“We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Catchy little tune with a nice lyrical ‘hook,’ isn’t
it? There was a time not so many years ago when you’d hear it piped over the
loudspeakers of shopping centers during Advent, or played every few hours on
the radio as part of their holiday music rotation. Nowadays, if you hear it at
all in a public setting, it’s most likely just going to be the music, not the
lyrics. After all, they can’t have those troublesome words referring to
Perfect Light, a King born in Bethlehem, the worship of a Deity, or His suffering,
death, and resurrection offending the ears of eagerly over-spending customers,
I was a little surprised to learn a few years ago that
this particular song was actually written and composed by a pastor. What
surprised me most was that he’d gone beyond the revelation of Holy Scripture about
the visitors, and put forth the unsubstantiated tradition that there were three
visitors just because there were three gifts. He also wrote that the visitors
were kings, rather than what the Bible clearly says they were: magi, wise
men. When you start inserting non-biblical conjecture into what a hymn ought
to be—a clear witness to the truth of the scriptural message—you’re playing
As popular and familiar as this Christmas carol might
be, it’s interesting to note that it didn’t find its way into any of our
synod’s four most recent hymnals. I suspect that is because the hymnal
developers had similar reservations about the accuracy of the theological
message which “We Three Kings of Orient Are” conveys.
Now, I’m not advocating that we launch a campaign to
eradicate the song from the Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany season. After all,
other than the inaccurate title and opening line, the rest of the lyrics of the
song give a great testament to Jesus as God, King, and Savior. They’re just the
sort of words we ought to celebrate and hope to infiltrate into the world
around us, even if they do irritate unbelieving shoppers or make
retailers cower in fear. If such words received more public proclamation,
perhaps God would lead many more people to their own Epiphany concerning His
Son, Jesus Christ.
But we can peel away the word “three” as speculative.
We can eliminate the “kings” part as not agreeing with the clear sense of the
Bible’s words. We can even call “of Orient” into question—they came from the
east, but it’s unlikely they journeyed all the way from the Orient as we define
it. What, then, are we left with?
Only two words remain: “We… Are…”. Those men who at
their essence can only be accurately described as “we are” came to worship the
incarnate “I AM.” After stripping away all the adjectives and pretense and
human knowledge and even the costly gifts they carried, these visitors who came
to worship the newborn king came before him just as we ourselves do: Offering
nothing at all of any value which God Himself has not provided in the first
For what do we bring Jesus, after all? What do we
carry before Him and lay at His feet? What does our collective “WE ARE”
bring to the great I AM?
We said it quite clearly not that long ago, didn’t
we? You know, back there on page 151:
WE ARE, by nature, sinful and
WE ARE sinners in thought, word,
WE ARE offenders by both commission
WE ARE withholders of love from
both God and neighbor.
WE ARE deserving of punishment,
both in this temporal life and forever.
So, of course, were the magi—whether they were three
or three hundred, whether kings or astrologers, whether from just a short
distance east or whether they really had traveled afar over field and fountain,
moor and mountain. They came seeking the King of the Jews because they had
seen a star. They could only have known that such a star signified His birth…how?
Only by having heard or read the Word of God. It is
there—in the Scriptures—that Moses and Isaiah and Daniel gave prophetic witness
to the signs, the time frame, and the circumstances for the Messiah’s birth.
And much of those Scriptures had found its way eastward during the exile of the
Jews. Daniel himself served as an advisor to the king’s court in Babylon.
Upon their arrival in Jerusalem, known to be that city
of the Jews where kings come to rule, and to receive their crowns and their glory,
the Word of God reveals still more to these magi: The king’s birth is to be in
Bethlehem, a nearby town. Herod’s initial consternation at their inquiry
then quickly turns to intrigue and conspiracy: “Just when did this star
appear?” Herod wants to know. He wants to ensure that he can properly identify
all the potential rivals, so that he can destroy them like he has so many other
threats to his power over the years, including one of his wives and three of
his own sons.
