When the cats had attacked, the phoenix was far away. He had untertaken a quest to a far distant land. Even when news reached him of what had happened, it would take him many, many years to return to his own land, let alone the land of the cats.
There was one bird- a little penguin, who never gave up hope. "Look for a blazing sky like a sunset in the north." he said. "For when it comes, the firebird king will not be far behind."
When the phoenix returned to his own aerie, he was surprised by the reception he got. Of the few birds who remained in the kingdom, no one recognized him. Few would accept that he was indeed the king, for so long had his voyage been that his name had vanished from memory.
Yet kneeling before his nest were three cats- a lion, a tiger and a panther.
"What is this?" asked the phoenix. "Are you not the sworn enemy of the birds?"
"My liege," said the tiger. "Our fathers learned from a penguin about the great phoenix, king of the birds. This penguin told them that one day you would arrive and save all those who put their trust in you."
"We have seen the sky in the north turn red as a sunset." said the lion. "We knew that what our fathers passed down to us was true, and that you had returned."
"We pledge our loyalty to you." declared the panther. And ask you to spare our tribes."
"Because you have done this," said the phoenix, "I will not destroy the lions, tigers or panthers as I will my enemies. In one year, I will lay waste to the land of the cats. Return to your homes and spread the word that whoever is willing to live in peace must come out of that kingdom before it is destroyed. Those who do will be welcome in my kingdom to live as citizens."
In our illustration, it was three great cats who made a declaration of loyalty to the king of the birds.
A similar thing happened in real life at the beginning of the first century.
To understand exactly what was going on, let's back up a bit in history, to the year 605 BC. Judah, a tiny little state which had once been part of the kingdom of Israel, was overrun by the Babylonian army. To insure its obedience, Babylon practiced a tried and true method of quashing the peoples' spirits. They moved the jews to Babylon and put some other people into Judah in their place.
The most notable of those carried into captivity was Daniel, a highly intelligent fellow whose faith in his God never wavered.
Because he remained faithful, God prospered Daniel in all that he did. Much like one of his people's great ancestors, Joseph, Daniel found himself in a position of favor with the king. Soon, Daniel was the chief of the king's wise men, or magi.
If "magi" sounds like the plural of "mage", that's because it was. Just like in Pharoh's time, the royal smart people were often astrologers and wizards.
Daniel was a prophet in the most clasic sense of the word. He not only spoke for God, but he had visions of the future. Because these visions were from God, this made them far more accurate than any astrological predictions. As a result, he made many enemies among the fortune tellers. But among those who truly wished to learn and understand, he found supporters and students.
Many things changed since Daniel's day. Babylon was overthrown by Medo-Persia. Medo-Persia was overthrown by Grece. Grece was overthrown by Rome. Still, the things Daniel had taught the magi endured. These people knew about the God of Israel and were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah.
In our day, no one can really know for sure exactly what the Star of Bethlehem was, yet there is a tremendous significance in the fact that it WAS a star. Despite God's warning not to attempt divination from such arts as astrology, He spoke to the magi in a manner which they could understand. He gave them a very peculiar heavenly sign which they could not help but know was the sign of the coming Messiah.
Now there are eight things which we can deduce about the star from scripture.
1. It signified birth.
2. It signified kingship.
3. It had a connection to Judah.
4. It rose in the east, like other stars.
5. It appeared at a precise time.
6. Herod did not know when it appeared.
7. It endured over a time.
8. It changed direction after the magi's arrival in Jerusalem and stopped over Jesus' home.
Now here are some interesting factoids concerning the sky at the time of Christ's birth.
1. Jupiter (the king planet) converged with the star Regulus (the king star).
2. Jupiter entered retrograde and went back and circled regulus, as if drawing a crown.
3. This "coronation" occured within Leo, the constelation of the lion. The lion is the symbol of Judah.
4. Immediately behind Leo is Virgo (the virgin). When this "coronation" happened, the sun was rising in Virgo.
5. The new moon rose at the feet of Virgo.
6. Nine months later, Jupiter converged with Venus, the mother planet. This convergance was so spectacular that planetaria where astronomers have never heard of Jesus replay the event because it was the most bright and dazzling occurence ever known to man. In Babylon, an astronomer would have seen this event as he was looking toward the western horizon, directly toward Judaea.
