Wise men came from the east.
That’s vague. The same could be said of three professors who show up at Peachtree church from UGA, making their way from Athens to Buckhead. What is east? Who are these visitors to Bethlehem and where have they come from?
Few scholars have examined those questions as thoroughly as Raymond Brown in his monumental work The Birth of the Messiah. Hint: Don’t take this one to the beach. Brown explores possible answers to these questions and the most reasonable arguments for each. A quick summary might be as follows: Matthew’s Greek word “magoi” can mean “magician” or “astrologer” Given the prominence of a star in Matthew’s story “astrologer” seems like the best answer.
“The east” can be Persia, Babylon, or Arabia. Again, the best option is Persia. To know why, consult Brown.
Wherever these star-gazing scholars came from, this much is clear. Getting from where they were to where they wanted to be was a very long journey. By the time they arrived in Judea the infant Jesus is no longer an infant. Our manger scenes, featuring a post-partum Mary surrounded by the shepherds and magi from the east isn’t quite right. The magi were late to the party. Late but not left out.
Eventually they made it. They came to the place where Jesus was, they fell before the child and worshiped him and presented gifts. What they sought, they found – it just took a while to get there.
Once the dishes have been put away after the Thanksgiving meal, most of us set a course for Christmas. Some waste no time getting the journey started. Thanksgiving weekend is the time to buy the tree and decorate the house. Perhaps for love of the seasonal décor – or perhaps because December's merciless schedule will not allow a time to do that kind of thing.
Others of us need a little more warm-up time. Having resisted the siren call of retailers to get ready for Christmas in mid-October, we find we can’t quite work up the momentum we need to embrace December and all that comes with it.
At some point, however, we start the pilgrimage toward the Christ child. We take our first weary steps toward the little town of Bethlehem, fully intending to take our place ‘round yon virgin.
And maybe at some point we realize that the distance to that place of worship and adoration is much further than we thought. The calendar threatens us. December 25 is fast approaching and there’s nothing you can do to slow it down. It approaches at what feels like lightning speed.
But you’re just not there. Your mind is distracted; your heart is crowded with other matters; your body is tired; your schedule is relentless. We all want to arrive at the place where we kneel in glad and humble worship before this child, this King. It just takes a while to get there.
Take encouragement from three visitors from the east who would not be deterred. Stay on this journey. Go hard after God until you find your kneeling place. It’s really about the worship, not the calendar. And it’s never too late for that. You can reach the place of worship – even if it takes a little while to get there.
We would seek you, O God, with determined hearts this Christmas season. Lead us with your light to the place of true worship. Sustain us through detours of busy-ness and the burdens that stretch us thin these days. Grant us joy in this journey, we pray. Amen.