“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this Sunday on which we celebrate the Epiphany of Our Lord is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Matthew chapter two. Dear friends in Christ, those pesky wise men often try to insert themselves into Christmas. Many of our manger scenes give the distinct impression that they were there with the shepherds, cattle and all the rest. Matthew dispels that notion with his opening verse: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” The wise men, pagans and sorcerers, came to Jerusalem several years after Christ’s birth bearing great news, news that literally sent the city into an uproar. “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
To Herod, a king could only mean one thing- a rival to his rule and authority. He understood Jesus’ birth only in terms of earthly power- he could not imagine that a king could be anything else than a rival, and so his legendary jealousy and cruelty was kindled. “Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.” He needed to find this child who presented such a threat to his rule, and he planned to deal with Him as he had dealt with every other threat- through an iron fist.
The wise men were not without their own misconceptions. To the original readers of Matthew’s Gospel, the appearance of these characters would have been a major shock. Why are they here? Wise men are not just guys who are interested in knowledge, but in the ancient world they were sorcerers and pagans, those who used magic arts and the stars. They most definitely did not worship the God of Israel, in fact, they were in league with the powers of this world, the powers of Satan. Matthew also shows that their wisdom did not help them very much in this journey. Their wisdom could only get them to Judea, they did not know the prophecy that would lead them to Christ’s door. Their wisdom could not determine the evil intent behind Herod’s words, they were about to participate in the murder of the one they had come to worship. Finally, their gifts demonstrate that they were looking for an earthly king- they, much like Herod, did not quite understand this child. The faith of the wise men was quite genuine, but they still misunderstood this child. How often do we as Christians also misunderstand our Lord? The Church has too often portrayed for us a soft and cuddly Jesus, who is our buddy, our friend, but not our Lord. Like the world, we can view Him as simply a good teacher who has given us a good guidebook for living the good life. His words are twisted and abused, used to justify or condemn anyone and anything according to our own good pleasure. He is the example of the victorious life, a life we can have if we just have strong enough faith or follow Jesus’ words close enough. A misconception only has staying power if it has an element of truth within it. Jesus is our friend, our companion, He has given us good teachings that we are to follow. But when ‘what would Jesus do?’ is the extent of our use for Him, we have misunderstood Jesus and His mission.
Into a world of misunderstanding, only God can bring us the truth, only He can turn our misconceptions into understanding and faith. Herod and Jerusalem did not know about the child, but God placed a star in the sky which sent wise men to them with that message. The wise men did not know where the child was, but God used sinful, jealous Herod as His instrument to point the way. In fact, Herod became a conduit of God’s Word: “And assembling all the chief priest and scribes of the people, [Herod] inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” And when they left Herod, God acted once again to guide ignorant men to His Son: “After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Without the work of God, we cannot understand His Son, we wallow in the dark just as Herod and the wise men did. Why is this? The reason we cannot understand Jesus is the very reason for which He came- we are sinful. The sinful mind cannot understand God, it cannot understand Christ. In fact, the sinful mind is not just confused by God, it is in rebellion against Him. Misunderstanding is only a veil over opposition to the plans of God.
And so it was into this rebellious world, a world that was opposed to its creator, that Jesus Christ was born as a king in Bethlehem. Herod and the wise men were right on one count- the one born was truly a king, the greatest king who ever had or ever will live. But Herod’s imagination could only conceive of a king that was like himself, a king who was politically cunning, clever, and cruel, cruel enough to destroy all threats to his rule. The wise men saw a king who was great and powerful, just and benevolent, but still an earthly king. Jesus shattered all of these illusions. The king of all heaven and earth was born in the lowly town of Bethlehem, weak and guarded by filthy shepherds. The true king of Israel was not the one who sat on the throne in Jerusalem, but the one who dwelt with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.
Christ was made known throughout His life- that is what the season of Epiphany is all about- but if we only knew of His life, we would fall into our own misconceptions about Him. Jesus would simply be a good teacher, one who gives us great pointers and sends us home with a high-five and a thumbs up. Instead Christ was ultimately made known, He was revealed for He truly is at the moment when all seemed to be lost. On the cross, Jesus revealed Himself as the One who was to suffer and die for the sins of the entire world. As a Messiah, His deliverance was not just for the nation of Israel, and it did not come through military victory. Herod needn’t have worried about His throne- Jesus had much bigger fish to fry. His deliverance was for all people, you, me, and yes, Herod and those wise men too. All those trapped in the bondage of sin needed deliverance and salvation, and on that cross Christ was truly and fully revealed as the one who had come to deliver them. It is no mistake that at that moment, another pagan and Gentile declares what Herod and the wise men could not determine on their own: “Truly this was the Son of God!” As His blood flowed from His wounds that day, they washed away all of our sin, with all of our misconceptions and misunderstandings, all of our rebellion against our creator. On that day, He delivered you, me, and all people. And when that victory was sealed with an empty tomb, Christ took the throne of a king, the throne founded on that blood. It is only through Good Friday and Easter Sunday that we truly understand who Jesus is.
“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.” The worship of the wise men was genuine, but it was still imperfect. They did not completely understand this child. But can we blame them? Without the cross and resurrection, understanding Jesus is impossible, and we all know that even with that knowledge we sometimes fail in that area as well. The wise men are simply a picture of us- they need to have Christ revealed to them. I for one believe that they returned to their home somewhat sheepish that they had given the Lord of heaven and earth, the One who had come to deliver them from all of their sins, such ‘earthly’ gifts. But yet they returned in faith, having seen God in the flesh face to face. Until Christ is revealed to us, not as a guru or moral teacher, but as our Savior, we cannot understand or believe in Him. And so God works to reveal Christ to us through the Word, through Baptism, through the Lord’s Supper, those places where Christ is present for us and for our salvation, for the forgiveness of our sins. He is working within those means to open our eyes, to focus us squarely on the cross, because it is in that moment that He is revealed as our Savior, as the one who died for us.
The wise men are our forerunners in so many ways. They are the first Gentiles to worship Jesus, and in that way they precede all of us. We are not of the nation of Israel by birth, but the great truth proclaimed in all of Scripture is that the Gospel message of salvation for the sake of Christ is for all people, as Paul says in our Epistle lesson: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” The wise men were simply the first in a long line of Gentiles to fall down a worship Christ, a line that extends to this very day and this place. The message of this text is that salvation is for everyone, for the Jew and Gentile, for pagan wise men as well as you and me. All of us need a Savior, and thanks be to God that He provided one by sending Christ to the cross!
Epiphany therefore sits between Christmas and Easter for good reason. Today we conclude the Christmas story with the message that this child is for all people, regardless of any distinction we may come up with. But then, as we travel through this season, we see Christ revealed as truly God through great manifestations of the Trinity, through miraculous signs, and through His teaching. But we will only see Him ultimately revealed when we journey through Lent and to the cross on Good Friday. At that moment, the season of Epiphany is fulfilled. For this season is a season of God revealing His Son, and God reveals His Son as the Savior of the world, as God incarnate come to deliver you and me. May the Lord continue to reveal the Messiah, Jesus Christ, to you throughout this Epiphany season until we, like the wise men, see Him face to face, Amen.