Our story opens in the Parthian Empire on a starry winter night. The dark night sky is starting to light up with thousands of glittering jewels, the air, crisp and fresh, is doing its best to keep the night guard awake at their posts. A group of men sit on a balcony, talking softly and watching the night sky. Suddenly a strange star appears to the east and the talk is cut off. The men watch for a couple minutes as it grows in strength and doesn’t shoot across the sky. Nervous heads turn to look at each other and excited voices bubble up.
Rays of sunlight kiss the cold stone floors of a royal library. Smoke from lanterns billows and fills the rooms with a heavy, sweet smell. A group of men are gathered around a small table piled high with scrolls. One man is reading from an open scroll, the rest of the men are very still, listening for clues. Bits and pieces of the story drift down the hall and it’s obvious the palace guards are unashamedly eavesdropping. The scroll being read is from over 500 years ago and was written by Beltshazzar, better known as Daniel, the head of the magi’s order and second in command of the entire Persian empire. The contents being read are very interesting. They prophesy the coming of a Holy One to the East. As the hours and days pass more scrolls are discovered among the Hebrew literature. More prophesies are discovered, some that even describe this King’s birth being signaled by a star appearing.
The magi found their opportunity in the night sky, a bright twinkling of hope. The bible tells us that they followed the star next. Some Bible scholars say that the magi could have traveled for over a year to reach Jesus. What’s more is that once they came to the end of the wearisome journey they entered Roman territory, an enemy to the Parthian Empire.
We can safely assume that the magi did not just hop on their camels and cruise off down the paved caravan route towards Jerusalem. Immense preparation would be required for a round trip that was definitely going to take months. Food and water, clothes and tents would need to be packed for the wilderness. Money would have to be brought along to secure lodging and supplies, not to mention an escort and pack animals. Soldiers would most likely be needed to guarantee a safe trip. They probably had letters of greeting and assurance of peaceful intentions signed by the Foreign Relations Minister. This was no afternoon hike; it was a serious journey with deadly consequences for the unprepared.
Isn’t that amazing! They saw the star in the east and left to worship him.
“What do you mean, King of the Jews?” asked Herod. The royal audience chamber was surprisingly full considering the late hour. Scarcely an hour ago, it was announced that royal ambassadors from a hostile empire were entering Jerusalem. The sun had set and a soft glow from Jerusalem was visible from the high windows.
The magi were so calm and cool, despite the squad of elite palace guards surrounding their small retinue. Herod could feel sweat start to trickle down his back, his mind was racing. The magi claimed that there was a royal child born recently, somebody prophesied and obviously powerful. This was the worst news he’d heard all year.
One of the Jewish teachers, a graying man with hard eyes and a haughty stare, gave a minimal bow and spoke. “It is true what these men say. It is prophesied in Micah that a ruler will come out of Bethlehem in Judah and he will be a shepherd to the Lord’s people.” The easterners looked on intently, curious about what was being said. Thankfully they were far enough away that Herod was able to collect his thoughts. He sent a boy to ask what time, exactly, the star had appeared.
Just as he expected, the boy could not be more than two years old because the star had appeared roughly a year and a half ago. A plan was forming within his mind, it was wonderful! He motioned the magi to come before him.
“My servants have discovered the child has been born in Bethlehem in Judah. You are welcomed into my country and I would be most pleased if you would visit this child king and worship him as you desire. Only, once you have finished, please return to me so that I too may worship him.” There, that sounded sincere and gracious. In weeks Herod would find the location of the boy and send soldiers to capture him and destroy the foolish dreams of the Jews.
The magi had crossed a desert into enemy territory only to lose their guiding star. After death defying negotiations they are permitted to search on and even encouraged to keep in touch. So they step outside ready to follow their new road map and what do they see? Their star is shinning brightly in the sky like nothing ever happened.
In service after service, in every play and story, we humble these magnificent men, put them alongside shepherds, as if having magi at the scene was some common occurrence. Shepherds, the same ones in the nativity scene, were nomads with little time for religious observances. They were dirty, rugged, and uneducated. In short, they were social outcasts, despised by people with real jobs. And yet, they are the first humans to visit Jesus. Their place in the nativity scene illustrates Jesus mission on this earth. Jesus came to the dirty, sinful people of this world to save them and bring them into eternal glory. The magi are the complete opposites of the shepherds in every way. They were practically kings, highly respected and honored men. They held positions of wealth and power and controlled people, not sheep. Where allowing the shepherds to worship Jesus seems almost like a favor, seeing magi in the commons seems like a freak accident. The only people that received a magi’s bow were kings and princes, and even they might feel honored. The magi’s place in the nativity illustrates God’s sacrifice and love for us. God, the Almighty Creator, chooses to honor us. He sacrifices Himself for us, bowing to our needs and desires not because He must but because He chooses to out of love.
The magi’s reverence for baby Jesus is not just a picture of God’s love but also a call to wisdom. These wise and powerful men didn’t shy away from the dirt and dung of a stable because they knew the honor was all theirs. The magi knew that standing before them was not just a boy but the Creator and Savior of mankind. Their actions are a testament to their wisdom because, despite the trouble and trials they underwent, they finished in the presence of God, well prepared and free to praise and honor Him.
The gifts listed are gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Gold was a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (a perfume) was a symbol of priesthood, and myrrh (anointing oil) was a symbol of death. The gifts were both kingly and prophetic. Another way to think of the gifts is as gold representing virtue, frankincense representing prayer, and myrrh representing suffering. Other people say that the gifts they brought were not presents but actually tools of the magi caste, typically serving as astrologer-priests. If that were true, then there are two ways to view this as well. One view is that the magi were acknowledging Jesus as a brother, sharing in their reputation for wisdom and honesty. A second view is that the magi were laying down their livelihoods at Jesus’ feet, symbolizing true repentance and commitment to Jesus. And finally, the gold and other costly gifts may have played an important role in the family’s flight to Egypt in order to escape Herod’s evil massacre.
But wait, the story isn’t over, there is still the journey home. After completing their mission, the magi turn around for a long journey home. They take a new route because God warned them not to return to Herod.
The trip home for the magi is a powerful reminder that there is more to life than a dream, more than introducing ourselves to Jesus – there is a trip home and a life to continue. When we are discovering our dream, forming plans and taking adventures, remember that the ultimate goal of our activities should be glorifying God and introducing others into the amazing freedom, growth, and satisfaction that we’ve begun to experience.