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)
The wise men in today’s Gospel traveled over a thousand kilometres in search of Christ. It could not have been comfortable traveling across the desert on the back of a camel. But you and I are making an even more rigorous journey. Everyday, rather than scrambling onto a camel’s back, we fall to our knees or at least bow our heads asking God to forgive us all our sins. And rather than shielding our faces from the desert sun and blowing sand, we lift up our heads and voices to God, commending ourselves to His mercy, trusting Him to forgive us for Jesus’ sake.
The wise men traveled several months in search of Christ, but our journey continues until the day we die. We are on the great journey of repentance. Everyday, we confess our sins to God, praying “Father, forgive us as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us!”. Rather than trying to hide our sins from God, we lay them all out in the open. We cry out: “Behold, God, what a great sinner I am! Dear Father, behold my fears and worries, my lust and greed, my lovelessness and self-centredness, my doubts and unbelief.” This aspect of our journey is called “contrition”, which is the broken-hearted sorrow by which we grieve over our sins. We are sorry for having offended God and hurt others through our sins, and it with such broken-hearted contrition that we confess all our sins to God.
But, of course, that does NOT mean we trudge through life wearing sad faces, for greater than our sorrow over sin is our joy in being forgiven. That is the most important part of our lifelong journey, that we always trust God to forgive us for the sake of His Son, Jesus. This forgiveness gives joy in such abundance that we can be of good cheer even as we encounter life’s tribulations. Thus, by God’s grace, we trust in Christ’s forgiveness our whole lives long.
This is our journey—not a trip through the desert on a camel’s back, but the living of a life of repentance. The very first of Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses reads as follows: when our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent”, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. And so, your life in Christ, from baptism to death, is a journey of confessing your sins and trusting God to forgive you for Jesus’ sake.
Like the wise men of old, you are on a journey. And though your journey of repentance is not at all like their journey across the desert, your journey does still take you to Christ, whom you worship and to whom you offer gifts. The wise men offered the Christ Child gold and frankincense and myrrh. Your gifts are more in keeping with the spiritual nature of your journey. In one of his Epiphany cantatas, Johann Sebastian Bach mentions three of the most important gifts Christians give to their Lord: O Thou who art my soul’s light, disdain not my heart, which in humility I bring to Thee, along with the fruits of thy Spirit: faith’s gold, the frankincense of prayer, the myrrh of patience—these are my gifts, which Thou shalt have forever as Thy possession, O Jesus (paraphrased from BWV 65). Our faith, our prayers, and our patience—these are the gifts fit to give to the King who has come to save us!
What joy is ours when we give Christ our faith, when we say: “O Lord Jesus, in spite of my many sins and my fears, sorrows, and doubts, I trust You. Jesus, I trust You, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, to be the one true God of heaven and earth. I trust You to keep Your promises. I trust You to forgive my sins, to be with me always, to protect, guide, and strengthen me, to provide for my daily needs, and finally to bring me safely home.”
And what joy is ours when we give Christ our prayers. If we were to give our Lord only the prayer which He first gave us—if the Lord’s Prayer were the only prayer we ever prayed—well, even then, the richness of our prayers would far exceed all the world’s wealth. But of course, we also pray such gems of the liturgy as the Kyrie Eleison. What a prayer to pray in the midst of life’s crises! You do not have spell out all the details to God; simply pray Lord, have mercy! and the Lord will know how to answer such a heartfelt prayer.
And then there are the Psalms, the Church’s prayerbook. We really should be praying from the Psalms everyday. When we pray the Psalms, we are speaking to God His own words, and these are words of great power and even beauty. Consider this prayer from Psalm 25: Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation;…Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD! So much said in such few words with such great beauty and in the power of the Lord! Oh, learn to speak the Psalms back to God! And as you establish a solid prayer foundation with the Lord’s Prayer, the liturgy, and the Psalms, then you can build on that foundation with your own personal petitions: “Lord, strengthen our marriage.” “Lord, bring back to the faith my straying child.” “Lord, take away my cancer.” “Lord, help me bear my grief.” “Lord, help me not to be afraid to die.” And then, there are times when we feel so overwhelmed that we cannot not even form our petitions into words; all we can do is sigh. But to the Lord, our sighs are prayers which He hears and answers in His steadfast love. Oh yes, what joy is ours when we give Christ our prayers!
