So the birth of Jesus was a lovely local birth, just the way God planned it. I can imagine the family gathering around the next day as the news got out. Jesus' birth was probably not all that different from yours. There were no headlines, no reporters, no grand pronouncements, no big parties. It was just another lovely local birth celebrated intimately by family and some shepherds.

Except for the "wise men"

Except for the wise men! How on earth do they fit into the picture?

Read Matthew 2:1-12. These wise men are surrounded by legend. Traditionally they were recognised as three kings by the names of Casper, Melchior and Balthasar. Casper was young, beardless, and ruddy, and he brought the frankincense. Melchior was an old, grey-haired man with a long beard, and he brought the gold. And Balthasar was swarthy with a newly grown beard, and he brought the myrrh. This, of course, is all fiction. We don't even know how many there were (there were three gifts, not three men Matthew 2:11), let alone their names or facial features.

But we do know that they came some time after the birth (Matthew 2:1) and that Jesus' family was now in a house (Matthew 2:11). Herod's decision to kill the boys in Bethlehem under two years of age (Matthew 2:16) would suggest that by the time the wise men arrived, Jesus may well have been a toddler.

And we do know that these visitors were "Magi" — this is the word translated "wise men" in the KJV, but left in its original form in the NIV (because it's difficult to translate). It seems to originally have been a name for a Median tribe. You see the Medes and Persians formed an empire together, but the Medes were finally subdued by the Persians, and this tribe of Medes kind of retreated from the political world to pursue a more meditative lifestyle. The Magi were a cluster of truth-seekers committed to holiness and wisdom. They were skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science. Kind of like a whole family of university professors. You can imagine the conversation at the dinner table!

Well, whether the Magi came from this tribe, or a similar group, it's incredible that these philosophers from Persia would get involved in an ordinary, intimate, local, family event, on the other side of the world.

Who travelled to worship Jesus on the strength of a star.

But these Magi had a clue that something special was happening. As trained astrologers with insatiable curiosity, they had seen a remarkable astrological phenomenon. A new star had appeared in the east (Matthew 2:2). We're not sure what this new star was. It could have been Halley's comet in 11BC, or a brilliant conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 7BC, or Sirius rising at sunrise with extraordinary brilliance from 5 to 2BC. Perhaps, more likely, it was a special God-designed phenomenon that was not obvious to everyone. Certainly Matthew 2:2 would suggest this. However the star appeared, in the worldview of these searchers and thinkers, a change in the heavens meant that God was on the move.

There was also a strong expectation throughout the world of those days, that the time was ripe for the appearance of a King in Israel who would usher in a reign of peace for humankind. So the Magi put the star and the hope together, packed their bags with expensive presents, and headed off in search of this baby king whom they believed would change the world.