Sermon for the Epiphany of Our Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6 + Ephesians 3:1-12 + Matthew 2:1-12
The Christmas season officially ended yesterday. Happy Epiphany to all of you! I don’t suppose you’ve planned an Epiphany party, or set up an Epiphany tree, or sent out any Epiphany cards to anyone, and that’s OK. It’s good that we celebrate Christmas and keep our focus on the birth of Christ. Epiphany doesn’t have to get the same amount of attention.
But we should realize that we would have no reason to celebrate Christmas if it weren’t for the mystery God reveals at Epiphany through the visit of the wise men. It’s a mystery that we, living in America 2,000 years after the birth of Christ, take for granted. But we shouldn’t.
Up until Epiphany, God had only revealed to a handful of Jews that the Savior who is Christ the Lord had been born in Bethlehem. A Jewish Savior had been born in Jewish territory to save the Jews. The wise men—the magi—were the first non-Jews, the first Gentiles to learn about the birth of God’s Son, the first Gentiles whom God Himself drew to Jesus by the light of the star and by the light of the Holy Scriptures, and in so doing, teaches us that Jesus was born to be the Savior, not only of the Jews, but Savior of Gentiles, too, even Gentiles like me and you. We Gentiles celebrate Christmas because of Epiphany!
I know that seems terribly obvious to you—that the Gentiles are included in God’s plan of salvation through faith in Jesus. The Gentiles have been included in this plan for some 2,000 years. 2,000 years of things being a certain way have a strong influence on us. But the same was true for the Jews at the time of Jesus. For 2,000 years, since the time of Abraham, only one sin-filled nation of people on this sin-filled earth had been chosen out of all the other sin-filled nations to be the people of God. There was no salvation outside the people of Israel, with a few exceptions of Gentiles who heard of the God of Israel and were brought to faith in Him. There was only darkness and death outside of Israel, and in Israel—there was plenty of darkness, too.
But the birth of Christ, who is the light of the world, started to change that. It’s as you heard from Isaiah today, both in the First Lesson and in the Gradual, Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Now, were the wise men kings? Probably not. Where were they from exactly? Maybe Persia, maybe Babylon—we don’t know; some eastern country far away from Israel. How many of them were there? We don’t know. What exactly does it mean to be “wise men” or “magi”? We’re not sure. They were probably astronomers, astrologers, philosophers, historians, theologians and court officials, all wrapped up together. What is clear about the wise men is that they were Gentiles—Gentiles with access to the Jewish Scriptures; Gentiles who had seen a star appear over the land of Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth.
What was the star? We don’t know. It seems clear, though, that it was not a star way up in outer space. It was a special star that appeared, then disappeared, and then was able to guide the wise men from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, to the very house where they found Mary and Jesus, so it was too low in the sky to be anything we can explain with science. It could have even been an angel blazing with fire, as angels are often pictured. All we know for sure is that it was a special sign from God intended for these special men.
How did they know what the star was for? Again, we don’t really know. There are at least three prophecies from the Old Testament that may have influenced them. The first was spoken by Jacob about his son, Judah, in Genesis 49: The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor a lawgiver from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes; And to Him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Well, the scepter departed from Judah when Rome conquered the land, and especially when King Herod—who wasn’t even a Jew—took the throne. The wise men could have figured out that Christ the King could be born at any time.
The second prophecy was from Daniel, who interpreted King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about a giant statue, and the three nations that would arise after Babylon was defeated—the Medes and Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. And, according to Daniel, it was during the time of this last empire, the Roman Empire, that the Lord would raise up His eternal kingdom, like a rock that would crush the rest. So again, the time was right for the Christ to come.
Finally, there’s a cryptic prophecy in the Book of Numbers, uttered by the pagan prophet Balaam, yet still serving the will of the Holy Spirit: I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel. Was that the prophecy that guided them, or did God give them some special revelation about the significance of the Bethlehem star? We don’t know.
