In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.
Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (NRSV)
Sometime after the birth of Jesus – perhaps years if Herod’s hunt for those aged two and under is well calculated – eastern astrologers enter Jerusalem asking their dangerous question: ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’
Surely they are near. Only a grand and ancient city is fit to birth the King of Kings. They have started looking in the capital.
We traditionally name them ‘wise’. This open search, however, seems anything but. Their inquiries find voice producing rumour and fear. Everyone, from the King to the peasant living off Jerusalem’s streets, is nervous.
And with good reason. Any challenge to the throne is unwelcome. Such uprisings are always accompanied by unrest and violence. Power is fought over, grasped tightly, only relinquished in death.
To all too many this is not ‘good news’.
And so King Herod summons the priests and scribes. These are urgent talks concerning nothing less that the throne. Where is the Messiah to be born?
The king is searching in the right place. He has sought out those steeped in the ancient writings. But these leaders do little more than cite the great prophet who pointed to the tiny town of Bethlehem. In such times it is safer to speak in the voice of another.
Bethlehem seems to be such an insignificant place. Even Isaiah foresaw its rise from nothingness. His words seek to encourage this tiny community: ‘you…are by no means the least…’. It is an unlikely birthplace for a world leader.
But Herod believes. So much so that he now acts in secret calling and interviewing the foreigners filling his city with dread.
Of course, this was never their intention. Nothing in our story indicates that they enter the throne room defensively. They assume this ruler, governing the people of God, is also looking to the promised Messiah.
But they could not be more wrong. Even as they leave the palace there is no indication of their mistrust. After all, who would want to be found in opposition to God?
But power does strange things to reason. Our travellers set out from the palace directed by a tyrant.
Or so it would seem. This wise journey, however, was never initiated by king or wise man. It was prompted by God and God’s sign. The star appears twice in our story: firstly calling these men from home, and, second, guiding them to the home of Jesus.
From the beginning of their search to its climax, God’s sign has remained. It’s presence is so steady that it can it lead them to the most unlikely place.
Only then, having found the true king, do they kneel, give, and worship. They have accomplished all they set out to achieve. It is now for the grace of God to direct them home.
And we are left to wonder what Mary made of these extraordinary events?