The Epiphany of Our Lord—3 January 2021
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Reading from Holy Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12 (ESV)
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.
Centuries before the birth of Christ, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the great Babylonian empire, had a troubling dream. He saw an image—an unusual and awesome statue made of a gold head, a silver chest, a bronze belly and thighs, iron legs, and iron and clay feet. This image was shattered into pieces by a large stone cut without hands. The stone then became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. But what exactly did this dream mean? None of his Magi or Wise Men could tell him what he had dreamed when he asked them, nor could they give an interpretation. Nebuchadnezzar then became furious and gave the command to destroy all the wise men of Babylon, including Daniel, an Israelite who had been carried into exile in Babylon. However, Daniel sought help from God, so that he might understand Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and so that he and his fellow wise men might not perish.
God answered Daniel’s prayer, and Daniel spoke to the king, telling him by divine revelation both what the king had dreamt and what it meant. Nebuchadnezzar was the great golden head of the image that he had seen—a king of kings on earth. And yet, his kingdom would be replaced by another, then another, and another, each kingdom weaker than the one before it. Until at last a great stone would crush and destroy all of them, and a new kingdom would be established forever and ever without end.
When Daniel had given this interpretation, Nebuchadnezzar fell down before Daniel, presenting an offering and incense to him, and blessing the Lord as the Ruler of all kings and the God above all gods. And he appointed Daniel as the chief administrator over all the wise men of Babylon, the head of all the Magi.
Now in this position, Daniel certainly taught the wise men under him about the coming Messiah, about the Saviour on whom Israel was waiting. For of course, the stone which destroyed the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was none other than Christ, the King of kings, whose kingdom will have no end. Daniel’s wisdom centered around God’s Word. One of the prophecies that Daniel would have spoken of was this one from Numbers: A Star shall come out of Jacob, a Scepter shall rise out of Israel (24:17).
In today’s Epiphany Gospel, the dream of Nebuchadnezzar is fulfilled. His golden kingdom is laid low, and his gold is given to the Christ Child. Babylon is now bowing down before the everlasting King of kings and offering its incense to the God of Daniel. These Wise Men learned well from their forefathers who were taught by Daniel. Seeing the Star, they were reminded of the true Star and light of Israel, and they traveled to find Him who is the Saviour of the world.
All of this is in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.…And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.…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. Just as the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar bowed down to Daniel and gave him gifts, so now these Babylonian Wise Men bow down to Christ and give Him gifts.
The events of Epiphany mark an important point in history for us. For this is the first time that Jesus is revealed to Gentiles. Up to this point, it had been only Israelites who had beheld our Lord: the shepherds at the stable, Simeon and Anna in the temple. But now, with Jesus at least a year old, the Gentile Wise Men come to the house where Joseph and Mary are residing and acknowledge Him to be the Lord, bowing down to worship Him and giving Him royal gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. This event shows that Christ came not only for the chosen people of Israel but for all the nations, for people of every nationality, ethnicity, and race, including you and me. Jesus is not only the Saviour of Israel but of the whole world. When it comes to receiving the Lord’s salvation, no one is excluded because of their place of birth or skin color.
The reality is that no one has any claim by race to the blessings of God. Not even the Old Testament Jews, for even they were not saved by their ethnicity but by their faith in the coming Messiah. It’s only by God’s grace in Christ that any of us are saved. In Christ Jesus God-in-the-flesh—is manifested God’s life-giving Gospel for both Jews and Gentiles.
That is why in the early church Epiphany, and not Christmas, was the big celebration of the first part of the church year. At Christmas, we celebrate the Incarnation—that God became Man and dwelt among us. At Epiphany, we celebrate the fact the Christ was born in order to save not only Jews but Gentiles as well. No wonder the early church, largely consisting of Gentile believers, made such a big deal out of Epiphany. For Epiphany is the reminder that Jesus came out of love for every one of us, regardless of who we are. Christ is truly a Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of the people of Israel.
The wise men fell down and worshipped the One to whom all the Scriptures point and lead, the Christ Child—God-in-the-flesh come to save sinners. They also offered Him gifts. First they gave our Lord the gift of gold. This suggests royalty, that Jesus is a king. Second, they gave our Lord frankincense, a particular type of incense burned in the temple for worship. This reminds us that Jesus is truly God and is to be worshiped and prayed to. It also reminds us that Jesus is the One who brings our prayers before the throne of the Father. He is our Mediator and go-between. And thirdly, they gave our Lord myrrh. This is the most striking of all the gifts. Myrrh was a type of perfume used both as an anesthetic as well as to prepare a corpse for burial. This reminds us of the purpose of this Child’s birth. He came to die for us, to rescue us completely from sin, judgment, and death.
When Jesus was hanging on the cross, the soldiers offered Him wine mixed with myrrh to dull the pain. But Jesus refused it, that He might fully bear our sin and judgment and suffer our death. Then at the tomb, myrrh was used as a perfume to anoint Jesus’ body. Because of that, because of what Jesus has done for us, St. Paul says that we who believe are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved (2 Corinthians 2:15). The wise men probably did not fully understand the significance of their gifts. But from our side of the resurrection we can see clearly that these gifts foreshadowed the redemption Christ came to accomplish for us.
Let us then rejoice in our Lord’s Epiphany, in our Lord’s appearing to the nations, to us Gentiles as well as to the Jews. And throughout our lives, may God grant that His Word accomplish its purpose of leading us to the Word made flesh and making us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15). Amen.