EPIPHANY 2017

SCRIPTURES – Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12; Ps. 72

Behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. (Isaiah 60:2)

 

This story of the visit of the Magi, which is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, is a story that is shrouded in mystery. It begins with the Magi. Who were they? We credit them with greatness. “We three kings of Orient are,” we sing; but they’re called Magi, not kings, by Matthew. Ancient Babylonian writings speak of a group called Magi, but indicate they were relatively powerless servants of the king. So, maybe we should just stick with calling them the Wise Men, as do some Bible translations. But, were they really all that wise? Sure, they consider a star to be a sign and follow it. But, they go to Jerusalem – the wrong place – and there are easily deceived by the scheming and murderous King Herod. Their gullibility almost leads to disaster for Jesus! So: who were the Magi? Wealthy, and somewhat naïve, foreigners; that’s about all we can say.

 Then, there’s the mystery of the star. What was it? A common natural explanation is that it was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which did occur several times around the time of Jesus’ birth. But, this would not have been all that bright. It also would not have behaved as did the star the Magi followed, which seemed to disappear and then reappear, and even moved and guided them to an individual house. No star we know of does this. The star of Bethlehem is a mystery!

 This is fitting, for there’s much mystery surrounding the child to whom the star pointed. Who is Jesus? With their eyes the Magi see a young Jewish child, about a year or so old; the son, not of royalty, but of rather poor parents who live in a probably rented house in the little village of Bethlehem. Ignoring the poverty and humility they see, they bow down before the child and His mother and present them with fabulous gifts. Why? It’s not only the star. It seems they listened to the Scriptures; specifically, the book of Micah, which the Jewish priests and scribes quoted to them: “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.” This newborn king they sought – born in Bethlehem, and not Jerusalem – will not only be a ruler; he will be a shepherd! He will not rule harshly over his people, as did Herod and many other kings, demanding obedience and service. Instead, like a shepherd, he will serve them to help them and keep them safe! This is what the Magi hear. And so, they follow the star, find Jesus, and present their gifts to him.

 And in this, the final mystery of Matthew’s Gospel is seen: the mystery of faith. Why doesn’t anyone in Jerusalem go with the Magi to find the one who had been born King of the Jews, their Messiah? It’s sad that not even one of the priests and scribes, who had longed all their lives for His coming and eagerly studied the Scriptures to learn of Him, joined them. A similar thing happened the night Jesus was born. When the shepherds were told by an angel of His birth, they not only went to find Him and bow down before Him; they also went throughout Bethlehem telling others of the angel’s message and His birth. But, we hear of no one else going to see Him. Many heard, but few believed and went to see and worship. It is so to this day, as I have seen throughout my 30 years in the Ministry. No matter how much I urge and encourage people to come to their Savior and bow down before Him in worship, few do. I mostly fail in getting them to realize and believe that Jesus isn’t simply everywhere. He is somewhere. He is where His Word and sign are, and it is there that God directs us to find Him and worship Him.

 The lack of faith of even God’s people is enough to make one despair; but we should never do so! We have the good news that Jesus came as a shepherd, and not just to the Jewish people. In Jesus God receives and blesses all, no matter how foreign or strange or foolish – or even sinful. He receives everyone who humbly rejoices in Jesus and honors Him and falls down before Him. And, although He is worthy of our greatest gifts and sacrifices, God doesn’t receive us because of them. For, God is the One who has given the greatest gift: He has given us His Son. He receives us because of Him. God sent Him as a shepherd, to help us by the greatest service: giving Himself into the rebellion of our sins and their dishonoring of God to be the sacrifice that covers and forgives them. Hold to Him and follow Him in faith, and God will forever receive you.

 Learn from Matthew’s story of the Magi, and of the mystery of Jesus. Do not be afraid to follow wherever He leads you by His Word and however they direct you in your life, even if it is hard and involves sacrifice. He will be with you and be guiding you as you follow Him, and will bring you into the presence of Jesus! But if, instead, you want control and rule and want things to go your way in life – this is what Herod wanted – then Jesus will be a mystery to you. If you come to hear of Jesus and worship Him, and even sacrifice your time and your effort and your treasure for Him, but only when you’re getting what you want and finding your life to be good, then your faith won’t last. When troubles come – which they surely will – then you will question His love and mercy and hold back your worship and your gifts.

 Our God has come to us in mercy, in the weakness of our very flesh. Life and salvation are found in our humble Lord Jesus; and they are revealed and given to us in the simple gifts of Scripture and sign:

Ø  The prophecy of Micah and the star for the Magi.

Ø  The words of Jesus with the water of Baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion for us.

They hold before us the mystery of Christ, the mystery of faith, a mystery that God rewards with the gift of Jesus, and the receiving of our gifts – of our very lives! – in Him. To Him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory and praise forever!