Epiphany and the Three Wise Men

We just sang Joy to the World and you might be wondering why we are singing about Christmas in January.  Did you know that the traditional celebration of Christ’s birth begins on Christmas Day and lasts for twelve whole days.  I like that idea—instead of remembering Christ’s birth and celebrating for only one day, it sounds wonderful to celebrate longer.

In some countries, gifts are not given on December 25th; in some cultures gifts are given on each of the twelve days of Christmas, and in other cultures gifts are given on January 6th or January 7th at the end of what is called the Twelve Days of Christmas.  I think most of you know that my son got married last month, and his wife is from Russia.  When we first got to know her, she explained that in Russia, what we call Christmas day, December 25th is no special day at all.  They wait until January 7th to celebrate Christmas.  I asked her whether she wanted to wait until January 7th to celebrate with gifts, or if she wanted to exchange gifts on December 25th like Americans do, and she said, “I love presents–let’s do both!”  I think from the story that I am going to tell today, you will probably figure out why some people like to give their gifts on January 6th or 7th—after the Twelve Days of Christmas.

On the traditional church calendar, January 6th – which will be this Friday–is called Epiphany.  This day has become associated with the visit of the wise men or Magi from the East after Christ was born.  How many of you have a nativity set at home? If you do, you probably have some type of stable, with Mary, Joseph, Shepherds, and at least one Angel.  Most of our nativity scenes also place the wise men from the east at the nativity scene as if they just magically appeared right after the baby Jesus was born.  Although adding the wise men to a nativity scene makes it look nice, it probably did not happen that way.  I am going to read the story from Matthew in the Bible:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,  saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”   When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:

 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.” 

You have to understand how interesting this prophesy was—these wise men  came from several hundred miles away and they weren’t even Hebrews, but they knew of the Old Testament prophesy, and they knew that a child would be born and would come from Bethlehem to become a great ruler. These wise men were searching for this One who would become a great King and a Shepherd of the people.  To continue our story from the Bible:

Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”  When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.   And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.  And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

Later, the story will go on and tell how Mary and Joseph and the baby fled to Egypt and stayed until King Herod had died, and how they ended up in Nazareth to fulfill another prophecy that said the Jesus would come from Nazareth. But back to this story, let’s talk about what we know and what we don’t know about these wise men.

  1. Does the story in Matthew tell us how many wise men there were? No! How did we get the idea that there were three? Probably because of the three gifts that were mentioned, but we really don’t know how many there were.
  2. Does the Bible tell us when they came? Not exactly. The Bible says they came after Jesus was born and that they came from the East, but we don’t exactly know how far in the East.  It is thought they came from what used to be called Persia or Babylon where Daniel had been taken to in the Old Testament when he was in captivity. Do you remember the stories of Magi or wise men in Babylonia?  If they came from the Persia area, they would have traveled perhaps by camel some 800 or more miles.  Some experts say it might have taken months, and some say even up to two years for the wise men to have traveled that far by foot and camel.  Can you imagine that long journey?
  3. We know they studied the stars and that a star guided them; they could be called early scientists because they made careful observations and recorded their observations of the planets and the stars.
  4. We know they had some knowledge of Bible history and the Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel and that these wise men were known for their learning and their wisdom.
  5. Most importantly, we know why they came to see Jesus. The Bible says, “And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.” They were searching for Jesus so they could worship him!
  6. We also know from the story that the wise men brought gifts to Jesus. So now does it make sense about why on Epiphany or the day we celebrate the story of the Wise men, that some cultures give gifts on that day?  These were very special gifts, precious gifts, fit for a King.

 The first gift was Gold—which would be a gift fitting for a King of Kings.  When we think of rulers we think of gold crowns and gold wealth.  The second gift was frankincense—which would have been used for worship—pointing to the fact that Jesus is God. The third gift was myrrh—which was actually a spice used on dead bodies. This was appropriate because pointed to the fact that Christ would die for our sins.

I like the idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus for more than just a day.  I like the old traditions of celebrating for twelve whole days.  Since we had to miss our Christmas parties back in December because of the water crisis, we are back in school and many of you will have some celebrations in your classrooms today or tomorrow.  And that is a good thing because we are still in the Twelve Days of Christmas! As we come to the end of our celebration of Christmas, let’s remember these wise men from the East who came to worship the Baby Jesus.  Let’s think about how amazing it would have been to have known about the prophecies, to have seen a star and to have followed that star on a journey for months or even years seeking this newborn King.  Let’s remember their response when they finally found him—they fell down and they worshiped him!

Let’s also think about the gifts these kings gave—they gave what was precious to them. They gave these gifts—not because they had to, and not because Jesus needed them.  They gave these gifts as an act of love and worship for Jesus.  What can we give Jesus? The answer is simple–our very hearts and lives as we seek to know him further.