Epiphany Sunday January 6, 2019
1 John 4:7-19
127, Worship Supplement 717 (alt. TLH 132), 126, 130
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
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 saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Dear fellow worshipers of the newborn King, Jesus Christ,
Today, January 6, is a Christian holiday that is largely overlooked. Usually by this time the hubbub and excitement of the Christmas season is over and done with. People have returned to their homes and their places of work. Many will begin the process of taking down their Christmas lights. Soon those colorful lights that have been brightening our homes on these long winter nights will be packed away. Most of those favorite Christmas hymns won’t be sung again for another year. Another Christmas has come and gone.
Yet on this day of the Christian calendar Christmas is not ending, but in a way it is beginning. January 6, twelve days after Christmas, has long been celebrated as Epiphany. The word Epiphany means an “appearance” or “manifestation.” During this season of Epiphany we will hear sections of Scripture that especially show the epiphany of Jesus as the Son of God, the Savior of ALL nations. On this day of Epiphany we hear how the young Christ Child was manifested to the Gentiles, in the persons of the Wise Men. Even as they were led by a light to this newborn King, let us consider the light that leads to Jesus. May God the Holy Spirit enlighten our hearts and minds by His holy Word. Amen.
I would venture to guess that most of us are pretty familiar with the account recorded in our text for today. Yet it is amazing how much has been added to these twelve verses of Scripture. How many wise men were there? What were the names of these wise men? What did their gifts represent? Were they really “Three Kings,” as the Christmas song goes? Scripture does not give us an answer to any of these questions. The most famous mis-conception about the wise men is that they visited the baby Jesus in the manger on the night He was born. This we can definitively reject as being false. We know they couldn’t have visited the Christ child on the night of His birth because immediately following their visit, Joseph, Mary, and the Child fled to Egypt. At the very least we know Jesus was over forty days old because He had been presented in the temple forty days after birth, with Mary, where Simeon held him in his arms—things which happened prior to the flight to Egypt and thus prior to the visit of the wise men.
There are some things that which prove helpful to know about the wise men. The Magi were a sort of scientist of those days who might have served in the court of a king, much as Daniel did for King Nebuchadnezzar. One particular area of expertise for these wise men was the study of the stars. There is one star in particular which captures their attention and leads them to “travel afar.”
While East of Israel and the Jordan River, possibly in the Babylonian territory, or modern day Iraq, the wise men notice the appearance of what they call “His star.” Almighty God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, had announced the birth of His Son with a special star. God divinely arranged things in such a way that the wise men saw “His star” and knew the King of the Jews had been born.
God has done the same for us, hasn’t He. He has divinely announced the birth of His Son, our Savior. Only for us He didn’t put a star in the sky, but His Word in the Bible. His Word which is a “lamp to our feet and a light to our path.” (Ps 119:105) His Word which guides us to Jesus. While we may think it would have been neat to be the Wise Men visiting the Christ-child, we are actually better off than they. Unlike that star, we have the full counsel of God in His Word. God reveals His heart to us in His Word. In His Word we also have the mystery of our salvation revealed in Scripture. As Peter writes, “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place.” (2 Pt 1:19)
As the Magi head west for Jerusalem they figured that if anyone knew where the King of the Jews was, it was His own people—the Jews. Arriving in Jerusalem they begin asking, “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.” Matthew records that “when Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” The reaction of Jerusalem must have seemed so strange to the Wise Men. These Gentile Wise Men had traveled to the Jewish capital city to worship the newborn Jewish King, and rather than finding a city in celebration they find a city that is literally “shaken up” at this news. This may seem odd, but it is not surprising. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel he records that the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. (Jn 1:11) This reaction of Jerusalem was a preview of what was to come for Jesus later on in His life.
Hearing of the Wise Men’s inquiry Herod turns to the Jewish religious leaders for an answer. The chief priests and scribes knew well the prophecies of where the promised Messiah, the King of the Jews, was to be born. Quoting freely from the prophet Micah they reply to Herod, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” These men knew where to find the answer—the Old Testament Scriptures; they knew where the Christ child was to be found—just six miles south of Jerusalem in Bethlehem; yet they themselves don’t care enough to see the Child themselves.
