Pastor Joel Leyrer - Epiphany Sunday - Sunday, January 3, 2021

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

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Dear Friends in Christ. One could easily make the case that after the birth of Jesus, the best-known event in the wider Christmas story is the account recorded in our Gospel lesson and serving as our text today – the coming of the Magi, or Wise Men.

We meet up with them every year on Epiphany Sunday. And for good reason. The overriding theme of Epiphany and the Epiphany season that follows is the blessed declaration that Jesus Christ is God’s gift to the world. These travelers from a distant land serve as a visual demonstration that Jesus Christ is an all-inclusive Redeemer; that he came to be Savior from sin for all people regardless of race, age, nationality, or social standing.

On the night of Jesus’ birth, a sky full of angels served as the Christmas messengers. In a sort of parallel sense, this morning we are going to hear from four different

EPIPHANY MESSENGERS

Each of them will provide us with a timeless and relevant truth.

Although it is familiar, let’s briefly work through the text.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” Exactly who these “Magi” or “wise men” were, we cannot say for sure. Many Bible scholars feel they were learned men from Persia or Babylon or Arabia, and that they must have been well versed in the study of astronomy. Scripture gives us no number and simply says they came “from the east.”

Various legends have grown up around these Wise Men. In the course of time, they’ve been assigned a distinct number, three, and the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. One legend tells us that their ages were 20, 40 and 60. Further legend has it that they were kings, and that individually they came from the lands of India, Egypt, and Greece; and that later in life they were all baptized by the Disciple Thomas. Even wilder legends say that through the years Christians kept track of where they were buried and eventually laid their bones to rest under one of the great cathedrals of Europe. Such legends, though interesting, are just that – legends.

What is not a legend is the reason for their journey. They came looking for the one “born king of the Jews” with the specific intent “to worship him.” If we wonder how these people from a far-off land knew about the Savior, recall that God’s Old Testament people spent a period of 70 years as captives in that part of the world. Perhaps these “wise men” had been exposed to the Scriptures and the promise of the Savior during that time, making them even wiser.

And, of course, God communicated to them in a very special way. A “star” – actually “his star” – indicated that the King had come. There is a lot of speculation on the exact nature of this star, but whatever it was caused a fire of inquisitiveness to burn within them. They then headed for Jerusalem, the religious capital of the Jews, where they felt they would surely be filled in on the details.

We’re told that when King Herod learned the reason they came to town, he became disturbed – as well as all Jerusalem. Herod was that lethal combination of unchecked ambition coupled with no conscience. He was ruthless and deadly when he felt he had been crossed, which was often, and history tells us that anyone considered even the slightest threat to his power soon disappeared. The citizens of Jerusalem knew his capabilities and put themselves on high alert.

Although an old man at the time, his lust for power was ageless, so in Herod’s mind any threat warranted investigation. He consults those who were learned in the Scriptures. They tell him the Christ child was to be born in Bethlehem, which he passes on to his foreign visitors: Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 

Herod, of course, had no intention of worshiping Jesus. His paranoia would soon lead him to engage in an act of barbarism unparalleled even for a gold star barbarian like himself – the slaughter of the babies of Bethlehem.

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. Having located Jesus – note they found him in a house, for this was well past Christmas Eve – these grown men do what they came to do:  they worship him. After this show of honor, they offer their treasures to him.

As one early church father put it, they gave him gold as to a KING; they gave him incense, as to GOD; and they gave him myrrh, as to ONE WHO IS MORTAL (myrrh was a spice used to anoint the dead before burial). Then, in opposition to the king’s wishes, our text concludes: And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Embedded within this story are four Epiphany messengers – each with an important and timeless lesson to share with us today.

The first Epiphany Messenger is the Christmas star. It was the guide. It led the way to Jesus Christ.

