How Wise Were They, Matthew 2:1-13, The Epiphany of Our Lord, January 6, 2019
Today is Epiphany, for those of us that closely follow the Church year calendar; today we get a rare treat. This year the day of “The Epiphany of Our Lord” falls on a Sunday. We should take special note and enjoy it, because we don’t often get to celebrate this day on Sunday. It only happens on the years when Christmas falls on a Tuesday.
Epiphany is also known as the Christmas of the Gentiles. It has also been called the Mission Festival of the Church Year, or the Festival of the Three Kings. The word epiphany is taken from Titus 2:11: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared (epephanē) to all men.” Epiphany’s emphasis is the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. St. Matthew’s account of the Wise Men’s visit to the Christ Child is the traditional Gospel lesson for Epiphany.
We know that there were three, from the familiar Christmas carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Of course, we don’t know if there actually were three kings, nor do we know they were really kings. That is a pretentious guess on our part that makes for a wonderful Christmas story. And that is why we like to include the (so-called) kings in our Christmas pageants. That is why nearly every nativity scene comes with three kings included.
For today, let us go along with the idea that there were three people, and they were kings. But just for the sake of imagination, let’s add one more. The one more king or Wise Man is you! For the sake of our story this morning, they invite you to join them on their trip. So far, so good, right?
So now you ask “what is the purpose of this rather lengthy ride?” The answer naturally comes back: “To worship!” You say to yourself, “well that sounds reasonable! And who is it that we are going to worship?” A very faith-filled answer returns: “A newborn king!” “And just where is this baby king?” you ask. “Well, that’s a good question; we don’t really know…we are just going to follow this star until we find him.”
By now you are beginning to wonder, just how wise these three really are. Imagine your inner turmoil as you try to arrive at your decision: “Shall I go with them or am I being deceived?”
Let’s get a clear picture in our mind of where you find yourself some weeks later. Here you are in a strange land, maybe you’re a Chaldean, or maybe you’re a Babylonian, maybe you’re from the land of Iran, but now you’re a foreigner in Palestine, among the Israelites, dominated by the Romans, asking the whereabouts of a Jewish baby king.
Now, you are more than a little curious, you really want to know, just how wise these three really are. The inner turmoil really is toiling as you wonder how wise am I for coming along? Surly I am being deceived?”
Your question about the whereabouts of a new king proves to be a very powerful, and controversial question. It is a question that produces conflict and anxiety. You are looking for a “king to be” in a land that already has a king! Well, obviously, Herod gets upset, since he’s the current king. But not only Herod is upset! The Bible says “all Jerusalem with him” became troubled at these visitors from the East. Just by asking the question, you have rocked the government and the church in this ancient world. An adult king thinks that he is about to be deposed of in favor of another king, a baby king!
Now, you’ve got a pretty good idea, just how wise these three really are. Imagine your inner turmoil as you wonder how wise you are for coming along? You must be being deceived!”
A royal council is hurriedly convened with this charge: “Will this king be another Caesar? Will this king be another Alexander?” You see, this is not a bedtime story. This is headline news.
It is headline news, but not because of its political consequences. It is headline news because God is touching earth. God does not ask us about our calendars. Nor does He ask about our time schedules. God does not ask about our priorities. He just comes “in the fullness of time.”
And so He comes in an event that still shocks the world. George MacDonald, Scottish author, poet, Christian minister and hymnist wrote:“They all were looking for a king, to stay their foes and lift them high.Thou cam’st a little baby thing that made a woman cry.”
Make no mistake, the Wise Men were not deceived. By faith they followed, and in faith they worshiped the baby King. They were asked to inform Herod of His whereabouts, yet, again they were not deceived: they never became instruments of evil. They found the place; they worshiped the Child; and they returned to their country by another way.
What is it that makes kings worship another King? What is it that makes Wise Men travel afar to worship Him? What is it that encourages you to join the three? What is it that makes us worship Him, Sunday after Sunday, this Person of a promise, this baby King? What is it that allows us not to be deceived?
