The Epiphany (from a Greek word that means revealing or appearing), is always celebrated on January 6. I can’t remember right now why that is, and I frankly don’t have time to go and check. If I find out, I’ll let you know. Time marches on…the sermon hamster wheel keeps spinning. I have two sermons (Feast of St. Stephen and New Year’s Eve) that I need to transcribe out of outlines yet, and I have to finish writing two new ones yet this week before leaving on vacation (this coming Sunday’s and one for our local area Lutheran worship radio broadcast, although that one might not need to get done.) Which is why I’m blogging. Har har. It’ll all get done eventually.
Epiphany is January 6, as I just noted, but I elected not to have us celebrate the festival on that day, for a few reasons: a) everybody’s pretty “churched out” after the Christmas season, especially since I started midweek Advent services this year. Maybe in the future. b) if/when we do ever mark it on the appointed day, I want someone to come. We’ll need time to prepare properly, which was in short supply this year. So. In the future we’ll probably do it, but not just yet. Can’t do it all at once.
So we mark Epiphany on the Sunday previous to Jan 6, which ensures that everybody will get to participate and be a part of this important feast. It’s too important not to mark. We’re celebrating the Baptism of Our Lord this coming Sunday for the same reasons. These two feasts are very helpful for teaching and instruction, as well as an aid to devotion and piety — as worship. Jesus bless your Epiphany celebrations with peace and joy.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east[b] and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ[c] was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’[d]”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east[e] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” (matt 2.1-12 niv)
You can see the lines forming around the block. Crowds are gathering. Regardless of the weather, they’re willing to stand in line clutching books or memorabilia to be signed. Follow the lines all the way to the front, and you’ll see someone famous. A temporary celebrity signing her hastily published book, trying to cash in on her fifteen minutes of fame; a former president, pushing his memoirs; an aging sports star signing the onetime tools of his trade. People flock to see the famous, the formerly famous, and the almost-but-not-quite famous. You can usually find those people pretty easily. But what about Jesus? How easy is He to find? How can you be sure you’ve really found Him? What happens when you do find Him? In our Gospel for today we search for Christ with the wise men. We’ll see how to truly find Christ, and what it means when we find Him. With the help of the wise men, we will Rejoice – Your King is Revealed!
The wise men are a beloved part of the standard Christmas manger scene. They show up on lots of Christmas cards. They have their own carols. Medieval legend even ascribes names to them: Melchoir, Gaspar, and Balthasar. But despite their popularity, there’s a lot we don’t know about them. We don’t even know how many of them there were. They brought three gifts, but there could have been any number of them. We don’t know exactly where they were from. It’s someplace to the east, because Matthew tells us that, but beyond that we’re not sure. Babylon is a good guess, because they’re so interested in the stars and Babylon was famous for its astrologers. We don’t know exactly how they found out about the king of the Jews. Some people think that the prophet Daniel taught the Babylonians about the coming Christ, and that’s how they knew who He was and what He would be like. A prophecy in the book of Numbers refers to a star rising out of Jacob, but how would they know to connect that prophesied star to the one they saw from the east and conclude that the king of the Jews had arrived?
We do know a little bit about these Magi. They were foreigners. They weren’t Jews. They didn’t follow God’s covenant. They weren’t part of His chosen people. They were smart. These men dedicated their lives to studying the stars. They were scholars, well educated and known for their learning. They were the scientists of their day. So these wise men show up in Jerusalem, asking about a new king of the Jews. News of this reaches Herod, and he starts getting agitated. Herod had schemed and plotted his way to his throne, several times, and he wasn’t about to let anybody take it from him the way he had taken it for himself. When Herod got nervous, the people got nervous – but not for the same reasons. Herod was paranoid, violent, and irrational. He killed three of his own sons and one of his wives simply because he suspected that they were plotting against him. When Herod got worked up, people died. That’s why Jerusalem is nervous.
Herod really wants to know where this new king can be found, so he can take him out before he becomes a threat. So he summons the chief priests and the teachers of the law. He asks them where the Christ was to be born. And they know! They answer him promptly, “In Bethlehem in Judea,” and then they quote the prophecy from Micah chapter 5. They don’t say any more than that, because they don’t want to run the risk of making Herod mad, but they tell him. They know exactly where to find the Christ. So why don’t they go and worship Christ? Because they don’t believe the Word of the prophet. They have an entirely sufficient head knowledge – they can quote facts and names with ease – but they don’t believe any of it.
