Epiphany Observed – January 4th, 2015 – Matthew 2
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
Techinically, today is the 2nd Sunday in Christmas, the 11th day of Christmas as it were, but we are going to pretend it’s Tuesday, January 6th – we are going to observe Epiphany today. Epiphany is the new season of the Church year – one where we focus on the revelation of Christ Jesus to the world – where we will see that this Child who was born in Bethlehem is in fact True God, come for the entire world. So in the next few weeks leading up to Lent, we are going to see Christ’s Kingdom opened to all, we are going to see Christ’s Divinity shine forth. And to start, we get Matthew 2 – the coming of the Wise Men. Now, this is one of those incredibly familiar stories. Even non-Christians are familiar with the idea of three wise men, we three kings of orient are. And I think we miss a bit of just how shocking this story is, how it would cut across the grain of so many Jewish held ideas and assumptions. So let’s reexamine Matthew 2, and see just what is going on, and then think about just what is going on in our own lives, in our own congregation.
“Now, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” Wise men. Now, we today, when we think of the wise men think precisely of that – these are wise men. Why, they are Kings from the orient. The word in Greek is “Magi”. The word from which we get magic, get “magician”. Now think for a bit, what this would be like for Jewish folks – because they’ve run into magi before. The magi were the “wise men” of Babylon, the sages of the east – you know, the very people that keep trying to kill off Daniel in the book of Daniel. The ones who get him thrown into the lions den. Magicians were bad – witchcraft was bad. You never come across a good magician in the Old Testament – the ones in Egypt were evil and wicked, the local ones in Caanan were terrible and get King Saul into trouble, the ones in Babylon were corrupt and charletans. Because we know how the story turns out, there’s an air of respectability that we give to the wise men, but for a Jew hearing the story the first time – not at all. There would be disdain, mockery, and fear. You know what the reaction would have been like – if into this church walked a gypsy, Madame Cleo from the TV, and Long Island medium with the bad hair. Hearing this, you are expecting at best incompetence, and at worst villains.
“saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.’ When Herod the King heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” The star comes in – and we love the star – star of wonder, star of might. But that’s again, because we know how the story plays out. What would be your reaction if I walked on in here one Sunday morning and started preaching off of the Sunday morning horoscope from the Enid paper? Or if I said, “Well, I didn’t know what to preach so last night I called Miss Cleo and she did a tarot card reading and this is what it said”? You’d have my head. But yet – what does Herod do? What does all Jerusalem do? They instantly believe – and not even a hopeful belief, but they are fearful, terrified. Think on that – the Messiah is come, and they aren’t happy, they are scared. Why be scared of that? That’s good! And even if it were bad, if some crackpot on the TV starts ranting about how the end of the world or something, our reaction should be, “Well, I think you’re wrong, but if you happen to be the blind squirrel that found an acorn, well, come quickly Lord Jesus.” Herod and Jerusalem have the exact opposite reaction to what they should have.
“and assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” And they tell him of Bethlehem – but again, this is something sort of sad. I mean, this is the king – you think he’d have paid some attention to this theological training – you’d think the coming of the Messiah would be a BIG thing that you would know about. Nope. And so then Herod concocts his little plan – “Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Jerusalem saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.” Of course, we do find out at the end of the text that Herod doesn’t want to worship – he wants to go and slaughter the child – in fact, when the Magi don’t return, he wipes out all the boys in the town, just to be on the safe side.
And then you have the Magi, the hucksters and frauds – what do they do? “After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts – gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” Herod and Jerusalem had done everything wrong – and then here you have the Magi. And they nail it. They at first are obedient to the king – they go quietly. They see this star and know it’s not like the huckster stuff they had been pulling. They behold Christ and they worship, they bring gifts, they open up their treasures to give their offering, not just toss something into the plate without thinking about it. No, the gifts are well thought out – gold for a king, Frankincense fit for worship (because in the ancient world you always had incense in God’s Temple), and then myrrh, the funeral spices. The magi had remember Daniel and the promises of the Messiah he and his people had proclaimed – the King who would come and die to redeem not only the Jewish people but all the world. And they worship. And finally, when God sends an angel to warn them in their dreams, just as he warns Joseph, they listen, and they head home avoiding Herod.
Do you get just how shocking this story would be? Not just Herod, but all of Jerusalem drops the ball. And who comes off smelling like roses? The “magi”. The very people who should be the villains of the piece end up being the heroes. The rotten gentiles get it, but the “good, faithful Jewish folk” mess up completely. And so, as we ponder this text, let us consider ourselves this new year. Your old, sinful flesh wants to act like Herod and Jerusalem. Think on this – which does our flesh tend to prefer more – diligently studying the Scriptures… or waiting on the latest and greatest rumor to come flashing down the pike? When those wise men came and talked about a new King – that was juicy – what juicy stories are we waiting for this year? Or do we study the Scriptures, the great story of our salvation? Which does our flesh tend to prefer – enjoying our houses and palaces and feasts, or opening our treasures before God and giving them away? Which was the more special part of Christmas – the gifts under the tree that we get, or the ways in which we give ourselves away to others in our offering and in our service? We all know which way our sinful flesh would answer that. Our Gospel text is indeed a warning against complacency – against just going through the motions and assuming you’re a good little Christian. The folks in Jerusalem would have simply assumed as a matter of course that they are better than those scummy magi – but they had fallen into cold indifference.
However, there is also fantastic hope. Consider what God does for the Magi. Yeah, they were scum, they were lost and condemned. And yet, God in His great mercy and wisdom reveals the Christ to them, calls them to come before Christ, brings them to worship. And this is what God does for you here this day. You see, one of the biggest dangers our faith faces is pride, is the assumption that we are just fine and dandy – that’s why we begin every service confessing that we are poor, miserable sinners – the service opens with a reality check – we aren’t all hunky dory in and of ourselves, we are in need of Christ, we are in need of the forgiveness He has won for us upon the Cross with His death and resurrection. And then in the rest of the service, we act like the wise men. We enter in, we then hear the Word of God, search the Scriptures, hear them explained – all of that goes on right in the pews – and then we have the Communion service. We come before the altar, we open up our treasures, and then we worship Christ, we praise Him and receive Him in His most holy Supper – indeed, if we had a communion rail and kneelers those of us with youngish knees would literally fall down before Him (again, with incense if we were super fancy). And then, we receive the Supper – as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim His death until He comes – as one of the old dismissals goes. In all things we are brought before and pointed to Christ our Savior.
Dear friends, in the weeks of Epiphany to come, and indeed in this whole year, we will be pointed and brought to Christ again and again. Your sinful flesh will tempt you, but Christ is always here to redeem and forgive you, for behold, He who is your King has come. In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +