Wise men looking for a king
Find instead a mystery
Lying on a manger-throne
The King of Heaven
Oh the wonder of this child
Born that He may reconcile
All creation to Himself
The King of Heaven
Our mom means business when it comes to decorating for Christmas. Every December our home transforms into the liking of the house from Home Alone –everything red and green and adorned with greenery, lights and cotton snow. And I love it! When we were kids, we always fought over who got to set up our nativity scene. It was one of those old, ornate sets with heavy pieces, and I loved inspecting each of the characters: the flock of sheep and the shepherds in their rags, the angels in their simple white robes, Mary and Joseph in their drab road-worn layers, and a naked baby Jesus wrapped in cloth. And then there were the wise men. They never seemed to fit in with the rest of the scene. While all the other characters were humble in nature and dress, the wise men sat royally on camels wearing golden robes embellished with jewels, holding treasure boxes that shone in the night. I never knew where to place them in the nativity, and so they often ended up outside the stable.
As is my nature, each Christmas season I find myself searching for the fresh in the midst of the tradition. One hand on the beloved convention of it all, one hand on how Christmas’ underlying meaning shapes me now. And this year, it is the classic yet mysterious story of the wise men that has offered me a new perspective on the coming of my Jesus.
The wise men (or as later traditions refer to them, The Three Kings) heard tell of the birth of the King of the Jews, and they made their way to Israel in search of Him. ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:1-2). They were expecting a king and all the pomp and circumstance that traditionally came with a royal birth. But we know that Jesus did not arrive this way. Instead, on a chilly Bethlehem night in the muck of the outdoor animals, baby Jesus entered our world and was laid in a feeding trough. His birth—this King’s birth—was not met with a grand announcement; in fact, it was announced only to the outlying-outcast shepherds.
When news slowly spread of the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem, the wise men made their way from Jerusalem to the city in Judea. They came bearing gifts fit for a king—gold, frankincense, myrrh. ‘On coming to the house, they saw a child with his mother Mary” (Matthew 2:11). A humble home and a simple greeting. Nothing flashy, nothing showy. And I have to wonder… were they surprised? Did they pause to scratch their heads? Could this really be the Messiah-king whose coming had been foretold for hundreds of years?
When the wise men left Bethlehem, they were ordered to report to King Herod where Jesus could be found…presumably so Herod could kill the Messiah and protect his own throne. But having been warned in a dream not to reply to Herod, the wise men returned to the east. But the threat of a new king threw Herod into a rage and prompted him to slaughter all of the baby boys in Judea, sending Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to hide from the raging king. Baby Jesus—heaven’s King—was now a fugitive.
This side-story of the wise men shines a bright light on the paradox that would mark Jesus’ life and ministry over the 33 years He walked this earth. Jesus—Immanuel God with us. This God is the same God who for centuries prior to Jesus’ birth revealed Himself to the people of Israel in a pillar of fire, in the miraculous parting of seas and in burning bushes. But on Christmas night when our Creator ripped through the Bethlehem skies to save the world He loves, He chose to come not as a King riding in with a great flash of extravagance and pretention. Instead, He came in the most vulnerable and helpless form—a baby—and he began His life as a fugitive in a foreign land. A paradox.
Why? Why this way? Why not come as the wise men (and most of the Israelite people) expected? …as a conquering King, robed in majesty and glory. Perhaps it’s because He knows we need a Saviour who is like us—who we can identify with. Who chose vulnerability as an infant and so births a safe space for our own vulnerabilities to break the surface of our hardened hearts and forge a path to freedom. The way of Jesus’ coming disarms us of our own pretentions and efforts to have it all together. And this kind of vulnerability is what births intimacy with Him. When I feel low and unseen, I remember that my Jesus chose to spend the first hours of His life in a feeding trough. When I feel lost and out of place, I remember that my Jesus spent the first months of His life as a fugitive in a foreign land. And when I feel like life is unbearable and its weight is crushing, I remember that my Jesus willingly walked the road to Calvary where He gave His life so that I could know full intimacy with Him. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). He gets me. Every time.
Though this message is easily lost in a season that has become so highly decorated and adorned with all the gold tinsel and red ribbon, this is what we celebrate this Christmas. And as I now look upon that nativity scene, I no longer see the wise men as misfit royalty in the midst of the most humble of characters, but rather I think they fit perfectly in place. Their extravagance serves as a perfect contrast to the accessibility and simplicity of the Saviour that stooped low to save me. A King who chose not to come in the expected form of royalty but instead took on the surprising form of the most lowly and vulnerable. So perhaps those ornate wise men figurines don’t belong outside of the stable after all; maybe they belong right by that manger-throne, worshipping the King—shoulder to shoulder with the shepherds and the outcasts and the humble…and me.