It's All Here
Do the wise men belong in the nativity scene or not? When you compare Matthew and Luke, it's plain that the wise men weren't there on Christmas Day but 1 to 2 years later. So it's not accurate to have the wise men at the manger. However, most of us have wise men in our nativity sets. We're just following the ancient church. The catacombs are the underground caverns where the early Church in Rome buried their dead. In all of the scenes depicting the birth of Christ the visit of the wise men is included. Do you know why? Because it's all here; all the great truths of our faith are found in the visit of the wise men, and great artists from the catacombs on have seen this.
Great artists have seen the Fall here; they've seen in the wise men's visit why Jesus needed to come. Leonardo Da Vinci's sees this in his painting The Adoration of the Magi. In the foreground of the scene you see the wise men, Mary and Baby Jesus. In the background you see ruined buildings and horsemen jousting. The world Christ comes to is in chaos and decay.
Can you see this in our text? Jerusalem wasn't filled with great joy like the shepherds were that their king was born. Not just King Herod but all Jerusalem was disturbed when they heard the news. Such news confirmed the rumors that had been echoing about over the past year or two. Jerusalem was only about 6 miles from Bethlehem. We know the shepherds spoke of the birth of Christ in all the surrounding countryside. We know that Anna, right here in Jerusalem, spoke of Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem, but the news that their king foretold by the prophets was born only disturbed them.
Even once they know where He is, no one goes to Bethlehem with the wise men, and Herod only follows later with soldiers in an attempt to murder the King. These people are no better than Adam who after he fell was only disturbed by God's presence, and they are no better than Cain who thought God's promises could be stopped by murder. Another work of art the Legend of the Cave of Treasures shows this connection. It says that when Adam was expelled from Paradise, he took what he could carry. This was gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When he died, his sons hid the treasure believing it was to be of special use later. Thousands of years later, on their journey to the Christ, the wise men find the cave and bring the hidden treasure to Him. This legend connects the visit of the wise men to the fall of Adam.
Do you see the fall in the visit of the wise men? Can you with Da Vinci see the ruined buildings and fighting men in the background? If you don't see the ruined buildings and the horsemen jousting all around you, if you don't see the chaos and decay that surrounds you as Da Vinci did, then you sure aren't going to follow the wise men to Bethlehem, and you might just be surprised at what you're willing to do to try to put the jinni back in the bottle. Herod resorted to murder; others after him have resorted to denying Christ came, or denying He had a claim on their life, or denying Christ had anything but a part of their life.
The fall of humanity into sin, death and the power of the devil is seen in the visit of the wise men, but so is the Good News of who Christ is and what He does. Artists have seen these truths in the gifts the Magi gave to Jesus. The carol "We Three Kings," and the legend of the "Travels of Marco Polo" both see meaning in the gifts. According to "We Three Kings," the wise men bring gold because Jesus is "Born a king on Bethlehem's plain." They bring frankincense because "Incense owns a Deity nigh." They bring myrrh, what the ancients put on their dead, because they saw Jesus' end would be "Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,/ Sealed in the stone-cold tomb." To the wise men, the young, toddler Jesus was "King and God and Sacrifice."
In a legend called The Travels of Marco Polo, the 3 gifts are brought to determine who Christ really is. If He takes the gold, He is an earthly king; if He takes the frankincense He is God. If He takes the myrrh, He is a healer. To the wise men's surprise Jesus takes all three! And don't we need Jesus to be all three? Do you think you can rule your own life? Do you want to reign over you and your decisions? I sure don't. If God should leave me to myself, I would surely bring everything in my life to utter ruin.
But I don't need a King and God far away from me in heaven ruling over my life. I need a Deity who is nigh, is near. Frankincense was only rightly offered to deity. The wise men confess the toddler Jesus to be God. Surely, we need not be afraid of a God who dwells in flesh and blood like ours. Surely, this flesh and blood God knows what it means to be human. No wonder God can say in Psalm 103 that He knows that are frames are but dust. No wonder Hebrews can say that Christ is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.
I need a King and a God, but what I need more than anything is a Redeemer. I have heard the news that my king was born, that my God had come, and I've thought it more of a disturbance than a help. I have not rushed out to worship Him as shepherds and wise men did. I have even thought I would be better off without Him as Herod did. These are the worst of sins. These are sins for which I deserve not just hell in eternity but car accidents, sicknesses, and tragedies in time. Yet, the only One who sorrows, sighs, bleeds and dies to pay for sin is Christ. That's why the wise men give Him myrrh. Although Christ is God and therefore sinless, He needs myrrh because He will suffer unto death for our sins.