There’s a lesson in that for us: don’t take God’s Word for granted. Don’t merely listen to it and so deceive yourselves; do what it says. Believe in what it tells you, believe it for yourself, and trust that God will not lie to you. The Word is the only way we know Christ. Reason won’t lead you to Jesus. The wise men knew enough of God’s Word to come to Judea looking for the newborn King. But they figured, a king has to be in the capital city, right? Where’s the capital? In Jerusalem. That’s where the temple was, too. The King of the Jews had to be there. That’s the only logical place – so their reason told them. They get there and they find out that they’re not there yet. Then they hear the prophecy of God’s Word and they are led straight to Christ. Only through God’s Word can we ever hope to find Christ.
So the Magi set out the short distance to Bethlehem, and right away they see the same star. This star doesn’t behave like any other star they’ve seen. It appeared in the sky suddenly and led them to Judea. Now the star moves from north to south, which stars never do. It comes down until it stops right over the house where the Child is. There it stands, glimmering and shining to point out this is the place, here is Christ. These men have been watching the stars for their whole lives and they’ve never seen anything like this. They’re overjoyed – they must be close!
They hurry to the house where the holy family is. They go inside, and there they see Him: Christ, the King of the Jews, the promised Savior. The Light that was to dawn on all nations, the Redeemer of the world. The wise men are overjoyed. They bow down before Him and lay their treasures at His little feet. Gold is precious. Gold shows that He was truly a King. Frankincense was a costly kind of incense that was used in worship. Frankincense shows that He truly is God. Myrrh was used as a perfume and in the burial of the dead. Myrrh shows that Christ, this Child that they worship, is someone who would die. It points ahead to His sacrificial death for the sins of the world.
The wise men rejoice because they finally get to worship their King. They finally can bow down before the One whom they’ve worshipped in their hearts for so long. Their long journey is over! They’ve found Him! They are joyful because they know that their Savior is near – the One they’ve loved, the One they’ve trusted, the One in whom their hearts delighted. We too share in their privilege. We too are permitted to come and worship Christ. He has revealed Himself to us in the fullness of time, a Child born of a lowly virgin, and yet the mighty King of kings. We have seen Him come as a Child at Bethlehem, and we behold Him by faith now. Our light has come! The glory of the Lord rises upon us! Our Savior is here! The Lord Jesus lifts our darkness and grants light and life to our souls sunk in night. He gathers us into His holy people of all nations who look to Him steadfastly in faith for the forgiveness of their sins and the fulfillment of all their hopes.
We are part of that great crowd from all nations that flocks to His light. Isaiah was describing us when he said, “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and His glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm.” To Him all the faithful of the nations come, bringing Him their gifts. Isaiah foretold it. He says, “The wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come.” The wise men came, bringing their gifts – and Isaiah foretold that, too. “All from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”
We too bring Jesus our costliest gifts. We bring our souls, our hearts and our minds. We bring the sacrifice of our sinful flesh that we have to slay and fight with every day, so that we don’t lose our faith and can still worship Christ. We bring Him our children, trusting in His promise to be their Savior and to wash their sins away in Holy Baptism. We bring the fruits of our labors, gifts of love for the Savior – a portion of what our generous God gave us first. We bow before Him and humbly offer Him our best, because He came to give us everything. He is our everything.
It was quite a contrast in that little house in Bethlehem. The Magi, these rich, powerful, wise men, come and bow down before an infant, a little child sitting on His young mother’s lap in an anonymous house in a sleepy little town. They don’t balk that this is their King. They don’t get disappointed or start complaining. No, they open their gifts and they spread them out before their King and they bow down and worship Him. They rejoice that they have found Christ. So why would we ever be disappointed if our congregation seems small, or we feel like we don’t have a lot to offer – which, by the way, as your pastor I believe to be wrong? We have Christ! We have His Word! We have His holy Supper! What else do we need? What else do we need to make our joy complete? What else could we possibly need that we don’t already have? Rejoice, O Zion – your King is revealed! Amen.