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Epiphany of the Lord (Observed)

Matthew 2:1–12

James T. Batchelor

Second Sunday after Christmas, series C
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  
Hoopeston, IL

view DOC file

Sun, Jan 3, 2016 

Officially speaking, today is the Tenth Day of Christmas, but we are observing the Festival of the Epiphany of our Lord because it does not fall on a Sunday this year.

The Gospel for the Epiphany is always the account of the Visit of the Magi as recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew.  This is one of the more popular and well known stories in the Bible, and as often happens when a story is popular, it has grown very much in the telling.  It is worth taking a little time to undo some of the non-biblical traditions that have grown up around this story.

First of all, the true vocation of these magi is a bit of a mystery.  Some Bibles refer to them as magi.  The English Standard Version that we recently read calls them wise men.  The song calls them three kings of Orient.  Magi is actually the closest to the Greek.  It is from magi that we get the word magician, but we also get the word magistrate.  The fact that they traveled based on the sighting of a star indicates that they followed the paths of the objects in skies.  So, these men are educated.  They must also have some wealth because they had the resources to put together a caravan so that they could travel from their native land to Jerusalem.  The best guess is that these were advisors and teachers to the rulers of their homeland.

The bible does not tell us how many there were.  We assume three because there were three gifts, but the Bible does not say.  There might have been three, but there might have been three dozen.  All the Bible tells us is that there were more than one.

Last week, we heard about Jesus in the temple at the age of forty days.  We know that the magi came after that.  I dont care how faithful you are; you do not bring your baby into the temple in Jerusalem when you know that the king in Jerusalem wants to kill your baby.  There is also the fact of the magis gift of gold.  If Joseph would have had the gold, he would not have offered up the poor mans sacrifice of two birds instead of a lamb and a bird.

We always picture the magi on camels, but the text says nothing about their mode of transport.  Perhaps servants carried them in sedan chairs.  Perhaps they rode in carts or wagons.  Again, the Bible does not really say.

What the Bible does say is that they followed a star.  Down through the years, many astronomers have tried to associate the star with a variety of astronomical possibilities an alignment of planets a conjunction of stars and planets explosions of super nova and so forth.  Given the description of the stars activity, my opinion is that this was a miraculous event specifically created for this time.

This mornings text says, 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. (Matthew 2:9, ESV) These words tell us that the primary purpose of the star was to guide the magi to Jesus.  Somehow this star stopped moving when it arrived over Jesus.  Ordinary celestial events never stop moving.

Now that we have all this background, a question comes to my mind.  Why didnt the magi keep following the star instead of taking the detour to Jerusalem?  At some point in their journey, they had to make a decision; Do we keep following the star or do we take this other road up to Jerusalem? The text tells us the decision that they made.  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. (Matthew 2:12, ESV) They decided to stop following the star and they went to Jerusalem.

From a human standpoint, this makes sense.  Who would better know the location of newborn royalty than the king who reigned in Jerusalem?  However, when they arrived in Jerusalem, they discovered that no one knew anything about the newborn king.  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. (Matthew 2:34, ESV) This response to their inquiry was probably a bit of shock and more than a little frightening.  After all, the historians tell us that Herod was pathologically paranoid and didnt hesitate to even kill members of his own family if he thought they were after his throne.

In response to Herods inquiry, the priests and scribes come up with a destination.  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. (Matthew 2:56, ESV) Once Herod had this information he 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. (Matthew 2:78, ESV) Of course we know that Herod had no intention of worshipping the child.  Instead, he hoped to assassinate Jesus in order to protect his throne.

God showed His mercy and grace again when the magi left Jerusalem.  He once again placed the star in the sky for the magi to follow.  This time the magi followed the star and it led them to Jesus.  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. (Matthew 2:9, ESV) The Lord brought the magi to Jesus by way of the star 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. (Matthew 2:11, ESV)

Tragically, we read nothing about the priests and scribes, or anyone else from Jerusalem joining the magi.  The priests and scribes had even better directions from God.  They had His word.  They even did research in that word while the magi were in Herods court.  Never the less, they missed out because, even though they actually knew Gods Word very well, they didnt believe it.  The magi came and went and the priests and scribes stayed in Jerusalem.  They missed out on the Messiah.

God led the magi to the Christ-child by way of the star.  When the magi decided to follow their own logic they got lost and ended up in Jerusalem in front of King Herod.  God did not abandon them, but continued to lead them when they left Jerusalem.  The priests and scribes, on the other hand, missed out.  The magi, who were from another country met the Christ-child.  The priests and scribes who should have known better missed out.

The chief priests and scribes are a warning to us.  They undoubtedly had most of Moses and the prophets memorized.  Never the less, when Jesus began fulfilling prophecy right and left, they missed out.  Even though they had a tremendous knowledge of Gods Word, they had become false teachers who abandoned the truth of Gods Word in favor of the erroneous word of man.  They had learned to twist the truth of God and teach lies instead.

Herod was willing to let the Bible direct him as to the choice of the next target of his reign of terror and at the same time reject that same Bible when it told him of his savior.  That may seem crazy, but think how often we are all too happy to use the Bible when it suits our purposes and discard it when it does not.  When we want to believe in a lie, we can cherry pick all kinds of Bible passages out of context to support the lie.  Yet, when it comes to the actual truth that the Bible really teaches, we somehow ignore it and even criticize it.  The devil, the world, and our own flesh are all too ready to mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.

God is so patient with us.  Like the magi, we often reject His guidance and follow our own logic.  Even though we reject Gods guidance again and again, He is always there, ready to take us back ready to provide us with the light of His Word ready to guide us to the Christ.  Just as He drew the magi to the Christ by the light of His star, He now draws you to the Christ by the light of His Word.

Herod wanted to destroy the Christ-child, but he would fail.  Never the less, the world would eventually execute the child that Herod wanted to kill.  In fact, the Christ-child that the magi worshipped had come into this world in order to die.  His death would happen according to Gods plan not Herods plan.  When the time was right when this child had grown into a man when that man had proclaimed repentance and the forgiveness of sins, then, when the fullness of time had come, God allowed men with evil intent to nail this same Christ to a cross.  He would die and conquer death with His death.  When He had overcome the power of death, He returned to life never to die again.  In this way, God intervened to save us.  The perfect life and sacrificial death of the Christ redeemed us from all our sins including our twisting of Gods Word and our other lies even the lies we tell to ourselves.

This work of salvation lay in the future when the magi came to worship.  Therefore, God moved in history to warn the magi and to warn Joseph.  The Christ had an appointment with death eventually, but not now.  God sent an angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him. And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. (Matthew 2:1315, ESV) God moved in history to protect His son Jesus as a child so that when the time was right that same child could move to protect us.

That special light in the sky was a unique invitation to those mysterious magi.  God chose to draw the magi to their savior in a special way.  Today, He still draws people to Himself.  When Gods Word has its way with us when there is no rationalizing away its true meaning, then the Holy Spirit uses it to draw us to Jesus.  When we try to twist and mangle Gods Words for our own purposes when we rely on our own logic or feelings instead of Gods Word, we will lose our way we will miss out.  When the Word of God works in us according to its truth and purity, the Holy Spirit will use it to build faith in us and give us forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.  Amen

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