Those of you who were paying attention during the reading of the gospel lesson may have thought, “Hey, wait a minute. We just heard a sermon on that passage two weeks ago.” Well, you’re right. This is the same passage I preached on when we talked about King Herod. Even though we’re looking at the same scripture today, we’re going to look at it in a different way. Instead of looking at this from the perspective of King Herod, we’re going to look at it from the perspective of the magi, the wise men.
What you call them depends on your tradition and what version of the Bible you use. The King James Version and the New Revised Standard Version refer to them as “wise men.” The New American Standard Version calls them “magi,” as do Today’s International Version and the Common English Version. The Message version refers to them as “scholars.” It all amounts to the same thing. They were learned scholars, the scientists of their day. As such, they were very well respected as wise people.
We don’t know how many wise men there actually were. Tradition tells us there were three of them, but the Bible never actually says that. They gave him three gifts, which is probably where the tradition of three wise men comes from, but we don’t really have any idea how many there were. There could have been two or there could have been twenty-two. We have no way to know.
These wise men, these scientists, studied the movement of the stars. They had also studied the ancient prophecies of when the Messiah, the Savior of the Jews, was supposed to come. They saw a star rise, and they concluded this was the sign that said the Messiah had been born. So, they set out to find the king and worship him.
We often think of them as having gone to Herod to ask him where the king was, but the Bible does not actually say that. What the Bible says is that the wise men came to Jerusalem and started asking around. That makes more sense, when we think about it. They knew the king would not be happy to hear that a new king had been born, so the last thing they’d have wanted to do is go up to King Herod and ask him about it. Apparently, though, the wise men asked enough people that word got back to Herod somehow. So, he sends for them, sends them to Bethlehem, and tells them to find the king and report back to him.
They go to Bethlehem and find Jesus with Mary. Note that poor old Joseph gets left out again—the Bible does not say they found Jesus with Mary and Joseph, just that they found Jesus with Mary. They bow down and worship, they give their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they go back to their own country by another road.
When you think about it, this is really kind of a strange episode. We have no idea who these “wise men” actually were. We don’t know where they came from, other than “the east.” We never hear of them again. The only role they seem to play, other than giving Jesus and Mary some gifts, is to tip off Herod that a new king has been born, which of course leads Herod to kill all the boys in Bethlehem two years old or younger.
It’s also interesting, I think, to note that the wise men did not receive word of the birth of Jesus from an angel. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, they all heard about this from an angel. The wise men did not. They figured it out for themselves. The only role any angel might play is when the wise men are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and even the Bible does not say an angel was involved. It just says the wise men were warned in a dream. It does not say who warned them.
As we’ve looked at the characters of the Christmas story, one of the questions we’ve asked is why God would’ve chosen to have the Savior of the world come to earth in this way. Each time we do that, I say that we can never really understand the mind of God. That’s true, of course, but some of you may be wondering, “Well, then why are we talking about it? If there’s no way to really understand it, then what’s the point of trying?”
Well, I think that at least part of the point is that we come to God in a lot of ways. Some of us were born into the faith, and have always believed in God, and that’s wonderful. Some of us had some sort of life-changing event that brought us to God, and that’s wonderful, too. Some of us received our faith from family or friends, and that’s also wonderful. Maybe some of us even heard from an angel, and that would be awesome.
No matter how we come to faith, though, there comes a point where we think, “Does this really make sense? Do these things that I believe, these things that I’ve been taught, these things that I’ve read about or heard about, do they really make sense to me? Is all this stuff about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and all that, does that really hold up when we think about it? Or is this just a bunch of stories, a bunch of stuff we believe because it makes us feel good, or because we’re supposed to believe it, or because it’s just easier to go along with it than to get into an argument about it?”
It’s okay to ask those questions. I think we all do ask them at some point in our lives. Some of us may be asking them now. That’s fine. If we are truly made in the image of God, then there has to be some way in which God does make sense to us. If there’s no way that God makes sense to us, then we’d have to conclude that God is totally arbitrary, and who’d want to follow a God like that? How could we ever truly have faith in a God who made no sense to us, who acted in a completely arbitrary fashion? How could we put our trust in a God like that? How could we love a God like that?
This is where science comes into the picture. Sometimes people talk about science and religion as if they were opposed to one another, but that’s not true and it should not be true. A God who could not stand up to scientific scrutiny would be no God at all. God does not fear a search for truth. God is truth.
Here’s the thing, though. We will never come up with conclusive, one hundred percent, undeniable proof that God exists, that Jesus is the Savior, that the Holy Spirit can act in our lives, or anything else. No matter what evidence is uncovered, no matter what arguments are made, our minds can always come up with a way to doubt and to explain things away if that’s our goal. After all, the Bible tells us that even after Jesus returned from the dead and appeared to the disciples, some of them still doubted. God has chosen not to give us conclusive one hundred percent, undeniable proof. Instead, God gives us the choice. We can choose to believe, or we can choose not to believe. God leaves it up to us.
That’s where the wise men, the scientists of their day, come into it. No angel came to tell them about the birth of the Messiah. They did not receive a divine message. Instead, they studied. They studied everything available to them. They looked at all the evidence they had. After they did that, they came to the conclusion that this star they had seen was a sign that the Messiah, the savior, the king, had been born.
Then, though, they came to a fork in the road. They had to make a decision. They had to make a choice. They had evidence, they had reached a conclusion, but they did not have one hundred percent certainty. So, they had to decide. Were they going to act on this conclusion? We’re they going to go out and search for the new king? Were they going to take their treasures, go off on a long trip, and worship the king who had been born? Or, were they going to look for more evidence, look for confirmation, wait until they knew for sure before they did anything?
You know, these wise men, these scientists, were probably not the only wise men that were around back then. There’d have to have been others, don’t you think? There have to have been other people who studied the stars, who studied the prophecies, who saw the same star these wise men saw. We don’t hear anything about them. We only hear about the wise men who acted. Those other wise men saw the same things, but they did nothing about it. They did not have enough faith to act on what they saw. They wanted more. They wanted certainty. They either did not have faith, or they did not have the courage to act on their faith. Either way, they missed out.
We all need to think about our beliefs. We all need to examine what we believe and why we believe it. While we’ll never understand everything about God, there needs to be an extent to which God makes sense to us. God does not mind our questions. God welcomes our questions. Again, a God who could not stand up to our scrutiny would be no God at all.
Ultimately, though, we have to recognize that God did not create a world in which we get a hundred percent certainty. That means we have to make a choice. After we ask our questions, after we look at the evidence, we have to make a decision about what we believe. Then, we have to have the courage and the faith to act on that decision.
God decided to give us that choice. The wise men made their choice, and they’re still remembered two thousand years later. Others made a different choice, and they’ve been forgotten.
As we start a new year, what will we choose?