The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Matthew 2:1-12 1 “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.’ 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way. (NASB)
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.’” The Scripture literally says that the star was manifested. It is the word from which we get the word “epiphany.” Thus, the Season of Epiphany is about God the Father’s Christ being made manifested among us, the Gentile world.
Epiphany was the first and only holiday of the early Christian Church, other than Easter. Epiphany was the first Christmas and it celebrated the Baptism of Jesus, the visit by the Magi, and Jesus’s first miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding of Cana.
Unlike the star over Bethlehem that suddenly appeared, the Christ doesn’t just “suddenly appear.” Rather Christ reveals Himself to specific people at specific times. He calls and draws the rest of us to Himself by His Word and through the operation of the Holy Spirit.
As the Epistle lesson this morning taught, He calls us out of darkness into the Light. Ephesians 5:8 says,“you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord.” If you think about it, that is what He did for the wise men. A person can only see the stars with the naked eye at night. God put the star in the night sky as a way of saying to these men from the East, “I am here now. You can find me here.”
The story of the wise men is a familiar story. In modern times it has been collapsed into the Christmas story proper, so it is often read with the rest of the Christmas story on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Jesus is born, angels sing to the shepherds, the shepherds go down to Bethlehem and find the Christ Child, then enter the wise men.
But there was some measure of significant time before the wise men showed up. The wise men’s arrival in the Bible readings signify the first day of Epiphany. It’s been that way since the beginning. They were called “magi” from which we get the words “magic” and “magician,” but we don’t know what they did to earn the title. The most popular theory is that they were religious scholars of the highest order, advisers to royalty perhaps.
Church tradition says there were three, but the Bible doesn’t give us a number. We don’t really know where they came from either. The Bible simply says they were from the East. That covers a lot of ground. They could have come from some place just east of Jerusalem or they may have come from Arabia or Persia.
In an attempt to kill the Christ, Herod had all the male children under two years old slaughtered in Bethlehem on the idea that it might have taken the wise men up to two years to see the star, study what it meant, make preparations for the trip, and to actually make the trip to Bethlehem. That implies some distance.
We can also assume that they were financially well to do. They gave Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which were pretty expensive items. When they showed up in Jerusalem, they attracted a lot of attention. They didn’t go straight to Herod. They arrived they went around asking people in Jerusalem where they could find the new born king. Their party consisted of servants and guards/soldiers to protect them from robbers along the way.
The group’s size and activity drew enough attention that a report made it to King Herod. 3 “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
As to how they knew what the appearance of the star meant, they were from Persia they might have known the prophecy of Daniel 9, since Daniel lived there during his time. Daniel 9 gives a bit of time line for the birth of the Messiah after certain triggering events occurred. They also might have known Numbers 24:17,“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel.”
By the gifts they brought, it seems they understood Who the Christ Child was and what He came into the world to do. They brought gold fit for a king, frankincense was used as incense used in worship, and myrrh was used as an embalming spice.
It is clear from the details of the wise men narrative that these were men of faith and the men from the East had undertaken a journey of faith. They came hundreds of miles. When they got to Jerusalem, they assumed that the Jews knew that the promised Messiah had been born by virtue of the star’s appearance and where He could be found.
When they found the Child, they engaged in the most fundamental work of faith. 11 “After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him.” They worshiped. They gave gifts to Him who had come into the world to take away the sins of the world.
So what was it that the wise men had that the people in Jerusalem didn’t have? After all, the star was clearly visible both from afar and from Jerusalem. They studied the ancient writings and came to the right conclusion, but the people in Jerusalem, the Jews seemed to be caught unawares.
3 “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: 6 And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
Herod by the way was not a Jew. He was a Gentile, appointed as king over the Jews. It was why the Jews hated him so much. There were other reasons too. The he suffered from major paranoid and in his last few years suffered from dementia. That led him to have several members of his own family killed because he thought they were plotting against him.
Yet when he asked the priests and scribes were asked where the Christ Child would be found once He was actually born, they knew the answer; “In Bethlehem of Judea.”
Yet, the signs of Christ’s birth went unnoticed because they were not looking Him. They weren’t paying attention. There was obviously a star, but they didn’t connect the dots. Just as many Christians today don’t connect the most basic and simple dots of Christian doctrine and of the days in which we live. But at least in Jesus’s day, even the unbelievers knew something of the Scripture’s teaching. “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet.” They just didn’t pay attention to the times and seasons. Not only are the people outside the church totally ignorant of Christian doctrine, the people who attend so called church services don’t know basic Christian doctrine and don’t pay attention to the world around them.
With the exception of a star, an anomaly in the sky, the wise me, scribes, and priests didn’t have anything more go to on than we have today. In fact, we have more. We have the Old and New Testaments. They just had the Old Testament.
As for the wise men, they were not Jews yet they studied and understood. All they needed was the Word of God and situational awareness. They knew the Word of God, and by knowing it they believed.
When they saw the sign, they followed the sign. They did not let distance stop them from going to be where the Christ could be found. It took a great deal of time and money and in their day, the trip was far more dangerous than driving over a river.
When they finally found where the Christ Child was, they did not let the humble surroundings and the very ordinary appearance of the holy family confuse them. They made the journey by faith and when they saw the little boy Jesus, they believed and bowed down and worshiped Him. They lived by faith rather than by sight.
It had been revealed to them by virtue of the Word of God that the little boy they saw in that house was the Son of God in flesh and that He had come into the world to save Jew and Gentile alike. That’s why Epiphany was long known as the “Gentile Christmas” and its why the wise men show up every January 6th, Epiphany Day.
That is how it is to be with us. All that we know about Jesus and all that we believe about the way of salvation, we learned from the Word of God. We believe by the same power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God as did the Magi of old.
We are Gentiles. What St. Paul wrote in the Epistle lesson was written for us, “it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.” (Ephesians 5:-6-8)
It had been promised long ago that the Christ would be born a Jew, from the line of Abraham and David and that He would be sent to the Jews first, then to the Gentiles. The Jews had their turn. We saw it in the announcement to the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna– all Jews.
It was always God’s intention that Christ would be the Savior for all nations. The angel said it brought “good news for all people.” In Isaiah 60, God promised His Son saying “Nations will come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising.. . .They all gather together, they come to you. . . .The wealth of the nations will come to you.” So as the Jew Simeon sang in the temple He is “a Light to lighten the Gentiles as well as the glory of God’s people Israel.”
God has given us all, Jew and Gentile, the learned and the simple, the old and young, male and female the one and same Word of God He gave to them. In His Word He has told us where it is He is to be found– namely in the Church, the Word and Sacrament ministry. He is found in the preaching, teaching, reading, and singing of the Law and Gospel, pages of the Bible.
He has not promised to be found in one’s emotions. While many seek Him in their own imaginations and projections, He is not there. He is not found in the friendliness of other people and not even in certain traditions because of the sentimentality attached to them.
The Word of God and history teach us that Christ is always found in humble means. He brings us to a place that does not seem all that glorious, just as He did the Magi. In today’s text that was a humble village and in the form of a little boy. Today He is found in a splash of water, words spoken by an unimpressive man, a bit of wafer and a sip of wine – in such things and to such things, God bings us to Christ.
This morning you have been drawn here and have found the Christ in His house. We have been made partakers of the Light, a Light greater than the star that once shown over Bethlehem. We come to worship the Christ, no longer a baby, but now the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord God.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Blessed Epiphany all you Gentiles. The Savior of the nations has come.
May the peace that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen