Sermon for Epiphany
Isaiah 49:1-7 + Isaiah 60:1-6 + Matthew 2:1-12
As I promised on Sunday morning, we’re considering this evening the visit of the wise men, the magi who were led by a star to Bethlehem so that they could worship the newborn King of the Jews. It’s a story filled with wonder, just like the Christmas story itself, and it has rightly been called “the Gentiles’ Christmas.” Since you and I here are (I think) all Gentiles, it makes sense for us to celebrate this festival of Epiphany with extra joy.
The Epiphany is the manifestation or the revelation of Christ Jesus as the Savior, specifically today, as the Savior of the Gentiles. It’s hard for us to understand just what a big deal that was, that Jesus came to bring all the Gentiles, all the nations into fellowship with Him, and thus also into one great fellowship with those in Israel who would put their faith in Him. One great fellowship of mankind, one great Church united by a common faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, and the Savior. Since the days of Adam and Eve, some 4,000 years before the birth of Christ, God had basically let mankind go his own way, and mankind did so poorly that all but Noah’s family had to be wiped out at the time of the Flood. Then, not long after, God divided up humanity into nations at the Tower of Babel, letting all the nations go their own way. He let the race of men do what they wanted to do, which was to pursue their own made-up gods, their made-up religion, to pursue their own sinful and earthly desires, the same godlessness.
The same godlessness would have resulted for the line of Noah’s son Shem, except that God intervened at the time of Abraham and chose him and his descendants, specifically his descendants through Isaac and then Jacob, to be different. Not different in that they were less sinful or more deserving of God’s help and mercy. But different in that God revealed Himself to them and made special promises to them and special covenants with them. All the nations went their own way. All of them sat in the darkness of ignorance, impenitence and unbelief. All of them went to destruction, to perdition. But Israel God called out from among the nations to be His own, His chosen people, His special people, purely out of divine grace and mercy, so that He might preserve the promise of a Savior who would one day be born of a woman.
So while the nations all went their own way away from the true God, Israel was shown grace, and some in Israel, the remnant, always believed in God and were righteous before Him, not by their own good works, but by faith. But even many in Israel, most in Israel walked in darkness, turned aside form God’s Word and God’s worship, and went their own way. You know (or should know) Old Testament history enough to know that.
Now, we heard on Sunday about God’s solution to Israel’s waywardness: God called His Son Israel out of Egypt. God sent His Son, the true Israel, to be what Israel wasn’t, to be a good Son, a faithful Son, an obedient Son, a new and better Israel. You heard Isaiah say that again tonight in that Messianic prophecy: And He said to me, ‘You are My servant, O Israel, In whom I will be glorified. It was the Messiah’s mission To bring Jacob back to Him, So that Israel is gathered to Him. It made sense for God to gather Israel. He had spent the last 2,000 years on them. But what didn’t make as much sense to many people at that time, was that God’s plan of salvation stretched beyond Israel’s borders also to those Gentiles whom God had let go their own way for thousands of years. With the birth of Christ, the Gentiles were now invited as well.
Of course, that wasn’t really a new piece of information. You heard Isaiah prophesy the same thing tonight about the Christ: It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, And to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth. And again in Isaiah 60: Arise, shine (O Israel), for Your light has come…The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising. It was a spiritual light that Isaiah prophesied, the light of Christ, in whom the great reunion of humanity had been foretold, the birth of the One who fixes Adam’s fall, who brings the nations back into fellowship with God through faith, and thus with one another, too.
Leave it to God to take that prophecy about a spiritual light of revelation and signal its coming with an actual light, a miraculous light, the light of a “star.”
It was the light of a special star that guided those wise men from some nation in the East to travel to Israel. We don’t know how many of them there were or where exactly they came from. We don’t know what the light was that they saw in the sky, nor do we know exactly how they knew what it meant. We don’t need to know those things or waste our time speculating about them. We just sit back in awe at this story filled with wonder. Those were our forefathers who followed the light of that star. Not that any of us is probably directly related to them by birth. But they were Gentiles, like us. The first Gentiles to seek the Christ who had been born in Bethlehem.
Not that they knew initially to look for Him in Bethlehem. The star (or the light) that they followed seems to have disappeared for a time. So they went to Jerusalem to ask, Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him. The Jews hadn’t seen this light. We can only speculate as to why. And when they heard the story of these wise men, it says that Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Troubled. Not overjoyed. Not excited. But troubled. They weren’t eagerly waiting for the Messiah to be born, it seems. They were troubled at the thought of his birth. Herod, we know, was troubled out of jealousy and fear for his crown. As for the rest of Jerusalem? Perhaps troubled out of jealousy for their Jewish heritage, because salvation, they thought, wasn’t supposed to be for Gentiles, but for Jews, by keeping the Law. So they didn’t seek the Christ. They didn’t want Him. They didn’t realize their need for them.
Well, most of them in Jerusalem. Some did, like Simeon and Anna, about whom we heard a couple of Sundays ago. It’s likely that the wise men came shortly before Simeon and Anna met Jesus in the Temple. Maybe that’s why they were so anxiously awaiting the Christ in the Temple and were waiting for Him when He came, because they had recently heard of the wise men’s arrival, together with the rest of Jerusalem. Some were troubled at the news of Christ’s birth. Others were relieved beyond words. So it has always been. So it will always be.
The light of the star wasn’t enough to guide the wise men to Christ. It took a different light to lead them to where the Child was, the light of God’s revealed Word, specifically, His Word through the prophet Micah saying that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem.
So off they went. They sought Christ where God’s Word directed them to seek Him, and God blessed their seeking with the renewed light of the star, this time leading them right to place where the Child was—something that no star, in the scientific sense, is able to do. They found Jesus and worshiped Him and laid before Him those precious gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh—expensive gifts, fit for a king. Expensive gifts that Jesus and His family would surely need over the next few years as they lived as refugees in the land of Egypt.
The wise men were the firstfruits from among the Gentiles, signifying the great harvest that would follow. Who would have thought that people from every nation around the globe would one day acknowledge Jesus as their Savior and King? It used to matter who your parents were. It used to matter if you were physically related to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But now, your natural birth doesn’t matter at all. Your native country, your ancestry, your blood line, your color, who your parents were—it doesn’t matter. No nation on earth is superior to another before God, no class of people, no social status. I won’t even speak of “race,” because there is only one race of men, the human one, the sinful human one. Only faith in Christ matters, because in Him the two have become one, the nation of Israel and the rest of the nations. All approach God on the same basis. All approach God only through Christ Jesus, and receive God’s blessing and forgiveness only by faith in Christ Jesus.
Tonight we celebrate the dawn of that new day as God’s grace brought Gentiles into the true worship of God in the Person of His Son, as He graciously led wise men to seek and to find Him. He’s done the same for you by graciously sending forth the light of His Word to you, by bringing you into that great fellowship of faith in Christ through Holy Baptism, by bringing you together with the wise men into the worship of the One who was born in Bethlehem, King of the Jews, the One who was also crucified, Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, who now has blessed us with the right to call Him our King, too. Rejoice, O Gentiles, with God’s people! Rejoice with the wise men! And seek Christ, not in the night sky, but in His Word and in His Sacrament. Here you will always find Him, to worship and adore Him, and to receive His grace and blessing. Amen.