Let There Be Light!
1Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, "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." 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 So they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: 6 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.' " 7 Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also." 9 When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.
This Wednesday is the twelfth day Christmas, one more opportunity to rejoice in the incarnation of God. As the Nicene Creeds puts it: “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven And was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary And was made man;” For us men, He became man. For all of humanity, all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, God the Son, the eternal Word, became flesh and dwelt among us.
That brings us to Epiphany. We’ve made things easy for you and moved Epiphany to today, actually Epiphany is January 6th, but this way you don’t have to come back on Wednesday. The word “epiphany” means appearing or manifestation. It usually referred to the appearing of a god in human form.
The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Epiphany as the Baptism of our Lord, because it was at His Baptism that Jesus made His first public appearance as the Son of God. But that comes next Sunday. In the west we celebrate epiphany as the visit of the magi, those mysterious mystics who came from eastern lands to worship Jesus and to present their gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh.
Epiphany is also called the “Christmas of the Gentiles,” because the magi were the first Gentile worshippers of the Messiah. Until then the only Israelites worshiped Jesus. People like the shepherds or Simeon or Anna. But the magi were Persians, probably from Babylon. They were non-Israelites Gentiles. Yet they too come to worship the Child and acknowledge Him as a King and God. Since most of us don’t have a drop of Jewish blood in us, this is a huge day for us as well. So in case you still want to hang on to Christmas, go ahead for another week. You don’t have to box it up quite yet. It still Christmas for us Gentiles. The Baby born to Mary is the world’s baby, and today the world sends its wise men to worship Him.
Epiphany’s a great story. It’s where we get the fun stuff of Christmas - the star atop most Christmas trees, all those Christmas lights, and the notion of giving gifts. And we have Matthew to thank for providing it to us.
Matthew tells us that sometime after the birth of Jesus, a star appeared in the eastern skies and was spotted by a group of Persian astrologers. No one really knows what that star was. Some think it was a supernatural star, placed there by God specifically for that purpose. After all, stars don’t stop over specific houses in Bethlehem, or anywhere else.
The magi saw the star and concluded that a great King had been born, and so they got their gifts together, packed their provisions, and set out on the dangerous journey across the desert. Their first stop was Jerusalem. If a king of the Jews had been born, it makes sense to check at the city of Kings, Jerusalem, And the Kings house, Herod’s.
But it turned out that there weren’t any baby boys in Herod household that year. Which was probably good, since Herod eventually murdered his wife, three sons, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, and whoever else threatened his throne? The word on the street in Jerusalem was that it was safer to be one of Herod’s dogs than to be one of his sons. And you can imagine that this bunch of Babylonian star gazers looking for the newborn “King of Jews” would stimulate Herod’s interest. He calls in the teachers of the Torah and asks them where the Messiah was supposed to be born. And they flip through the prophetic pages of Micah who had written,”
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.
So off to Bethlehem the magi go, and the star reappears, and like some divinely ordained GPS it guides them to the little house in Bethlehem where they find a young mother with her little child. They fall down on their knees and touch their foreheads to the ground, the deepest sign of respect, and they worship the little Child with their gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh.
Now stop and consider for a moment that Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, the shepherd who turned king of Israel, and that the name “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” Israel’s bread box where the true and living Bread of Life was born, you begin to see the fingerprints of God all over this historic event.
And just in case you need a little more convincing that this is no coincidence, there is the oracle of the reluctant prophet Balaam back in Israel’s infancy who said: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth.” (Num. 24:17)
Here are men whose forefathers once took David’s children captive into Babylon by the sword, now bringing gifts. They have come to worship David’s Son. Who for us men, for all mankind - Came down from heaven and was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man.
In this morning’s epistle, St. Paul calls this a great and wonderful mystery, the Mystery who is Christ, hidden from the ages, revealed by the Spirit through the holy apostles and prophets. This Mystery that through the good news of Jesus, the Gentiles are co-heirs together with Israel in the one body of Christ. God has brought all things together under one Head, this divine-human Child born of Mary, who brings wise men to their knees in worship.
So what does this mean? What does this epiphany to Gentiles mean to us living today with so much unrest in the Middle East even against possibly the descendants of those magi from the east?
It means, first of all, that God is a sly fox when it comes to mission work. We sometimes don’t give Him enough credit for being cunning. We think that God can only work in certain ways, ways that are under our control, and apart from them, well, sorry, God’s hands are tied. Who’s going to preach to the Babylonians? Who’s going to tell them the good news that a Savior has been born to them too? The shepherds heard the voice of an angel. God sent a star to the east to catch a searching eye. It’s God’s way of saying, “He’s for you too. Come and worship.”
Second, epiphany reminds us that no one has a monopoly on the Christ. He may be a Jewish boy whose bloodline flowing back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But this Jewish Messiah, who is the Glory of Israel, is the Light to the whole world. He’s the King and Lord of all nations, even those nations who don’t acknowledge Him. He’s God’s gift to the world. The Father sends the birth announcement out far and wide - as far as the east is from the west. Jesus is not simply the Messiah of Israel or the Savior of Christians; He’s the redeemer of the whole world. The arms of this Baby embrace the world, just as He would later embrace the world in the darkness of His death. Every sinner is spoken for in His death, every sin atoned for by His blood.
Third, the gifts of the magi remind us of who this Child of Bethlehem is. And what He will do. I doubt that the Magi fully understood the meaning of their gifts. They were probably bringing the most expensive, the most portable gifts they could - gold, incense, myrrh. Each suggests something important to us about Jesus. Gold is the gift royalty. This is King David’s Son, the Ruler of the universe, the King of all kings. Incense is the gift for a god. This is little Child is God, Light of Light, very God of very God. Myrrh is the gift of suffering and death. It was used as medicine and for burying the dead. This Child came to suffer, to die, to rise, “for us men and for our salvation.”
Fourth, the magi teach us that though there are many “religions” in the world, (today more than ever - stranger than ever), there is only one Way, one Truth, one Light and one Life for the world. God has only one Son - His Name is Jesus. God is ever merciful and gracious - even to those who don’t know Him. He provides a star, a shining ray of truth in the pagan star gazers’ religion, to draw them to Bethlehem where they can meet the Truth incarnate.
Whatever there is true truth - in religion, in philosophy, in science, in all the wisdom of the ages - every truth has its source in the Truth Incarnate, Jesus the Christ. Having bowed down before the true Christ, the magi were different men. And who wouldn’t be? They went back to their homes by another way. You could say they lost their religion to find the Truth in the Child named Jesus. And there is coming a Day to end all days, when every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. That’s what the wise men learned that day – By the way, you’re already ahead of the game, you know that Mystery and confess that truth, you confess Jesus.
Finally, epiphany reminds each of us how privileged we truly are as believers. We too have been guided to the place where we might bow and worship the Savior. Not guided by a star in the sky but probably by a godly parent - a believing friend - a loving spouse. You don’t have to go on a 700 mile journey through the desert to see Him. Just get out of bed and come to where the Word is preached and the Supper of Jesus’ Body and Blood is given to you. Here is your Bethlehem, your “house of bread,” where He makes Himself known to you personally. You don’t have to ride a camel across the desert to worship Jesus. You don’t need a star to guide you.
You’ve come to Bethlehem today in this place, where Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior and He is here to receive you, to forgive you, to wash and feed you, to send you out as lights into this dark world that He died to save. Every Sunday is another “epiphany” where Jesus makes Himself known to us, revealing the Mystery of His saving death to us by bringing us out of the darkness into His marvelous light.
Blessed Epiphany, In Jesus name, amen and amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. AMEN.