09. January 2011
Epiphany of Our Lord (observed)
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
+ IN NOMINE JESU +
Dear Christians, today is yet another churchly feast, hot on the heels of the most popular one, Christmas. Today we celebrate Epiphany, annually commemorated on the thirteenth day after Christmas. Interestingly enough, Epiphany is the older of the two festivals. At least one hundred years before the western church celebrated Christmas, the Christians in the East celebrated Epiphany as Christ’s birthday.
For most Christians, Epiphany is only a festival marking the end of Christmas and the beginning of “ordinary time.” For Lutherans, the festival was expanded into a full season. Christmas is our annual remembrance of Jesus Christ’s incarnation, by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. Epiphany is the the celebration of the Jesus revealing himself as true God. We have the joy of celebrating a full season of prophecy and story that will teach us that Jesus is true God, conceived of the Holy Spirit, son of the Heavenly Father.
First, the church remembers he revelation as king to the Gentile Magi. Next Sunday, the high feast of Epiphany is the Baptism of our Lord, normally is observed today. There reveals his nature as second person of the Trinity when the Spirit descends upon him as a dove and the Father proclaims: “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”Also included are the stories of the boy Jesus in the temple and a number of Christ’s miracles including as the wedding of Cana. The festival season ends with the Transfiguration of our Lord, where he is revealed as the ultimate prophet.
Today’s Gospel of the visit of the Magi according to St. Matthew begins this revelation. Sometime after Jesus was born, and likely after he and his mother had been presented in the temple for purification, wise men, astrologers from the east, magicians of a sort, came to Jerusalem looking for Jesus. These Gentiles ought to have known little of Jesus. They were not Jews. They were not of the bloodline, not a chosen race or part of the royal priesthood.
Their ignorance of the Scriptural prophecy is betrayed by their going to Jerusalem. Micah had prophesied the savior would come out of the suburbia Bethlehem. Any devout Jew and scholar of the Scriptures would know this prophecy. Being foreigners, their knowledge is limited. Instead, they go to Jerusalem, where Jew kings ought to be. “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.”
No wonder Herod and all Jerusalem were troubled. Despite, his benevolence and infrastructure building, when it came to the throne, he was ruthless and cruel. It was said in those days that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son. Herod murdered some of his children to engineer his successor. News of a new king, born in Judea, would cause quite the stir.
It ought not, though. Isaiah foretold the Messiah as explicitly as one could imagine. Micah was clear as a bell. Even their hymns of David sung of this Messiah. But expectations have a way of changing. Time passes and hopes fade. New hopes take their place, hopes built on the aspirations of man. In this case, hopes built on a earthly dynasty. Preferably a racist one too, excluding the Gentile from the kingdom.
Our own flesh seeks to rise up with false expectations, contrary to God and his revealed word. Perhaps we want a King who is powerful, overcoming for us all our adversity. We want a Jesus that makes our heart glow, causing our voices sing out in ecstatic songs of praise. We want a Christ that will defeat tyranny and restore our country to its honor and glory.
Yes, you know that these are false. Even from the witness of his birth, we know that he acts in humiliation to the Godhead, being born of one of his creation, Mary, submissive to his adoptive father Joseph, earning his food by the sweat of his brow, and redeeming the world through shedding his own blood. From our perspective, there’s no honor or glory in the Jesus way.
Still, that’s precisely how Jesus works, not in man’s idea of glory but with a cross. Yes, he is a ruler but his scepter is his own blood. Yes, he is a shepherd of Israel, but with the wooden staff of the Roman instrument of death. The iron fist of glory gives way to the gentle tug of this shepherd’s crook. Even the lost sheep, the sons of Ham and Japeth will be gathered together with the sons of Shem through our Lord’s sacrifice. Even Magi from the east who had received but scraps of wisdom from God by the hand of Daniel, are escorted into the presence of the incarnate God.
Those wise guys had only a fragment of prophecy and a star. The word of promise was small and insignificant. The star was odd but ignored by most. Even Herod and all Jerusalem didn’t think twice of it, at least not until the Magi showed up. It must not have been all that spectacular. No flaming comet or supernova. Just the light of the world, Jesus Christ, the infant King, who continued to guide those Gentile magicians to him.
Like the chief priests and the scribes, they heard the prophecy and saw the sign of the star. Why did the Jews not follow these heathens to see the child born in the manager? Why did they ignore the witness of the Scriptures and the sky? They had fashioned for themselves a new Messiah, a different hope that ignored the word of promise. Their Messiah would ride triumphant into Jerusalem, free the captives, restore the temple, and usher in a new dynasty that would never end.
Of course, that’s not too far off. Jesus did ride in triumphant, beginning his final march to death. He does free the captives, not from Rome but from sin and its servant the Devil. He did restore the temple, but the temple is his body. And, the boy king did usher in a new era, a new kingdom, but not of this earth, but of the Spirit and heaven.
The heavenly kingdom, with Christ as its head, was the hope of the Magi. The heavenly king truly worthy of worship was their expectation. They pursued the Christ not out of reason or evidence, but out of faith. The Lord had graciously given them faith to trust his Word. This Word was the promise and the star. They willingly pursued this word without abandon, despite opposition. One would have thought that the boy of poor parents, living in the outskirts of town would destroy faith.
No, quite the opposite. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. Undaunted by appearances, the rushed into the house, where they fell down on their faces and worshiped the child. They were not swayed by appearances but trusted the word. They even offered him gifts of gold, wealth fitting for a king, and frankincense, the sweet smelling sacrifice, and myrrh, the spice of burial. These Magi already are preparing the boy for what is to come.
These Magi are noble examples of faith. They received the Word and trusted in its promise. They were not swayed by appearances. They were undaunted by our Lord’s humble ministry. The graciously accepted the faith handed over to them.
So too, we ought to heed their witness. Just as with the wise men, Christ has revealed himself to you. He has show you who he is and where he is to be found. Our Heavenly Father has given us a tremendous gifts. He has blessed us with the Holy Gospel. He sent His Spirit with this Word and with the water in Holy Baptism, thereby naming us as his children. He publicly declares and absolves you of your trespasses. He joins you into one holy communion of His body, therein giving us this body and blood to eat and drink for forgiveness.
We have heard the Word and we know and see the signs. They may not be what the world expects but they are exactly what the world needs. Let us be diligent like the Magi in heeding our Lord’s call and remaining where our Lord is to be found. Let us all feast upon his saving word of forgiveness. Let us receive his body and blood in the most humble of means, bread and wine. Therein we will receive the forgiveness of sins, the crown of life, and the exceedingly rich joys of eternity. Amen.
+ SOLI DEO GLORIA +