The camels cast eerie shadows as they made their way across the desert sands. The full moon lit the desert floor like a giant spotlight and the caravan wove unerringly through the trackless night.
Their mission complete, they now returned to their distant home, as mysterious in their departure as they had been in their arrival.
What symbolizes Christmas more than the picture of the Magi kneeling in adoration before the newborn messiah? Across the desert sand they had come.
Mile after mile following, but a promise of a distant star. I wonder if as they packed their camels in Persia, if their family friends and neighbours thought of them as wise men?
“So, guys, where’re you going?”
“Oh, and what is your final destination?”
“How will you know when you get there?”
“The star will stop”
“Well, who are you going to see?”
“Uh, and what’s the baby’s name?”
“Wonderful, counsellor, prince of peace, Everlasting father.”
“You know, Bob, I believe that the boys have been out in the sun way too long.”
And yet the Magi of the East made their pilgrimage across the sea of sand to the little town of Bethlehem to worship at the cradle of Christ. We know very little about the Magi, but we know they were from the country of Persia, which is now Iran. And we know the Magi were originally from a tribe of Medes who tried to overthrow the King.
When their little coup failed, they put their political aspirations behind them and choose safer work as holy men, priest, and teachers of Kings. It was from this occupation that we discover Magi is the root word of Magic. Now we don’t know why the sign came to these men. Maybe it was there for everyone, but only these few choose to follow.
Regardless of the reason, it was the Magi who followed the star to visit the Christ child, and maybe it was simply to signify that Christianity would ultimately be for the gentile as well as the Jew. Because even though Jesus came as the Jewish Messiah, we are told that there was this sense of expectancy over the entire area of the world concerning the coming Messiah of the Jews. The belief was summed up by the Roman Historian Suetonius when he wrote “There had spread over all the orient and old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world.”
Now we might not know a lot of factual information, but a lack of facts has never stood in the way of anyone and so what facts can’t tell us we learn from tradition. Ancient tradition told us that there were 12 in this group of wise men, but of course our contemporary belief is that there were only 3.
And tradition did what political aspiration couldn’t do, and it turned the Magi into kings. And then tradition gave our 3 Kings names, Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar.
And then tradition gave them faces. In this painting, entitled “Adoration of the Magi” we can see Melchior, who was the oldest, his gift was the gold. Next is Caspar, the youngest who brought the frankincense. And Balthasar was the one of African descent, his gift, myrrh.
It must have caught on because you see it repeated over and over again in paintings.
And we still create tradition. If you go to many churches this time of year, you will hear that the Magi never saw the newborn Christ, instead we are told that they arrived two years after Jesus was born. The rationale? They refer to where the Bible says that they went to the house where the baby was. Maybe a room opened in the inn the day after Jesus was born.
They talk about how it would have taken the magi two years to make the trip, although the same trip was made on Camels ten years ago in 3 months.
But if God could put a star in the sky to guide the wise men, he could have put it there, so they arrived on time. And finally, the proponents of this new tradition point to the fact that Herod ordered the death of all male children under the age of 2.
So what, the man was a kook. When he was on his deathbed, he ordered that some of the most distinguished people in Jerusalem be arrested and killed at the moment of his death so some tears would be shed. I want to know why Mary and Joseph and Jesus would have hung around Bethlehem for two years after the census was finished. Inquiring minds want to know.
Anyway, that was free.
And while we might not know who the Magi were, we know what they brought for gifts, and we know that there was a certain significance behind those gifts. Have you seen the meme that’s gone around, “what would have happened if it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men?”
They would have asked directions,
arrived on time,
helped deliver the baby,
brought practical gifts.
cleaned the stable,
made a casserole, and
And there’d be Peace on Earth
Well, the gifts may not have been practical, but they were all significant. Gold was traditionally the gift for a King. We are told that in Persia it was customary that no one could approach the King without first presenting him with a gift of Gold. Good work if you can find it. And so, we need to remember that the child in the cradle was also the King of Kings.
The second gift was frankincense, which was a type of incense that was used in temple worship. As a matter of fact, it’s mentioned in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament as a type of sacrifice. And so, this was a gift for a priest, one who would open the way to God for the people.
