The Journey Of The Magi
by T.S. Eliot
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’ And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
(Journey of the Magi, James Tissot, 1894)
A shepherd tells his story
What a night! What a night that was! I saw things that night that I never imagined I’d ever see!
I’m a shepherd. Always have been. Always will be. Shepherding is in my blood. I’ve seen a lot of things out there in the wilderness, in the pastures. Mostly good things. One of the best things is when one of my ewes give birth. What a sight to see a little bitty lamb come fresh into the world.
But I’d never seen anything like that night. It started out like any other night. My father and I brought our flock to the field and so did the other shepherds. We built a fire and fixed our supper. After we ate, we were sitting on the side of a hill looking down at the town – Bethlehem. That place was full of people. Every man ever born in Bethlehem had to come and register in the Roman census. So it was a busy, crowded place that night. I wanted to go down and just look around – see all those strangers and hear some of their stories and, well who knows what I might’ve seen. But my father wouldn’t let me go. He said there was nothing down there that I needed to see.
And then it happened. All of a sudden, up in the sky – an angel! A real, live angel! Big as three men! And shining as bright as the sun – nearly blinded us! We were scared, real scared – scared as a lamb being chased by a wolf.
And then that angel spoke to us. His voice was powerful, forceful, but at the same time, real gentle. I can’t talk like him, but he said, “Don’t be afraid. I’ve got good news for you. It’s going to make you happy, real happy. Earlier today, down there in David’s town, Bethlehem, a Savior has been born. He’s the Messiah. He’s the Lord. Here’s how you can find him: he’s a newborn baby wrapped in cloth and he’s lying in a manger.”
The angel had no more than gotten the words out of his mouth when the whole sky was filled with angels. All of them were praising God for sending the Savior to bring peace on earth. After awhile, they left. Just disappeared.
We looked at each other. Then my father said, “Son, I think there is something down there you need to see. Let’s go.”
We went down to Bethlehem. It took awhile but we finally found them. They were in a barn. And there that baby was – like a little bitty lamb come fresh into the world. But it seemed awful strange. The Savior of the world lying in a manger! The Messiah in a trough! The Lord using a feed box for a bed! It was strange to see that, but there he was, just like the angel had told us.
We got so excited. When we left, we told everybody we met what had happened. We went back to the pastures – singing and dancing and laughing. We were so happy – God had sent our Savior. We were going to be saved!
After several weeks, we went back to Bethlehem to see them again. But they were gone. We found out that they were from Nazareth and must have gone back there. Nazareth – way up north. I wondered if I’d ever see that baby again.
Many years went by – I’d say 25 or 30. I began hearing about a man who was traveling around up north and teaching and preaching and healing people. People said that he was different than any of our regular religion teachers. Some people were saying that he was the Messiah. His name was Jesus. He was from Nazareth. The more I heard about him, the more I believed he must have been the baby we had seen in Bethlehem.
He was traveling all over the country, so I waited for him to come to Bethlehem. A couple of times I heard he was in Jerusalem, which is just a few miles away. Once I went up there, but he had already left. He never did come to Bethlehem.
Two or three years went by, and it seemed nobody talked about anything but Jesus. Finally, I heard he was in Jerusalem again. I decided that I was going to go see him this time. There was a lot of expectation and tension among the people. It felt like something big was about to happen. If Jesus was that Savior the angel told us about, maybe he was about ready to make his move. I was determined to be there and see it if he did.
I got to Jerusalem on Thursday during Passover Week. People said Jesus had been teaching in the Temple every other day that week, but he didn’t show up that day. Just my luck. So, I decided to stay on through Passover and the Sabbath. Maybe Jesus would come back.
Friday morning, I heard that Jesus had been arrested and put on trial and convicted. They said he had been taken outside the city. I went to see him. So many years before when I went to Bethlehem to see the baby, I felt excited. As I made my way through the streets of Jerusalem, I felt scared. Real scared. There was a big crowd – some people were laughing and making jokes, some were weeping. I pushed through the crowd to see him. As soon as I saw him, I knew he was the baby, the baby I had seen lying in a manger. That was strange. This was shocking – the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord – nailed to a cross.
But see, that’s how he saved us. He died as a sacrifice – like a lamb freshly killed in the Temple. And then he rose from the dead. Beat everything that was against us – the ultimate predator and the law and our own rebellion. Gave us life.
I’m a shepherd. Always have been. Always will be. But I’m a different kind of shepherd now. Different on the inside. Freed up. Forgiven. Made right with God. And now I’m a shepherd for people: teaching, preaching, helping them to know and follow Jesus. Now I see things I never would have imagined. All because the Savior came and went from the manger to the cross.
Christmas is, no doubt, the biggest holiday of the year in America. It’s a gigantic event. And I love the Christmas season – the lights and decorations and music and gift-giving. It’s a special event.
But some of it bothers me. Everybody celebrates but many don’t seem to know what’s being celebrated. Some school districts have changed “Christmas” to “Winter Celebration.” Does that even make sense? Celebrate winter – celebrate icy roads and frozen pipes and the flu!
And people use things that don’t have any connection with Christ to celebrate. Like some Christmas cards – a picture of a mailbox or a coyote howling at the moon or a stuffed bear to bring us “holiday greetings.” What does that mean?
Do you see what I’m saying? People want to celebrate; they don’t know what to celebrate; they celebrate anyway.
So, with Christmas ramping up, let’s focus our attention on the reality. Let’s set this in our hearts and maybe we can get through the season with a strong hold on what we’re celebrating. Here’s the story.
Chapter 1: BEGINNING BEFORE THE BEGINNING (John 1:1-5)
We can’t say that the story of Christ’s birth has a beginning because the Son of God does not have a beginning. John puts it: he was in the beginning with God and he was God and he made everything and he is the source of life.
