By Beth Demme
Epiphany conjures up an image of three robed men riding camels through the desert at night, following the light of the brightest star in the sky.
As with most things in life (and in the Bible), it isn’t that simple.
A star led the Wise Men to Jesus, but if you read the story closely, it seems like they got lost along the way. Ultimately, they travel for years before the villain of the story puts them on the right path and they find God where they least expected.
The Wise Men knew “the king of the Jews” had been born because they “observed his star at its rising,” (Matthew 2:2) but they weren’t sure where to find him. We think of the Wise Men gathered around Jesus in Bethlehem, but before going to Bethlehem they went 4.5 miles north to the big city of Jerusalem.
They were looking for the Jewish king so they went to the Jewish political (and religious) capital. At the palace, the Wise Men asked for “the child who has been born king of the Jews.” (Matthew 2:2) Herod, the regional puppet king installed by the Roman Empire, asked the religious leaders (the chief priests and scribes) what they knew. They told Herod that, according to the prophets, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:3-6) “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.” (Matthew 2:7-8)
The villain (King Herod)—not the star—sent the Wise Men to Bethlehem.
King Herod’s role in the journey of the Wise Men is a potent reminder that God can speak to us through the least likely people.
After Herod put them on the right path, the Wise Men again saw the star. Matthew 2:9 says, “When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star they had seen at its rising.” We don’t know if the star disappeared and reappeared, or if the Wise Men lost track of the star because they went to the wrong place.
Maybe we want to think the Wise Men peacefully followed the star all the way to Bethlehem because we like to think God makes things easy, but actually the hiccup in their journey is more relatable and honest.
Like the Wise Men who went to Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem, I sometimes look for God in the wrong places.
A “wrong” place I tend to visit again and again is self-sufficiency. I act like I can study or talk my way into a deeper relationship with God.
The path of self-sufficiency doesn’t lead to a relationship, it always leads to a dead end—myself (Proverbs 3:5). It’s like getting to the palace in Jerusalem only to discover I should have been walking to Bethlehem instead.
The Wise Men went to the palace because that’s where they expected to find God, but he wasn’t there.
Sometimes I look for God in the palace, too. I act like I can find God only within the four walls of the church, between the two covers of my Bible, or inside my prayer time. Meanwhile, the kingdom of God is all around me in acts of kindness and selflessness. The love of God is infused through every part of my life; I only have to be wise enough to look for it.
It took the Wise Men years to find God.
In my house, the three Wise Men are part of the nativity. Jesus is in the manger, flanked by the shepherds on one side and the wise men on the other.
This isn’t very biblical.
I like to picture the Wise Men finding Jesus at the manger because the manger itself is such a powerful reminder of how God prizes humility, but I also take comfort in knowing the Wise Men didn’t find Jesus just twelve days after Christmas.
Sometimes our journey to God is long and full of detours and missteps. When we do finally embrace God’s love, it’s tempting to act like God made the journey easy. We want to act like we followed the star right to Bethlehem and it only took us a couple of weeks. In reality, we re-enact the journey of the Wise Men over and over again. There are times we don’t see where God is leading us and it can take us years to kneel down at the feet of the Messiah.
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