Christmas 2 2020

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a camping trip. After a good dinner and bottle of wine, they retired for the night and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes woke up and nudged his faithful friend.
“Watson, look up and tell me what you see.”
After a moment Watson replied, “I see millions and millions of stars, Holmes.”
“And what do you deduce from that?”
Watson pondered for a minute.  “Well, astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful, and that we are a very small part of the universe. …What does it tell you, Holmes?”

Holmes is silent for a moment; then he sighs. “My dear Watson, it tells me that someone has stolen our tent!”

Star gazing and studying the stars and galaxies is called astronomy; astrology, on the other hand, is the studying of the zodiac and making predictions on what will happen in my life. Astronomy is a science; astrology on the other hand is easy to dismiss as quackery. I mean come on, how can celestial objects millions of miles away from earth and some zodiac signs have the slightest influence on a what happens here on earth, much less on an individual person’s destiny? This idea that the stars do have influence on humanity was codified thousands of years ago when the ancient Babylonians came up with the idea that the gods lived among the stars, and were able to manipulate humans’ to suit their wishes and whims. So these gods divided the night sky into 12 separate pieces, which we now know as the zodiac and horoscope signs, and which, according to some polls, almost one in four Americans still take seriously today. But even before the Babylonians had developed the zodiac the ancients before them studied the stars and the heavens. We read in the Scriptures that when God created the stars he made them to signal seasonal changes but also for signs. And very early in time humanity began to look to the heavens for signs and signals. And this of course dovetails into today’s gospel lesson.

Our Gospel lesson today has to do with the wise men coming from the east. They came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” This is a familiar story but the story we know is not completely accurate. First, the star they observed did not lead them to Jerusalem. The star that signaled the birth of King of Jews was seen at its rising. The wise men saw some large happening in the heavens and somehow deduced or had it revealed to them by God that it had to do with the birth of the King of the Jews. We do not know how they figured this out. But they see it at its rising they do not see the star again until much later. The next thing to consider is the wise men themselves.  They are called wise men here, sometimes they are called magi. Some of our songs call them kings.  Who were they really? These were men who studied the stars, abstract arts, magic, medicine, and potions (hence their title magi from this word we get the word magic); and were counselors to kings; these men were the doctors, the lawyers and the college professors of the kingdom. Often, this group included princes from the royal family.  These were the most educated men in the kingdom; they were men of wealth and prestige. Today they would be the multi-millionaires of society. Matthew tells us they were from the east and most scholars believe that they would have been from the Parthian Empire—the Parthian Empire was built upon the remains of the Selucid, Persian and Babylonian empires. Because they were men of wealth and position, they would have had a large number of body guards in attendance as well as their own personal servants. The group that came to Jerusalem would have been a large group.  For an occasion like this, that is, showing honor to a king that had had a star announce his birth, there were at the very least a dozen wise men (this is the symbolic number the Orthodox Church has chosen) but many believe it the group of wise men would have been much larger up to 30 or 50 along with their servants and a small army to protect them. This is why when they came asking Herod about another king of the Jews, Herod simply didn’t have them killed.  Herod didn’t have any scruples about having people killed that he thought might jeopardize his throne. He had some of his sons killed and a wife or two as well. The people he had killed didn’t even need to have really done anything, he simply just suspected they might be plotting and he had them executed. Herod did not like any talk of someone else being a king. But yet in this case he did nothing.  Of course once the wise men have left the area, Herod has all the children in the Bethlehem area slaughtered. He doesn’t move against the wise men because he is afraid and only military might would make him afraid.

So Herod finds out what the old prophesies say about where the king of the Jews is to be born. And then he secretly calls the magi to tell them to go and find the child in Bethlehem and then let him know.  He does this secretly because he wants to have the child assassinated quietly.  Bethlehem is only about six miles away from Jerusalem.  If one is walking, it is a half day’s trip. If you are riding on a horse, which would have been probable, it would have taken just several hours. Remember these men are wealthy and horses are more comfortable to ride upon. So despite all our Christmas cards and pictures of the wise men on camels they were probably on horses. Camels may have been used for pack animals. So the magi head off to Bethlehem. One would expect that they would travel during the day and they probably did but we read that they see the star again. Not only do they see this star, but this time it moves! Some scholars think that time the star they see is an angel because of the star’s odd behavior. Whatever the case, this star somehow leads them to a particular house, notice Joseph and Mary are now in a house they are not in the stable anymore. (Our crèche in front of the altar is not actually correct.) Joseph doesn’t appear to be present, so probably he is off working somewhere, (which again leads us to think this was during the day) and the wise men find only Mary and Jesus. They then open their treasure chests and offer him gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Even if there were only a dozen, but particularly if there were more, the treasure given to Jesus would have been substantial. Certainly it easily funded their trip to Egypt and back to Israel again and the odds are that it helped them for years. It may have been from this money that Jesus ministry was funded.

Interesting isn’t it? It turns out that the story of the Wise Men is a bit different story than simply 3 fellows on camels. This is why Matthew includes it. It was a big deal. So like Holmes asked Watson, what can we deduce from this? There are several really good lessons for us to learn. First lesson is from the wise men themselves. Apparently what information they got from the star was very sketchy, that is, they got a general bulletin from God, but they wanted more. So they, at great personal expense and effort traveled at least 900 miles over a course of up to 4 months. And God rewarded their efforts. They got to see and worship the God-child. Secondly, God’s coming to earth was not a secret. God had announced it through the prophets; Heaven itself announced it through the angels and then through the stars themselves. God was coming to save his people. And God was not only going to save His chosen people of Israel but through His Son He would provide salvation for all of humanity. And third, God not only provides salvation for all people who turn to Him but He provides for the particular needs of his people. Joseph by all accounts was a hardworking man and he remained that way all his life, but he was not wealthy. So God provided for him. When God requires us to do something, He will also provide for us the means to do it.  Our God is the Savior of all humanity, but He is also our God, our personal God who loves and cares for each of us individually! Let us like the wise men put forth the effort to find him, know him, worship Him in spirit and in truth and trust Him with our everyday cares. Amen