Some of the characters I always liked in the Christmas story were the wise men.
They looked so noble and serene, calmly bearing their gifts, laying them gently before Jesus.
But for the longest time, I viewed them as just miniatures in a manger scene. It wasn’t until I read T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” in college that I began to see the wise men as more than smiling, crowned figurines kneeling before Jesus.
Although their biblical account doesn’t give many details, through some careful study of not only Eliot’s poem but Matthew 2:1 and some illumination from the Holy Spirit, I have come to see the wise men as not just nativity characters but men with a choice — a choice to go “another route” (Matthew 2:12).
Several things about their story stand out to me now.
1. It takes a journey to get to Jesus.
Jesus promises that those who seek Him will find Him (Matthew 7:7,8) — but getting to know Jesus takes a journey of faith, bumps and valleys, questions, doubts — and getting further and further away from the life you used to have.
The assumption is that when you get saved and believe in Jesus that all the work is done. You hear that all the time. Jesus has done it all. And that is true in regards to your salvation, but in regards to sanctification, the working out of your salvation (Philippians 2:12), the process is ongoing.
It takes effort to discover Jesus and really find Him on a daily basis. You have to put in the energy to look for Him, discern His will for you and walk that out in obedience.
The wise men certainly had to put in some work: they travelled, endured the fatigue of being on the road for endless days, inquired of Jesus’ location and followed a lone star up in the sky — all at great personal cost to themselves.
2. Once you encounter Jesus, you can’t go back the way you came.
Once the wise men found Jesus, they couldn’t travel the same worn paths they knew. They had to take a higher, steeper trail home. And the people around them didn’t treat them the same when they found out the identity of the king they were seeking. Herod wanted them killed. As overjoyed as they were to find Jesus, their encounter with Him actually made their way more treacherous.
I was reminded of this when I heard a sermon on the wise men given last Christmas season by our senior pastor. At the time, I was struggling in my own walk of faith.
God had been leading me on a journey of understanding that my issues with self-worth had me looking to the people around me for approval. So much so, that I had relied on the approval of others to an unhealthy extent, particularly males around me. Some previous rejection made me afraid that I wasn’t really worth it. I constantly relied on the people around me to make me feel good about myself.
As a young high school teacher, I had a flirtatious demeanor with the males in my workplace and classroom. While I never entered into a relationship with a student or anything of that nature, I know that God distinctly told me that I had set the wrong example. I had encouraged that approval.
He didn’t want me to get my self-worth from the wrong kinds of attention any longer. He wanted me to get it from Him. And He wanted me to go back and tell my teaching community and the families of my students the ways I was changing. He wanted me to apologize for not being the professional role model I thought I was and share my story of learning to find my identity in Him.
3. The journey is solitary.
The wise men followed the star where no one was looking. According to Matthew Henry’s commentary, they arrived in Jerusalem expecting the whole world to be worshipping at Jesus’ feet and instead had to go door-to-door to inquire around quite a bit to even find Him.
As Henry notes, “There arises a day-star in the hearts of those who enquire after Christ” — but it may be a very solitary quest. The star may lead to a place where no one else is going.
When I got the nudge to begin contacting families, I had no blue print for what I was doing. No one else I knew had ever undergone a project like that. I had no idea why I was doing it or what the purpose was other than I felt very strongly that God wanted me to go. I didn’t really get many answers until I just started making phone calls and writing emails. I felt that because it was such an individual road that there must be something wrong.
Maybe I didn’t hear God right.
But like the wise men, I kept getting in my heart a leading, a star to follow.
I didn’t know how people would react or if they would misinterpret what I said. I knew that I would be looked at differently, my reputation jeopardized. It involved a death on my part. A surrender of my will. I was nothing short of shocked that Jesus would make me go back and do this.
And that wasn’t the only hard part in my story. I had to go back to some people from my way back past. I had gotten tangled up in some unhealthy relationships as a teenager and made some poor choices. Again, looking for that sense of acceptance, I had gone down a path that I never thought I would. He wanted me to go back to those people too and tell them how Jesus was transforming me, admit that I had been wrong.
I resisted at first and many times in the process thinking that the Jesus I knew would never lead me to do something so uncomfortable. I wanted to go into ministry but not if it involved such difficult actions. Not if it involved revealing the truth behind the glossy front I had created and my attempts at looking strong: Not if it meant revealing that I was actually weak and very flawed.
A young rich man in the Bible experienced this same kind of stunned surprise when He encountered Jesus. Approaching Jesus in earnestness one day, he inquired what he could do to earn eternal life. The young man observed the commandments, met all the requirements as far as outward acts of piety. However, Jesus looked at him and detected one thing preventing him from following Him in an abandoned way: his wealth. Jesus told him to sell everything and follow him.
And the young man walked away saddened because he didn’t expect Jesus to ask for that.
The wise men must have had similar qualms when they journeyed all the way to Jesus only to discover that they would have to change their route, and the hard part of their journey wasn’t over when they found Him. In “Journey of the Magi,” Eliot voices the questions the wise men might have had encountering Jesus:
… were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen
birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death,
Although Eliot’s poem takes some artistic license, we can imagine that for the wise men Jesus’ birth presented a paradox they didn’t expect — calling for a “death” of old practices and routines. The wise men were most likely astrologers, magicians. Surely, Jesus shook up their belief systems a little and made it impossible for them to cling onto their familiar ways of doing things.
The stanza later laments that returning home was hard as they could “no longer be at ease, in their old dispensation.”
The wise men dilemma is this: When you truly encounter Jesus, you have to change. And He may be different than you ever thought.
For the rich young man, he went away downcast because he was willing to observe outward forms of religion but unwilling to give what He held closest to His heart.
Jesus was kind to the man. It even says in the passage that Jesus “loved the man” (Mark 10:21), but what is interesting is that Jesus did not manipulate or coerce the man into leaving his possessions and following him. When the man left, Jesus turned and made a comment to his disciples about the difficulty of getting into heaven. He knew that there would be some that would turn away.
The wise men, on the other hand, heeded the warning in a dream. Instead of going back the familiar paths in which they had come, they travelled home “another route.” They understood the necessity of altering their plans upon meeting Christ.
As J.R. Miller observes in Streams in the Desert (a beloved devotional that has inspired me the past few years):
Every difficult task that comes across your path — every one that you would rather not do, that will take the most effort, cause the most pain, and be the greatest struggle — brings a blessing with it. And refusing to do it regardless of the personal cost is to miss the blessing.
Every difficult stretch of road on which you see the Master’s footprints and along which He calls you to follow Him leads unquestionably to blessings. And they are blessings you will never receive unless you travel the steep and thorny path.
Jesus will never make you follow Him. He will open the possibility, beckon you His way, but it will always be your choice whether you tread after His solitary star and give up whatever it is He is asking of you.
*Updated December 24, 2019.