When I was a student at the University of Queensland, I noted the quotation carved into the stone over the main entrance - "Great is truth and mighty above all things." This was matched by a church college with a Latin motto - veritas liberabit vos - with the English translation prominently displayed at the entrance, "The truth shall set you free."
Thirty-five years later, I question both the original quotation and the half-text. Only God is "mighty above all things". He is the source and measure of truth. And the Biblical text needs to be seen in its context. Jesus was talking with people who were responding positively to his teaching. He said to those who believed in him, "If you obey my teaching, you are really my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8.31-32). The truth is to be known in the context of our relationship with Jesus who said of himself, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me" (Jn 14.6).
Solomon asked the Lord for "wisdom and knowledge" (2 Chron. 1.10). The record speaks of a studious interest that would today be called "scientific" - "[Solomon] spoke of trees and plants, from the Lebanon cedars to the hyssop that grows on walls; he talked about animals, birds, reptiles, and fish" (1 Kings 4.33). But he is remembered for his wisdom. Wisdom has to do with how we apply knowledge. We have a big problem today - lots of knowledge, but not enough wisdom. What's more, we have tended to view "faith" as an option that should to be strictly kept out of decision-making.
One writer comments, "Magic is a rival to true religion, though it can be practised in conjunction with false religious ideas. True religion centres in the personal experience of the one God, with an attempt to live a life that is conformable to his will. The believer walks humbly with his God, prays to him, and is prepared to accept the circumstances of life as the sphere in which to glorify him. Magic, on the other hand, deals with lower supernatural beings, or attempts to force issues by using psychic forces, irrespective of whether the issues are for the glory of God " (J.S. Wright, "Magic and Sorcery" in New Bible Dictionary, IVF, 1962, p. 766).
Do you read your "stars" in the newspaper? Don't do it! It is not a profitable way to seek guidance for your life. Do you listen to the interpreters of dreams on radio? Again, not a helpful influence in our Christian life. We become drawn away from what is central - our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. God has used both dreams and stars to guide people, but that isn't a good reason to trust either astrologers or interpreters of dreams (see Zech. 10.1-2). Pray to the Lord and trust him. That's the key! James wrote that "if any of you lack wisdom, you should pray to God, who will give it to you; because God gives generously and graciously to all" (James 1.5). If you want to be wise, seek him!
This star "came up in the east". The Greek word here for "east" literally means "rising". When used in its plural form, it came to refer to the "east" (as in v. 1). The Good News Bible brings the two concepts together.
A real astronomical event occurred. Astronomers have tried to figure it out for centuries. If it had been a comet or supernova, I doubt that Herod would have asked when the star appeared. Everyone would know about it.
A recent writer, Susan Carroll, presents very persuasively the evidence that it was a conjunction of planets that led the wise men - two or more planets lining up with one another. Two points will help us understand her conclusion without going through all the detail: Pope Gregory, responsible for our modern calendar, got it wrong (or should we be kinder and say, "almost got it right"?) - Jesus was born some time BC, probably between 4BC and 2BC; and the planets are the "wandering stars" - as we observe them, they move on an unusual route through the skies, sometimes even doubling back on themselves. Here is Susan Carroll's conclusion:
Interesting information! Fascinating explanation! Perhaps it was like that. Certainly, the Magi showed themselves to be "wise men" by following the star. Their interest shifted from the star in itself to "the baby born to be the king of the Jews".
And that was the focus of the sinister King Herod. He was a brutal and unpopular king. He was an Idumean - or Edomite, descendent of Esau, but not exactly close friend of the Jews. To improve his standing, he took a Jewish woman as his second wife, but later killed her and their two sons because they were a threat to his throne. No wonder he was interested in "the baby born to be the king of the Jews"!
Do you want to be wise? Just because you are interested in the Christmas story - in the baby and the manger, in the shepherds and the angels, in the star - that doesn't make you wise! What are you going to do with all this knowledge you have?
The crowds had left Bethlehem - the census long over. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were no longer housed in the stable, but in a "house". It seems that Joseph believed that David's town, Bethlehem, is where they should stay to bring up this special child. Jesus could have been as old as two years when the Magi came. (By the way, "The star drew nigh to the " - south-south-west! Bethlehem isn't "north-west" of Jerusalem!)
A house, but not a palace. A humble, hard-working, needy family, not regal, majestic folk who have it all but are still given more. They had arrived! This was the place! This was the family! This is the King of the Jews! "They knelt down and worshipped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him." They worshipped him - laying down their lives before him - and, in token of that worship, their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Strange gifts for a baby! Over many centuries Christians have seen deep symbolism in these gifts - gold for a king, frankincense for a priest and myrrh for his burial. We shouldn't be too specific about this, however, because these three items together were often regarded the appropriate gift for other kings. But appropriate for a baby? Well... in hindsight, very appropriate. Have you ever wondered how the holy family fared en route to Egypt where they stayed for two years?
It's time to be wise! We educate on "safe sex" - and wonder why AIDS is on the increase. We teach all the danger of drugs - but kids still get hooked. We build a better road-system - and discover "road rage". We erect finer homes - yet more marriages are falling apart... We're not lacking in knowledge - we lack wisdom!
Don't seek the "stars"! Seek the Christ! Put your trust in him! Lay your life before him!
Read both your Bible and the newspaper - perhaps even alongside! We need to be informed of "the facts", but we need even more to know the reason for living and the grace to live. We need to grasp the news of the universe, the world and society, but we need most of all to know God and all he has done for us in the Christ who came.
And the more we know God, the more we will want to talk to him in prayer. We don't have to traverse long distances along old trade routes for an audience with him. He is "Immanuel, God with us". And he has promised to be with us always in this world by his Spirit. We had better depend on him - he's here! Amen!