One of the greatest advances of the last century has been in the whole area of transport. Aeroplanes, helicopters, motorways, electric railways and the like were all invented in the past 100 years. So that when we decide to go on a journey, we think nothing of jumping into a car, switching on the ignition and driving for as long as it takes until we reach our destination, or, if you’re like me, walking to the railway station, hopping on a train and within a few hours disembarking safely at the other end.
But just occasionally there are circumstances when we have to think about our journey rather more carefully. You’ve probably all heard the police advice during the recent snow and ice to “only travel when it is absolutely essential” and I guess for those of us who’ve had to visit family and friends over the festive season we’ve all had to do some extra planning. We’ve had to look at the weather forecast and decide the best time to leave. On our departure we’ve had to check whether we have the right equipment with us, like hot drinks and a shovel. We’ve probably kept the car radio tuned for any travel advice. And once we have paid our visit and seen our family we’ve had to think about our return journey and when it’s been safe enough to travel back. The unseasonably cold weather of the past few weeks has perhaps reminded us of former times when a journey in the depths of winter required great planning and considerable stamina, and was something only undertaken by the hardy few.
Now despite the lyrics of some well-known carols we can almost be certain that the journey of the three wise men did not take place in the bleak midwinter or amid the winter’s snow. As Matthew’s gospel tells us they came from the east, and if you know anything about the geography of the Middle East you will be aware that to the east of Israel lies not field and fountain, moor and mountain but desert. Lots of hot, dry desert that stretches for miles and miles as far as the eye can see. And what I want to do this morning is think about why and how the wise men made their journey, and what it is we can learn from their example.
Of course the immediate reason why the wise men made their journey was not because they were looking at a weather forecast but at the charts which they used to follow the movements of the planets and the stars. We must not forget it was this part of the world that provided the basis for modern astrology and the heavenly bodies controlled the lives of most people in their region at this time. Which begs an interesting question - as to why just these few men from the east decided to travel. After all, others too would have seen the sign, and others too would have known it presaged the birth of a king. But it seems that these wise men particularly understood it to refer to the birth of the Jewish king and they were felt drawn to make a response.
Not that they could simply get on a camel and set their Sat Nav towards the land of Judea. Travel through the desert was an arduous process. They would need to make sure they had all the necessary provisions. They needed to know where they could get water and refreshment along the way. The whole journey would have taken a good few weeks, and there is no reason at all to suggest they arrived on the night Jesus was born. They knew it would take a long time before they reached their goal. And yet the fact they were prepared to outlay the expense and make the effort suggest they realised just how important was their undertaking. Somehow they knew that at the end of it all they would reach the end of all their searching.
But as it so often the case their Sat Nav led them to make a wrong turning. Like the others who had seen the star back in their homeland they were expecting a traditional royal birth, and the logical place for a royal birth is a palace, isn’t it? The only problem was, there hadn’t been any birth at the palace in Jerusalem recently. So having looked at the stars, and having set out on their journey, they then needed to listen to some updated travel information to get them to the right place.
But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.
And so as we all know the wise men make the journey 6 miles or so south to Bethlehem. They had seen the star. They were looking for a king. And now they were going to find him. But it is worth pausing at this point stopping and reflecting on the irony that of all the people gathered there at Herod’s palace it was these Gentiles who decided to travel the short distance to greet Jesus. After all, the chief priests and the teachers of the law had the Scriptures. They too were looking for the coming king. But when they heard news that he had been born it was they who decided their journey wasn't absolutely essential, even though it would have cost them very little effort. They were comfortable where they were, comfortable enjoying the favour of the king, comfortable running the religious establishment of the day. So while these foreigners who had only recently learnt of the new-born king hurried on, they did nothing to investigate the possibility that the Messiah they had been seeking for hundreds of years might have arrived. And in this sense they were even worse than Herod. At least Herod was open to the possibility that this child in Bethlehem might be king, even if his thirst for power would lead to the spilling of much innocent blood.
So after their secret conference with Herod the wise men set out. We don’t know exactly how they identified the house where Mary and the child were staying, but we do know how they reacted. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. In fact, if we want to be accurate, they rejoiced with very great joy. Here was not only the destination to their journey, but the answer to all their searching and all their study. For in this house was the one true king who was unlike any other king they had ever met. Not a royal child pampered in luxury, to be brought up to carry on a cruel and violent dynasty. But an ordinary child living as part of an ordinary family and yet with such a holy presence they could do no other than bow down, and worship, and present their gifts.
And what about their journey back? What is interesting is that they no longer used the stars, or their local knowledge to choose the route. Instead they relied on a warning they had received in a dream. And this I believe shows that the journey that the wise men made was far more than just a physical one. It was also a spiritual journey which led them to understand who Jesus is. And having discovered Jesus, they also learnt to discern and obey the voice of the Lord calling to them. No wonder Matthew saw in the visit of the wise men the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy where all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD. In fact one of the central themes of Matthew’s gospel is that in spite of its Jewish origins the good news of Jesus really is for all people. And in many ways the visit of the wise men points forward to the great commission at the end of Matthew where the eleven apostles are commanded to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). The coming of the wise men, so to speak, anticipates the going out and proclamation of the gospel to every tongue and race and nation.