The answer is as simple as it is peculiar. The baby Jesus whom we worship is the light. He enables us to see what otherwise we could never see. The baby Jesus fulfills all promises; He is Savior for all nations. The baby Jesus is our Savior, because He is someone special, someone unique.
According to Matthew, this baby King fulfills all of Scripture’s promises. “You, Bethlehem . . . are by no means least…” Herod and his men thought they were being cunning; but the Wise Men were wise, and wise men and women still worship the Christ child.
So we join the Wise Men in our worship. Because the Christ Child is not only the light for the Jews, but He also is the light that shines on the Gentiles, you and me. He is the light of the whole world. He shines on the disadvantaged and the handicapped, on the scholars and the superstars, on sports heroes and the wealthy, on the unemployed and those we might otherwise consider failures.
His light shines on us, who were strangers of God, foreigners of His people, nobodies to whom God owed nothing. His light makes us sons and daughters of God, members of His new covenant people, heirs of all God’s glorious promises. He is the light that shines in the darkness, to the very ends of the earth.
Most of Herod’s court and citizens never understood this unconventional fulfillment of Scripture. This caused the tension, which in the end brought the cross. But on that cross there is no deception: He carries all our sins. And through His innocent, kingly suffering, we are redeemed, delivered, and saved. He makes us children of the Most High.
There you are, with that group of Gentiles, who knew little of the true God, yet they drop everything and undertake a grueling journey to get close to the newborn King of the Jews. Meanwhile, God’s own chosen people, with years of Bible teaching, living just a nice little walk down the road from Bethlehem, sat there. They didn’t seem interested in what the Lord of mercy had placed in their own neighborhood.
You realize just how wise those men really were. You realize just how wise you are. You realize that God got His way, even if people did respond poorly. Even if Herod plotted and snuffed out the lives of many baby boys in Bethlehem in his attempt to kill Jesus, God got His way. He sent His Son. He moved His kingdom forward. He could do that with Herod’s help or without it, with a joyous welcome from Jerusalem, His people, or without it. If He had to do it without Herod, the religious intellectuals, His own people, then Herod and Jerusalem would end up being the losers.
We’ve just crossed into a new year. That fact should especially fill us with two thoughts: First, to thank God for all His kindness in the past, and that He has gotten us safely into 2019, for which we praise Him.
Second, each new year can remind us that time is ticking away. We’re coming that much closer to the end of all things, or to the end of our personal life, whichever comes first. Perhaps this is the last new year you’ll celebrate before Christ comes. Maybe 2019 is the final January that I’ll get to proclaim this Good News before the Lord takes me home.
You know, the television is filled with predictions of what we can expect this year in politics and money matters, and what we should do as a consequence. Maybe you set personal goals about what you want to accomplish with your money, updates you’d like to do on the house, family anniversaries, or other milestones for 2019.
My question for you this morning is how do you plan to spend 2019 in your life as a child of God? The Wise Men had to travel hundreds of miles to see Christ. You don’t have to go anywhere near that far. Be the instrument of God’s love and grace Jesus has created you to be in this coming year. He promises that He still speaks through your words. Don’t be afraid that you are not able. He uses unlikely and weak things, like tiny little mustard seeds. This doesn’t depend on us, but on Him. God has made so many wonderful promises to us about the way His kingdom works. It is time for us to trust Him, believe Him, and actually speak of this Jesus and His kingdom.
How wise were they? They were wise in many ways. First and foremost, they were wise in that they fell down before the Christ Child, worshiped Him, and offered Him their very best. As the Lord looks down today upon you, what does He see? Does He see His wise people among us? Where are the Wise Men today?
Whenever the saving news of Jesus is sounded, whenever the Holy Sacraments are offered as Jesus gave them to us, there you have the Christ Child! There He is, giving Himself and the free forgiveness for the sins. They are all covered over and blotted out of God’s memory by the blood of your Savior, Jesus, shed on the cross.
May the days of 2019, as many as you get, find you among the wisest of the Wise Men! Amen.