Our text is today’s Gospel (Matthew 2:1-12): 1 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, 2 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.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6 “ ‘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.’ ”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And 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. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 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. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (ESV)
Today’s Epiphany Gospel is like a play with each set of actors playing their part. Let us consider each in turn.
First, there is King Herod. He is the first Herod, not to be confused with his son Herod Antipas, who ordered John the Baptist to be beheaded. History knows this Herod as “Herod the Great”, not simply because he was the first Herod, but also because he accomplished great things, the greatest being the building of the Jerusalem Temple, the same Temple from which Jesus drove out the moneychangers. But this Herod was also ruthless in his thirst for power and control. Anyone whom Herod perceived to be a threat to his throne, he would kill, and that included his own wife and three of his sons!
One day, Herod the Great wakes up to discover that there are strangers in town asking a very disturbing question: Where is the King of the Jews who has been born?. You can just imagine the shock and the rage that shook the heart of this man who wants to maintain his greatness at all cost! And, of course, knowing what Herod did to his own wife and sons, we are not surprised at all when Herod gives the appearance that he wants to worship the child when all along he intends to kill this newest threat to his throne.
But in this case Herod is outmatched, for the child he seeks to kill is the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed. Herod is just one in a long line of rulers who have worked against God. From Pharaoh ordering the death of Israelite baby boys to the current communist regime in China oppressing the Church and arresting Christians and even to our own provincial government forcing Christian doctors to go against their conscience and to make a referral, when asked, for medically-assisted suicide, earthly authorities have fought against God and have persecuted His Church. Now, of course, we are to view government and leadership as gifts from God. But we should also remember what David said in Psalm 2, that often the kings and rulers of the earth set themselves against the Lord and against his Anointed (v. 2).
And so, we should not be surprised at all when the Herods of this world fight against God. But we also know that God works great good out of the tyranny of such tyrants. Herod thought he was accomplishing a powerful deed when he killed all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under. But all he succeeded in doing was to bring them that much sooner to the safety of heaven. In the face of such sad slaughter, and the rivers of blood mad men have spilled ever since, the Church finds comfort in our Lord’s words: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).
Herod is not the only actor on the stage of today’s Gospel. There are also the chief priests and the scribes. Can you imagine how frightened they must have been when Herod summoned them to his court, demanding them to tell him where the Christ is to be born? Of course, they knew the answer. They knew the ancient prophecy from 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. But then, notice what they did not do. Along with the rest of the Jews, these chief priests and scribes were waiting for the Messiah. And here, suddenly, were these Gentiles asking where the King of the Jews had been born. And these priests and scribes knew. But they did not go to seek out the King. Bethlehem is only nine kilometres south of Jerusalem. They could have easily journeyed that far. But they didn’t. Perhaps it was out of fear of Herod. But perhaps they themselves did not want their lives disrupted by a King who would command their complete allegiance.
And is this not true today as well? There are those who grew up knowing that the answer to life is Jesus. But now they don’t follow Jesus. Perhaps they are afraid of what their friends would say. Perhaps they know that Jesus would demand their complete allegiance. They know that to follow Jesus, they would have to deny themselves and take up their crosses. And that they are unwilling to do.
Thus far, two sets of actors. King Herod, who fights against the Lord and His Anointed, the Christ Child. And the chief priests and scribes, who know the Scriptures but who refuse to go to the place where the Christ is to be found.
And then there are the wise men. We do not know much about them. It’s a popular notion to think of three wise men, but that’s only because there were three gifts. And contrary to the famous Christmas carol, they most certainly were not kings. And they were not even wise, at least not wise in terms of truth and piety. It is unfortunate our English translations refer to them as wise men at all rather than using the much more accurate word “Magi”. Magi were servants—advisors— to a king. Some of them, like the prophet Daniel, were quite wise indeed; but others were rather lacking in that department. Much like a politician today may be shrewd and crafty and even smart without necessarily being wise. I think you get the picture.
Now, the main point about these Magi is not their number or their wisdom or even their gifts. The main point about these Magi is that they were Gentiles. That is what the early Christians reading Matthew’s Gospel would have noticed right away. To the Jews, the Gentiles were foolish. And that is why this account of the Magi is so shocking. The early Christians would have responded by saying: “well look at that! God revealed the truth about the Christ Child to a bunch of pagan fools while those who were wise enough to figure it out for themselves missed it.”
Do you see? The Magi, the supposed wise men, are great fools. What great fools they were to follow a star and the word of the prophet Micah, leading them to the Lord’s Anointed. And what great fools they were to treat a child like a King, falling down before Him in holy reverence and giving Him gifts worthy of a King. Those passing by must have thought “some wise men! I thought they were looking for a king, but here they are, bowing before a child.” But do you see? By all appearances, this Christ Child is not a king, for He is born in poverty, in weakness, in humility. But faith pushes through what looks like nothing and sees that this is everything.
And so it is with us. To the unbelieving world, we must look like great fools. Worshiping Jesus, “who is alive,” we say, “risen from the dead, and ruling and reigning with the Father in heaven.” But our eyes see no such thing. Our eyes do not see Jesus; our eyes do not see His kingdom. But God gives us faith, a faith that pushes through, hearing the word and promises of God. And this faith knows and believes that Jesus is alive, sitting at the right hand of God the Father, interceding and praying for us.
Oh, the world must think that we are great fools, coming on a Sunday morning and falling down before bread and wine and taking, eating, drinking, believing, and rejoicing. What utter foolishness to those who believe only what they see with their eyes. But faith sees, faith pushes through, faith sees, not with the eyes, but with the ears: “This is My Body; this is My Blood.” Faith hears and believes, and comes and kneels before Jesus, our King, and receives from Him the heavenly treasures of life, salvation, and the forgiveness of all of our sins. And faith rejoices.
There is yet one more actor in today’s Gospel drama, and He is also acting on the stage of your life. Well, really, He is not just an actor but the director. Of course, I am talking about God. It was God who moved the Magi to journey to the Christ Child, guiding them by the star and the word of the prophet Micah. It was God who gave them faith to reverence the Christ Child as King. And it is this same God—the Holy Trinity—who has brought you to faith in Christ. And in all your struggles and sorrows and sufferings, it is God who is always acting through Word and Sacraments to keep you faithful unto death.
The world is full of those who fight against God, like Herod, and those who refuse to follow Jesus, like the chief priests and scribes. And apart God’s grace in Christ Jesus, you and I would join that crowd. But thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit has called us to faith by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to save us and to make us His dear brothers and sisters. And so, when you come to worship in the Lord’s house and when you kneel at the Lord’s table, you come like the Magi of old, as great fools in the eyes of the world, as fools for Christ. Yes, when you worship and kneel here, before Jesus, you worship and kneel as the Magi did, over two thousand years ago; you worship and kneel before Jesus, your Lord and Saviour and King. And so rejoice this Epiphany. Rejoice that Jesus is manifest to you. Not in the shining star, but in God’s Word and in His gifts of Holy Absolution and the Lord’s Supper. He is here for you, for your salvation. Amen.