The Epiphany of Our Lord, January 6th, A+D 2013
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches
Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Wise Men, and God’s Mission - Matthew 2:1-12
Epiphany, Christmas for the Gentiles, sometimes called Three Kings Day. Today’s Gospel is much loved, but also much questioned. How many Wise Men, or Magi, (not kings), were there? We tend to say three, because there were three gifts. But we don’t know. And what are Magi, these Wise Men? Astrologers? Counselors to some far eastern king? Which king? Don’t know. What was this star that they saw, and how did it reappear and go before them to Bethlehem? Lots of questions on Epiphany, which is ironic, because Epiphany means shining forth, revelation, uncovering. The Church has named this day for the fact that the Savior of Israel is revealed, made manifest, known, to these Gentile, that is non-Jewish Magi. And yet we have so many questions.
One of the biggest questions is, How did they hear about Jesus? Somehow these Magi recognized that the appearance of a new star in the sky was a sign of the birth of a new King of the Jews. Even more amazingly, this event prompted them to pack up and leave home, making a long and dangerous journey across the wilderness, all in order to come and worship this Baby King, and bring Him gifts. Theories abound as to how the Wise Men knew of the coming King of the Jews. Perhaps during the captivity of Israel in Babylon and Persia, when Daniel and the three young men were high officials of these kingdoms, perhaps then the promises of the Old Testament were taught, God maintaining the remembrance of them through the centuries, down to the time of Christ. Or God could have of course simply spoken directly to the Wise Men, or sent an angel messenger to them, or a message in a dream, as He does through a dream later in the story. But we don’t know.
In the end, it doesn’t matter so much how God’s Word of Promise came to the Magi, only that they heard of the birth of Jesus, and were moved by this Word to come and worship Him. Indeed, while God has always established regular, public offices for the teaching of His Word, the Word of God is not limited by these divinely appointed structures. The Word of God has a tendency to leak out, the Holy Spirit causing it to be repeated again and again, whether by prophets or pastors or parents or neighbors, and it is the Word that does the actual work of God’s Mission.
We are right to think and plan and try to find the best ways to get the Promises of God into the ears of people, both into the ears of Christians, (for we are all in constant need of being renewed by the Word and Spirit), and into the ears of unbelievers. Indeed, on February 2nd, pastors and people from our LCMS congregations throughout the Bakken region will be gathering in Williston to do just that, to talk and pray and plan how we can best get the pure Word of God into the ears of the many people moving into our region.
But we sinners need to plan with humility, and care, remembering two things: First, that the Mission belongs to God, from beginning to end. We are merely servants, privileged to be a part of His plan. Second, we need to remember that the content of what we say is the first priority. That is, we can make great plans to find ways to connect with and speak to people, but if what we have to say is something other than what Jesus comes to say and do, all our efforts will be for nothing.
In this concern for speaking truly and specifically about Christ, the story of the Wise Men is very helpful. We should take note that God leaves a lot of things unanswered concerning their journey, their means of instruction, and their lives after returning to their country by another way. God has left out these details, which should tell us that the main points we should take away from this story lie elsewhere.
The first of these points is that this story is not principally about the Wise Men, but rather about the Child they came to worship. Epiphany is about the shining forth of God’s light in Jesus, not in the Wise Men. Jesus, God come into human flesh, is always the main character, His works and words are always the center of the Scripture story, and so also should always be the center of what we say and do as Church. The Wise Men learned this.
We should learn it too, again and again, for we like to talk about ourselves, about the good we are doing, about the knowledge we have, maybe even about how as successful Christians we can get our whole lives squared away. Which of course is always a lie. Nothing you or I could ever do can win the salvation of anyone, and all our efforts to live good lives are continually falling short. When we speak honestly of ourselves, we always have to speak of our sin and weakness. This is one more reason why our focus in what we say and do as Church needs to be centered on Jesus Christ, Son of Mary, Son of God. In fact, the mission of God is found only in the flesh and blood Son of God.
Without the God-Man Jesus, there can be no Mission, no true Church, no forgiveness, no salvation. But with the God-Man Jesus, even when He is a tiny baby or a little child, with Jesus, God in the flesh, there is always mission, and forgiveness, and salvation, even when all outward appearances say different.