This event satisfies requirements 1-5 and 7. As for 6, consider this... Centuries earlier, the children of Israel turned to idol worship after they had just witnessed a bevy of fantastic miracles during the exodus. It doesn't matter how spectacular the signs are- those who don't want to see God's wondrous signs and believe won't.
As for point eight, here is something which I find absolutely fascinating. It was about two years after Jesus' actual birth that the magi finally found him. Opinions as well as extrabiblical literature differ on exactly where Jesus was living at this point, and the bible does not expressly say where the magi found Jesus, Jupiter performed one more interesting sign. On December 25, it entered retrograde and stood stock still in the sky over Bethlehem. I find this fascinating because Jesus was not born on December 25. This day is when WE celebrate Christ's birth. Not his actual birthday. Clearly, this was meant to be a sign to future generations, much like Pentecost always falling on Sunday.
If the Star of Bethlehem was a natural phenomenon, it means that God had prepared this wondrous sign in a way that human astrologers/astronomers could understand long before the creation of the human race.
But in the end, it really doesn't matter exactly what the Star was. The important thing is that it was there, and it WAS the celestial sign of Christ's birth.
Now concerning the magi themselves... While we sing of the "three kings", the facts are that they were not kings, though the term may have been applicable to those acting as ambassadors of their lands. (Those acting on behalf of a king, such as an ambassador or general, were sometimes referred to as kings.) Nor were there three of them. More likely they came in an entourage of hundreds. Their arrival was notable enough that the entire city of Jerusalem got worked up about it. What I find the most interesting is that these men came from the east to worship the king of the jews. These were arabs. They came from among the nations which hated the jews. Their predecessors were the ones who conquored Judaea. Curious, then, that they should do this.
Take a look at what they brought as gifts, too. Gold, Frankencense and myrrh. These gifts are highly significant. Gold signifies Christ's kingship. Frankincense, a form of incense, which is used in worship, signifies His godhood. Myrrh is a burial spice. It signifies that from His birth, Jesus was meant to die. The magi knew that Jesus was meant to be king, God and sacrifice. We can see the truth of this in the fact that they worshipped Jesus. Had they only believed that He was an earthly king, this would not have happened. Eventhough Nebuchadnezzar was the most absolute ruler of all time in his day, Babylonians did not worship their king. It would have been ridiculous for them to offer themselves in worship to the king of the jews- the people who have been hated by the arabs for as long as they both existed. They knew that Jesus was more than this.
How did they know?
The magi have become to us one of the most important symbols of the birth of the Messiah. They not only point to Jesus as king, God and sacrifice, but they also make us mindful of the star, which shows us how Christ was meant to be all of these things from the beginning of the universe.
As we have gone through this series of messages about the various items which have fit together to form a picture of the coming Christ, we have learned that the big picture is so vast that there is NOTHING it does not encompass. But as for this particular piece, we can be thankful for the faith of one man. It was Daniel who taught the magi of his own day about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was Daniel who revealed to them the prophecies about the Messiah. It is because of the faith of one man that we can celebrate this particular part of history and in so doing glorify the Son of God to the salvation of the hearer.
To my Christian family, I offer this challenge- to be faithful to God in all things, for in so doing, we, like Daniel, become an integral and indespensible part of that big picture which leads people to Christ. Through your witness, you can and will win others to Jesus. It may be a thousand, it may be just one. It may be someone that you will never even know until centuries after your death. But God has promised that His word will not return to Him void. You have this promise- that if you are faithful to His command to spread the gospel, your witness, like Daniel's, will win others to a saving knowledge of Christ.
To my non-Christian friends, my challenge is the same as always. Turn to the nearest Christian and let them tell you of the wondrous love of Jesus- our king, God and sacrifice. He is there for those wise men who still seek Him.
Pastor Oren Otter
November 26, 2005