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“Lord every nation will adore you.”

How many kings visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem?  This was the question I would ask my students as I taught the Christmas story.  Invariably they would get it wrong.  If you answered three, you got it wrong too!  The answer is none.  They were not kings; they were wise men.  Nor do we know how many wise men there were either, only that there were three gifts.  And Jesus was no longer a baby but a toddler.  Tradition has made them kings, but scripture says they were wise men.  We know Jesus was a toddler because when Herod inquired as to the time of the appearance of the star, so as to determine who he was going to kill, he decided to kill all male children two and under.  Furthermore, the story says the wise men went to the house, not the manger.  It’s just a bit of Bible trivia.  Such knowledge probably won’t affect your salvation.

But who were the wise men and what is the significance of this story?  They came from an area around the River Euphrates where Babylon (modern day Iraq) once was.  They were a religious caste known as the wise men.  They were scholars trained in philosophy, astronomy, medicine and natural sciences.

The wise men were aware of the possibility of a promised King.  Along the River Euphrates a number of prophecies had been given which they would have become familiar with.  One example is that of Balaam, a wizard who lived along the River Euphrates.  Balaam had been asked by the King of Moab to curse Israel.  His donkey, having more sense than he, tried to prevent him; but Balaam went ahead anyway.  However, instead of a curse, a blessing came out of his mouth.  This blessing is recorded in Numbers 24:17.  “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”  A star in that part of the world would signify a special person…a scepter a person who would rule with authority.

Another story is from the time of Israel’s captivity in Babylon. A Hebrew boy named Daniel had been made part of the caste of the wise men, and as such belonged to the court giving counsel to King Nebuchanezzar.  One night Nebuchanezzar had a dream and called his wise men for an interpretation.  Daniel prophesied of a coming kingdom which would be different than all others.  Daniel predicted that, after a succession of kingdoms: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome, the Kingdom of God would  come and supplant all others.

But how did the wise men end up in Bethlehem to worship Jesus?  We could speculate that they knew they were in the right time for the king to come because of Daniel’s prophecy.  They could simply count the succession of kingdoms.  Being religious they were anticipating the messianic king.  Therefore,  knowing they were within the general time frame they looked for a specific sign.  Being astronomers and astrologers they would watch the heavens.  As they waited something happened.  A star appeared.  They remembered the verse, “A star will come out of Jacob” and made the connection.  Indeed a star was born.

Today astronomers tell us that at about that time the planets came together in a certain configuration to appear as one big star.  We also know that at this time there was a comet in the skies.  Personally, I don’t think that the star was a natural occurrence.  Rather, I believe there was something supernatural which got their attention.  I think it was the manifest glory of God in the sky!  Perhaps it was like the appearance to Abraham as he stood under the night sky worshiping the moon in the land of Ur.  Or maybe it was something like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the desert.

With this sign the wise men loaded their camels and began the journey to find the newborn king. The traditional story has the wise men following the star but actually they only saw it at the birth of Jesus and then it disappeared.  If the star had been leading them, it certainly would not have taken them to Herod’s palace.  It is as they are leaving Herod that the star “which they had seen” reappeared.  Scripture says they were overjoyed at seeing the star.  You don’t get overjoyed about something that you have been watching for months.  No, the star reappeared and led them specifically to the house where they found Jesus with Mary his mother.

I’ve tried to answer the question of who the wise men were, but what is the significance of this story and more specifically what is its connection to issues of peace and justice?  Actually, I just wanted to break from seriousness.  It’s fun to walk around in the scriptures and to poke at folklore and traditions.  But there is significance.  Look at the great effort God has gone to in reaching the Gentiles.  Through prophecies , dreams, Israel’s captivity in Babylon, and the revelation of His own glory, God reached out to gather every nation, every tribe into one kingdom of peace.  Knowing God has gone ahead of us to prepare the way, let us go forth with the Gospel of Peace in boldness.  Let us all, every nation, every tribe, every race, every people bring our gifts and praise to Jesus.

Feast of the Epiphany Is. 60: 1-6, Eph. 3: 2-6, Mt. 2: 1-12

Peace Connections: Making the connection between the Sunday Readings and issues of peace and justice. © copyright 1995, by Thomas L. Garlitz.  “Not for profit” permission to reprint granted.
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