What we do know is that it was no coincidence. God led these wise men from Gentile lands, not straight to Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem, where the priesthood was and where King Herod and the royal palace were. 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. These Gentiles sound excited about the birth of the King of the Jews, don’t they? They surely expected to find all the Jews celebrating the birth of their king with even greater excitement. But instead, Matthew tells us that when Herod heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
That was an important lesson for the wise men, and for us. The birth of Christ will never inspire the joy and celebration that it ought to in the world. Instead, it troubles most people. Why? It’s just as Jesus said, light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light, for their deeds were evil.
But Herod did consult the scribes, who knew the Scriptures well, and they quoted from the prophecy of Micah, chapter 5, that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem. Luther suggests that this is one reason why God led the wise men to Jerusalem first instead of leading them directly to Jesus by the star, or by the bare prophecies of the Old Testament. Instead, He led them to the ministry of the Word—to those entrusted with teaching and preaching the Word of God. God wants to deal with us through the ministry of the Word.
Well, the priests did their job. But the priests themselves didn’t seem all that interested in the information they passed on to the wise men. The priests, who, like most of the Bible “scholars” today, were indifferent to the birth of Christ, only interested in the information itself. “Where will the Christ be born? In Bethlehem. Anything else? We have life as usual to get back to.”And then there was Herod’s reaction, who, as we find out later, was enraged by what the Scriptures revealed about the Christ and sought to kill Him. Here we see three different reactions to the Scriptures, don’t we? The same reactions we see to Christ today: Unbelief and indifference, unbelief and hostility; and then, the reaction of the wise men: faith and worship.
The wise men might have been deterred by the apathy they found in Jerusalem. The wise men might have been offended at the humble birth and the humble circumstances in which they found baby Jesus with His mother. But they were undeterred. They heard the Word about Christ, and went to Christ, believing in Him, to lay their treasures before Him—gold and frankincense and myrrh—not because you have to bring expensive gifts to Jesus, not in order to appease His wrath or to purchase His pleasure. The wise men were not acting in obedience to the Law or under any kind of compulsion. They sought out the Christ and presented Him with gifts, because they recognized Him as the true gift from God to them; because they knew they were sinners who needed a Savior, and God had been so good to them in revealing to them that the Christ is born, the King of the Jews who would also be the Savior of the Gentiles. It’s only fitting to bring these gifts of faith to the newborn King.
In this entire story, we see God’s grace on display, and especially God’s revelation—this Epiphany—that Christ came to save all nations, that His Word is to go out to all nations, for, as Paul says to Timothy, God, our Savior, desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, that, there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.
That testimony has reached you, and through it, the Holy Spirit has called you Gentiles into fellowship with the one Mediator Christ Jesus, to know that He was born for you, too, and died as a ransom for you, too. The Holy Spirit has taught you to rely on His righteousness so that you can stand before God, innocent in His sight.
It’s easy to take God’s grace in Christ Jesus for granted and to slip away from Him into self-confidence, into thinking, you’ve been a Christian for a long time—so long, you’re entitled to a place in God’s Kingdom; so long, you don’t even need to grow in faith, you don’t even need to cling to Christ for dear life.
That’s the terrible self-confidence and unbelief that many of the Jews fell into as they relied on 2,000 years of Jewish history to save them, so that they didn’t join in the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Christ, whom God had sent to earn for them forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Now that we Gentiles have 2,000 years of history under our belts in the Christian Church, don’t think for a moment that we are immune to the same sort of self-confidence in taking our salvation for granted.
And so on Epiphany, God calls us back to the celebration of Christmas by telling us about the visit of the wise men and the inclusion of the Gentiles in the body of Christ, that we might appreciate again that we who are completely unworthy have been grafted into this Tree of Life by faith, and we remain in Him by faith. This is why we celebrate Christmas, because Epiphany means that Christmas was for all sinners who need a Savior, even for the Gentiles, even for you and me. Amen.