So why would a small group of men leave behind comfort, security and luxury, and follow a star in search of a king?
We have no precise details about the ‘wise men’ who came to visit the infant Jesus – nor even how many there were. We do know, however, that they were rich, for the gold, frankincense and myrrh they brought as gifts were all very expensive.
We also know that they were at the top of the social scale, for they did not hesitate to enter King Herod’s palace and seek an audience. Their general bearing indicates also that they were intelligent and well-educated people.
All this makes it more astonishing that they were prepared to follow an intangible star. Surely anyone who is wealthy, socially well connected and clever already has everything? What more could they desire?
Certainly, that is the view of most people today. If only we could win the lottery (£5,000,000 jackpot at least), or become a celebrity overnight, we would be made for life. No need to follow insubstantial stars – just stay at home and enjoy life!
The wise men challenge this simplistic philosophy. They ‘had it all’ yet felt an emptiness that drove them to seek spiritual answers. Money, success and popularity cannot take away the craving in the human heart for satisfaction. God has made us, and only he can satisfy.
Their journey was not straightforward. In fact, one big blunder at the end of their journey nearly wrecked everything. They followed the star until it led them towards Jerusalem – and here they made their big mistake.
They assumed the star must be leading them to King Herod’s palace and so, without checking exactly where the star was pointing them, they stopped and made enquiries. They stopped because it seemed the obvious thing to do.
We can sympathise with their mistake. Where else would a king be found but in a palace? A king would never be born in a house or an inn. It was unthinkable that this king would be born in a stable and found in an ordinary house.
But this king was different. Their human reasoning was perfectly logical, but God has a strange way of confounding human wisdom. Not that he is illogical or irrational. It is just that his thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are his ways our ways.
God is a God of surprises. We must be prepared to be surprised – or even shocked – when we set out to find him.
The travellers’ visit to the palace created uproar. News of a newborn king came as a total surprise. It certainly shocked King Herod, who panicked at the thought of a rival. The new king must be found and eliminated at once.
But where was this mysterious child? Herod had no idea, so he called in the experts. They told him that, according to prophecy, the king would be born in Bethlehem – a rather insignificant village five miles south of Jerusalem.
How did they know? Because they understood the Old Testament Scriptures (the first part of our present-day Bible). They could give Herod chapter and verse: ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel’ (Micah 5:2).
Nothing could be plainer. Would-be seekers today, please take note. Human reasoning led them astray but the Scriptures put them back on track. We twenty-first-century folk have a complete Bible – God’s guidebook to lead us to himself. We should listen to what it says.
David the Psalmist wrote, ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’. Follow its instruction carefully and it will lead you to the king.
Once the wise men had taken expert advice, they followed the star once more. When they stopped at Herod’s palace, the star also stopped, waiting for them to realise their mistake. God is very patient with seekers and does not give up on us when we also make mistakes.
The star led on until it brought them to the house where the new king now was. At last their journey was over. It is sometimes said, ‘It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive’. The wise men would not agree.
Christianity is a person
In the house they found a person. Christianity is not a philosophy – a set of rules or a code of ethics – but a person. God is a person and he wants us to know him, and to enjoy a relationship with him.
You cannot have a relationship with a philosophy or a system of ethics – but you can with the living God.
They sought a king, and when they found him they fell down and worshipped. A king is one who rules, and his subjects submit to his authority. So it is with God.
Modern man’s big mistake is to think that personal freedom can only be achieved by ignoring God, flouting the Ten Commandments, and rejecting all religious restraints. He must be ‘free to do his own thing’.
Each one is his own ‘king’ and can therefore do what he likes. But with millions of other ‘kings’ all doing their own thing, the result is chaos: ‘Don’t you tell me what to do’, they warn.
Marriage, the family, the community and the state are all suffering from this false view of ‘being your own king’. Real freedom is found only in submission to a single king – the one born as a baby in Bethlehem.
Mission to save
We have freedom and security on our roads because most of us obey the Highway Code. If everyone decided to invent and follow his own ‘Highway Code’, the result would be chaos. Submission to the Highway Code does not restrict our freedom, it guarantees it.
So it is with God and us. When we submit to him – obeying the gospel of Christ and seeking his ways and his thoughts – then we experience true freedom.
The wise men found a king but the shepherds found a saviour. The king was born specifically to save sinners like ourselves.
Mary’s husband Joseph was told by God that the baby should be named JESUS – ‘for he will save his people from their sins’. Nothing could be clearer; his mission was to save.
Sinners are not expected to save themselves; that is the work of God. Sinners, for their part, are to repent (turn away from their sins) and trust in this Saviour. His birth was only the beginning of his mission, for Calvary is where that mission was accomplished.
What happened at Calvary? What was accomplished on the cross? On the cross the Son of God voluntarily took the place of sinners and bore the just penalty for their sins, that they might go free. As one hymn puts it:
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood;
Sealed my pardon with his blood;
Hallelujah, what a Saviour!
What is our response? A happy Christmas starts at Calvary