So what relevance does this story have to our life as a church here at the beginning of a New Year over 2000 years later? Well, it’s become a bit of a cliché to talk about a journey of faith, and I am personally very wary of talking about this or that person’s individual faith journey. Because if we’re not careful the journey becomes everything and we don’t actually tell people there is a point when they have to make a firm commitment and clear decision to follow Jesus. But nonetheless, there are, I believe, some important lessons we can take away from this passage which can help us understand how to help people come to a true and living faith in the Lord, lessons which we could do well to learn as we seek to fulfil that commission of making disciples.
Because, first of all, the people who live around us are on the whole looking for meaning and purpose in their lives. But like the wise men they are not necessarily looking to find it in the established religion of the day. After all, the church is full of bishops who deny the resurrection, and vicars who encourage people to shoplift, isn’t it? That’s why they too are looking at the stars, or New Age therapies, or pursuing other idols such as money or simply having a good time. Now unless you are have a particular gift of evangelism you can’t easily walk up to these people and start talking to them about Jesus. For most of them, Jesus is the answer to questions they aren’t as yet asking. But we can pray and ask the Lord to open the eyes of some so that like the wise men they decide to start looking in the right direction.
And when we begin to see they are serious about finding out more about the Christian faith, that, perhaps, despite our feeble expectations, they turn up to a social event, or ask us to pray about some concern in their life, it’s then like the teachers of the law we need to be ready to explain to them a little bit more about what they’re looking for. After all, the story of the wise men tells us that people won’t find Jesus on their own. They might get close, just like the wise men got close to Bethlehem when they wound up in Jerusalem. But they need to be someone to actually lead and direct them towards their final destination. It doesn’t mean necessarily that we give them the whole gospel message in one hit. As far as we can tell, the teachers of the law didn’t sit the wise men down and give them the whole history of the Jewish people and the development of the Messianic hope in the Old Testament. They gave them just one verse. But it was the right verse, because - if they had one thing going for them - they knew their Scripture and were able to give the wise men the information they needed at the time they needed it.
But unlike the teachers of the law we then need to journey with our friends to the point where they decide to worship Jesus for themselves. And I guess this is the stage where we too have to be ready to move out of our comfort zones, to be prepared to invest time and effort to listen to their stories, to answer their questions, and above all to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit prompting and leading us in how best we help them move towards a decision for Christ. For all the research shows that beyond whatever courses and teaching programmes and anything else a church offers it is the personal contact that helps people come to a living faith. And that shouldn’t surprise us because there is a real sense in which if people are to come to know Christ for themselves, they need to learn to see Christ at work in us, and they need to see the difference our faith makes for themselves. So this stage - and it is often the most difficult and costly stage - involves being close enough to folk that they really get to know us and begin to see us as we really are, that we are as 1 Pet 3:15 puts it always ... prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.
And if God is merciful - and let’s not forget everything that we do depends not on us getting it right but on the grace of God - and our friend comes to know the Lord, what then? Quite rightly we rejoice and give thanks, and hopefully not just because there is one more member of the congregation on Sunday. But there is one more stage, and it’s one that we often miss out on. We need to help this person learn to listen to God and to obey Him in their everyday life. After all, the wise men’s journey wasn’t complete until they had received a dream and acted on the warning they had received. And in the great commission we were thinking about earlier Jesus didn’t just tell the eleven apostles to make disciples of all nations, but also to baptise them in the name of the Trinity and to teach them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt 28:19).
You see, the reason why most church growth stalls is not because churches are bad at drawing in new people or welcoming them warmly in the name of Christ. It is because having got people in through the front door, they leave the back door unlocked. Because folk aren’t given clear, relevant teaching about, for example, money or relationships, or not taught how to pray or read their Bibles, then like the seed sown among thorns their faith is choked by the worries and pressures of this life. And actually it turns out that the more people leave through the back door, the harder it becomes to attract people through the front door. Because the less there is evidence of lives being changed by the Holy Spirit and real conversion to Christ then the less attractive the church becomes to those who are on their spiritual journey somewhere out east in the desert.
So, to sum up, there is much indeed in the story of the wise men that is very relevant to us as we face a New Year and seek to answer the question as to how our church can grow. It reminds us that people are looking in all kinds of places for spiritual answers and most have never really considered Jesus. It reminds us we need to pray nonetheless for the Lord to call some to look in our direction and discover more of the Christian faith. It reminds us not simply to give people information about the Christian faith but to walk alongside them and share in their lives. And finally, it reminds us of our duty to train and disciple those who come to faith so that they too learn to walk in the Lord’s ways.
All this sounds like hard work, doesn’t it? But then it all depends whether we are looking are ourselves, at the fact we are a fairly small church with very limited resources, or whether we are looking at the One who has given us all things in Christ. Because if God can work in the lives of a group of pagan astrologers and if God can use the words of the chief priests who had no intention of doing His will, then we can be confident that no matter how well we manage to walk in His ways He can nonetheless take and use us for His glory. Our calling is not to worry, to fret about how we can achieve our goals, but to focus on Him and to respond with joy to those words that began our reading from Isaiah: Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you So as we look forward to the New Year let us have the courage to step forward and do whatever the Lord asks of us, knowing that He can and will use even us for His purposes and His glory. Amen.