The Epiphany of our Lord
January 6, 2013
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 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. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘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.’ “Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. 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.” 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. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 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. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way. Matthew 2:1-12
Today is Epiphany. On Christmas we Christians celebrate the birth of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea. Christmas is when God joined the human race. He who was begotten of the Father from eternity was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man. Angels announced this birth to shepherds who went to see the newborn King and proceeded to make the news of his birth quite public by telling people wherever they went about what they had heard from the angel and seen with their own eyes.
Christmas leads to Epiphany. Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Wise men came from the East to worship the infant Jesus. Christmas needs Epiphany or we would be lost. Had he who was born King of the Jews come only for the Jews we would have remained spiritually blind, dead, and at enmity with God. Epiphany means that Christ came to be our Savior, too. God promised Abraham, “In your seed, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” The Old Testament is filled with promises that the King of the Jews would come for all people everywhere. The wise men from the East worshiped the baby Jesus. True wisdom is found only in him, who is eternal Wisdom incarnate.
We call them wise men. Some translations call them magi because that’s the word used in the Greek. It’s where we get the word magician. But these men were not magicians. They were scholars. They were some of the most highly educated men of their day. They had studied many things, including the constellations in the heavens. The star that led them to Jesus was like none other. It was sent by God to guide them to the King of the Jews.
Balaam prophesied in Numbers 24:17,
I see Him, but not now;
I behold Him, but not near;
A Star shall come out of Jacob;
A Scepter shall rise out of Israel.
This particular prophecy, with its reference to a scepter, reminds us of Jacob’s words of blessing to his son Judah recorded in Genesis 49:10,
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor a lawgiver from between his feet,
Until Shiloh comes;
And to Him shall be the obedience of the people.
The scepter had just departed from Judah. Herod was king of the Jews but he wasn’t a Jew. Only a Jew could be King of the Jews. Herod was an Edomite, a descendant of Esau, not Jacob. He reveled in his title, “King of the Jews,” but he was merely a puppet of Rome. He wasn’t even a Jew! The scepter departed from Judah when Herod assumed power.
This meant the time had come for Shiloh, the Prince of Peace, to be born. The people would obey him. God had said so through Jacob. Imagine Herod’s consternation when he heard the question of the wise men, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” Herod had fawned, flattered, and murdered too many people in gaining his power to let it all go, and his hold on power was always tenuous at best. The man was troubled, and so was his administration. When Herod told the wise men to send word back to him when they had found the King of the Jews so that he could worship him too, he was lying. He had no intention of worshipping him. He planned to murder him.
The reign of Jesus Christ on this earth is not just a future hope. It is a present reality. Jesus assumed the throne of his father, David. That’s a fact. Herod was known as Herod the Great. He fancied himself the King of the Jews but he wasn’t really. Jesus was. When the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to announce the birth of Jesus he said:
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end. (Matthew 1:30-33)
So the angel promised and so we confess today. We confess in the Creed that his kingdom shall have no end. The rule he began at his First Advent was an eternal one. Herod was half right. He was quite right to be concerned that the reign of Jesus would outlast his own. He was understandably troubled. And while he was an impious man who only paid lip service to God – as, for example, in building the temple to curry favor with the Pharisees and others – he knew better than to disregard what the Holy Scriptures said, and they clearly pointed to the coming of a King whose authority would be far greater than Herod’s.
But Herod was wrong to fear the rule of Jesus, the King of the Jews. The nature of his kingdom didn’t threaten the power of the state. Jesus Christ doesn’t rule over anyone by coercion or political intrigue. He doesn’t rely on emotional manipulation, bribery, or any other techniques employed by the rulers of this world. He is no threat to the civil authorities because he neither needs nor wants the power of the sword to govern. Christ rules over us by his grace. He is a Savior who brings God’s favor to us. He governs us by forgiving us our sins and filling us with the Holy Spirit. He gives us what we need for us to know God and trust in him and live in fellowship with him.
That’s why the wise men sought him. They needed what only Jesus could give. Herod wanted him dead because he had no interest in matters pertaining to his immortal soul and where he would spend eternity. He lived for today and he saw Jesus as a threat to what he had and so he wanted to eliminate him. Herod felt the need to kill Jesus. The wise men felt the need to worship Jesus. They saw his star rise and they knew it was a sign from God. This wasn’t just superstitious speculation on their part. They had been taught about the coming of Christ. Hundreds of years earlier the prophet Daniel was living in exile in Babylonia. He attained a good deal of power and influence among the leaders of the nation. Daniel was a man of uncommon integrity. He taught the wise men of that region about the promised Savior who would be born. This knowledge was passed down for hundreds of years.
The wise men went to Jerusalem. They met with King Herod. They asked, “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.” Herod wouldn’t know. But he would know who would know. So he gathered together all of Bible scholars and theologians in Jerusalem and asked them. They found the answer in the book of the prophet Micah who said he would be born in Bethlehem. Out of Bethlehem would come a Ruler who would be the Shepherd of Israel.
Bethlehem was not much of a town. King David was born there, but nobody would have thought to look for the Christ to be born there if God hadn’t foretold it through the prophet. The wise men were reasonable and well educated men. Relying on their own reason and common sense they would not have looked to find Jesus in Bethlehem. But they didn’t rely on their own reason or common sense to find Jesus. They relied on the word of God written down in the Holy Scriptures. They were orthodox. Orthodox means right worship. We Lutherans usually use this word to refer to right teaching. That’s because worship and teaching go together. The way we worship reflects what we believe and we believe what we are taught. When we are taught the Holy Scriptures we are taught by God because the Holy Scriptures are the written word of God.
Many people believe that it doesn’t matter how you worship because it is a completely inward sort of thing. That’s not true. Faith lies within, that is true, and faith is the essence of worship. But it doesn’t follow that whatever you emote from within is true worship. That’s because there is more than faith and the Holy Spirit within us. There is also the sinful flesh. The flesh neither listens to God nor submits to God’s reign. This means that our feelings are a poor guide for our worship. God’s word is the only sure guide. Worship is not a matter of letting go of your inner feelings in an emotionally driven display. Worship is drive by God’s word, informed by God’s word, and formed by God’s word.
Consider the worship of the wise men. By their gifts they confessed their faith. The wise men gave three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That there were three gifts doesn’t mean that there were only three wise men – there were likely many more than that. They were giving him gifts as a group, not as individuals. They were engaged in corporate worship and their gifts were a corporate confession. They gave him gold to confess that he was the true king. As such, they bowed to his authority over their lives. They gave him frankincense to confess that he was true God. As the smoke of incense rises up in the air as a sweet aroma, the prayers of God’s people rise up to heaven as our sacrifice of praise. They gave him myrrh to confess that he would die for them to save them from their sins. Myrrh is used to anoint the dead body. They confessed Jesus to be their King, their God, and their crucified Savior.
Worshiping according to God’s word is confessing the truth. It matters where you worship and it matters how you worship. We worship where the truth is proclaimed and we don’t worship where false doctrine is taught. We don’t worship according to a passing fancy that has primarily an emotional or sentimental appeal. We worship according to God’s word. This means we worship from our need for a Savior. We need Christ to rule over us as our King because we cannot govern ourselves. We need his words to guide us. We need Christ as our God, because only when we know God as the poor baby of Bethlehem will we dare to come to him in confidence that he is our friend and wishes us nothing but good. We need Christ as the One who dies for us and rises again, because only in the death of Christ are our sins taken away. In him whose body was nailed to the cross and laid in the tomb all our sins are forgiven. When God forgives you, he sets you free to worship him. He takes away your sadness and fills you with joy.
We join the wise men in their orthodox confession of the true faith. We offer our gifts to the Lord Jesus with every confidence that he will accept our worship and praise even as he accepts us: for the sake of his own most holy obedience, suffering, and mediation.
Pastor Rolf Preus