
The doctor never cured a single cold, but he was gentle and wise and encouraged his patients, just the way his mother had. He was no longer ashamed of his family, or his poverty. He had seen how love could shine forth from the spirit. He never made a lot of money and spent most of his time with people who couldn’t pay a lot for his care, or sometimes anything at all, because he knew that he had been called by God to heal the sick. In that special moment in Bethlehem, he had come to understand what his mother meant by “The Song of Life” and he resolved to keep it humming inside him for all of his days.
I think the wise men really gained wisdom after they saw Jesus. And I think that all of us are a little like they were. Sometimes we are pushy, and want power, or money; sometimes we aren’t sure that we are doing what we want to do, and can’t seem to take God seriously’ and sometimes we are resentful or shamed of our families of the people who love us.
And then comes Christmas, and baby Jesus, and this story. And we are changed because in some way that star shines on us, too. And it gives us the security to be leaders of justice, and the faith to risk ourselves for God, and the compassion to be healers in our community.
And so, when we leave here today, let’s all go home by a different road – not a new street, but a different way of life. Let’s remember those gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – as gifts of power and faith and healing that have been given to us for our journey in the Christian life.