Herod even wants to make the magi his stalking horses
to root out the threat, letting them do the grunt work of locating the child,
under the guise of having a similar desire to worship this new King. The Bible
doesn’t indicate that they agreed to Herod’s request, only that they heard it,
and then departed.
Here we discover another detail that the songwriter of
“We Three Kings” and the writers of several other Christmas songs get
wrong: It is only after the visit with Herod that the Bible tells us
the star led them to where they should go. Prior to that, they saw the star as
a sign of the King’s birth, not a guiding beacon. That’s why they went first
to Jerusalem. We don’t even know for sure that they were led to Bethlehem to see Jesus, although that makes for a nice, traditional manger scene. By this
time Jesus may have already been circumcised and the time of Mary’s
Nevertheless, the magi come before the Lord in awe and
respect, bowing down and offering costly treasures from God’s own good
creation: Gold as a gift for honoring a King; frankincense as a Priest’s
sacrifice giving a pleasing aroma to the Lord; myrrh as a tribute to the suffering
and death of a Prophet.
But they didn’t bring these expensive gifts to curry
Jesus’ favor. They weren’t trying to form an alliance or pay Him off for some
great good He had done for them. They weren’t trying to trumpet their
knowledge or demonstrate how clever they had been in figuring out how to find
Him. They knew that there had been divine guidance both before and during
their journey: The Word of God to enlighten their minds, and the star in the
heavens to illuminate their path.
They came before their Lord and Creator in faith and
worship, with heavenly things—not earthly things—on their minds. They
understood that if this birth could cause such a stir among the religious
leaders of His own people, such fear in a powerful and ruthless earthly king, and
such a wondrous sign in the skies, He was certainly no ordinary child; no
run-of-the-mill king. Had the magi only been wise in the earthly sense, they
would’ve looked at Jesus and His modest parents and concluded that there was no
way this child was of royal blood. But they had been granted an understanding
that goes beyond visual appearances and runs contrary to reason—they saw with
the eyes of faith those things that are hoped for but not yet seen.
“Epiphany” means a revelation, a
coming-to-understanding of something not previously known or comprehended. We
celebrate this special day in part because it commemorates the first
encountering of Jesus by those outside the household of Israel, by these intrepid travelers from a distant land.
More importantly, though, we celebrate tonight that
we, too, have been informed and enlightened by God’s Word and led before the
King of all creation.
Bowing before Him, we can’t offer Him a single good
thing that originates with us, no matter what we might bring. All we can bring
is our sinfulness, our worthlessness, our weaknesses, our disbelief. All we
can offer to heap upon Him is the burden of our transgressions, the many times
and various ways we have done violence to His Law and resisted His will. And
willingly He accepts these burdens; lovingly and patiently He picks them up and
draws them to Himself. He bathes Himself in the dark poison of our sins and
wraps Himself in our despicable unrighteousness.
That is when the real gift-giving begins. The
precious token of God’s eternal and limitless love for you is not wrapped in
brightly-colored paper, tied with shiny ribbons, or adorned with fancy bows.
It’s wrapped in rags and lies sleeping in coarse, dry plant stalks. It’s bones
and flesh and blood, encased in new pink skin that was then pounded with fists,
torn by whips and thorns, punctured by nails, and pierced by spear. Gaze this
night—on this 12th night of Christmas—upon what your true love gave
to you: Himself. All of Himself. Nothing held back; not even His very life.
Let Him wrap you up, then, as His precious gift back
to Himself. May the garment of His righteousness, washed in His own life-giving
blood, be draped around you. Be covered in His love each time you remember
being drenched with His cleansing water. May His proclaimed Word of
forgiveness be as a soft, comforting bed upon which you rest in quiet
And be drawn again and again to His table, where He
gives you His very self, the body that was broken and bloodied for you.
Here in His house, He makes you His own gift by
giving, and giving, and giving still more—fulfilling all His promises and
promising even greater gifts yet to come. So be wise. Follow the signs your
Lord has given you for your journey. Let His Word guide you to His presence.
Return not to the ruler of this world, and take a different path to your
eternal home. Most of all, dear Gentiles, enjoy all the gifts—now and forever.
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory
of the Lord has risen upon you.