Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
By fortunate circumstance due to the cyclical and predictable nature of the calendar, the Epiphany of Our Lord falls on a Sunday this year. By even greater circumstance, but by no means a random one, you get to be in the house of our Lord on the Epiphany of Our Lord. Whether you’re our congregation’s littlest believer—like Olivia Suanne [who will be baptized at the 10:40 service]—or whether you’re pushing your way into your ninth or tenth decade of faith, you aren’t here on account of your own goodness. You’re here because by God’s grace and His election, you’ve received your own “epiphany of your Lord” somewhere along life’s path.
But just what is an “epiphany”? We know it has something to do with something being revealed which had previously been hidden, or at least obscured. Certainly the people of the world, even the people of Israel, didn’t have a full understanding of who God was and how He was going to accomplish their final salvation prior to the coming of Jesus Christ. There were plenty of prophesies of how this would happen, of course. Some we heard today, from the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson, and from the quotation from Micah used by Herod’s advisors to direct the wise men to Bethlehem.
These small clues gave the people of ancient times a bit of a puzzle to consider. Each little revelation put more information at their disposal, and some eager souls attempted to predict the when and where and how of the coming of the Messiah.
It wasn’t unlike those in our own day and age who attempt to use the far fuller content of our complete Scriptures to predict the time and place and circumstances of the Savior’s Second Coming at the end of time. Of course, to do this, they have to set aside Jesus’ own words that tell us that no one can predict it, for no one knows these things but the Father alone. Too often, though, in ancient times and now, all the speculation on the when and where and how of the coming of Christ misses the what and, more importantly, the why.
But speculation like this will always abound. It is part of our sinful nature to want to calculate, or speculate, or just plain guess about things which God in His wisdom has chosen to keep hidden from us for the time being. The ironic flip side of that, of course, is that so many times we want to ignore that which He has revealed to us.
Consider, for example, that which we know and what we don’t know about the wise men, or magi, who came to worship the one born King of the Jews. We know that they came from the east, but we don’t know how far from the east, or that is was necessarily due east. We can speculate, as others have, that they might have learned the teachings about the Savior of Israel from Jewish exiles who lived in Babylon or Persia. But they could’ve been from Arabia, or even from as far away as modern day India or China. We just don’t know, and we ought to be humble enough before God and with one another to admit that.
With apologies to Christmas card artists and hymn writers, too, we don’t know if these wise men “Three Kings of Orient Are.”. The Bible doesn’t say they were kings, nor does it say there are three. Isaiah does prophesy that kings will come to the brightness of the Messiah’s rising, but we can’t connect that verse directly to this particular visit with certainty.
And, although there were three gifts brought to the child Jesus—gold and frankincense as Isaiah mentioned, and also the myrrh which was commonly used to prepare the dead for burial, three gifts does not specifically equate to three visitors.
What about the legend that the three wise men were called Caspar, Melchior, and Belthshazzar, or names similar to that? There’s no biblical mention of names. They are probably something that cropped up in the Middle Ages in misguided attempts to answer people’s curious questions, instead of directing them to what is important in the story.
Also of legend rather than biblical is the idea that the wise men rode camels. Again, Isaiah mentions that camels of Midian and Ephah and Sheba shall come. But Matthew’s account doesn’t document their mode of transportation. There’s nothing wrong with picturing the wise men coming on camels, but there’s nothing to make it a point of certainty, either.
Lastly, our nativity scenes which show the wise men standing reverently around the manger while shepherds are quaking and cattle are lowing could use a little biblical corrective, too. Matthew writes that the wise men came into the house and saw the child. Clearly this wasn’t the Bethlehem manger scene.
Nor was it likely that Jesus was a newborn infant at this time. The term translated as “child” generally didn’t apply to brand-new babies. Usually it didn’t get used until he or she was at least a year old.
Herod inquired about the time of the star’s appearing, and then later killed all the male children near Bethlehem who were two years of age or younger. Therefore, Jesus may have been a bit older by the time the wise men arrived. It’s entirely possible that the place the star went to rest was not over Bethlehem at all, but rather over Egypt, where Jesus and His family fled to avoid that slaughter of the innocents, and lived until Herod’s death.
“So, what’s your point, Pastor?” you might be asking. “Are you just trying to ruin my sentimental impressions of Christmas? Trying to upset my childhood memories or confuse us with lots of details?” No, not really. My hope in confronting you with such things is that you’ll be encouraged to read the Scriptures not just more often, but also with a greater eye for what they contain and what they do not. Often we hear people say, or we might even say ourselves, “Well, I think the Bible says such-and-such…” But unless we know what it actually says, offering our opinion can be dangerous to them and to us.
When we actually turn to the Scriptures, we may find that what God has revealed is significantly different, or are is silent on the topic. It’s sinful for us to quote God’s Word inaccurately for purposes of convincing people of our own ideas, rather than His. We have likely all fallen victim to it—perhaps many times—and for that you and I ought to repent and beg God for forgiveness of that sin.
Another hope I have in suggesting that you consider the content of Scripture more discerningly is that you’ll begin to see the connections God has put there for us much more clearly. Yes, the Bible is a difficult and mysterious book in many ways. But sometimes we make it much more difficult than it needs to be, because we want to carve it up into isolated snippets rather than trying to see the rich, broad intricacies of its tapestry. We want to use particular proof-texts to win ego-building arguments, rather than to convey the wholeness of God’s Law and Gospel message to a fallen, lost, and dying world.
