Text: Matthew 2:1-12
“We did not follow cleverly devised myths,” go the familiar words of St. Peter, “when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty…for we were with Him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic Word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” (2 Peter 1:16, 18-19; English Standard Version) With these words (which we’ll hear again next month), St. Peter reminded his hearers to hold fast to the sacred Scriptures, which are the very Words of God. They alone are able to make us wise for salvation, as St. Paul would say, for they are the instrument by which the Holy Spirit works. Through the Word, the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to us. Through the Word, He creates and strengthens faith.
We see this, this week in the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus. Though the star went before them, it was actually the Word that revealed and pointed out Christ to them. The star led them to the Word. It only moved to exactly where Jesus was after they heard from the prophet. By the Word, these men were made wise. As the Magi were led by God’s Word to Christ, so also are we led by the Word to worship our newborn king. But, first, the history.
The Church holiday we celebrate today is Epiphany. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means “appearance,” or maybe “manifestation.” Epiphany, which falls every year on January 6th, is one of the earliest Church holidays and originally celebrated both Christ’s birth and His baptism. In the Western Church, of which Lutheranism is a part, Epiphany celebrates the visit of the Magi to Jesus about 2 years after His birth. We’ll celebrate Jesus’ Baptism next week; today we’ll focus on the visit of the Magi. You’ll notice that I keep saying the word Magi and not wisemen. That’s because in the Greek, the visitors to Jesus are called Magi, which is where we get the word magician from. The visitors to Jesus in Matthew 2 were not kings, they were court officials who were likely well-versed in science and witchcraft. Seems like unusual candidates to come worship Jesus but, then again, so are we; maybe that’s the point.
In any case, our text takes place about 2 years after our Lord’s birth, during the reign of Herod the Great. It happened that some Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and came to worship Him.” (Matt. 2:2) By God’s gracious activity, a star was made to appear to these Magi. They followed it and came to Jerusalem. After all, wouldn’t the newborn king of the Jews be born in a palace in the capital of the Jews, Jerusalem? They did not yet know whom they were truly seeking; but neither did King Herod. By this point, Herod had ruled for a long time. He himself was not an Israelite, but an Edomite – a descendant of Esau. Edom and Israel were enemies, and that made Herod paranoid. He ruled with an iron fist and would not abide challengers to his throne. Which is why he was troubled. Suffice it to say, when the Magi got to Jerusalem, they did not find the king they were looking for. They had not yet been made wise.
Herod called together the chief priests and scribes of the people, and they consulted the Scriptures to see where the Christ was to be born. They found these words: “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.” (v. 6) Having heard these words, and after receiving instructions under false pretenses from Herod, the Magi – now wise – left for Bethlehem. St. Matthew records for us, “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.” (v. 9) You see, the star led them to the Word of God. Only after they heard from Scripture that Jesus was in Bethlehem did it lead them to the exact house in Bethlehem where He was.
As smart as these men were, and as well-versed in various topics as they may have been, they were not yet wise. Two Sundays ago we spoke Psalm 111 together. Part of it went, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” (111:10) The fear of the Lord, the knowledge of Him and of His ways, how He feels toward us, is worked only through the external Word. Because of the Fall into Sin and the corruption that ensued, mankind is unable by nature to know or love God. We are unable to know or love God by nature; we must be led to Him. The Magi show us this. They went to Jerusalem seeking an earthly king in a palace. The Scriptures revealed to them that the true king was in Bethlehem. Filled with this good news and seeing the star, the Holy Spirit tells us, “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy…they fell down and worshipped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.” (vv. 10-11)
I read from St. Peter, at the beginning of the sermon, these words: “We have something more sure, the prophetic Word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” The Scriptures were the lamp to the Magi’s feet, it’s what made them wise men – if we can call them that. The star brought them to Jerusalem, but the Word first showed them Jesus. The Word is what points us to Jesus, too. We, also, were born subject to the Fall. We were born dead in sin, lost in trespasses, blind to all of God’s goodness. What’s worse, we didn’t even know it. But God, in loving kindness, sent forth His Son into the world. He was conceived and born for us, so that He might also die and rise for us. Christ, by His Holy Spirit, sent His Word out into the world so that we might hear all this. He caused the prophets and apostles to preach and write; He gave them the words. He has caused the Word to spread to us, that we also might be wise.
When we were yet unborn and our mothers attend Divine Service, where the Word was read and preached, the Spirit was at work. Then, when by God’s grace we were baptized, the Holy Spirit worked again through the washing of renewal and rebirth of the water and the Word to create faith in our hearts. Throughout our lives, and even now in this hour, the Holy Spirit is at work: reminding us of all the Lord has done for us, strengthening our faith in the forgiveness we have in Him, making us bold witnesses to the same. In short, the same way the Magi became wise men, so have we. Though by nature we knew nothing about God or His love, He has made us wise unto salvation through the Word we’ve heard, read, sung, and received.
This is why we celebrate Epiphany. The Epiphany means that the Savior of God is revealed to the world. He was revealed to the Magi through the Word and the leading of the star; He is revealed to us through the same Word. Since we are also made wise, let us also offer Christ our gifts of thanksgiving and praise.