It’s interesting that in Latin the word for priest is Pontifex, which literally means “bridge builder”, and Jesus did what none of us could do. He built a bridge for us to God.
The third gift was Myrrh, and it was mixed with aloes by the Jews to embalm their dead. I wonder if Mary remembered the gifts when her son was crucified? I wonder if she still had the myrrh? It must have been one of the very first prepaid funerals.
And so, the gifts were brought to a child who would be King, Priest and who would die for the world. No one of these gifts would have been sufficient to fully describe who Christ was, instead it took all three.
On Christmas Eve we talked about how Bethlehem can never be truly separated from Calvary, that the manager scene is never complete with the shadow of the cross.
Holman Hunt painted a portrait of Christ called “The Shadow of Death”, set in the carpenter shop. It has a young Jesus stretching in the warm morning sun, and the shadow that’s cast is, well, see for yourself.
Balthazar wasn’t the only person to give Jesus the gift of myrrh. Listen to what John wrote in John 19:39–40 With him came Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus at night. He brought about seventy-five pounds of perfumed ointment made from myrrh and aloes. Following Jewish burial custom, they wrapped Jesus’ body with the spices in long sheets of linen cloth.
It’s unfortunate that Nicodemus had to wait until the death of his friend to publicly proclaim his loyalty.
And so, we are told that the trip of the Magi ended when the star stood still over Bethlehem. Our friend tradition tells us that the star fell into the well in Bethlehem and that it can still be seen by the pure of heart.
Matthew summed the entire trip up when he wrote in Matthew 2:10 When they saw the star, it filled them with joy! I hope, even in times of COVID, this Christmas season has been a time of joy for you as you celebrated the birth of Jesus.
The story of the Wise men finishes with Matthew 2:12 NKJV But when it was time to leave, they went home another way, because God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. Now we all know what Matthew was saying here. It’s a little clearer in the NLT, Matthew 2:12 When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.
Matthew was telling us that because the Wisemen had been warned that Herod would kill the Christ child that took an alternate route home, one that would bypass Jerusalem. But that doesn’t answer the question that burns deep within the soul of every preacher, and that is, “Will it preach?”
Now the physical return of the magi that won’t preach well at all.
But if we say they went home another way spiritually, then they had come, that liberty born of desperation will preach.
I believe that when the magi got up from the cradle that there had been a change in their hearts. That once they had cast their eyes on the child who would change the world that they became different men. They were not the same men who left their distant home. They would return home, but they would return a different way, with a different outlook on life, on God and on mankind.
It’s true that they took a different route home, but they also went home as men whose lives had been touched by the son of God. And so we need to ask: if they went home another way, how did they go home?
They Returned the way of Faith Fulfilled. When these men struck out from their homes, they really left in an act of faith. Guided only by a star leading them to some strange and distant land. The Bible could have been speaking of the Magi when it says in Hebrews 11:1 Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.
In every sense of the word faith is a New Testament concept, 90% of the times it’s used in the Bible is in the New Testament, and it’s interesting to note that within the New Testament some of the first visitors to the son of God travelled the road of faith.
Billy Sunday said “Faith is the beginning of something of which you can’t see the end, but in which you believe.” Now I am convinced that we are all born with an equal allotment of faith, and each one of us can either cultivate that faith and watch it grow or neglect it and watch it die. Each one of us cultivates our faith in a dozen different ways every day.
When you set the alarm at night, you have faith that it will go off in the morning. When you catch the bus, you have the faith it will get you to your stop on the other end.
Probably one of the greatest examples of faith that you see is the number of people who drive. You have faith when you get into your car that it will start. Sometimes, that’s misplaced faith, but faith, nevertheless.
When you turn the wheel, you have faith that the car will respond. You believe that when you put your foot on the brake that your car will stop. You have faith that the person in command of the two tons of metal that is hurtling at you at a hundred kilometres an hour will stay on his side of the centre line.
The wise men came to the stable with faith, but they left the table with faith fulfilled. We all have faith, and yet sometimes that faith becomes eroded. The child born with that innate trust and faith in their parents sometimes has that faith shattered when they are constantly abused by one and left unprotected by the other.
