Epiphany (Observed) – Matthew 2:1-12 – January 7th and 8th, 2017
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
So, who were the wise men? No, really, who were they? I ask this because we all love the wise men – we will sing “We three kings of Orient are” with gusto... well, except for you folks who act like shy three year olds and refuse to sing. But the song's not quite accurate – they weren't kings. In fact, even calling them “wise men” sort of softens our text. That sounds so nice – wise men, full of learning and understanding. No, let's go with the old King James for a moment – they were “Magi”. So then, what's a Magi? If you are a Jewish person living in the first century, what's a Magi? The Magi were the famous, fearsome villains of the Old Testament.
Magi is where we get the word magician from – and in the ancient world, these were the powerful and mysterious court advisors who caused Israel no end of troubles. When Moses goes to tell Pharaoh that God has commanded him to let His people go, it's the Egyptian Magi who oppose Moses by their secret arts. Or in Babylon – it's the magi of that day who get Daniel thrown into the Lions' Den, who try to kill Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego. They are bad guys – they are Jafar from Aladdin – any decent, self respecting Jew would view one of the magi with fear and revulsion.
And yet, what happens in our Gospel text this morning? “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, 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.'” Do you see just how unexpected this is? You have the fearsome, mysterious villains show up, and then instead of hatching nefarious schemes – they ask to worship. Where's the newborn King? We wish to come and worship, for we know that the promised King of the Jews is God made flesh. It would be like Darth Vader walking in, asking for a bulletin, and then saying, “Oh good, Divine One - I love 'This is the Feast.'” It would be utterly shocking and jarring.
And it is worthy to note that throughout this lesson, the Magi are the good and faithful folks. And it's good for us here in this room. While I've got enough Jewish blood in me to skate on by, by in large we here are Gentiles, non-Jews. And by Jesus' Day the assumption was that if you were a non-Jew, well, tough luck, you're just going to go to hell. Good Riddance. This attitude was so strong that in his Epistles, Paul has to emphasize that the Gentiles get salvation too - “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” And this is the point that Matthew is making by including the tale of the wise men in the Gospel; this is what we celebrate this Epiphany. See, even the Gentiles, even the worst of them have the Gospel, good news preached to them, and are brought by God to faith in Christ Jesus.
This should be a great thing! And yet, our Gospel lesson is not all sunshine and daisies. “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod is troubled. Jerusalem is troubled. Do you get how backwards this is? If anyone should be celebrating hearing of the birth of the Messiah, it should be Jerusalem. It should be the King who sits on the throne, for God Himself who is truly King of Kings and Lord of Lords has come! And yet – they are troubled. Why? Well, they aren't thinking theologically, they aren't thinking of their sin and their need for a Savior – they are thinking worldly, politically. They are thinking in terms of their everyday life. Herod the King hears of a new king – and he becomes jealous, fearful. Ain't no king going to take my throne. By the end of Matthew 2 Herod will have ordered the murder of infants to try to secure his throne. It's heinous. And Jerusalem – we don't want a change in government, a revolution. It's bad enough we have Roman occupiers, we don't want any of this, our humdrum life will be disturbed. It is the great irony of this text – the folks who should have been most excited by the coming of Christ are terrified, whereas the folks we figured couldn't care less travel far and endure hardship to worship Him.
Let this be a lesson and a reminder to us, my dear friends – because we have the two paths, the two ways of living laid out before us. We are those who have known God, who have heard the Gospel, the Good News of the salvation that this Christ Jesus has won for us by His death and resurrection. Do we rejoice in this salvation and worship God with thanksgiving, or do we spend our time worrying more about how our everyday lives are going? Are our minds going to be upon the Spiritual and heavenly, as the Magi's are, or will we be focused just on trying to make the best buck here and now? The truth of the matter is that laid out in this text we see one of the ways that Satan will attack us in the year to come – and that is by making our fears and worries about our life in this world overshadow the Gospel of Christ Jesus. Seriously, just watch, listen, see how often the world preys upon your fears, even does its worst to you. People mock and mistreat you, abandon you, expenses flair up, politics is foolish and dangerous, on and on it goes – fear this, fear that, more and more fear. Yet over and against that – God Himself became man for your salvation, and He has called you into His everlasting Kingdom – even if you are the worst sort of lout He has called you and gladly forgives you – see, He's even called the Magi.
