Philosophers, you say? Royal astronomers from Persia? How did they end up here in Palestine? Herod was perplexed by the report from his sentries. No one of importance comes to Palestine unless Rome sends them on official business. And these people were requesting an audience with the king of the Jews? But surely learned men would know that Herod was the only king in this jurisdiction. Could there possibly be an insurrection festering among the Jews? Herod, of all people, should be on top of such things. How could foreign royalty know about Jewish matters when he hadn’t so much as a clue? When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And well he, and they, should be. There would be hell to pay if these Jews were inciting a conspiracy right under his nose. How was it that honorable dignitaries from distant eastern lands acquired this knowledge of a Jewish king? Herod inquired of the visitors. It was a legitimate question. We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him, they responded. Worship him? Why would Persian royalty worship anything Jewish? They scarcely paid any deference at all to the Great Caesar-god of Rome, much less an unknown leader of an obscure tribal people. Unless... and this was the most troubling thought of all, unless the influence of an emerging Jewish king could somehow become more significant on the world stage than Rome’s. It was an absurd thought, Herod knew. But nothing could be left to chance in this politically tenuous climate. Call the chief priests and Temple scholars and historians immediately, that’s what he must do. Gather the best intelligence available on anything remotely related to royal Jewish bloodline. Find out if there’s any sort of prophesy in their holy writings that foretells a world leader. And instruct the foreign visitors: Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also. He must waste no time getting to the bottom of this matter. Trouble like this could cost him his position. His head!
Indeed, how could foreigners from far-away Persia know so much about Jewish affairs? Herod ruminated. Could there still be a Jewish presence embedded in the ancient Babylonian culture centuries after the Diaspora following Nebuchadnezzar’s bloody siege of Jerusalem? Could their religious writings have somehow been preserved in the royal archives, only now to surface and capture the attention of contemporary philosophers? It was all so baffling. What powerful curiosity, what strange insight, could cause learned men to head out across the desert following some stellar alignment and a hunch that a leader of historic significance was about to emerge?
Before a careful interrogation could be conducted, however, the wise men got away. They accomplished their mission, paid homage to the infant Hebrew-king, and then slipped unnoticed out of the country, vanishing into the desert sand leaving no trail to follow. Their only traces were the gifts they left for the child and a whispered conversation with the child’s parents that they would be departing quietly another way due to a warning they had received in their sleep. They disappeared, leaving Herod with his paranoia and us with far more questions than answers.
What mysterious Kingdom is this whose monarch would be born into an obscure lower class family in backward Palestine; the public announcement of his arrival limited to a few peasant shepherds; a private revelation of his appearance to three secular leaders from distant pagan Persia! Why no priests? No prophets? No holy people? An entire ecclesiastical culture anticipated His arrival - the long awaited One of the chosen people, foretold in their holy books. There were devout scribes who spent entire lifetimes pouring over the minutia of prophesy, deciphering its hidden meanings, studying the signs, postulating the timing of the appearance. Why not them? Why not the Temple? Surely the Temple. Why three philosophers, studiers of the stars, goyim from an unwashed pluralistic culture? Why their unsanctified wealth to underwrite the Messiah?
It is a mystery, I say, a mystery that continues to baffle those of us who would align ourselves with this Kingdom. It is confusing just trying to figure out who is in and who is not, who gets invitations and who doesn’t. Of course the really religious ones must be in, those who know the language, can quote scripture from memory, go to church a lot. And preachers - surely preachers. But what about all the others? Like Geraldine, broken, drug-tormented, irresponsible Geraldine, who calls my house every morning to assure me that God loves me. And Swarna, my Buddhist neighbor from India who brings hot food to my door and gives me a reassuring hug. Are these people included in the Kingdom too? It is all so bewildering.
It seems that the most predictable thing about this Kingdom is that it is not predictable. It takes us off guard, keeps us off balance, makes us expectant but unsure of just what will happen. Its message seems to be: keep your eyes open, something amazing is about to take place; God is up to something and it’s going to really surprise you. It is likely to show up where we least expect it. And when it does, it may even be in retrospect, like looking into a rearview mirror. As it did when the confused, disheartened disciples walked along the road to Emmaus discussing the tragic death of the One they had believed to be the long awaited Messiah. The moment they recognized Him, He was gone. Nor can we rule anyone out, not foreigners with unorthodox beliefs nor illiterate shepherds, not addicted homeless people nor naïve little children. Absolutely no one can be ruled out.
Immanuel has come. God is with us. Watch for Him to appear. And be amazed!