All of this high yet painful drama is here at the visit of the wise men. T.S. Eliot saw it in his poem Journey of the Magi. On the way to the Christ, the Magi see "3 trees on the low sky" and "six hands at open door dicing for pieces of silver." Already at the birth of Christ the crucifixion can be seen by the eyes of faith; that's the "3 trees on the low sky" or on the horizon. Already at the birth of Christ the eyes of faith can see Him being betrayed for 30 pieces of silver and soldiers coldly gambling for His garments.
Think all this is too much use of poetic license by T.S. Eliot? It's not. He is only seeing the truths Matthew first recorded here by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We need to remember that none of the Gospel writers give a day by day life of Christ. They all know the end from the beginning. So in chapter 2 Matthew notes the same elements that come into play in the closing Passion narratives. Just like in the end, the beginning has a gathering of the Church leaders; just like in the end we have the title "king of the Jews" used for Jesus. Just like in the end we have the decision by the ruling authority to do away with Christ. The end is foreshadowed by the beginning because the end events - the heartbreaking betrayal, the sighing under the blows of Church leaders, and the bleeding and dying under the ruling authority - are the reason Jesus came.
It's all here: our fall into sin and unbelief which makes redemption necessary; the redemption of sinners by the God who is Man, and the Good News going out of who Jesus is and what He does. Epiphany is often referred to as the Gentile Christmas because where on Christmas Day the news had gone out to Jewish shepherds on Epiphany it goes out to the non-Jews. In the Orthodox Church Epiphany is when they celebrate Christmas.
The visit of the wise men shows us the Good News of redemption going out despite the sins and sinfulness of men. This account gives us great hope for the Church, and it places the hope of the Church not on the backs of sinful, fallen people like us, but on the back of the Baby who is our King, and God and Sacrifice.
I'm sure you know very educated people. People who have more initials after their names than letters in their names. What on earth could you do or say to bring these people to kneel before the Christ-Child? Well, the wise men were the Ph.D.'s's of their world. They were the nuclear physicists and brain surgeons of the ancient world. Yet see our great God and Savior brings them to Him. We are not given the details of how the Lord did this; we're only shown the wondrous fact that He did bring them into His Church.
I'm sure you know people who just don't care that their fallen sinners or that Christ has come to redeem them. You've tried praying for them. You've tried to convince them. You feel helpless to help them. Your great God and Savior who is God in Man made manifest is not helpless. What we see in the visit of the wise men is that God goes out of His way to reach those who don't want to be reached. The Lord brings the wise men with the news of Christ to Jerusalem. You don't have to go to Jerusalem to get to Bethlehem, but the Lord wanted to drop the bombshell of the birth of Christ into the placid pond of Jerusalem.
You can rest assured that the Lord still does this today. If He sent the Jerusalem that didn't care about the birth of their king shepherds, Simeon, Anna and wise men from afar, you can count on the Lord not giving up on those people you know. The Good News is God's Good News; He takes responsibility for making it known.
What about those who feel threatened by and hostile to the Good News? I'm sure you've experienced this. The Good News that gives you such peace and joy disturbs and even makes angry someone you know. What are you suppose to do about that? Take comfort in the fact that God did not give up on the city that had killed every prophet He ever sent them. He didn't bypass them with the wise men though they evidently didn't listen to the shepherds, Simeon, Anna or even their own prophetic writings. Still He raised up people to bring them the Good News. Even though those hostile and upset still didn't listen, that didn't stop the Lord from sending them John the Baptist and the ministry of Christ. Friends, no deep desire you have to reach someone with the Good News can even come close to the Lord's. He who took on the responsibility of redeeming sinners doesn't shirk the responsibility of bringing them the Good News.
An artist saw this too in a legend told in the early Church about the holy family fleeing to Egypt once the wise men had left. The holy family is on a donkey but the donkey is slow. Joseph shouts, prods and even whips the donkey saying, "Don't you know stupid donkey that Herod is out to kill the Christ, and we must hurry to save Him!" The Lord gives the donkey the ability to speak, "Imagine that; the whole future of the Church is on the back of a jackass like me." The future of the Church was not on that donkey's back, and it's not on yours or mine. It's on the One in the manger. He put Himself there to bear the burdens of a fallen world, so surely He also bears the burden of His holy Church. He will not rest till He has gathered into His Church His people from the ends of the earth whether they be brilliant scientists, ordinary people, or hardened sinners.
The wise men are in manger scenes because their visit shows all the great truths of our faith. We see our sins, our redemption, and the Good News going out into all the world even where we think it couldn't possibly reach. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Epiphany (1-5-03), Matthew 2:1-12