It is not difficult to find a parallel here. In the Book of Psalms we read: “Your Word [O Lord] is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.” It is God’s Word and God’s Word alone that leads us to a knowledge of and faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, if we wish to draw into an even closer relationship with Jesus than we already have, we must study the Word just as the Wise Men studied the star. Because they both lead to the same place.

Bible reading is doable in a number of ways, and maybe you have your own system. But if you do not, consider following the guided Bible reading plan with notes on our St. John website and the printed trifold pamphlet available in the narthex. This year there is a daily reading from the Old Testament, New Testament and the Poetry or Wisdom books of the Old Testament. Follow this “star” and by this time next year you will have read the entire Bible.

Regardless of whether our Bible reading is systematic or sporadic, any time spent reading the Bible personally reinforces the blessed truth that God’s Word is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path.

The second Epiphany messenger(s) are the Wise Men. The lesson from them: Worship the King, for there is nothing more important.

Think of what these Wise Men did. First, they left everything to find Jesus. For them, this was job number one. In that way they were living examples of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Seek first [the kingdom of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Next, they worshiped Jesus. They recognized who they were (sinners) and who he was (their Savior). Try to picture the scene. There is something profoundly moving about grown men in rich adornment and with precious cargo in hand bowing down before the Baby of Bethlehem.

Finally, they brought him gifts. What they gave him was their best. No afterthoughts as they were loading up the camels. No blue-light specials. No regifts. But treasures.

Their message is clear. As with them, so with us: Jesus Christ is worthy of being our number one priority. He is worthy of our worship. He is worthy of our best gifts.

Wise men and women still seek Jesus. We also recognize that any treasures we lay at his feet are but the smallest token of the riches he gave us: the treasure of eternal life in heaven, and until that time comes, the treasure of a fulfilled life here on earth.

The third Epiphany Messenger is King Herod. His lesson is this:  allegiance to Jesus Christ often draws fire and brings adverse reactions from people.

Herod felt threatened by Jesus Christ. There was no reason to be, but he did. In the same way, people often feel threatened by believers in Jesus Christ today. Not in the physical sense, but in the sense that some feel we are trying to make moral judgments on them; that we are somehow trying to challenge them by our very existence. And it often irritates them.

Maybe you’ve already experienced this. If we are living for our Lord and devoting ourselves to our Christianity, some people are going to react in a negative way, just like Herod did toward Baby Jesus. In fact, just being who we are – and whose we are – can lead to remarks that we as confessing Christians come off as “holier than thou” or dismissive charges of being “Bible thumpers” or “overly religious.”  

This is becoming increasingly prevalent as more and more people move farther away from Biblical principles and values and redefine sin in a way that makes it acceptable. For Christians to simply disagree with the changing moral landscape in our world often brings charges of being intolerant or unloving or, worst of all, being judgmental.

It is just a sad reality that there are as many enemies of the cross of Christ as there are friends. We, as Christians, can expect to catch some flack, ruffle some feathers, and disturb some people as we simply seek to live out our faith.

The fourth and final Epiphany Messenger is Baby Jesus. His lesson is this:  He is Lord of all.

Jesus came for those Wise Men. Jesus came for Herod as well, although Herod rejected him. And Jesus came for all of us. He came to live the perfect, sinless life which God demands of us, but which we cannot give him. He came to die the death that we as sinners deserve. He came to rise from the grave to confirm his credentials as the divine Son of God and verify that his mission of redemption was complete. He came to live for us and in us, and so that we can live for him and in him.

Bottom line:  Jesus Christ, the sinless, crucified, but risen almighty Son of God is the world’s Redeemer. He is the Lord of our lives and Lord of all lives, even though many may not know it, or care to know it. To make Jesus known to those who still “sit in darkness” is central to the message and meaning of Epiphany.

Therefore, today and throughout this Epiphany season let us simply bask in the light of the Savior who has been revealed to us. And may the lessons of the four Epiphany messengers we have considered this morning – the star, the Wise Men, King Herod, and Baby Jesus – always stay with us and guide us. Amen.