Epiphany Observed – January 9th, 2011 – Matthew 2:1-12
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
The season of Epiphany began on January 6th, a service which we observe today. This is the start of the Epiphany Season, the season where we focus on the revelation of Christ to the world. Yet, Epiphany itself is a neglected, undervalued day among us. We mark the start of Advent, the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday, yet January 6th often passes unnoted. Historically speaking, this is sort of odd. For Centuries, especially among gentiles, among those not of Jewish line or descent, Epiphany was the chief, the highest celebration of the Nativity of our Lord, higher even than Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Why? Because on the day of Epiphany we observe and celebrate not just the birth of our Lord, not just that the angels told some Jewish shepherds about this – but that even the Wise men, men from the East, Gentiles, non-Jews – that they too are shown Christ Jesus, that this infant in Bethlehem was to be the Savior not just of the Jewish race, but of the whole world, that He would be a Light to lighten the Gentiles. We are those who have seen His light, and so we are right to rejoice in this revelation today.
Our text this morning provides us an interesting contrast to ponder this morning. In it we hear this: “Now, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in 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.” Here we see the Magi, scholars, teachers, wise men from the East, from the Gentile nations, and they arrive in Jerusalem. At the time, the world viewed Jerusalem as of being of little importance. It is not like it is today, where so much violence hangs over who controls Jerusalem, where so much of Muslim tensions with the West revolve around Jerusalem. No, in Herod’s day the coming of these wise men would have been quite a spectacle, quite unexpected. Yet they arrive – and what do these wise men arrive to do? Do they come so that they can spout off wisdom? Do they come so that they can impress the people of Jerusalem? No. They have seen a star, and somehow through sign this they understood that a new King of the Jews was born. And more than that, they come to worship Him.
This is what is astonishing. These magi from the East, these wise men who know so little, who don’t even know where the Christ Child is born, something any of our little Children could tell us, they know that they ought to come and worship Christ Jesus – that this One who is born is worthy of worship and praise. How they knew this – that is beyond me. I make no claims to being a wise man, but I would simply note that in Genesis, at the creation, God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons.” Somehow, by the Grace of God, these wise men read this sign – and I give thanks to God that we do not need to look to a star to learn of Christ, but that He is revealed to us in His Word and in His Supper. That is much easier and better. But, at any rate, the wise men know that Jesus is born, and right away they know and desire to worship Him. That, ultimately is why they have come – they come to worship, to get down on their knees before Christ, to praise and give Him thanks for His goodness.
And yet, what do we hear of the people there in Jerusalem, the very people who should have most carefully been looking for the coming of the Messiah? They are caught completely off guard. “When Herod the King heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Whereas the coming of the Messiah, the King of the Jews, the promised Son of David is a cause of wonder and rejoicing to these Gentile Magi – this news is met in Jerusalem with fear and trepidation. Whereas the Wise Men hear and wish to worship, there is no thought of worship on the part of the people of Jerusalem. Herod assembles the chief priests and scribes and he asks them where the child is to be born. They say in Bethlehem, that is what the prophet, in this case Micah, proclaims. So what do they do? Do the people of Jerusalem form a long, large train and march out to Bethlehem, determined to find this one who is prophesied? Do they too say, “Ah, the promise Messiah. Oh come, let us adore Him, oh come let us adore Him”? No. There is no worshipful procession from Jerusalem. No one of the chief priests and the scribes goes to seek out this wonder. They are too caught up in whatever it is that they are doing, perhaps too fearful of offending Herod, who is a violent man. Their excuses are made, and they forsake going to the house where Christ Jesus is present in the world.
This should serve as a warning to us in the Church. We are the ones who know what the Scriptures say. We are the ones who know where Christ Jesus was born, we are the ones who know where He is present. We know that He comes to be with us here in His house, that He reveals His salvation to us in His Word and Preaching, that He is placed upon our tongues in His most Holy Supper. And the temptation can be to ignore this, to disdain it. How often we can and we will be tempted to act like the boorish people of Jerusalem! Can we not often think that there are “better” things to do than to come to Church? Think about that – God is here with forgiveness, oh, no thanks, I have better things to do. We can be fearful, worried about what our friends and peers think, fearful about money and finances and how things will work out. These excuses can try to keep us away. And we can’t pretend that these temptations don’t come upon us. How many of our own, how many people who we know, who have been trained and taught as we have been trained and taught are acting the delinquent this morning? While some fall away in defiance, how many more fall away through simple indifference? This should serve as a warning to us.
So, how is this to be avoided? Consider again the Wise Men. What do they do, what is their focus? Their focus is upon seeing Jesus. That is what they want, what they desire. If you look at the Wise Men, you see precisely what the book of Hebrews is getting at when it instructs us, “Come, let us fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.” The wise men disdain the hardship of travel, they worry not what Jerusalem thinks of them, they are simply focused on following the star to where Christ is – “And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until to came to rest over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” They are looking towards Christ. And I would note here – what sort of Christ are they looking for – what sort of Jesus do they desire? Do they wish for an entertaining Jesus, one who will give them an hour of entertainment? Babies are cute and entertaining, but they aren’t that cute. Are they looking for a Jesus who will make them wealthy and give them every earthly bauble that their heart can imagine? Hardly. If you want to know what sort of Christ the Wise Men are seeking, look to what they do when they see Him.
“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.” They worship Christ – but why do they worship Him? Because He is the Messiah, and their gifts show that He is the Messiah. Gold is tribute – Gold is what you give to your king, your liege, your Lord. So, paralleling what the hymn says, in humble devotion their tribute they bring. They acknowledge that Christ is King. But what sort of King? Not a king like Herod, for Herod received no tribute from them, but rather a king above just the problems of earthly rule. He is a Holy King, a King that they bring frankincense. Where is incense used? In the temple, in the Holy Places. Incense is the tool of the priests of the Old Testament – whenever the priests would enter the tabernacle, the temple, they would burn incense – that’s just what you did. So what does it mean that they give Jesus incense? It means they know that He is the Holy King, our Great High Priest – that He is the true temple and you never go to the temple without incense. And what would this Holy King, this Great High Priest do? They bring Him myrrh. Myrrh is what you use to anoint a dead body with. When it says that they take Christ’s Body from off the cross and wrap it in spices to bury it, the chief spice used in Myrrh. They know that Christ will do what He is supposed to do. A King is supposed to protect His people, a Priest to offer sacrifices for them. And Jesus, our King and High Priest would do both by going to the Cross, offering in Himself the appropriate sacrifice for our sin, protecting and defending us from sin and death everlasting with His own death. This is what the wise men see, this is their focus, this is what they know that this Child Christ will do, and so they come and worship Him.
Dear friends in Christ Jesus – our Lord, in His great love and mercy has won you your salvation, and by His Gospel He has enlightened you to this saving truth, He has washed you clean in Baptism, He has invited you to His House, brought you to the meal of Heaven in His Supper, and prepared you for life everlasting. No other gift you have received, no gift you could ever give, can top this. You have salvation in Christ, and He has revealed this salvation unto you. I therefore encourage you, in the midst of a world full of toil and struggles, keep your eyes focused on this gift, and come, join us next week, and indeed all through this Epiphany Season, and we focus on texts that show us, that reveal to us that Jesus Christ is indeed our God and Savior. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +