Merry Christmas of the Gentiles!
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The text for today is our Gospel, Matthew 2:1-12, which has already been read.
The text for today is our Gospel, Matthew 2:1-12, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Merry Christmas! Actually, to be more specific: Merry Christmas of the Gentiles! Those of you who follow the Church year perhaps noticed that yesterday was the twelfth and final day of Christmas. Today begins Epiphany, the season in which the Child who was born in Bethlehem is manifested to the world as God.
Epiphany has been called the “Christmas of the Gentiles,” because the story of the magi has been associated with it. The magi were the first Gentile worshipers of the Messiah. Until then, the only ones to worship Jesus were Israelites: a bunch of shepherds from the fields near Bethlehem, and Simeon and Anna in the temple courts in Jerusalem. But the magi were Persians, (from the region of modern day Iraq and Iran). They were about as uncircumcised and Gentile as you could get. Yet, they, too, come to worship the Child and acknowledge Him as King and God.
And since most of us probably don’t have a drop of Jewish blood in us, this is a big day for you and me, too. So, in case you still wanted to hang on to Christmas, go ahead for another week. It’s Christmas of the Gentiles—Christmas for the outsiders, for the nations, for you and me.
Epiphany is a great story. It’s where we get the fun stuff of Christmas—the star atop most Christmas trees, all those Christmas lights, and the whole notion of giving gifts. And we have Matthew to thank for it. Though Luke’s Gospel is more Gentile-oriented, it’s Matthew who tells us about the magi: partly because it’s all prophesied in the Old Testament, and partly to remind his Jewish readers that Israel’s Messiah comes for all and not just for a chosen few. As Isaiah foretold: “Nations shall come to Your light, and kings to the brightness of Your rising.”
Yes, the feast of Christmas is over; and yet it has only begun. God has let the word out because He can’t keep a secret—at least not one that’s this filled with Good News. Angels announce the birth of the world’s King to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem, but God chooses a different media for the Gentiles—a star, visible in the eastern lands. And here, another marvelous reversal takes place: Israel was once carried off into exile in the east to live under a foreign king, and now astrologers come from the east seeking the newborn king of the Jews.
No one really knows what the star was. Some think it was a natural phenomenon. The best explanation I’ve heard alone those lines is that it was an unusual alignment of Jupiter and Saturn that might have caught the sharp eye of the astrologers. Genesis tells us that when God made the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day of creation, He set them in the sky “for signs and for seasons.” Perhaps the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn had been set from the foundations of the world so that they would shine at just the right moment for the magi to see.
Others think it was a supernatural star, placed there by God specifically for that purpose. After all, stars don’t stop over specific houses in Bethlehem, or anywhere else. In the end it doesn’t really matter whether or not it was natural or supernatural. It was in God’s hand and He is able to accomplish His purposes however He sees fit. I can’t understand how He does many things, nor would I be able to do so, even if He lay all out the steps, the principles of astrophysics, and the complicated calculations necessary to pull it off. I certainly can’t understand how stars in the sky—ordinary or miraculous—stop over houses. But this one did!
Suffice it to say that those who worshiped the stars are now taught by a star; and by a star they are guided to the true Sun of Righteousness. The magi see the star and somehow conclude that a great King has been born. So they get their gifts together, pack their provisions, and set out on the dangerous seven hundred mile journey across the desert.
Seven hundred years earlier, Isaiah had prophesied: “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.” As the Queen of Sheba once visited King Solomon to see for herself his renowned God-given wisdom, so the magi come with their gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh to pay homage to the little Christ Child who is King of kings and Lord of lords, eternal Wisdom and eternal God veiled in human flesh.
Their first stop is Jerusalem. If a king of the Jews has been born, it makes sense to check in at King Herod’s palace. But it turns out that there weren’t any baby boys bouncing around the Herod household that year—which was probably a good thing, since Herod eventually murdered his wife, three sons, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, and whoever else threatened his reign. (You think your family holiday gatherings can get tense!) The proverbial word on the street in Jerusalem is that it’s safer to be one of Herod’s pigs than to be one of his sons.
Herod was more than a bit insecure. Part of it stemmed from his own roots. He was an Edomite, a son of Esau, not an Israelite. Hardly a proper “king of the Jews” as he proclaimed himself to be, but a murderous, paranoid, psychopathic imposter. He tried to buy the people’s affections with political pork projects, as insecure politicians are wont to do. He renovated the temple and restored much of its former glory. But everyone knew the dirty little secret that Herod was hardly a king much less a Jew. He was a puppet of the Roman government, a figurehead.
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews,” the magi ask, thinking perhaps Herod had had a son and they could welcome the little king into the world. But as I already mentioned, Herod’s sons are an endangered species, and Herod is deeply troubled at their question. So is all of Jerusalem. Something fishy is going on here. A king of the Jews has been born and these pagan astrologers seem to be in on the news before it even makes the headlines in Jerusalem!
Herod has no clue about the true king of the Jews, so he calls in the chief priests and the scribes and asks them where the Messiah is supposed to be born. They point to the little suburb of Jerusalem, by way of the prophet Micah: “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.”
Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, the shepherd-king. It was the burial place of Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. It was the place where lambs were raised for sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem. Bethlehem’s name means “house of bread.” And so it is in Bethlehem that the Bread of Life is born, King David’s promised descendant, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Bethlehem finds it ultimate purpose in Jesus.
So off to Bethlehem the magi go, and the star reappears, and like some divine global positioning satellite, guides them to the house. God reaches out. He wants the whole world to know about Jesus, to come and worship Him. He gives them signs to follow—a star in the eastern sky. He gives them a prophetic Word. Through Word and star they come to Jesus, a little child, perhaps one, no more than two, years old. An ordinary toddler hiding behind the skirts of His mother.
But this is no ordinary child; He is the promised Child, God’s Child, the Child of the woman who will crush Satan’s head. And the world—represented by the magi—have come to see for themselves what God has given to the world.
The magi fall down on their faces, and they worship Him. They worship a little kid! Shepherds kneel before His manger; magi bow in homage before Him. He doesn’t look much like a king. His mother certainly doesn’t look like royalty. There is no halo shining around His head like the old paintings. He looks no different than any other toddler in Bethlehem. Yet through the Word and the star, God has opened the eyes of the magi, making them wise beyond their wisdom, revealing the marvelous mystery that this Child is a King unlike any other.
They open their treasure boxes, costly gifts of gold and incense and myrrh. In some ways, prophetic, though I doubt they intended it that way. Gold is a gift for a king. This is King David’s Son, the Ruler of the universe, the King of all kings and Lord of all lords. Incense is a gift for a god. This little Child is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God. Myrrh is the gift of suffering and death, used in medicine and for burial. This Child comes to suffer, to die, to be buried, and rise “for us men and for our salvation,” for Israelites and Babylonians, for Jews and Gentiles, for everyone in the world.
In this morning’s Epistle, St. Paul calls this a great and wonderful mystery, the Mystery who is Christ, hidden from the ages, revealed by the Spirit through the holy apostles and prophets. This Mystery that the Gentiles are co-heirs together with Israel in the one body of Christ.
“What does this mean?” you may wonder. What does this epiphany to Gentiles mean to us living in small-town, rural America in the 21st century?
It reminds us, first of all, of our universal need. We are all poor, miserable sinners. We are all, are by nature, little King Herods. You may not like to think of yourself that way, but you need to recognize it, and own up to it. We do not want competing kings. We want to be king—in charge, in control. We want no one over us. The news of this Child is not welcome news to the old Adam in us. Herod may say he wants to worship Jesus, but he actually has other plans. He wants to get Him out of the way; He wants to kill Him.
Oh, I know, you wouldn’t want to kill Jesus, especially the cute two-year-old version of Him. But you might want Him out of the way when He interferes with you being the lord and master of your own life. And therein is the Herod in each of us. Think of how we bristle and bridle at being told what to do. Think of all the ways we make excuses and justify what we do to those who threaten our reign. But Christ the King came to save such would-be kings as you and me.
Epiphany also reminds us that no one has a monopoly on the Christ Child. Jesus may be a Jewish boy, born to a daughter of David, whose bloodline flows back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the Jewish Messiah, who is the Glory of Israel, is the Light who brings God’s light to the nations. He is the true King of the Jews. He’s the Lord of the nations—even those nations who don’t know Him or acknowledge Him. He’s God’s gift to the world. Every sinner is spoken for in His death, every sin is atoned for in His blood.
At the same time, this text also teaches us that though there are many “religions” in the world, there is only one Way, one Truth, one Light and Life of the world. God has only one Son, and His name is Jesus. But God is gracious and merciful—even to those who don’t know Him. He provides a star, a shining ray of truth in the pagan stargazers’ religion to draw them to hear the Word of the Savior. Whatever truth there may be—in religion, philosophy, science, in all the wisdom of the ages—every truth has its source in the Truth Incarnate, Jesus the Christ.
Having bowed down before the world’s Christ, the magi are different men. Who wouldn’t be changed? They go back to their homes by another way. You could say they lose their religion to find the Truth in the Child named Jesus. And there is coming a Day to end all days, when every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess what the wise men learn that day—this Jesus is the Lord and Christ of all. You’re in on the Mystery ahead of time. Consider yourself blessed by God.
Finally, epiphany reminds each of us how privileged we truly are as baptized believers. You, too, have been guided to the place where you might bow down and worship our Savior. Not by a star in the sky. More likely, it was the word of a godly parent, a believing co-worker, or friend. And you didn’t have to go on a 700 mile journey through the desert. You simply had to get out of bed this morning and come to this place where the Word is preached and Jesus’ body and blood is given. Here is your Bethlehem, where He manifests Himself to you personally.
You’ve come to Bethlehem today, where God’s Son Jesus, who is Lord and Christ and Savior, is here to receive you, to wash you and feed you, to send you out as lights into this dark world. Every Sunday is another “epiphany” where Jesus makes Himself known to you, revealing the Mystery of your inclusion in His saving death, bringing light and life to your darkness and death. What a gift! A Gift that keeps on giving!
Merry Christmas of the Gentiles! “You are forgiven for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.