Finally, what joy is ours when we give Christ our patience, when we patiently endure life’s troubles, knowing that we have something better than this world to look forward to. The writer to the Hebrews talks of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (6:12). God has promised us a great inheritance, a heavenly home of pure joy and peace that cannot be stained or shattered by sin and death and sorrow; a home where we shall dwell forever in the glorious presence of our Saviour Jesus! But right now, we must wait for our inheritance with great patience. In this world we suffer tribulations and we endure attacks by the evil one. And the truth is, when one is under attack and when one often suffers defeat and failure, it becomes easy to grow weary and discouraged and confused. We all have been there, in that dark corner where everything seems utterly hopeless. But, by God’s grace, we learn to patiently endure life’s trials and to patiently wait for the Day of our inheritance, when we see all of God’s promises coming true in Jesus.
In his Epiphany cantatas, Bach refers to the gifts we give to Christ—the gifts of faith, prayer, and patience. Just as our journey of repentance must continue our whole lives long, so we must ever give to Christ our faith, our prayers ,and our patience. But really, these gifts which we give to Christ are not ours to give. Here is how Bach puts it: Oh Jesus, Thou who art my life, I come to give Thee what Thou has given to me (paraphrased from BWV 248). This reminds me of how, when I was a little child, I would have to ask my mother for the money to buy her a birthday present! On my own, I had nothing to give! And that is how it is when it comes to our giving to Christ. We can give to Christ only what He has already given us. The faith by which we trust in Him; the prayers by which we ask for His help; the patience by which we endure all obstacles and wait for heaven—all these are gifts which we must first receive from Christ before we can give them to Him. All these gifts are bound up in Christ. You cannot trust and pray and endure apart from Christ. And so the gift you need the most is Christ Himself. Again, Bach puts it so beautifully: O Jesus, give Yourself to me, and then You will make me the richest person on earth (paraphrased from BWV 65).
Today, we celebrate the Epiphany truth that Jesus gives us Himself as our Saviour. Micah prophesied that from Bethlehem God would bring forth the Messiah from the line of King David: from you [Bethlehem] shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel(5:2). The Christ Child is Ruler, Shepherd AND SAVIOUR! He will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). And not only His people, but ALL people. Micah prophesied that this Messiah wouldbe great to the ends of the earth(5:4). Which means that Jesus would be a Saviour for all of us! For all sinners, Jews AND Gentiles!
And the wise men know this. And so off they go, guided by the star and the prophetic word of Micah, right to the place where this mighty Ruler, Shepherd, and King of the Jews is, to a house in the little town of Bethlehem.
And whom do they see? Jesus with His mother Mary. And now, what Isaiah prophesied comes to pass: nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. For here Gentiles from the East have come to worship the promised Messiah. Immediately the wise men bow down and worship the Christ Child. After all, He is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Word, who took on our flesh (John 1:14), to save both Jews and Gentiles through His bloody death on the cross. This Child who is King of the Jews is also King of the Gentiles. He has come to give His life as a ransom for many. He is the Suffering Servant who will bear the world’s sin in His Body in order to answer for it and all its hellish consequences (Isaiah 52-53). King of the Jews Jesus comes as a pure gift to undeserving sinners.
And the wise men believe this. And having been given the gift of faith by Jesus, they give back to Him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh – traditional treasures of the East.
The wise men believed, and so here we have a Gentile Christmas. Epiphany: a festival in which God reveals His love for all people. For you. And for your salvation. Behold, Jesus is born King of the Jews. And King of all the nations. King Jesus reigns in the manger crib, and then from His mother’s lap, and then on the cross with a crown of thorns on His head. And there again the sign: Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews. And your King too. Bearing all your sin and answering for all of it.
And still Jesus reigns in your midst. For the crucified Jesus is also the risen and ascended King! He comes to you to absolve your sins and to destroy your death and to give you Himself and His salvation in the water of your Baptism and in the bread and wine of His Supper with His Body and Blood. And in giving us Himself and His salvation, Jesus has made us the richest people on earth. So rich are we that we can give to Jesus treasures that far exceed the wealth of this world. With great joy, then, we give to Jesus our faith, our prayers, and our patience. We offer these gifts to Jesus not to win His favour or to bribe or impress Him, but with a humble recognition that we owe everything to Him, that we receive all good gifts from Him, and that this humble Son of Mary is the Son of God—our King, our Lord, our Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer, our Jesus who rules over us in His steadfast love as the Giver of heavenly gifts.
Now that is a King! A wonderful Saviour! Happy Epiphany!