Star of Wonder©

Matthew 2:1-12                            January 7, 2018                      Dr. Sharlyn Gates

This story of the three wise men who come to Bethlehem, following the star, is so familiar to us, isn’t it?  But, are you aware that originally there was supposed to be four wise men who were planning on bringing gifts to Jesus, the Christ-child? 

I showed this video to you last year but I just can’t help myself.  I want you to see it again.  This video tells us just how it all went:

4 Wise Men

“Christmas Shopping By the Four Wise Men”
Description: copyright Studio C
Published December 9, 2015

And that, my dear friends, is how we ended up with three wise men and a little drummer boy! 

If you’ve been around with me in the last few years you know that I can’t resist a little humor when it comes to these wise guys.  Maybe because we think of three of them my weirdness turns to the Three Stooges where Moe says “Oh, a wise guy, eh?”

I love the way the fourth wise man who has the expired gift card says they will call him a “fool-man” instead of a wise man. 

The story of the wise men coming to visit Jesus is only found in Matthew, and Matthew doesn’t say that there were three wise men.  There could have been more – or less – but because there were three gifts, it has been assumed there were three men.

They are called magi (may-ji) – a Greek word meaning magician, or an astrologer who had special wisdom in reading the stars.  They were priestly sages – that is, they were very wise.  They were from the East, probably from Persia or perhaps, Babylonia. 

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the wise men began being called kings.  That title comes from a couple of Old Testament references. One is from Psalm 72:10-11:

May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.

And from Isaiah 60, from which our Call to Worship came from this morning, verse 3 says:

Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

We have sung that song “We Three Kings of Orient Are” so many times.  The chorus says, “Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright.” 

What was this star?  Was it a comet, or a nova that exploded in the sky? Was it a UFO?

Some believe it was a time when several planets aligned with each other making it a very bright star – a star that seemed to move and then stop and move again. We know that planets can appear to stop, or move, when they are hidden behind the sun or moon for a time. 

Whatever it was, there must have been something that made these sages desire to hop on their camels and journey a great distance with elaborate gifts.  I wonder how they knew they would find a King?

I read that in ancient times astrologers believed only royalty, or entire nations, had relevant horoscopes.  These astrologers would read the sky like they were reading a book. 

They did not so much tell the future, however; instead they would announce something they “read in the sky” that was occurring among people in whatever region over which the those stars had their impact – as in the star of Bethlehem in Judah. 

Matthew says these astrologers went to Jerusalem first and found a king – Herod the Great, (known for the great buildings he had built) telling him that they had seen the star and believed it was leading them to the newborn King of the Jews.  They hoped he could help them find this King.

King Herod was a ruthless man.  He had no hesitation to murder anyone who might threaten his power.  He must have actually been very insecure.  Herod was king because of a military conquest of the Jews, which is the reason he was backed by Rome.

The Jewish people longed for a king like David, of Bethlehem.  Those days from their long ago history of their king who was chosen and anointed by God.

But, Matthew tells us that, not only was Herod afraid, so was “all of Jerusalem.”  Why would that be?  I mean, we can easily see why King Herod was afraid.  He was afraid he could lose his power and authority.  But why would all of Jerusalem be afraid? 

Was it really ALL of Jerusalem?  My guess is Matthew is referring to the Jewish leaders whom Herod went to and asked about the prophecy. 

So why would they be afraid when they supposedly had longed for the prophecy to be fulfilled – the one in Micah 5 that Matthew quotes:  "And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah … from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”  We would discover later in Jesus’ life that those leaders seemed just as afraid of losing their own authority and power as Herod was.

And I wonder about that word homage.  What does that word mean and why, I wonder, does the New Revised Standard Version translate the verse using homage where all the other versions I looked at use the word worship.  It reads in verses 10-11:

(10) When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. (11) On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.

The Greek word – Proskuneo’ – can be translated as either homage or worship.  The words homage and worship are closely related, but homage is somewhat different. 

The Young Peoples Dictionary of Scriptural and Religious Terms defines that word this way:

"Homage describes a ritual which took place many years ago, when kings ruled over nations.
Feudal lords owned large estates and submitted their wealth and power to serving the king.
On these feudal estates, peasants lived and worked for the feudal lords and were called vassals.

To become a vassal, a peasant would present himself before the feudal lord of that region,
and pay homage to the lord … From that day the peasant, now a vassal of the lord,
was responsible to fully obey all that his lord required of him. In turn, he received protection,
care, and a place to live, within the estate of his lord.”

Paying homage is an act of deep respect and acknowledgment of the authority of the one who is being honored.  Other translations use the word worship but when we consider the word homage it seems to imply that worship is perhaps more than what we think of it today.

The wise men were going to pay homage to someone they had obviously read about.  They had some knowledge about this promised King because they asked Herod where they could find the King of the Jews.  If they went to show homage, their intention was to pay deep respect for this new king.

But when they arrived and saw this child – surely God revealed to them the amazing revelation of who Jesus really was .  And then, their bowing down to him became both an act of paying homage and a genuine act of worship and adoration.

Epiphanyepiphaneia – means a manifestation of something.  It is to “see the light.”   It is to suddenly be able to see and understand something that seemed to be hidden before.

I wonder – did these wise men get there and suddenly see the light and know that this child – Jesus – was God incarnate – the Word made flesh?  Did the Holy Spirit reveal to them the truth that many others would never quite accept?

Isn’t it amazing that these Gentiles, who were considered pagans, were the ones who recognized that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecy that Israel had waited for, for over 600 years?  And yet many of those same people – the leaders of Israel – could not accept or understand – could not comprehend that truly this was the Messiah.

The star – whatever it was, was a sign from God that symbolizes God’s initiative – God’s beckoning to all humankind to come and discover Immanuel – God with us.  It is a calling to the nations – for Judea and Israel, but also a calling to the Gentiles – the non-Jewish nations as well.  Which is really good news for us!

This star of wonder is a mystical light beckoning all who will follow, to come pay homage; to become his vassal; to worship the Light that is even brighter – the Bright and Morning Star, the Light of the World – Jesus, our Lord.

Today, we too, are called to follow the Light and to be lights as well.  Because we follow Jesus – the Light of the World – we have become lights ourselves so that regardless of how persistent the darkness of evil and terror might be – that darkness can never, ever overcome the light.  “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”   (John 1:5)

“Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright:  Westward leading still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light!”

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