How many wise men were there? The answer is that we do not know. Matthew does not mention how many there were but tradition and time has decreed that there were probably three, since they brought three separate gifts to the baby Jesus – gold, frankincense and myrrh. And three, after all, is one of those perfect symbolic numbers which have such meaning in many cultures. Three persons in the holy trinity. Indeed, the number three is used in the Bible more 400 times and in many cases, it has symbolic as well as literal meaning. Jesus prayed three times in the garden of Gethsemane. Peter denied his Lord three times. Jesus was three days in the tomb before the resurrection.
So why not three kings? And indeed, as time went on as tradition began to add details around Matthew
's basic story of the visit of the Magi, symbol piled up upon symbol. And the story expanded, both in detail and in meaning.
You will notice in Matthew
's account (the only one of the gospels by the way) that he mentions that when they arrived in Bethlehem, they entered a house (oikos in Greek) not a stable, and only Mary was present, with the baby. We can assume from this that at least a few days had passed after the birth, long enough, at least, for Joseph and Mary to have found better accommodation.
Who were these three visitors? Matthew mentions only that they were from the “east”. And probably since they appear to be influenced by the appearance of the stars and the movement of the skies, they may have been followers, if not priests, of the cult of Zoroaster, a Persian prophet from that part of Persia which we today call Iran. Zoroastrianism, still practised today as a religion in certain parts of India, believes in the basic goodness of humankind but that humanity is led astray by forces of evil. It believes that we need to listen to the goodness in ourselves and look for the good in others and follow the teachings of those who show us the way of goodness and are our saviours both by example and by teaching. Sounds a bit like Jesus, does it not?
Why not be drawn by the stars to see a baby who is destined to be the saviour of his people, and not only his own people but those of the whole world?
But the Magi are more than seekers of truth and goodness. Gradually, the early church begins to see more and more meaning in the prophecies of Isaiah and to use those passages from Isaiah to convince converts that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. And one of the passages they went to was the one we heard this morning from Isaiah: Listen to the prophet
's words: “The Lord will arise upon you and his glory will appear over you.” A bit like the star that led them to Bethlehem. And then the next line: “Nations shall come to your light and Kings to the brightness of your dawn.” And then further on, “They will bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
And so the tradition began that these wise men, the magi, were also kings from the East, wealthy kings who opened their treasure chests to give gifts to the new born babe.
Symbolic gifts? You bet they were. This story is filled with symbolism.
Gold, a symbol of Kingship and power.
Frankincense – a symbol of diety – of the presence of God. A symbol of prayer and of holiness.
Myrrh (not mentioned by Isaiah) but a symbol of death, and of suffering and great pain. A symbol of sacrifice. One of the substances used to prepare a body for burial and life after death.
For hundreds of years, as the story is told and re-told, the details are expanded to give these three visitors from the east individual names and separate identities: Caspar, who presents the gold, is an old man from India. Melchior, a middle-aged man who brings the gift of frankincense, comes from Persia. Balthazar, a young dark-skinned man, is from Arabia and it is he who brings the myrrh.
The writer of the gospel of Matthew might be rightly astonished at how his basic story grew in the telling. And yet, the essential kernel of truth and wisdom contained in it remains intact.
This is Matthew
's way of telling us that, although this baby is the long-awaited Messiah, the saviour of his people, he is also is meant to be the saviour of the world, Jew and Gentile alike. And this essential truth is even recognized by those who come from other lands, by those who have different understandings of the way God works to save us, by those whose differences are united in their common belief that this baby will be not only a king, but a great teacher and prophet and finally, will save humankind by offering himself as the ultimate sacrifice in which death is conquered once and for all. It
's all there in the Matthew
's story. The visit of the Magi has an ecumenical point to it.
Isaiah, among others, prophesied it. Matthew recognized how important this story of the visitors from another land really was, and subsequent generations told and re-told this important story, adding details and developing characters, yes, but leaving the essential story and its truths intact.
Someone who realized this was a 19th century Anglican clergyman from Philadelphia who was asked to write a song for a Christmas pageant in the early 1860s. John Henry Hopkins wrote not only the words for the song but the tune as well and the song was designed with verses to be sung by each of the three wise men, Kings, Magi, as solos with a chorus to be sung by all.
