“Where is He who has been born the 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 from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this, the Epiphany of our Lord, comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: They came mysteriously, arriving from the ‘east,’ coming with a strange inquiry: “Where is He who has been born the king of the Jews?” Who are these guys? Matthew calls them ‘magi,’ a term that has baffled and fascinated us through the centuries. We’ve called them ‘kings,’ though that is very unlikely. They may have served kings, but they were not kings themselves. Often they are referred to as ‘wise men,’ and that may be getting closer to the truth. For most of the Church’s history, the magi were seen as pagan sorcerers, whose ‘wisdom’ was completely opposed to the True God. They found the child despite their wisdom, only through the guiding of God. In the past few centuries, as we humans have praised our own human understanding and wisdom, people began to revere the magi as examples of the highest learning of their day. I think the truth lies more on the side of the early Church. These ‘wise guys’ were probably sorcerers and magicians for the Persian kings, and one of Matthew’s main points is that their perceived ‘wisdom’ was only a hindrance to tracking down Jesus- they needed the assistance of God.
Perhaps the greatest example of how the ‘wisdom’ of the magi failed them occurs right off the bat. I don’t know about you, but I would think that if you were searching for the true King of the Jews, the person to ask isn’t the man who considers himself the king of the Jews. I’m guessing he’s not going to take the news very well. “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” If we didn’t know much about Herod, we might assume that the people of Jerusalem were stirred up for the same reason he was: a rival to the throne has been born! But there is little indication that anyone in Jerusalem really cared if Herod was deposed by some other ‘king of the Jews.’ They were stirred up and troubled because they could only imagine how Herod would react to this news. He was not a king noted for his kindness and stability. He was known for great building projects, including Jerusalem’s magnificent temple. He was known as an able administrator, able to remain in the good graces of Rome through several emperors. On the other hand, he was well-known for his cruelty and lust for power. He was not a Jew, and resented the fact that many in Israel considered him an illegitimate king. He imposed heavy taxes on the people, and at the time the magi arrived, he was in the midst of his final years, marked by paranoia and murder. In jealousy he killed his advisors, his wife, and at least two of his sons. Jerusalem trembled at what he would do next.
Historians and psychologists have attempted throughout history to understand people like Herod, because he is hardly unique. Again and again the human race has produced people of incredible cruelty, those who lust to dominate their fellow man, who are consumed by jealousy. We can blame chemical imbalances or their upbringing, factors that make them different from the rest of society, which we think is generally pretty good. That’s all well and good, and probably has some truth to it, but I think it lets us off the hook way too easily. God’s Word proclaims that all people, from Herod and Hitler to you and me, have the same basic problem: sin. The cruelty of Herod and those like him is caused by the same sinful desires that affect us all. We are much closer to these evil men than we are comfortable with. They are driven by a lust for power and domination, desires which manifest themselves in our own lives. We want to exalt ourselves at the expense of others, we’re always looking for an edge. That’s why we gossip, that’s why put others down in our thoughts and words. Herod’s jealousy drove him to rage; we may not react in the same way, but envy and jealousy for the things that others have infects us all. At the least, jealousy leads us to say or think ill of our neighbors; at the most, it can lead us to try to get what they have by unjust means. Looking at people like Herod should make us uncomfortable, for in many ways they are simply the extreme examples of the sin that is within us all.
A king like Herod, a king like us, is hardly worth celebrating. The wise men may not quite get it yet, but they are looking for another sort of king, a king that will be completely different from every king that came before. But if Herod gets his way, this king will never take his throne. He gathers his advisors and finds out exactly where this Messiah is to be born, they quote from Micah and second Samuel: “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.” He sends the magi as his unwitting spies; they are to go in secret and find this promised king. Herod has eliminated rivals before, and he’s prepared to do so again. But he has never come up against a king like this. This ‘King of the Jews’ was born in a cattle stall, not a palace. He came into the world not in glory, but as a weak and vulnerable baby. His parents were dirt-poor, wrapping their child in rags, not royal clothes. The language Herod spoke was power and authority, and this child seemed to have neither. But the signs that Herod would judge by mattered little in understanding Jesus, for He would be a king greater than Herod, greater than any king that ever had or ever would rule. He would be King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He would be the One described in the passage Herod’s advisors quoted. “From you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” Unlike Herod, this child born King of the Jews would truly shepherd His people, for He was a King unlike any other.
His rule would not be manifested or revealed in power and glory, but in humility. He would be crowned with thorns, He would only wear royal robes as soldiers mocked Him. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is only referred to as a King in our text and at the cross. As He suffers and dies, shedding His blood, the inscription above His head declared that the King the wise men sought was hanging on a cross, humiliated before the world: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” His coronation was on the cross, for it was there that the Shepherd would lay down His life for the sheep. He gave His life for sheep who love to wander, for sheep like Herod and you and me. That is how He rules, by paying for your sin on the cross, by giving His life in your place. His death, by destroying the corruption of sin and death, establishes His rule over this fallen creation. Now He reigns as King over all, but not in domination or power, but in grace and mercy. The King of the Jews seeks out lost sheep by forgiving them through His shed blood.
In His great love God manifests His glory in the humiliation of His Son. God Himself is revealed in the humility of a helpless child in Mary’s arms. God Himself is revealed in the humility of a helpless man on the cross. For Jesus is a servant King, a King that rules by giving forgiveness and salvation to His people. That is how God is revealed to us: in forgiveness for all of our sins, in His overflowing love. He manifests Himself in service. The Father quite literally brought to light the humility of Jesus by sending a star to draw the magi from the east. “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 the magi arrived at the home of Mary and Joseph, pagan sorcerers were among the first to worship the King of the Jews.
This humble King is for all people, for you and me who have fallen again and again into sin, and even for people like Herod; no sheep is so lost that the Shepherd cannot find him. Whenever a sinner comes into contact with the King of forgiveness and grace, the example of the magi is once again followed. Matthew tells us in verse ten: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Nowhere else in Scripture is so much joy described; Matthew piles on the adverbs and adjectives to describe overwhelming joy at arriving at the house of the King: “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” That is the joy of Epiphany! God has revealed His love and mercy in a humble child, One who would grow up to lay His life down as the Good Shepherd for you and for me. This child is our Savior and Lord, the source of all joy and the object of worship.
The magi declared to Herod that they had come to Judea to worship the King of the Jews, and when they finally enter the house of that King, they have their chance. “And going into the house they fell down and worshiped Him.” That is what we do on Sunday mornings. We go into the house of our King, and He lavishes us with the gifts that He won through His coronation on the cross. Then we respond in worship, giving to our humble and saving King praise and honor. In exceedingly great joy we praise our King for His salvation, for His wonderful gifts given to us. Our King gives and we respond with worship and with gifts. “Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” Our gifts go in the offering plate, but the treasures we give to our King are much more than the fruits of our labors. We also give to our King the gift of humble service to our neighbors. We do not seek to exalt ourselves, but instead we place others ahead of us, seeking to show them the love and mercy Christ first showed us. We sacrifice of ourselves in service to those around us just as Christ sacrificed Himself for us. Those are the treasures that we give to our King, in response to His great love shown to us.
On Christmas, God gave us the gift of His Son, and during Epiphany we unwrap that gift, as God reveals His Son, He manifests His glory in humility. We rejoice exceedingly with great joy this Epiphany season, for God has revealed Himself in love and mercy through the death and resurrection of our King, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to our King for His gracious and merciful rule! Amen.