In the Name of Jesus
The Epiphany of our Lord, A
6. January 2008
Our sermon text for this morning, dear brothers and sisters, is from St. Matthew’s Gospel where the holy evangelist writes: Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying: ,,Where is he having 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 frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and gathering together all the high priests and scribes of the people, he was asking them where the Christ is to be born. Then they told him: ,,In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ,And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the princes of Judah; for from you will come a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called the magi and ascertained precisely from them the time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying: ,,Go and search diligently for the child, and as soon as you shall find him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they left and behold, the star which they saw when it rose was going before them until it stood still above the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And they went into the house and saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped him and opened their treasures, and presented him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And being directed in a dream not to return to Herod, they returned to their own country by another way. This is our text.
It’s Epiphany, and the magi from the east have arrived in Bethlehem to worship the newborn king. These eastern sages were more than mere ,,wise men”; they were astronomers and astrologers; they interpreted dreams for kings and princes; they counseled the rulers when to go to war and when to settle for peace; they studied religion and prophecies.
Yahweh got their attention. Since their focus was always in the heavens, God gave them the sign of a star. The Greek word translated as ,,star” can also refer to a planet or other astronomical bodies in the heavens, such as a comet, a meteorite, or a nova. Shortly before Jesus was born, Jupiter and Saturn conjoined in the constellation of Pisces. A year later Mars joined Jupiter and Saturn in a conjunction that – after the Moon – was the brightest object in the night sky.
We have demythologized the heavens in our pursuit of scientific knowledge, but to the ancients, and especially the Persian magi, events in the heavens meant something. Jupiter was the king’s planet, and Saturn represented the defender of Palestine. Mars was the bringer of change. Pisces represented Syria and Palestine. The magi saw this conjunction and realize that a king has been born in Judah, and not just any ordinary king, but a king of kings, on the scale of Alexander the Great or George Washington.
How did these magi know about the promised messiah? When Daniel was part of the Jewish Exile to Babylon in 587 B.C., he and other Jewish men eventually joined the caste of the magi; Daniel soon became Nebuchadnezzar’s most trusted advisor. Daniel taught the other magi the messianic prophecies from Moses and the Prophets, including the star as the symbol of the Messiah: ,,A star will rise from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel” (Numbers 24,17). When they arrived in Jerusalem, they learn from King Herod and the scribes that the messiah was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem.
The political and religious elite in Judah failed to honor and worship the fulfillment of God’s holy word, while the magi – known for their paganism and idolatry faithfully – journey to where Jesus is, worship Him, and give Him presents. Luke also reminds us that the first to pay homage to the newborn Christ were the shepherds – men and boys who were not the most respected members of Judean society.
The liturgical season of Epiphany reveals the ways in which God’s glory manifested itself through Jesus. Matthew shows us that even the Gentiles are blessed by the arrival of the Christ. The Prophet Isaiah says that the Christ is for the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles: nations will walk in your light, and kings in the brightness of your rising (Isaiah 60,3).
But how will this divine blessing be received? Will we receive it like Herod and the chief priests who rejected God’s savior? Will we receive it like the shepherds and the magi who received and believed in God’s savior? Knowing the holy Scriptures is not enough. The priests and the scribes knew the Scriptures; they knew the prophecies about the Christ. They knew, but they did not believe. The holy Scriptures, the star, the magi, and countless other signs that heralded the birth of God’s Christ should have given King Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes’ great joy and an earnest desire to go to Bethlehem and see the King of kings.
The magi and the shepherds heard the proclamation and received God’s word with gladness; they went and saw the newborn king. The magi even brought gifts for the King of kings. We know the Scriptures; we come and worship Christ each week; but what gifts will we bring to Jesus? Our King of kings deserves our very best – the first fruits of our talents and possessions. He doesn’t want us to be merely religious or spiritual – the priests and the scribes were certainly that! – but Jesus also wants us to honor Him, bow down before Him, worship Him, and give Him our very best whether that be worship, stewardship, or helping a neighbor in need.
In the science-fiction TV show ,,Babylon 5", this question is asked to each of the major characters early in the first season: ,,,Will you follow me into fire, into storm, into darkness, into death?’” (Straczynski 22:01). In a similar way, Christ asks the same of each of His disciples. If we say ,,yes”, then know that Christ brings life, couched in the promise of death, and salvation, disguised as defeat. Jesus promised His disciples that He was on the path to suffering and the cross, and that through this death He would bring eternal life to the world. The death and burial of Jesus looked like a defeat, but the empty tomb proclaimed it to be our salvation. The King of kings is the First and the Last, the living one; He died, and behold He is alive forever more, and Jesus now holds the keys of death and Hades (Revelation 1,18).
Jesus is much brighter and more spectacular than the ,,star” that heralded His birth. He is the Light to the nations and the Glory of Israel.
The shepherds came first and paid homage to Jesus. God shows us that His salvation is for the poor as well as the powerful. Economic or social status won’t bar us from God’s salvation. Then the magi arrive and worship Jesus. God shows us that His salvation is for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Ethnicity or nationality won’t bar us from God’s salvation. The magi were among the first of many people who would come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and worship Christ the newborn king. They were the first to give Him gifts, but they were not the last. So we gather each week and give gifts to Jesus, and much more do we do for our neighbors during the week in the name of Christ.
We’ve been drawn by the star. Not some celestial object in the nighttime sky, but the Star of David who is Jesus the Christ. He has drawn us to Himself, and once we have been captured by the gravity of His divine love and salvation we continue to revolve around Him, soaking up the warmth of His forgiveness and grace. All that goodness and mercy is packed into a little human body not more than two years old. ,,There is one Lord, one Christ, one Israel, one Church, and one plan of God for our rescue and completion” (Nagel 42). That Christ is Jesus, the firstborn son of Mary, and the glorious light of salvation for the entire world. Amen.
Let us pray. O Holy Spirit, Your word is our light and guide, which draws us to Christ the King of kings. He is not a king of sin, death, and hellish fire, but a King of righteousness, life, heaven, and salvation. For we need a King who is able to make us, lost and condemned creatures, righteous again, redeem us from sin, death, and the devil, and bring us to heaven and everlasting life (Luther 207). Amen.
All Scriptural quotations are translations done by The Rev. Peter A. Bauernfeind using the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 4th Edition © 1990 by the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart and the New Testament Greek Manuscripts, Luke © 1995 by Reuben Joseph Swanson.
All quotations from the Book of Concord are translations done by The Rev. Peter A. Bauernfeind using Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, 12th Edition © 1998 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
Luther, Martin. The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 5. Eugene F. A. Klug, Ed. Copyright © 2000 Baker Book House Company.
Nagel, Norman. Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel: From Valparaiso to St. Louis. Frederick W. Baue, Ed. Copyright © 2004 Concordia Publishing House.
Straczynski, J. Michael. Babylon 5. ,,Parliament of Dreams”. Copyright © 1993 PTN Consortium and Warner Bros. Television.