“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this celebration of the Epiphany of our Lord is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, in the days of Herod the king, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, strange visitors came to Jerusalem, asking an even stranger question: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” They come seeking a child, already declared king—why? “For we saw His star when it rose.” The word ‘epiphany’ is Greek, and it simply means ‘revelation’ or ‘manifestation.’ The star epiphanied to these strange visitors, called magi by Matthew—magicians, sorcerers, or, as we have sanitized it today, ‘wise men’—the star epiphanied to them that a special child was born, so special, so unique, that these magi declare that they “have come to worship Him.” This is no ordinary king, but One worthy of worship, One to whom they will bow; this king was epiphanied to them, and they are compelled to make this journey, they are compelled to worship Him, and they have come to Jerusalem to find Him.
Where else would they go? If these men have any of the wisdom we humans are so proud of they know that the One born King of the Jews must reside where all the other kings of the Jews lived: Jerusalem, the holy city, the seat of Israel’s kings. If a king worthy of worship has been born to the Jews, He must reside in a magnificent palace. The star epiphanied to them that a child was born king of the Jews; it did not give them the address. Where else would you go to find the king of the Jews? But there is no epiphany in Jerusalem, only the darkness of unbelief. “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod’s heart is darkened by jealousy and rage; the child is not in his palace, nor in the temple, no great birth has been reported. So the magi know a child is born, but they have no power to find Him; their wisdom fails them, indeed, it’s a hindrance—they’ve come to the wrong place. In fact, their wisdom has placed the King they have come to worship in jeopardy, as a jealous Herod is now alerted to the presence of a rival. The magi are failures, their ‘wisdom’ is a sham, their journey a fiasco, all their powers of reason and understanding are completely and utterly worthless.
The wisdom of this world, the wisdom peddled by these magicians and sorcerers, these ‘wise men,’ cannot apprehend the child born King of the Jews. Such wisdom only hides Him. This world is not going to find the child born King of the Jews simply by observing creation and using the power of human reason. People are not going to become Christians by watching a beautiful sunset or climbing a mountain. You won’t find Christ in a fishing boat or in the casino. People won’t even be converted simply by seeing Christians live upright lives among them. At best, they will come to Jerusalem, to the seat of power and glory, looking for a God who is big and powerful, a generic God who either likes me because I’m likeable and wants to give me everything I ask for, or hates me because I’m hatable and wants to crush me. The best that human reason can do, thinking as deeply as it can, examining this creation as closely as it can, is that there is a God, and this God has two characteristics: He’s big, and He’s mad. And that’s the best human reason can do; the worst is complete and total unbelief, the hatred against the child exemplified by Herod. There is no epiphany by human reason; nothing is epiphanied that gives any hope, certainly not the child born King of the Jews.
Epiphany only comes through the means God has appointed. The magi are in the wrong city, they have no idea where the child is, their human wisdom and learning is not worth one pinch of owl dung. But Herod—sinful, jealous, unbelieving Herod—he actually knows where to go. He goes to the Church. “And assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” God’s Old Testament Church, now corrupted and led by status-seeking men concerned only with the outward show of the Law, still serves the purpose that it has had since the very beginning. From the first message of the Gospel given to the first preacher, Adam, through many centuries and countless prophets and priests, the Church has been given the solemn responsibility to point people to the child born King of the Jews, the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head, the star coming out of Jacob, the righteous Branch, God’s Servant Immanuel. There is epiphany within the Church, an epiphany that human reason cannot attain, an epiphany that the Church has a command from God Himself to show to the world, a command that still stands, by the way, reemphasized by Christ Himself. And so the chief priests and scribes, despite themselves, fulfill their God-given task, pointing the magi to the child born King of the Jews.
“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.”’” The Church points the magi to Bethlehem, to the child born King of the Jews, by preaching the Word. The Church doesn’t start a soup kitchen, it doesn’t send out people to dig wells or clean up a park, as God-pleasing as such things may be; it preaches the Word. The Church must speak, Christians must speak. You cannot expect your neighbor to believe simply by watching you drive to church every Sunday, you cannot think you have spread the Gospel when you double your waitress’ tip. It is the Word alone that epiphanies the Christ child. The Christian must finally speak; we cannot expect the world to believe by osmosis, as if a church building in a neighborhood automatically makes Christians, as if a Bible sitting on our shelf can convert our relatives. Jesus does not want to be known in any other way than through His Word; He cannot be apprehended in any other way—the Church, Christians, must speak. Even Herod pointed the magi to Bethlehem; the Church, on the other hand, speaks not out of jealousy and murderous schemes, but out of love, love for Christ who has called us to speak and love for neighbors lost in the darkness of sin, death, and hell, who desperately need us to speak. Human wisdom will fail every time, the beauty of nature will always fall short, good works by themselves never converted anyone; the Word epiphanies Jesus, and His Word never returns void.
The magi heard this Word, spoken by the Church, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, a miracle indeed, they believed. “After listening to the king, the 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.” Note well, dear friends: the star guides them to the house only after they have heard the Word and believed. It is the Word that points them to Jesus, and then God sends the star to get them to the proper address. Only in the Word is Jesus revealed to be who He is, against all appearances: the ruler of the nations, the Lord of creation, the shepherd of His people Israel. Apart from the Word, God is an angry judge; He is big, and He is mad. But the Word epiphanies Him as the God of love, a God who would send His Son to save not only the Jews, but all the Gentiles, starting with the magi, converted from trust in wisdom to trust in the Word. The Word epiphanies Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the Shepherd who lays down His life for you and for me. The Word epiphanies Jesus as the King of the Jews, the title that will be placed above His head as He sheds His blood for the magi, for you and for me, for all the world. The Word epiphanies Jesus, the baby lying in a manger, the child living humbly in Bethlehem, the man presented to the angry crowd by Pilate, the man hung upon the cross, as your Savior, your Lord, your King. He is epiphanied in the Word, He is epiphanied in the Church, He is epiphanied to and for you. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.