Faith in our justice system can disappear when we see injustice prevail and one set of laws for the rich and a different set for the poor.
Faith in the basic goodness of human nature must have been utterly destroyed in the allied soldiers who liberated the Nazi camps after the second world war. The atrocities of Auschwitz Bergen Belsen, and others erased any faith that those men might have had in compassion. How devastating it must be to have your faith torn apart.
But what a super feeling when that faith is fulfilled. Faith is restored in mankind when we see people go out of their way to help others. Faith becomes stronger when we see good prevail over evil. How wonderful it is when our faith sees results.
When I was in college, I took flying lessons, and they were given to me in a piper tomahawk.
Now I believed that ugly little airplane with its four small horizontally imposed cylinders could fly. I really did, but I never got over the sheer thrill that I felt as we raced down the runway and at 100 kph I pulled back on the controls and felt the earth drop away beneath us.
Even today, I know all the principles that permit a 747 to fly, but when we leave the ground, I always want to giggle. The Magi knew what lay at the end of the trip. That’s why they could tell Herod in Matthew 2:2 “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
They came with faith, but they left knowing that their faith had been justified. They could have pleased God without the gold and without the frankincense and without the myrrh, but the bible tells us in Hebrews 11:6 And it is impossible to please God without faith.
Hope More Surely Founded These men left Persia with a dream, a dream that would carry them through the desolate desert that lay between them and Bethlehem. A dream that would sustain them through the duration of their trip, during the blistering hot days, and the freezing cold nights. Without their dream, their hope, they never would have continued on.
My deepest sympathy is for the men and women who live without a dream. People like that don’t live, they simply exist. The farthest they can see is the end of the day, and their goal is to just make it through until tomorrow.
But the world is changed by men and women who can see beyond the immediate, who can see beyond the today and over the horizon of the here and now to tomorrow.
It was George Bernard Shaw who said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
The unreasonable man is the man with the dream, the man who has a dream and a hope in tomorrow. I believe that when the magi shared their dreams and their hopes for the journey with their friends and family that they were criticized for being unreasonable.
Some say that castles in the air are built by psychotics, occupied by neurotics and the rent is collected by psychologists.
But I disagree. I believe that castles in the air are built by dreamers and that ultimately the future belongs to the dreamers.
Every man and every woman need a dream, every pastor needs a dream, and every church needs a dream. The hopes and dreams that only God can give add the sparks that set your life afire. I’ve told Angela, “I can’t imagine doing what I’m doing anywhere else other than Cornerstone”
And the dreams that God has given me for Cornerstone is what makes my ministry an adventure, a scary adventure sometimes, but an adventure, nevertheless. The Magi had the assurance that God had indeed given them the dreams when they peered into the cradle and into the eyes of God.
When the Magi deliberately deceived Herod by bypassing him on their way home, they put their lives in danger, but they did it out of the greatest motivation that exists and that is love. Whether it was the actions of the Magi crossing the desert, presenting their gifts to Jesus, or protecting him from Herod, the contributing factor on the first Christmas was love.
How fitting that Jesus Christ, the very essence of love, would prompt so much love during his first days on earth. The greatest weapon in the arsenal of God is love, love for Wesleyans, love for Baptists, love for Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Catholics, Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists, and Moslems and nothingarians. The Love that God gives us can stand all rebuke, it can stand all persecution and all judgement.
Jesus Christ said in John 13:35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
And in saying that he could have said, your lack of love for one another will prove to the world that you are not my disciples.
If Cornerstone is going to exercise the faith that God has given us, and if we are going to see the dreams that God has given us, then we are going to have to practice that love that God has given us.
What gifts have you received this Christmas? Are you leaving just as you arrived except for 3 pair of new socks, 2 ugly ties, 4 fruit cakes and a soap on a rope?
Or are you leaving Christmas 2021 with your faith fulfilled, your hope more surely founded, and your love rekindled. Those gifts are still being given out and they will always fit, won’t have to be returned and they’ll never need batteries.