We Three Kings of Orient Are
Matthew 2:1-12 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
“We Three Kings” has received the accolades of being one of the most successful of modern American composed carols.
And yet, we don’t sing this carol in church. Why not?
Perhaps there is something wrong with this song. Let’s look again at the title. “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
“Three.” The title reflects popular culture in regard to Christmas. It is a common misconception that there were only three Magi. There could have been many more in the camel caravan following the star. We don’t know how many Magi there were – three, thirty, or three hundred. All we know for sure is that they were plural – two or more. The three comes down to us in the number of gifts they gave – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Evidently, the ration is one gift per giver.
The reason we have only two Magi in the painting behind the pulpit is to visually proclaim that there were two or more Magi.
I wrote the theme of the sermon in your bulletin. I want you to take a pen and cross out the word “Three.”
The next word is “Kings.” Our Magi figures around the altar are wearing crowns because popular culture endorses that these three men were kings.
The Magi were not kings. They were scholars. They had a broad knowledge of all kinds of things – science, astronomy, medicine, history, law, and theology. They were royal advisors who interpreted dreams, and studied astrology and magic. Hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth we encounter Wise Men or Magi in the Old Testament book of Daniel. These Wise Men were used to searching the skies. Because of their interest in astronomy and astrology, they noticed the star that God had set in the heavens to announce the birth of His Son.
Take your pen and cross out the word “Kings.”
The next words are “of Orient.” When we hear the word “Orient,” we think of the Far East – Japan, China, and South Korea. But the Magi more than likely came from Babylon or Persia – the Middle East.
In 586 B.C., the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah and carried the Jews off into captivity. But he wasn’t as interested in the shopkeepers and farmers as he was the rabbis and royalty; the reigning and ruling classes. People like Daniel, Esther, and Mordecai.
After 70 years, though the Jews were allowed to return home with Ezra and Nehemiah, many of them stayed in Babylon, which had since been conquered by the Persian Empire. The Jews were doing so well in exile that they made their permanent home in the Babylonian and Persian kingdoms. So there could have been Jewish scholars living across the street from the Magi. Plus, Daniel was one of the most highly respected royal advisors to the king. Certainly he would have taught the Magi about Isaiah’s promise in chapter 60 and Balaam’s prophecy of the star coming out of Jacob (Numbers 24:17).
Babylon and later, Persia, would conquer a nation and then bring those conquered peoples into their society and government. So it is very likely that the Magi were from various nations and cultures, and had different skin colors. That’s why the three traditional men associated with the Wise Men have distinctive racial features – Melchior is European; Balthazar is African, and Caspar is Asian. Whether they came from Persia, Babylon or elsewhere, the Magi are Gentiles – non-Jews. They represent people from all over the world coming to seek the Savior of the world.
In our painting, we have pictured the Magi without beards. The Jews had long beards. Traditionally, the Gentiles were clean-shaven.
Another interesting piece of history is that when the Persian hordes invaded the Holy Land in the 6th century, they did not demolish the Church of the Nativity because there was a mural over the entrance showing the Magi wearing Persian headdress as they were ready to worship Jesus.
Take your pen and cross out the words “of Orient.”
The title of the song has made three mistakes just in the first line. Not so great a beginning. So I thought of rewriting the title to more accurately reflect what we do know about the Magi. How about this? “We plural number of royal advisors from the Middle East are.” That’s a mouthful. I don’t think I have a future in song-writing.
How about this? Look at the words that are left in your bulletin. What are they? “We are.”
That’s the key. That’s what Epiphany is all about. It’s not about the number of Wise Men or their station in life or the location they came from. What’s important is “we are.” We are the Magi. This Feast of the Epiphany is for us.
The story of Christmas is the angel announcing to the Jewish shepherds outside of Bethlehem that their Savior had been born. They then walked the few miles that they needed to traverse to find Him and worship Him.
The story of Epiphany is the star announcing to the Magi in the East – many, many miles from Bethlehem – that also their Savior had been born. So they launched on a major trek, traversing deserts and plains, crossing rivers, and exposing themselves to all kinds of danger, so they could find and worship the Redeemer of the entire human race. Epiphany is the Christmas of the Gentiles. It is our Christmas.
