Sunday, January 5, 2014
The Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord (observed)
Matthew 2:1-12; Ephesians 3:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
For those of you who have been attending my Bible Study on Matthew’s Gospel, you are already aware that there are many traditions, thoughts, and pieties concerning the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Magi that, when compared with the actual Scriptural account, are quickly seen to have been embellished, the fruit of speculation and conjecture, or, in some cases, plainly incorrect. This is most likely due to human desire and longing for sentiment and tradition than to any intentional or malicious attempt to obscure the truth. And, likewise, when long-held beliefs and assumptions are challenged by the plain words of Scripture, it is natural that one might feel threatened, defensive, or disillusioned. However, while this certainly does occur, truly there is no need for such a response, for, as Christians, we should all desire above all else that the truth of God’s Word be proclaimed, understood, received, and believed by all. Thus, when God’s Word confronts us with a challenge to our long-held beliefs and assumptions, we welcome the challenge and we embrace God’s Word, searching it for light and understanding, pondering, treasuring, and keeping it in our hearts and souls and minds.
Our Gospel text for today, the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, is, without question, one of those challenges. When we examine God’s Word in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, a number of the Western traditions and pieties concerning the Nativity of Jesus and the visit of the Magi that have been handed down to us are found to have little or shaky foundations in Scripture. These traditions have come to us in the form of nativity scenes and crèches, children’s Christmas pageants and programs, Christmas carols, films and books, art, and family customs. I know how loath you are to have these traditions and pieties challenged, and I know that you may feel a certain defensiveness to protect them. That’s ok; it’s only natural. However, there is another way of thinking about this – the way of the Magi themselves. For, the Magi came seeking Jesus in accordance with their traditions and pieties, following the star they had seen arise in the east. But, it was God, and not their traditions and pieties, that finally lead them to Jesus.
The first thing we must consider is who were the wise men, where did they come from, and how many of them were there? Though many English translations of the Scriptures call them wise men, the Greek word is magoi, or Magi, and it means magician or astrologer. Perhaps the Magi were considered wise by their countrymen, but they most certainly would not have been considered wise by Jewish standards, for they were not God-fearers and their astrology would have been considered a form of idolatry or worse. Likewise, there is no Scriptural indication that the Magi were kings of any kind. And, as there is no mention of the Magi being kings amongst the early church fathers, this tradition entered the church no earlier than the sixth century, likely due to liturgical use of Psalm 72 as we chanted in the Introit today.
The Magi had traveled from the East, most likely Persia and / or Arabia; notice, there’s no mention of camels either. They followed a star that had appeared in the heavens in conjunction with Jesus’ birth. The Scripture does not provide an indication of how much time had passed from the birth of Jesus to the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem, but it does provide us a few clues: First, the arrival of the Magi had to have occurred sometime between Jesus’ presentation in the temple forty days after His birth and the death of King Herod – for, sometime after Jesus’ presentation, the Holy Family traveled to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and Herod likely died circa 1 BC (Jesus’ birth being actually circa 3 BC). Second, the Greek word paidion translated as child in the text means a young child, but probably not an infant, since there is a different Greek word brephos for infant. Third, since Herod ordered the murder of all male children in Bethlehem two years or younger, this indicates that Jesus must have been less than, and no more than, two years of age. Thus, many scholars today conclude that Jesus was approximately two years of age at the arrival of the Magi.
Contrary to popular belief, the star did not lead the Magi to where Jesus was, initially, but to Jerusalem, to Herod the king. The Magi were none the wiser in this matter, for they were looking for a king, and it seemed reasonable to them that a king would be found in the king’s city and palace. This only goes to show that the Magi were not wise in the Word and Wisdom of God, but they were astrologers and purveyors of human wisdom with its sinful weakness and failings. Thus, in the darkness of their wisdom and knowledge, they divulged to Herod that they were looking for the newborn King of the Jews. Being a wicked, paranoid, and jealous ruler, this information caused Herod to devise a plan to eliminate what he believed to be a contender to his throne. Herod consulted the chief priests and the scribes to ascertain from the Scriptures where this prophesied child was to be born. They read to him from Prophets Micah and Ezekiel, “Bethlehem, in the land of Judah.” Then Herod commanded the Magi to find the child and report back to him that he might come and worship Him. Once again, according to their fallen wisdom, they were agreeable to this and proceeded on their way.
