Today is the twelfth and last day of the Feast of Christmas. One last day to rejoice in the incarnation of God, munch one more Christmas cookie, open one more present, if there are any left under the tree, if the tree is still standing. Or simply sit back and delight in this little sentence of Christmas in the creed: “For us men and for our salvation, He came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” For us men, He became man. For all of humanity, all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, God the Son, the eternal Word, became a human being.
That brings us to Epiphany. We’ve made things easy for you and moved Epiphany, which is January 6th, up to today, so you wouldn’t have to come back to church tomorrow evening. The word “epiphany” means appearing or manifestation. It usually referred to the appearing of a god in human form. There was a king with a bit of an ego problem back in the 1st century before Christ named Antiochus who called himself “epiphanes” because he thought he was a god.
Our eastern Orthodox friends celebrate Epiphany as the Baptism of our Lord, because it was at His Baptism that Jesus made His first public appearance as the Son of God. That comes next Sunday. In the west we celebrate epiphany as the visit of the magi, those mysterious magicians who came from eastern lands to worship Jesus and to present their gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh.
Epiphany is also called the “Christmas of the Gentiles,” because the magi were the first Gentile worshippers of the Messiah. Until then the only ones to worship Jesus were Israelites – the insiders. A bunch of shepherds from Bethlehem, and Simeon and Anna in the temple. But the magi were Persians, probably from Babylon (Iraq today, by the way). They were about as uncircumcized, non-Israelite, Gentile goyim as you could get. Yet they too come to worship the Child and acknowledge Him as King and God. Since most of us don’t have a drop of Jewish blood in us, this is a big dayfor us too. So in case you still want to hang on to Christmas, go ahead for another week. You don’t have to pack it in just yet. Christmas for the Goyim, the outsiders, the Gentiles. The Baby born to Mary is the world’s baby, and today the world sends it’s wise men to worship Him.
Epiphany’s a great story. It’s where we get the fun stuff of Christmas – the star atop most Christmas trees, all those Christmas lights, and the whole notion of giving gifts. And we have Matthew to thank for providing it to us. It probably would have been more along Luke’s way, since Luke’s version of the Gospel is more Gentile-oriented. But it’s Matthew who tells us about the magi, partly because it was all prophesied in the OT, and partly to remind his Jewish readers that Israel’s Messiah came for all and not for a chosen few. “For us men and for our salvation,” as we say.
Matthew tells us that sometime after the birth of Jesus, a star appeared in the eastern skies and was spotted by a group of Persian astrologers. No one really knows what that star was. Some think it was a natural phenomenon. The best explanation I’ve heard along those lines is that it was an unusual alignment of Jupiter and Saturn that might have caught the sharp eye of the astrologers. Genesis tells us that when God made the sun, moon, and stars on the 4th day of creation, He set them in the sky “for signs and for seasons.” Perhaps the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn had been set from the foundations of the world so that they would shine in the east at just the right moment for the magi to see it. Some think it was a supernatural star, placed there by God specifically for that purpose. After all, stars don’t stop over specific houses in Bethlehem, or anywhere else. Though, to be honest, I’m not quite sure how stars in the sky, ordinary or miraculous, stop over houses.
Suffice it to say that those who worshipped the stars were now taught by a star, and by a star were guided to the true Sun of Righteousness. The magi saw the star and concluded that a great King had been born, and so they got their gifts together, packed their provisions, and set out on the dangerous journey across the desert. Their first stop was Jerusalem. If a king of the Jews had been born, it makes sense to check in at King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem.
Well, it turns out that there weren’t any baby boys bouncing around the Herod household that year. Which was probably good, since Herod eventually murdered his wife, three sons, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, and whomever else threatened his throne. The word on the street in Jerusalem was that it was safer to be one of Herod’s pigs than to be one of his sons. And you can imagine that this bunch of Babylonian star gazers looking for a newborn “King of Jews” would pique Herod’s interest. He calls in the teachers of the Torah and asks them where the Messiah was supposed to be born. And they flip the prophetic pages to the prophet Micah who, seven hundred years before had written,”
&nbsk;&nbsk;&nbsk;&nbsk;But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
&nbsk;&nbsk;&nbsk;&nbsk;Are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,
&nbsk;&nbsk;&nbsk;&nbsk;For out of you will come a Ruler
&nbsk;&nbsk;&nbsk;&nbsk;Who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.
So off to Bethlehem the magi go, and the star reappears, and like some divinely ordained global positioning unit guides them to the little house at the end of the block where they knock on the door and find a young mother with her little child. They fall down on their knees and touch their foreheads to the ground, the deepest sign of respect there is in the middle east, and they worship the little Child with their gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh.
Now stop and consider for a moment that Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, the shepherd turned king of Israel, and that the name “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” Israel’s bread box where the true and living Bread of Life was born, you begin to see the fingerprints of God all over this episode.