Epiphany proclaims that Jesus came into the world not only for those who were close to Him – religiously, culturally, and geographically. He came also for those who were far away. He came for Gentiles. He came for us.
The Magi were unlikely visitors. Magi were not often friends of Israel. Perhaps that’s why Matthew puts this account in the front of his Gospel. Matthew is as astonished as we should be. What are Magi doing here?
Matthew is the only Gospel writer who records the visit of the Magi. Matthew is writing to his fellow Jews. By inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Matthew is reminding his Jewish audience that this little One who is born “King of the Jews” is also the King of kings, the Lord of lords, and the Savior of the nations. Israel’s Messiah is the world’s Messiah. No one has a monopoly on Him.
The Magi were guided by a star. The star was a sign, placed in the skies by God. Whether the star was a perfectly timed combination of Jupiter and Venus in alignment or whether it was a miraculous star placed in the heavens specifically for the birth – this was something unique that would catch the eye of the Magi.
God is gracious to Gentiles. He doesn’t wait for a Jewish shepherd to go to Persia with the news. The Jews had spent enough time there already. Now the Persians come to Israel, to the king’s palace in Jerusalem. But not finding the true King there, and being guided by the prophecy of Micah, they arrive in Bethlehem. They find a toddler crawling around the ankles of His mother. They came seeking a king. They find the King of kings.
We are the Magi. But we didn’t follow a star, searching for a sign. We have the Word of God which guides us. The Word that has been made even more certain by the Word Incarnate – Christ, the Word made flesh. We have the Scriptures breathed from the mouth of God, which are able to make you wise for salvation. We have Holy Baptism to make you a child of God, no matter your age or skin color. We have the Lord’s Supper, no matter your sin or level of sanctification. We have no need for stars. The star was for those first Magi. God shines His light through Word and Sacrament for you.
The Feast of the Epiphany is about God’s mission to seek and save the lost. He sent His only Son from the heights of heaven to be born and die in humility. The mission that began in a tiny, obscure little corner of the world in Bethlehem, that went to Egypt, and then moved to Nazareth and Capernaum, that went to a cross outside of the palace in Jerusalem, an empty tomb, an upper room of fearful disciples, and an ascension from a mountain. Jesus Christ did this. Not just for Jews. Not just for Gentiles. But for all of humanity.
We are. We are on the receiving end of God’s mission. Without Him we would be wallowing in the darkness. We are now living with God’s Light shining into our sin-darkened hearts. Without Him we would be driven to despair in our hopelessness. We are now living in the brightness of the dawn of Christ’s resurrection from the grave. We would be fiddling around with strange religions, groping like blind people in the darkness. We are enlightened by the Holy Spirit to now live as children of light in Christ’s kingdom of light. We would be searching the skies for signs. We are given faith and a new life through the Holy Scriptures We would be offended by such a humble sight of a lowly toddler in diapers who is supposedly our King and Savior. We are enjoying the miraculous faith that sees our King and Savior in such an unkingly town, in an unkingly house, in unkingly poverty. We would not be willing to give of our gold, frankincense, or myrrh. We are glad that God has taken our reason captive to the Word of God so that we travel to worship the Christ, willingly sacrificing our treasure, time, praise, and all that we have.
That’s the message of the Magi – that Jesus the Christ has come not to save the salvageable or to redeem the redeemable or to save only a chosen few. He has come to save the sinful many – a whole world load of sons and daughters of Adam.
He has come to save us.
We Three Kings of Orient Are? No. We are. Whether male or female; child or adult; black, white, red or brown; clean shaven or with facial hair; whether you have traveled from the East or the West; we are. We are Gentiles. We are the Magi. Christ is for all people. The Savior is for all nations This Feast of the Epiphany is for us. Amen.
John Henry Hopkins, Jr., the author and composer, organized the carol in such a way that three male voices would each sing a single verse by himself in order to correspond with the three kings. The first and last verses of the carol are sung together by all three as "verses of praise", while the intermediate verses are sung individually with each king describing the gift he was bringing. The refrain proceeds to praise the beauty of the Star of Bethlehem.
The King's College Choir presents this carol masterfully the way Hopkins arranged it.