The Wise Men

A lesson plan written for the Sunday after Christmas, when attendance is usually low.

I/ Intro

A. Attendance
B. Chalice-lighting
C. Check-in

II/ Story: What happened after the Wise Men left?

Christmas is over, right? The Wise Men have all gone home, right?

Wrong! Actually, the Wise Men arrived well after Jesus had been born — and traditionally, people say that they arrived twelve days later, on January 6 (that’s why we talk about the twelve days of Christmas). January 6 even has a name: it is the holiday called “Epiphany.”

Here’s the story as it was told in Matthew 2.1-12 [NRSV]:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

———

Now that you’ve told the story, it’s time to act out the story. Have the children figure out who the characters are: the wise people (note that the story does not say how many), Herod, chief priests and scribes, Mary, Joseph (Joseph is not mentioned here, but he is mentioned in the next part of the story, see below), the baby, who else?

Wise people see the star, start to travel.
Meet Herod.
Continue to Bethlehem.
Go back home by another way.

Conversations questions:
1. Who’s the bad guy in this story? Herod! Why?…
2. How true is this story (where there’s a continuum from fairy tale to historical truth)? Can we really know for sure how much of the story is true? Does it really matter?

III/ The REST of the story

Don’t you wonder what happened after the wise people came to admire the baby Jesus? Well, here’s the rest of the story [Matthew 2.13-23, NRSV]:

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

IV/ Discussion

What a grim and gruesome story! Do we believe it is a true story? (Kinds of true: really true, we have accurate records; probably true, it fits in with other things we know; true as a story, though it might not have happened in real life)

— I get suspicious when they keep saying over and over that “so what had been spoken by the prophets would be true” — it sounds like they changed the story, faked it even, to bring in into line with those old prophets!

— But at the same time, there’s some truth in the story — the Jews at the time of Jesus’s birth were badly oppressed by the Romans, and Herod was known for being an unpleasant ruler — so we imagine that while the story isn’t really true, it does tell us something of the feelings people had for the Romans.

V/ Optional: The other story! (If kids are interested)

And there’s another story, in the book of Luke, that doesn’t mention anybody at all getting killed! Here’s the other story:

Jesus Is Presented in the Temple

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him….

Note that this contradicts the other story (they came from Nazareth, but in the other story, they were forced to flee to Nazareth). But it’s also the same, in that there are prophecies that the child will grow up to be great!

VI/ Game: Red Light Green Light OR Duck Duck Goose

VII/ Closing:

Form the closing circle. Ask what we did today, prompting the children to remember as a group what the lesson was about (i.e., not putting any one child on the spot).

Say together the unison benediction:

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.

Curriculum for Unitarian Universalist congregations