Not much has changed since that day when the Wise Men visited Jerusalem. The Bible is one of the most readily available books in our nation and in our world. Though read by man it is largely ignored. Some are mistaken in thinking that mere head knowledge about the Bible or Jesus is sufficient—just as the chief priests and scribes did. But Jesus rightly says, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Mt 15:8 NIV) Others, like Herod and Jerusalem with him, are troubled by what they hear in Scripture. They are troubled to hear that all men are sinners, incapable of getting to heaven on their own. “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” (Jn 3:19) The light that leads to Jesus is shining, but many continue to ignore it and are troubled by it.
After their secret meeting with Herod, the Wise Men leave for the City of David, Bethlehem. And who goes with them? No one! Though these Gentiles had traveled from afar to Jerusalem to worship the newborn King of the Jews, no Jews traveled the six miles to from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to see if the King had been born.
When they departed—alone—we are told, “behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Here we learn that this star, “His star,” is no ordinary astronomical event. The same star they had seen when they were out East, reappeared. This star was divinely placed by God and moved contrary to all other fixed stars in the sky. The light of this star led them south not merely to the city of Bethlehem, but the star led them to the very house the Child was in. It moved until it stood over the very house where the Christ child was. And when the star appear, we read that they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. Their journey was no mistake. God was with clearly with them and leading them to the newborn King.
Having been led by the star to the house where the young Jesus was, they came into the house and saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. How remarkable this sight is! What is there worth worshiping here? A young Child in His mother’s arms? Yet with eyes of faith they have no doubt what they are seeing—the promised King of the Jews. They fell down with their faces to the ground and worshiped this young Child as the King of kings and Lord of lords. It kind of reminds us of the repentant thief on the cross, calling the bloodied, crucified Jesus his “King.” With eyes of faith they look beyond the externals and see their Lord and King.
The faith of these wise men is not merely lip-service. As was the custom in the East at those times, gifts were brought for this new born King. Costly treasures of gold, frank-incense, and the spice of myrrh—gifts which would no doubt help this young family as they flee from Herod’s madness to Egypt.
Like the Wise Men, we too were born Gentiles, not natural descendants of Abraham. Yet we learn from our text that the King of the Jews was not born only for the Jews. No, God set a light in the sky to lead these GENTILE Wise Men to the Jesus. God made sure that these Gentile representatives would know His Son had been born and He led them to Jesus.
As far as I know there was no celestial event, no star, that led you from your home to your pew this morning. So why are you here? What are you here to do? I pray each one of you, like the Wise Men, are here to worship the King. You too have been led here by a divinely given light. Just as God used the light of a star to lead those wise men to Jesus, God has used the light of His Word to lead you to Jesus. Just as that star stood over the place where the young Child was, all of Scripture stands over Jesus and shines light on Him as the Savior of the world.
Just as God worked a miracle for wise men with the star, God has worked a miracle in you through His Word. It is through the light of this Word that God led you to Jesus. Through His Word, God came into your hearts and created faith. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” (Rom 10:17) Through the light of His Law He has shown you that you are a lost and condemned creature, as you confessed this morning. He showed you your desperate need for a Savior from your sins. And, thanks be to God, He has not hidden that Savior from you. Through the light of His Gospel He has shown you your Savior from sin—Jesus Christ and Him crucified. By this light God has shown you that Jesus was “delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.” (Rom 4:25) Through the light of His Word God has led you to Jesus Christ.
May you ever cherish the light which leads you to Jesus and never take it for granted or ignore it as Jerusalem did. May you ever follow the light of God’s Word as a lamp to your feet and a light to your path as you journey through this dark world. May you with the wise men be filled with exceedingly great joy knowing Christ Jesus came into the world to save you. Thanks be to God for this blessed Epiphany! Amen.
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