Jesus Christ is the pre-existent, eternal Son of God. He was present at the beginning of the universe. He was the co-creator of all there is. Life, not just physical existence but complete life, comes from him.
The Son of God has always been and always will be; he has no beginning and no ending. He exists outside time and space. He is eternal. He is divine, the second person of the Triune Godhead. He possesses within himself absolute life.
At some point beyond time and space, God the Father and Son and Spirit decided that the Son would come into time and space onto the earth as a human being. The Creator would step into creation as one of the creatures. The one who existed in absolute glory and majesty and authority would lay that aside and live in the limitations of humanity.
I want to emphasize: that decision came from power not weakness. The awesome, glorious Son of God willingly and intentionally chose to become a man. He took that step out of powerful righteousness, purpose, and love. The story began before the beginning.
The time came for it to happen. Paul calls it the fullness of time in Galatians 4:4. He meant that everything God planned for preparation had been completed. When that time arrived, “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” God decided that his Son would come into the world as a baby. That meant human parents were needed. A woman would carry the baby and give birth.
Chapter 2: THE SELECTION FOR THE CONCEPTION
(Luke 1:26-38; Matthew 1:18-24)
God selected a young couple in Nazareth, Israel – Mary and Joseph. They were betrothed – pledged to marry but not yet married. Mary was likely a teenager, Joseph a little older. God revealed to them what he was doing.
An angel named Gabriel visited Mary one day. The 14 or 15 year-old girl was frightened when Gabriel showed up. I would be, too, and so would you. He assured her that there was nothing to worry about; she was being favored by God for a great purpose. He told her she would become pregnant and deliver a son she was to name Jesus. He would actually be the Son of the Most High – Yahweh – and he would rule an eternal Kingdom. She would not become pregnant in the normal human way. She was a virgin and would remain a virgin until after the birth. She would become pregnant by the power of God through the Holy Spirit. Mary responded to this astonishing announcement by saying, “I am your servant. Let it be.”
When Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, he must have been shocked and saddened. It seemed that Mary had cheated on him. He didn’t want to make a big deal out of it so he decided to end the betrothal very quietly. Then an angel spoke to him in a dream and explained what was happening: “Joseph, don’t be afraid. Mary is still a virgin. She is pregnant by the work of the Holy Spirit. Her son will be the Savior.” With incredible faith, Joseph believed the angel and went ahead and married Mary.
So, the eternal and awesome Son of God became a fetus in the uterus of a young Jewish girl. He who ruled in Heavenly glory and majesty now for nine months developed in the darkness and warmth of Mary’s womb.
Chapter 3: BIRTH IN A BETHLEHEM BARN (Luke 2:1-7)
In about 4 – 5 BC, the emperor of Rome, Augustus, issued an executive order for everyone under his control to be registered. It was a census, but instead of census takers going to the people, the people had to go to their home towns to register. Joseph was originally from Bethlehem; he was in fact a descendant of King David of Bethlehem. He had to go there. Mary went with him.
It was around 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It was a slow trip, most likely on foot. Maybe they had a donkey, but the Bible doesn’t actually say they did. Mary was 9 months pregnant. I can’t imagine what that was like. Those of you who have been pregnant can probably relate.
They finally arrived in Bethlehem, normally a small, quiet village. Because of the census, every lodging place was taken. Joseph and Mary could not find any place to stay until someone allowed them to use a barn of some kind. Mary went into labor. Not in a gleaming, bacteria-free delivery room, but in a dark, filthy barn, the Son of God was born. No JC Penney baby clothes, just strips of old cloth. No new cradle, just a feed trough. He whom the universe could not contain arrived as a six-pound infant.
As Luci Shaw wrote, “Older than eternity, now he is new.” Our King, our Savior has come.
That’s good news, and people needed to know about it, just like today.
Chapter 4: CELEBRATION AND ADORATION
(Luke 2:8-20, Matthew 2:1-12)
Who would be the first to know? Shepherds. Plain, ordinary – in fact, despised and outcast – shepherds. Not the Emperor. Not the High Priest. A band of probably 6-8 shepherds had bedded down with their sheep. It was a night like so many – just dull routine. Suddenly the routine was shattered. An angel stood before them. The majestic light of God’s glory engulfed them. They were scared stiff. They heard the angel announce, “Today your Savior was born. You can find him in Bethlehem sleeping in a manger.” Then the darkness of the night sky was filled with a crowd of angels giving praise to God.
After that concert was over, the shepherds left their sheep and went to find the baby. And they did find him just like the angel said. As they left the barn and headed back to the pastures, they told everyone they met and they went whooping and hollering their praise to God – their Savior was here!
Sometime later – maybe a few days, maybe several weeks or months – some other guys showed up: the wise men or magi from the east. They were probably followers of astrology and philosophy from Babylon. They had seen an unusual star which signified the birth of one who would be King of the Jews. The star guided them to the house where Joseph and Mary and Jesus had moved. They entered the house and found the Baby. The magi knew he was more than a King for just Israel. He was the King. They bowed low and presented gifts. The worshipped the Child. They honored him. They exalted him. They adored him.
Both the shepherds and the magi understood something of the significance of the birth in the barn. No one like that baby had ever been born. No one like him has been born since. Messiah. Savior. Lord. Son of God. The good news of his arrival was proclaimed, and there was celebration and adoration.
Well, that’s the story, but it’s not THE END. The story of Christ’s coming continues right into our lives. He came for us – to fight our battles, to reign over us, to lead us, to save us, to restore us, to transform us, to love us. The Son of God has come. That’s what Christmas is about. That’s really what we celebrate.
What does it mean to you?