How much more unlikely looking a candidate for the worship of these wise men could you find than this little child, born into poverty, born in a barn, born under a cloud of assumed impropriety, his birth coming less than nine months after Joseph and Mary’s wedding, so they must have committed adultery? Who would have believed Mary, if she told of Gabriel’s message and the Child’s immaculate conception? The whole situation doesn’t look very impressive. And yet the Spirit who showed the star to the Magi, the Spirit who somehow brought the Word of this Promise to their ears, the Spirit who moved them across hundreds and hundreds of dangerous miles, all to come and worship a newborn king, this Spirit in the end brought the Wise Men to the house where Joseph, Mary and Jesus were dwelling, in sleepy little Bethlehem.
The Spirit of God even teaches in the gifts they brought. Odd, perhaps, that we know very little of how the Wise Men knew about the promised King of the Jews, but we are told exactly the gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As prophesied in Isaiah chapter 60, among other Old Testament places, these travelers from the east come bringing gold, a gift fit for a king, and frankincense, burned in the tabernacle and temple worship of Israel. Appropriate, for this little Child is the true King, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, the true ruler of heaven and earth. And He is also our great High Priest, the One man who is worthy to carry our prayers into the sanctuary of Almighty God, the One who prayed, and still prays, for us, the One whose prayers are pure because He is pure, the One who has given us His prayer to share, teaching us to call His Father ‘Our Father.’
Jesus of Bethlehem, the fulfillment of the Words of the Prophets, the promises of God appearing in human flesh. Jesus, our Great High Priest, interceding for us at God’s right hand. Jesus, King of the Jews, and Savior of the Nations, come for every sinner. All of this, the story of the Magi teaches us, when we read it with the rest of Scripture. We learn all of this, and one more thing, too. One more thing, in the third gift. Gold for kings, frankincense for praying priests, and myrrh. What of the myrrh? What is myrrh? An ointment, a spicy, aromatic ointment. Valuable, yes, mentioned many times in various Old Testament passages. But more importantly, mentioned only twice more in the New Testament. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the third gift of the Magi looks forward more than back, forward to its most important uses.
For St. Mark tells us that they offered the just crucified Jesus wine mixed with myrrh, a mild narcotic which passed for Roman mercy, slightly numbing the pain for those condemned to hang on a tree as the worst of criminals. Wine mixed with myrrh, which Jesus refused, for He did not go to the Cross to avoid any suffering, but rather to drink the cup of suffering to its bottom, taking on all the just, well deserved suffering of all of us, to take it from us, forever, suffering under God’s wrath, so that we may not suffer, but instead know God’s grace. The Magi’s third gift foretells the Baby’s suffering.
And then St. John tells of Joseph of Arimathea, a council member, and also a secret believer, secret until that Friday afternoon, when he was made brave by the self-sacrifice of Jesus. After ‘it is finished,’ Joseph goes, and asks Pilate for the body of Jesus, and with the help of Nicodemus the Pharisee, wraps Jesus’ dead body in linen cloth, along with 100 lbs of myrrh mixed with aloes, burial perfume, to cover the stench of death. The Magi’s third gift foretells the Baby’s death.
But there was no stench of death to cover, for God the Father did not let His Holy One see decay. Just as there was no stench of sin in the life of Jesus, so also there was no bad smell, no decomposition of His Holy Body, as it rested in the tomb on the Sabbath. For God was pleased with Jesus and the completion of His mission. Bursting forth on Sunday morning, Jesus turned the burial smell of myrrh into the sweet scent of eternal life, for all who trust in Him.
Did the Wise Men understand all this? Did Mary and Joseph understand all this? I don’t know, God doesn’t exactly say. Which is fine, because whether they completely understood at first, or not, God knew what He was doing, and still does. God in Jesus Christ has achieved the reconciliation of every sinner to Himself. All who by the Holy Spirit’s power are made to believe this Word of Promise are thereby declared righteous and holy by God. You are forgiven and claimed by God, through the Cross of Jesus.
This is the center of Christian life, the heart of Christian mission. We, today, right here, are blessed to have and to hear the whole truth of Jesus, passed down from the Apostles, recorded in Scripture, empowered by the Holy Spirit, delivering forgiveness and salvation through Word, Water and Wine, the Good News of Jesus death and resurrection, and His future return in glory. By His Word, God brings to consummation His plan of salvation, His mission, which is for you, and me, and for all who trust in His blood bought forgiveness. And so, on this day of Epiphany, with the Wise Men, and with believers from every nation, we rejoice, for God’s Mission has found us, and continues to go forth, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.