Epiphany January 6, 2008
136, 105, 131, 89
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.
In the name of Jesus, the Christ-Child, dear fellow believers:
Is Bill Gates a wise man? If wisdom is measured by business savvy and wealth, then he is the wisest of the wise. Is George Bush wise? If wisdom is a matter of political power, then without doubt he is wise. Was Charles Lindbergh wise? If a spirit of bravery and adventure qualifies, then he was very wise. The Magi who visited Jesus were all of these: knowledgeable, wealthy, powerful, and adventuresome. Yet what made them truly wise was none of these things. In fact, what made them wiser than most people of their day and ours is regarded as foolishness by the world. The apostle Paul wrote: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world…For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:20 NIV). So the question before us is: What made the wise men wise, and are we wise?
How wise is it to leave behind a secure and comfortable life in the royal court and strike off into uncharted territory on a journey through 500 miles of desolate desert? The Magi were intelligent, well-educated men, and yet they did just that. They made it safely to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem because they had sure guidance for their journey in the star. That special sign from God led them to the very house where Jesus was. We don’t know how they connected the star with Jesus, but it is likely that they were acquainted with God’s promises through the Jews who had been living in the area of Babylon ever since the years of captivity. They may have known the Old Testament prophecy of Balaam: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17 NIV). What made the wise men wise was not their own learning and experience, but that they followed the guidance of the Lord through the star.
Are we wise? That depends on what we follow. We just began our journey into the uncharted territory of a new year. By what are we going to set our course? Are we going to follow our own whims and wants and do whatever feels good at the moment? That is a dangerous and foolish route. Our sinful nature is hostile toward God. It wants the opposite of what God wants. It will lead us farther away from God rather than to Him.
Are we going to follow the crowd? There is a feeling of safety in numbers. If everybody else is going that way how wrong can it be? But that is not very wise either. Think of what happens on the road during a blizzard. One driver goes off the road because he can’t see, and four or five others follow him into the ditch. “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 6:13-14 NIV).
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (cf. Proverbs 1:7). Just as He led the Magi with the star, so He guides us with the light of His holy Word. As long as we look to it, we will never be lost. Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Are we wise? When we keep our eyes on the Lord’s Word and follow it alone, we are just as wise as the wise men.
What were the wise men looking for? It might seem as though they already had everything they could possibly want. They had the best education of the day. They were honored advisors to kings. Yet they came to Jerusalem looking for more. “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” [v.2] They were looking for a king greater than the king they served, greater than King Herod, and even greater than Caesar Augustus. They were wise in doing so because while earthly kings can protect their subjects from earthly enemies, they cannot protect against the much more powerful forces of sin and death. The wise men did not have to search for a king who ruled by force over a kingdom. There were plenty of rulers like that. They were looking for a king who would rule by love in their hearts eternally. The Lord had promised that King would come from the Jews, but that He would also be the light of the Gentiles.
Are we wise? That depends on what we are seeking in life. If we are looking for an earthly kingdom and things such as material wealth or possessions, then we are not very wise. Then we are like the farmer Jesus spoke of who was very good at producing bumper crops and building bigger barns, but who ended up losing his soul to eternal death, because he rejected the lasting spiritual riches God offered him.
We often hear that life is all about exercising our freedoms and spending money. But there is a much wiser priority. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal…But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:19ff. NIV).
The truly wise follow the light of the Word to the King of kings in Bethlehem. He sets us free from the guilt of our sin, and gives us victory over death itself. He rules in love and gives us the peace which nothing can destroy. He graciously provides for all our needs of body and soul. He protects us from every evil. Are we wise? We are when we seek the King who reigns eternally.
Were all the miles and hardships of the journey worth it? The Magi may have wondered at times as they traveled. But once they entered the little house in Bethlehem and saw Jesus, nothing else mattered. These VIPs who were used to having others bow before them, bowed down with their faces to the ground in humility before Jesus. By faith they recognized their unworthiness to be in the presence of the holy God.
But their overwhelming emotion was pure joy! There were not enough words to fully describe it. “They rejoiced with exceedingly great joy!” [v.10] Their hearts were filled with gratitude that God loved them so much that instead of condemning them, He came to save them. They had never experienced anything like it before. What king would come not to be served, but to serve? What king would humble Himself in order to suffer in the place of His subjects?
The Magi joyfully worshiped the Christ-Child with actions and words of praise and also with their gifts. They had brought along the best of what they had: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They offered these to Jesus as an expression of their faith and love for Him who loved them.
Are we wise? That depends on our attitude toward worship. If we come here just because we are supposed to, or because others will ask questions if we don’t, then we are not wise. Then worship is just another obligation, like paying taxes or going to work. If we come here and see only a humble building and people who are far less than perfect, then we are foolish.
But if we are truly wise we will come to the Lord’s house for worship with a sense of great awe. In our worship we mortal sinners have the privilege of coming into the presence of the holy King of kings. We have nothing to be proud of, nothing to enable us to say, “Lord, you owe me.” We deserve nothing except God’s righteous fury against our sin. We are wise when we surrender all pride and kneel before the Lord in reverence confessing our sinfulness. That awe in the heart will show in how we dress in the Lord’s house and in the attention we give to His Word in worship services as well as in Sunday School and Bible class.
Humble awe leads to the greatest joy. We come with all our burdens, failures, and sins. But instead of condemning us or putting more obligations upon us, the Lord says, “I have done everything for you!” Our King took care of our obligation to live a holy life by keeping all the commandments for us. Our King took away the threat of punishment by suffering the punishment in our place. Nothing necessary for salvation was left undone. Jesus came and did it all!
That is what brings us here. That is what gives us joy. That is what gives us hope now and forever. And so we speak our thanks in our prayers. We sing our praise in our hymns. Our gifts, too, are a vital part of worship. It has been said that you can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving. When we recognize Jesus as our loving Lord and King, when we appreciate what He has done for us, our faith wants to show its gratitude in every possible way.
We are truly wise when we use the time the Lord has given us to read and study His Word and speak about His love to people around us. We are wise when we give the Lord our talents and serve Him by willingly cleaning His house, maintaining the property, teaching, working on a church board or committee, or by volunteering when we see a need. We are wise when we see our offerings not as an unpleasant drain on our personal finances, but as the opportunity to take a generous portion of what came from the Lord in the first place and use it to promote the spread of His Gospel both here and elsewhere.
Was it wise to travel hundreds of dangerous miles just to worship a little Child in a nondescript village called Bethlehem? Many would call it foolish, but then remember that God’s so-called “foolishness” is wiser than man’s wisdom. The Magi were truly wise for in following the star and in seeking Jesus they found their Savior and through Him eternal life and joy. May the Lord grant us that same wisdom, salvation, and joy as we travel through the new year ahead. Amen.
As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold;
As with joy they hailed its light,
Leading onward, beaming bright,
So, most gracious Lord, may we
Evermore be led by Thee!
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