And just in case you need a little more convincing that this is no coincidence, there is the oracle of the reluctant prophet Balaam back in Israel’s infancy who said: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth.”
Then we have the Queen of Sheba coming to visit King Solomon, David’s son and successor, and leaving a bunch of valuable gifts – gold, spices, precious stones.
And there’s Psalm 72, which recalls that event and says of the messiah-king: May the kings of Tarshish and the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring him gifts!
And finally, the prophet Isaiah: 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 proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Here they are, men whose forefathers once took David’s children captive into Babylon with the sword, now come bearing gifts, to worship David’s Son. Who for us men, for all mankind – for the Israelite, the Babylonian, for everyone in the world – He came down from heaven and was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man.
In this morning’s epistle, St. Paul calls this a great and wonderful mystery, the Mystery who is Christ, hidden from the ages, revealed by the Spirit through the holy apostles and prophets. This Mystery that through the good news of Jesus, the Gentiles are co-heirs together with Israel in the one body of Christ. God has brought all things together under one Head, this divine-human Child born of Mary, who brings wise men to their knees in worship.
What does this mean, you may wonder. What does this epiphany to Gentiles mean to us living in suburban America in the 21st century, with rumors of war against the descendants of those magi from the east?
It means, first of all, that God is a sneaky fox when it comes to mission work. We sometimes don’t give Him enough credit for being crafty. We think that God can only work in certain ways, especially ways that are under our control, and apart from them, well, sorry, God’s hands are tied. Who’s going to preach to the Babylonians? Who’s going to tell them the good news that a Savior has been born to them too, who is Christ the Lord? The shepherds heard the voice of an angel. God sends a star to the east to catch their searching eye. It’s God’s way of saying, “He’s for you too. Come and worship.”
Second, epiphany reminds us that no one has a monopoly on the Christ Child. He may be a Jewish boy, born to a daughter of David, whose bloodline flowing back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But this Jewish Messiah, who is the Glory of Israel, is the Light who brings God’s light to the nations. He’s the true King of the Jews; He’s the Lord of the nations, even those nations who don’t know Him or acknowledge Him. He’s God’s gift to the world. The Father sends the birth announcement out far and wide – as far as the east is from the west. Jesus is not simply the Messiah of Israel or the Savior of Christians, He’s the redeemer of the whole world. The arms of this Baby embrace the world, just as He would later embrace the world in the darkness of His death. Every sinner is spoken for in His death, every sin atoned for in His blood.
Third, the gifts of the magi remind us of who this Child of Bethlehem is and what He will do. I doubt that the Magi fully understood the meaning of their gifts. They were probably bringing the most expensive, portable gifts they could – gold, incense, myrhh. Each suggests something important about Jesus. Gold is the gift royalty. This is King David’s Son, the Ruler of the universe, the King of all kings and Lord of all lords. Incense is the gift for a god. This is little Child is God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God. Myrrh is the gift of suffering and death. It was used in medicine and for burying the dead. This Child came to suffer, to die, to rise, “for us men, for the whole human race, and for our salvation.”
Fourth, the magi teach us that though there are many “religions” in the world, (today more than ever, and stranger than ever), there is only one Way, one Truth, one Light and Life of the world. God has only one Son, and His Name is Jesus. God is ever merciful and gracious – even to those who don’t know Him. He provides a star, a shining ray of truth in the pagan star gazers’ religion, to draw them to Bethlehem where they can meet the Truth incarnate.
Whatever truth there may be – in religion, in philosophy, in science, in all the wisdom of the ages – every truth its source in the Truth Incarnate, Jesus the Christ. Having bowed down before the world’s Christ, the magi were different men. Who wouldn’t be changed? They went back to their homes by another way. You could say they lost their religion to find the Truth in the Child named Jesus. And there is coming a Day to end all days, when every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess what the wise men learned that day – this Jesus is the Lord and the Christ of all. You’re in on the Mystery ahead of time. Consider yourself blessed by God.
Finally, epiphany reminds each of us how privileged we truly are as baptized believers. We too have been guided to the place where we might bow down and worship our Savior. Not by a star in the sky. More likely, it was by the word of a godly parent, a believing coworker or friend. And you didn’t have to go on a 700 mile journey through the desert. You simply had to get out of bed and come to the meeting where the Word is preached and the Supper of Jesus’ Body and Blood is given. Here is your Bethlehem, your “house of bread,” where He manifests Himself to you personally. You don’t have to ride a camel across the desert to worship Jesus. You don’t need a star to guide you.
You’ve come to Bethlehem today, where God’s Son Jesus who is Lord and Christ and Savior is here to receive you, to forgive you, to wash and feed you, to send you out as lights into this dark world He died to save. Every Sunday is another “ephiphany” where Jesus makes Himself known to us, revealing the Mystery of our inclusion in His saving death, bringing light and life to our darkness and death.
O come, let us adore Him.
In the name of Jesus,