Well, it's fine that you say that Pastor, but life is hard and scary, and it's not like this pollyanna, happy feel good story of the wise men visiting Jesus! Well, actually, that's another thing that we miss in the story of the wise men. It's not really all that happy. Consider – they find out from Herod that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, they head there, and we hear this. “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” Well, what's so lousy about that? Well, let's ponder these gifts for a moment, shall we? We know the first, we all get and understand gold. Cash money. That's never a bad thing to get – I doubt any of us opened a gift and said, “Oh, look, money, how sad.” Gold is a fine gift – a tribute fit for a king. But that's not all the wise men bring. They bring two other things.
They bring frankincense. So, what is frankincense? What is it used for? Well, it's incense, it's the stuff they burned in the temple when they were doing sacrifices. In the Old Testament, whenever there's a sacrifice, whenever there's a burnt offering, they are always also burning incense, making a strong, powerful smoke with a sweet smell. Why? Because they were doing burnt offerings. This isn't the smell of the grill on a warm spring day, this is burning flesh. It's not a nice medium rare, this is burnt to ashes – a horrid smell. And so the incense would be burned alongside the sacrifices – in fact, it was basically always going in the temple. So this gift of frankincense is a gift you give to One who is going to be making a sacrifice. Yes, while Christ Jesus is our King, worthy of Kingly gifts like gold, He is also our great High Priest who will tend to the sacrifice that we need.
And what is that sacrifice? Well, for that we consider the third gift. Myrrh. What's myrrh? It's the spice you used when you buried someone. John records for us in his Gospel that when Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus buried Jesus, they brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes. Do you see? Myrrh is not a happy gift. Especially not for a child. The wise men bringing myrrh to a child is almost like showing up at a Baby Shower with a gift certificate for a new coffin. And yet, that is what they bring. Why? Because this Child they have come to worship is the God who will go to the Cross and sacrifice Himself so that we would have salvation.
Do you see? The wise men aren't sugar coating anything. They aren't acting as though life in this world isn't going to be all happy-happy joy-joy all the time. They know the trials that Christ Jesus will face for them. They even learn the dangers they face on account of Christ – “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” We can skirt by this verse, not think anything of it, but it is really a scary verse. If you were going back to the East from Bethlehem, you would go through Jerusalem. The only other way would be to trek through the desert, and no one would want to do that. Yet, that's what God warns the Wise Men – flee, flee to the Desert, for if you go to Jerusalem Herod will kill you. And yet, so be it. They worshiped in joy, with great joy, for their Savior was born, and even though their path now led through the desert, they had seen their salvation, and they went in peace.
And so, my friends, what does God remind us of this Epiphany? He reminds us that Christ Jesus is the Savior of the World, that no one is too lousy, too much of a rascal or villain for His salvation. Christ Jesus has won salvation for you, His forgiveness remains for you – no matter what the world thinks of you. And yet, this salvation does not mean everything will be perfect and wonderful now – there will still be fears and dangers and hardships – yet all these difficulties do not define you. You are baptized, you belong to Christ, you are forgiven and bound for eternal life no matter what deserts your earthly life leads you through. And why? Because Christ Jesus has come, and He is your Lord and Master, and He has joined you unto Himself, and He Himself will take a hard road, a road through pain and suffering and toil and even death. There is no trial that can separate you from Christ, for He has already gone through worse. Instead, He will be Emmanuel, God with us – indeed, God with you to give you forgiveness and life and salvation, even until you see Him face to face and live with Him forever in the life of the world to come, when all the present darkness that we struggle against will be banished forever by His coming. In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World. Amen.