Listen to some of the words he wrote for each King in turn.
Gold – “Born a King on Bethlehem
's plain. Gold I bring to crown him again”
Frankincense – “Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a deity nigh.”
Myrrh –“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom.”
And in the final stanza, they all sing; “Glorious now behold him arise: King, and God and Sacrifice.” A wonderful summing up of the babe as: “King, and God, and Sacrifice.” Rich with theological meaning.
Hopkins got the point of Matthew
's story. So did another man called Henry van Dyke. Another American from Pennsylvania, but, this time, a Presbyterian who spent his life teaching English literature at Princeton University. He was also a writer and poet and you have sung some of his poetry in the form of Hymn #425 – Joyful, Joyful, we adore thee
But his most famous work was a short story published in 1895 under the title: “The Story of the Other Wise Man”. And it goes like this:
At the same time as the original three wise men saw the star in the heavens, it was also observed by another priest of the their land called Artaban and he resolved to go with them and see this child born to be King of the Jews. And he gathered three gifts of his own: a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl of great price. On the way to meet up with the other three, he stops to help a dying man lying by the side of the road and his lateness causes him to miss the caravan of the other three. Lacking the necessary camels and materials to travel on his own, he sells one of his gifts, the Sapphire, to equip himself to cross the desert. He arrives in Bethlehem too late to see the child as Mary and Joseph have already gone to Egypt but while there, he gives the second of his three gifts, the ruby to save the life of a child about to be killed by Herod
's soldiers. He travels to Egypt searching for the holy family but never finding them, and becomes a pilgrim, performing acts of charity to all he meets. 33 years later, he arrives in Jerusalem just at the time of the crucifixion with only the pearl left in his possession. He sacrifices the pearl to save a young woman from being sold into slavery. An accident caused by the earth quake at the time of the crucifixion brings him close to death only to realize that although he has been searching for the Christ child all his life, he has actually found him many times every time he helped someone. He dies having fulfilled his dream.
The story of the wise men contains several profound truths. One of them is that the gospel of Christ is for everyone. As the writer of Ephesians says at the end of our second lesson; “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel”. And the wise men were the first of those Gentiles to recognize and follow Christ.
The second truth, and one which Henry Van Dyke showed us in the story of the fourth wise man, is that we meet Christ face-to-face all the time in everyone else, and in those whom we serve as if Christ himself.
And Matthew was the gospel writer who gave this wonderful truth in the following words of Jesus himself: (Matt 25: 40)
Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of my brethren, you have done it unto me.
John the Baptist would have made a terrible dinner guest.
Wandering in out of the wilderness, he probably had not washed in days, perhaps even weeks. Dressed in animal skins and carrying a dangerous looking walking staff. He was definitely not smooth and urbane. And he probably had a very distinctive body odour.
And just imagine his behaviour at the dinner table. He sits down, looks at the food in front of him and says: “What’s this? I can’t eat this. Do you have any locusts or wild honey? And then, looking at the rather obese man across the table, he says: “You’re too fat and you have way too much food on your plate. You should give most of that to people who really need it – who are hungry and starving. “
And then he looks at the woman beside him and says: “You have too much make-up and jewellery on. Why do you care so much about your appearance?”
Or he says to one of the other guests: “You talk all the time and say way too much. Why don’t you be quiet and listen to other people for a while?”
John the Baptist does not appear, at least in the gospels, to have many social skills. But then he is a prophet, is he not? And the prophets of the Bible were not known for their politeness. They were known to speak the truth fearlessly and bluntly to people, some of whom were in positions of great power. And many of them were killed for it. And most of us know how the story of John the Baptist ends: for publicly condemning the immorality of King Herod and the royal family, he is imprisoned and executed by beheading.
And yet, it is important that we do not entirely confuse the rather colourful man with the message. He comes onto the scene at a time when Judaism was torn into many quarreling factions. And all these factions or groups hated each other and competed for the loyalty and allegiance of the population. And none hated each other more than the Pharisees and the Sadducees. And each of them was responding to an important concern of all Jews and that concern for every person was: “What is the best way for us to live out our faith in a way that God wants of us?” That is one of the great questions of the whole Old Testament. What does God want us to be and to do in life? How are we to live?
And every prophet had an answer to that. Jesus had an answer to that. And John the Baptist had an answer to that. But so did the Pharisees and the Sadducees. If you had asked that question of a Pharisee, he would have said: “You are called to keep the law of Moses as found in the Torah. All 600+ laws of them. They all apply to each and every one of you and you need to know them all so you won’t break any one of them. And we will tell you when you do. So come to the synagogue every week and we will help you memorize all of them. That’s what God wants of you – absolute faithfulness of the law”.
If you had asked the same question of a Sadducee, he would have said: “You need to faithfully observe all the rituals of the temple. You must attend every important festival and occasion in the temple. You must always bring a sacrifice, the most expensive you can afford to buy. Your attendance and your ritual sacrifices will save you because that is what God wants of you. God is found in the temple and nowhere else.”
And along comes John the Baptist and looks fiercely at both these groups and says: “you brood of vipers.” Not the nicest thing to say. He literally calls them a nest of snakes. And the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden would resonate in their minds. You can’t call someone a snake in Judaism and turn it into a compliment. “You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Not a warm welcome for those, after all, who were coming to be baptized as a sign of repentance. Not a warm welcome, because John saw in their hearts that this was only an empty ritual for them, it was only for the people’s approval and to gain converts to their own cause. It was only to show that, in case this prophet gained a large influential following, that they were on his side.
I have often thought that both John the Baptist and Jesus had this wonderful ability to look someone in the eyes and to know instantly what was really in their hearts. They both challenged all of the masks and pretense we all wear in our daily lives, and they looked beyond that into our very souls.
To meet Jesus and look directly into his gaze must have been the most awesome and yet disturbing thing to encounter. All the gospels bear eloquent testimony to how people were changed completely by one encounter with Jesus.
And that is what John the Baptist is calling his followers to understand. Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees called on the Jews to physically do things to get right with God. But what they did not call them to was to change in any way the real person inside of each one of them. All they called them to was for appearances only – to appear to do and to be the right kind of people.
John the Baptist called for repentance. When we hear that word today in translation we tend to hear it as feeling sorry for the wrongs we have done in the past. The word is coloured with guilt and regret. But the word John used in Greek was “metanoia” which really means changing directions, choosing a new way of being, taking a new path. And John was taking a well-known and often practised ritual of bodily immersion in water and using it to describe a complete change of heart inside the person. Not something of outward behaviour. Not a ritual bath to make you clean enough to go into the temple. But a complete change of who you really are.
The Christian gospel calls us to that new way of being – to a new way of living – to a transformation that does not change our outside but changes our very inner being. And that is why Jesus told his followers – “You have to be born again.”
And both John and Jesus, each in their own way and in their own language was calling us to start all over again, to live life differently, and to become different people. To be transformed, not outside, but inside.
And so the season of Advent calls us to get ready for an encounter with Jesus. To get ready, perhaps, to change directions, to take a different path, to look at our lives and ourselves in a whole different way.
That may be a completely internal change in some of us – perhaps in ways that no one else will notice. But perhaps in ways that some will notice.
And I think, in the time in which we live and in the world that we are presently living in, we are called to live with each other and with God with attentiveness. To pay attention to those things and those people who really matter.
I believe we are called to pay attention in ways that challenge the direction being taken by our culture and its technology. Distracted by smartphones, by ambient noise, by dozens of strident voices telling us how to live and how to be, by the demands of social media, we are losing our ability to pay attention to those things and especially to those people who really matter. It is almost impossible these days to get the full attention of someone whose eyes are constantly going to a screen or a smartphone looking for the latest message from someone who is not even present in the room.
At the risk of sounding like John the Baptist, we need to re-connect with God by re-connecting with each other. With God-in-us. With Emmanuel. And we do it by giving total attentiveness to the other, not to ourselves. Something as simple as catching and being aware of the slight hesitation in someone who fails to give us a cheery “fine” when we ask how they are. There are so many opportunities in our daily lives to be Christ to one another but we have to be paying attention to them when they occur, to watch for those moments when we can make a real connection and perhaps a difference in someone else’s life. If you read the gospels carefully, it is so obvious that Jesus gave his complete attention to everyone he encountered. And every encounter was an invitation to deepen the relationship.
John the Baptist called his followers to repent and change directions. Jesus pointed out the way to do it – to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves.