The Other Christmas

Matthew 2:1-12 / Epiphany C / 06 January 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

Today is Epiphany. The “other Christmas,” the “Christmas of the Gentiles.” At the first Christmas it was a swaddled baby in a manger visited by shepherds called in from the fields by angels. In this second Christmas it is a young child dawdling around the feet of his mother in a house visited by “magi,” wise men from the east guided by a star. The first Christmas was for Israel; the second Christmas was for the world, the nations, the “goyim,” the Gentiles.

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isaiah 60:3)

The word “epiphany” means “appearing,” usually of a god or a great king. Some kings thought they were gods. Antiochus IV took the name “Epiphanes” after his defeat of Egypt just to underscore the point. Hubris, especially in public office, seems to know no bounds.

The magi had come from the east to Jerusalem guided by a star. They were probably Persian court astrologers, star gazers, who would have looked to the stars in the sky for signs. They saw what appeared to be a king’s natal star, announcing the birth of a king. The shepherds of Bethlehem heard the birth announcement from an angel accompanied by a heavenly choir. The Persians get the birth announcement in their own language, so to speak. Not an angel but a star that guided them from the east to Jerusalem.

Centuries before, the Israelites had gone into exile in the east. And now the east comes to Israel. Star gazers seeking the baby king whose birth star they had seen in the eastern skies. They go to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. That’s logical. Herod was the king so it’s probably his son the star was signaling. Where else would you go for a newborn “king of Jews” but to Herod, the “king of the Jews?”

Wrong king. The wise men encountered Man’s king; the star pointed to God’s king. Man’s king lives in palaces, in capital cities, in grandeur. God’s King lives in a humble house, in a ghetto suburb, in poverty and humility. Man’s king believes he is a god. God’s king becomes man. Man’s king exercises his power to control those under him. God’s king exercises His power in weakness to save those under Him.

And again, on the second Christmas, the Christmas of the Gentiles, we are reminded of God’s subversively hidden way, not the way of power and might, not the way of politics and palaces, but the way of poverty, meekness, lowliness, and strength exercised in weakness where throne and cross merge as one.

The star brought them to Jerusalem and Herod’s court, but the prophetic Scripture brought them to Bethlehem. They had to look it up. They got all the priests and theologians and Torah scholars together and asked them where the King was to be born. And they go right for it. The prophet Micah: In Bethlehem of Judea.

Bethlehem, the name means “house of bread.” David’s birthplace and Rachel’s burial place. A little afterthought of a town outside of Jerusalem, where the real “power” was. But again, God chooses the lowly and the meek to shame the powerful and the wise, His ways always subverting man’s ways in an undertow that drags the high and mighty from their thrones and humbles the proud in their conceits. O little town of Bethlehem. House of bread. Judah’s breadbox where the living Bread from heaven came to be born of His virgin mother.

So off they go to Bethlehem, urged on by Herod who wants to kill this threat to his throne, and the star appears again in the sky, like a GPS, giving them great joy because who else would they know where to go, guiding them to the very house where the child was. No more manger crib for this little One; now He’s staying with relatives in a house. And now these Persians come up the drive and knock at the door, and you can just imagine the confused look on Mary’s face when she sees camels on the front lawn, even though Isaiah had spoken of it centuries before:

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.

Even more, these strangers from the east immediately bow down with the foreheads pressed against the ground as soon as they see the Child. And they came with gifts! Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Costly gifts, the finest they things they had, they offer to this humble little Child, and they worship Him as a god for God He is.

Some people see symbolic value in the gifts, and there is no harm in that. In all likelihood, they were simply treasures of great value. They would come in handy to pay for the flight to Egypt that was about to take place. But you can’t help but think of the symbolic value of each of these treasures. Gold fit for a king. Incense which was usually offered a god. And myrrh, a resin associated with burial. This is the God-King who came to die, and in their own symbolic way, the gifts proclaim Him.

Kings thought they were gods. This little King is God in the Flesh, the eternal Son, the Savior, the Son of David. What the wise men saw was a little child, perhaps a year or so old, playing at His virgin mother’s feet. But they believed the prophetic Word and the sign of the star, and through the eyes of faith they saw and worshipped the King of all kings and offered Him their gifts.

The outsiders are now the insiders. Those who stood on the outside of Israel, are now in the presence of Israel’s last and greatest King, the promised son of David. This is that great “mystery” of which the apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians, how the Gentiles are now fellow heirs with Israel of the promise of salvation in Christ. The first Christmas was for the Jews, the circumcised, the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But this Christmas is for the Gentiles, those who were once not God’s people who now, by the grace of God in Christ have become the people of God.

Gathered here this morning on the Christmas of the Gentiles, you are much like those astrologers from the east. You have been guided to the Christ Child by Word and sign, Word and sacrament. God has shined the light of His Word into the darkness of your own sinful hearts, once alienated from God and lost. Christ, the morning Star, has dawned for you by His Spirit. You have been guided to the house where God’s Child, His King, is here hidden for you under the signs of water, word, bread and wine. As real and tangible a presence as that little Child at the Virgin’s feet.

You have been called, gathered, enlightened, sanctified, and kept in Christ. The wisdom of this age, or any other age, cannot compare with the wisdom of this Child who is the wisdom of God. All the science and knowledge of man must eventually bow, like the wise men, with faces to the ground, humbled before Him who is the wisdom of God. Every throne and power of this world will eventually bow before this King of all kings. There is coming a Day when every knee will bow – in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue will confess Lord Jesus Christ to the glory of the Father who sent Him.

Like the wise men, you too leave your gifts behind. The wealth of your time, your treasure, your talents. Your offering is your gold, frankincense, and myrrh, a recognition that Christ is Lord of all you have and the source of every blessing, and a thank offering for all that He has done to save you by His dying and rising.

The magi were going to return to Herod. But a warning in a dream sent them home by a different way. Not the way of King Herod, which leads to death. But the way of King Jesus, which leads to life. You too will go back to your home, your family, your vocation. You will leave this place where God’s Child meets you and go to your own home. There are always two ways – the way of man’s king and the way of God’s king, the way of this world and way of the kingdom of God.

You are baptized. You are communed in the Body and the Blood of God’s King. You are His priest. He has put you on a new road, a new way, the way of forgiveness, the way of resurrection, the way of life, the way of Jesus.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

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