Then, God’s wisdom prevailed once again. The star the Magi had first followed from the East to Jerusalem now lead them, not to Bethlehem, but to “the place where the child was.” Many people believe that place to be Bethlehem, but the Scripture does not indicate that at all! First, we must recall that Joseph and Mary were not from Bethlehem, but they were from Nazareth in Galilee. They only traveled to Bethlehem to register for the census ordered by Caesar Augustus. While Scripture clearly states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in accordance with prophecy, there is no reason to believe that the Holy Family remained in Bethlehem much longer than was necessary for the registration and for the time of Mary’s recovery from giving birth. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the Holy Family remained in Bethlehem through the eight days until Jesus’ circumcision, and perhaps even the forty days until His presentation and Mary’s purification, but support for this view requires a discussion of yet another discordance with popular piety and tradition – that Mary had her first-born Son, not in a stable or a cave, but in the family room of a relative’s home which, in first century Israel would have included one or more mangers for the family’s animals that would be brought into the house at night. If you want to hear more about that, I’ll see you in Bible Study. So, where then did the star lead the Magi to? Most likely to Nazareth, to the home of Joseph and Mary. Matthew’s account supports this understanding by saying, “going into the house [the Magi] saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him.” Could this house have been the house of a relative in Bethlehem rather than the house of Joseph and Mary in Nazareth? Yes, that’s possible. However, the evidence seems more likely to point to the latter. In the case of the former, then I invite you, once again, to Bible Study.
And, what of the Magi’s gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Odd gifts for a baby or young child, right? In fact, they were gifts fit for a king, a king like Herod. Once again we see that the so-called wisdom of the Magi was really foolishness. The fact that three gifts are mentioned in the Scriptures is likely the root of the tradition claiming that there were three Magi, though there is no statement of such. Eastern Orthodoxy has a tradition of twelve Magi. Why not? Because the Word of God doesn’t say so, that’s why. Once again, however, God’s wisdom prevails. The gifts of Magi, wholly in spite of their wisdom, were prophetic gifts: Gold, for Jesus is the True King of the Jews, the Gentiles, of heaven and of earth; Frankincense, for Jesus is our Great High Priest who offered up His own life as a sacrifice to atone for our sins; and myrrh, for Jesus would die and be placed into a tomb – a tomb from which He would arise, the first fruits of those who trust in Him. After offering their gifts, the Magi, according to their wisdom, were set to return to Jerusalem and inform Herod that they had found the newborn King of the Jews. However, once again, God’s wisdom prevailed, and the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they departed to their own country by another way.
So, what can we conclude from all this? Well, we can conclude that, as much as we think we might know about the birth of our Lord and the visit of the Magi, we may not know as much as we think. In fact, it is most likely that our over-familiarity with the story has blinded us somewhat to the truth of what God’s Word actually says. However, we can also see clearly that God’s wisdom prevails over man’s sinful and fallen wisdom, that He is, in fact, working all things for the good of those who love Him. God guided the Magi to the child Jesus in fulfillment of Scripture that His Son would be the Savior of the nations, both Jews and Gentiles. God had Herod hoodwinked even before his devilish plan to murder the Christ-child entered his sin-crazed mind. God brought the light of His Word to bear upon and to shine within and overcome the darkness of man’s sin, ignorance, and death and, though they sought Him for all the wrong reasons, they found Him in humility and, by their gifts and worship, confessed Him to be God’s Christ and the King of heaven and earth.
Now, we see clearly, through the eyes of faith, what the Magi were lead to see by a God-guided star: This child is God’s gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation to the all men. When we approach Jesus, we approach God who dwells in unapproachable light. The visit of the Magi is good news for us: “The Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” We once were darkness, but now we are light in the Lord. After having received our Lord and King in Word and Sacrament and presented Him with our gifts, a living sacrifice, let us, like the Magi, not return to the darkness, but return home another way, sharing the Light of Christ with all whom God grants to cross our path.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.