Although our manger scenes usually put the wise men there when Jesus is born, chances are they showed up as much as two years later.
Which probably freaked Mary and Joseph out no little bit, if you think about it. The shepherds, angels and star, not to mention giving birth in a stable (which a lot of people would probably do after riding 65 miles on a donkey, whether they were pregnant or not)… I bet they just wanted to have a normal, settled life.
And after a little while of this normal settled life, these guys show up. Rich visitors from far-off countries with weird accents and weird gifts. Wonder what the neighbors will think of that? Or of what all those camels did to their yards.
Ever since then, I think we’ve overlooked the real importance of the wise men. More people probably know they smoked a rubber cigar than know what “traverse afar” means, and almost every Christmas cantata I’ve ever seen gives them the comedy number. But they represent an entirely new dimension of God’s plan and work with humanity.
As the Christ, Jesus represents God entering his creation in ways no one ever anticipated or thought possible. He did it to bring salvation to sinful humanity, we say, but I don’t know if we’re always aware of how that really is a new dimension in God’s work.
Beginning with Abraham, God called a certain people to be “his people.” Originally that means Abraham and his descendants – his son Isaac, his grandsons Jacob and Esau and his great-grandsons who found the 12 tribes of Israel. While in Egypt, those people grow in number until the fearful Egyptians enslave them.
Moses led them from Egypt and they changed from a band of freed slaves to a strong people with a nation of their own under Joshua. Although David and Solomon led them to greatness, later kings weakened them by allying with foreign powers and allowing worship of other gods. Stronger nations conquered them and exiled their leaders for many years, and ever since then they have lived as a part of someone else’s empire except for a brief time under the Maccabee family.
During all this time, though, they have known themselves as God’s chosen people, the ones through whom the Lord, the only real God, would work in the world. Their prophets told of a day when God would make that rule a reality instead of a hope.
Whatever day the wise men show up is that day. Here’s what I mean.
All though the Old Testament, we read how other nations respond to God or God’s people. Lots of times God scares the stuffing out of them. Heck, when the Ninevites hear Jonah’s three-word sermon, everyone and his cow repents and worships God – literally everyone and his cow, too.
These other people all seem to know something about God, but we don’t really know what that might be or where they picked up their information. Whenever and wherever they get it, they head for the hills, usually figuratively but not always.
The wise men, though, do exactly the opposite. They hear about the birth of God’s King and they head straight for him. As astrologers from east of Judea – probably somewhere in modern Iraq – they might have heard of the Hebrew God but I doubt they ever worshipped him or heard much of his story. Yet when the star in the sky shows them God’s son has been born they pack up the myrrh and saddle up the camels. Wonder why.
Rather than be terrified of him like 95 percent of the non-Israelites who heard about him before this, they immediately desire to offer him gifts, praise and worship. Their visit shows us that God is ready to move his work with humanity from the people of Israel into the wider world of everyone else too.
Way back at the first of the story, God promised Abraham many descendents. He also promised the whole earth would be blessed through them. The psalms and prophets promise a day when all the kings and peoples of the earth would know God – not as a terrifying punisher, protector and avenger of his people, but as God. As their protector and their guardian and their redeemer, too, which is what he always wanted to be from the beginning.
In Christ, that happens, and when we see these strangers from the east show up, we see a true sign God’s love of all humanity and all creation is real now and not in some far-off day.
Very, very good news.