Again, we should repent of our failings, for the power of God’s Word is not to be used for our own purposes, but for the His glory and the benefit of others. Pray for the motivation to more diligently and deeply read His Word, for the Spirit’s guidance for better clarity of understanding it, and finally for the courage and opportunities to share that understanding with others, so that they might have their own “epiphanies.”
If we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit to seek the greater understanding, God will not disappoint us. He will overcome our sinful desire to shape or twist His Word for our own purposes, so that He might accomplish His greater good. He will help us to see how Matthew’s account of the wise men’s visit truly does connect with Isaiah’s prophecy, with Micah’s, and with the entirety of all the other Bible books, too. After all, they are ultimately the work of God, not the writers.
The wise men’s visit shows us several things. First of all, it illustrates how the message of God’s salvation in Christ had reached out into the world even before His coming in the flesh. The wise men were not just sitting around one night, observing the sky, and suddenly came to the conclusion on their own that the new star indicated the birth of a king to the Jews.
This idea had to have been planted in their minds from some source with an understanding that the coming of the final great King of Israel would be accompanied by great signs, specifically including a great light in the heavens.
This is not just the “brightness of His rising” foretold by Isaiah, but is also connected to the prophesy of Balaam way back in the book of Numbers. You may recall that Balaam was summoned by enemies of Israel to curse them while they journeyed to the Promised Land, but Balaam instead blessed them on account of what the Lord revealed to him.
Among these revelations, recorded in Numbers 24, was that a star would rise out of Jacob, that is, out of Israel. A special star or other astronomical events such as comets or meteors was taken to symbolize divine validation of a king’s right to rule.
Balaam also prophesies there, “Edom shall be dispossessed.” It’s no coincidence that Herod, the king who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth, was not an Israelite king at all, but an Edomite who had been installed by the Romans as their puppet ruler. When the wise men appeared, telling him that a star had arisen in Israel to indicate the birth of a Jewish king, he had good reason to fear for his rule. The Scriptures said that Edom would be dispossessed. He, like those from other rulers and nations of the region, knew enough of history and the Jewish religion to realize that God often worked on behalf of Israel through supernatural means. Herod’s interest in the location and identity of this potential rival is quite understandable. The deception and violence he uses in response, however, are manifestations of the same evil inclinations we exhibit whenever we seek to shape things to our desires, apart from the revealed will of God.
The second important point of this lesson is that the Scriptures are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Even though Herod used Micah’s prophecy about the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem for despicable purposes, it nevertheless shows that Jesus’ miraculous birth took place exactly where God had revealed it would, long before. For nearly 700 years, since the time of Micah, that information might have seemed of little importance. In its fulfillment, however, suddenly those few verses take on incalculable significance.
Thirdly, when the star finally stopped where Jesus was, and the wise men reached the end of their journey, they were pleased beyond measure. The text says, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” They were beside themselves with ecstasy! They may not have realized just what sort of king they were about to encounter, but even though he was merely a child at this point, they knew that something great had come into their lives.
If only we experienced such joy when we come into contact with our heavenly king! Our life of faith is more than just an emotional experience, of course, and if our emotions are what drive our spiritual well-being, we’re seriously messed up.
Even so, how often do we allow our faith to be lived out in cold drudgery or bland routine? The Creator and Redeemer and Sanctifier of the world has come to you! He has chosen you to be His own, to receive the favor of His forgiveness, even to give you eternal life with Him in heaven! You should not just be excited about that, you should be joyful, thrilled, energized, and motivated to seek and follow His will!
A final key point of this lesson is that God continued to reveal Himself to the wise men even after they had followed the miraculous star and met the miracle of God in the flesh. He used other miraculous means—a dream—to show them His will. By this, He prevented them from going back to Jerusalem, and protected the young Savior so that His plan and timetable of salvation would not be interrupted or short-circuited by Herod.
God does this for you, too, even today. He continues to reveal Himself to you in miraculous ways: The spoken word brings God’s power into your lives, each time you hear the declaration of absolution or the proclamation of the Gospel for the forgiveness of your sins. He brings you not gold, frankincense, or myrrh, but the far more precious gifts of His own body and blood, satisfying your spiritual hunger and quenching your soul’s thirst, even as it burns away your sins with a power brighter and hotter than that of any star.
Maybe, like little Olivia this day, faith came to you as an infant or young child as you were brought to the font by loving, believing parents and given the Holy Spirit’s gifts by water and Word. Maybe, like others, you were reached later in life through the proclamation of that same Word, and the Spirit chose to enlighten your heart with the wisdom of the Gospel.
Either way is fine, really. God has chosen those means—Sacrament and Word, Word and Sacrament—to reveal Himself to us and to draw us near to Him. Through them, He grants us our own epiphanies. They may be personal ones, but they are not “little” ones, for the granting of faith is a tectonic plate-shift in our lives and in our standing in God’s eyes. No longer are you aliens, strangers, and enemies to God. Instead, you are made His very own children—reborn, not as kings or queens of the Jews, but as princes and princess of heaven and earth.
Rejoice that the Lord’s Epiphany has come to you, revealing who He is and re-creating who you are, so that you may join the wise men in “rejoicing with exceedingly great joy” at His coming to the world for your salvation.
In the holy name of our God, who has been made flesh and revealed to the nations, Jesus Christ. Amen.