“Wise men still seek Him.” It is a phrase that I saw on a number of occasions during the time leading up to Christmas. It is, of course, a very fine sentiment. It is a reminder in the midst the sentimentality and commercialism that Christmas is about Jesus Christ. It also happens to be true that the people who are wise in the way that Scripture defines wisdom are the ones who seek Christ and center their lives around him. As we live in a culture that is rapidly becoming more and more secular and antagonist to the Christian faith, it is always refreshing to see someone sharing this message. Indeed, I knew I was in Marion and not some more “progressive” city like a university town or a Chicago suburb when I saw it on the electronic sign outside of one of the banks in town.
However, I must confess that I am always internally conflicted when I see this phrase in the days leading up to Christmas. For the reasons I have just mentioned, it is a great message to share as Christmas approaches. Yet on the other hand part of me wants to cry out, “But it’s not time for the wise men yet!” In the church calendar the wise men are not part of Christmas. They are instead part of the season of Epiphany which begins tonight. In fact, the visit by the wise men is the event celebrated as the Epiphany of Our Lord. And so people soon found out that Pastor Surburg is hardcore when it comes to the wise men figures that are part of our display here at Good Shepherd. The wise men do not leave the plastic container for a spot behind the altar until Jan. 6, the Epiphany of Our Lord.
Of course, the phrase, “Wise men still seek Him,” plays off of the name for the visitors that I have just been using – “the wise men.” However, what would you think if I told you that it is unlikely that Matthew wants us to view these visitors as men who are wise? In fact, we get closer to understanding the meaning of our text and the meaning that Epiphany has for us when we recognize that Matthew would have expected his readers to think of the “wise men” as being ignorant Gentiles.
Our Gospel lesson begins by saying, “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, 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.’” The word to pay attention to here is “behold!” Matthew is calling our attention to something surprising and unexpected.
Now we get that it probably wasn’t every day of the week that foreign travelers showed up at Jerusalem saying that they had been prompted by the appearance of a star to come and see the one who had just been born king of the Jews. But there is a very high probability that by calling these men “magoi” in Greek – Magi – that he is also supplying part of the shocking character of their arrival.
Matthew doesn’t call the visitors “wise men” – there is other Greek vocabulary that he could have used to mean this. Instead, he called them “Magi.” The magi certainly would have been considered learned. However they were learned in things that were associated with paganism. Their knowledge of what we would call astronomy was inextricably linked with what we call astrology. In the Greek translation of the book of Daniel, the men who are called “magi” are grouped with the wizards and sorcerers!
A first century Jew would have agreed that the Magi were learned. However, they would have thought the Magi were not learned in anything that actually mattered. Instead, they would have considered them to be ignorant and confused – dealers in arts that had no truth.
The available evidence indicates that the early church did not consider the Magi to be “wise men” either. When the church fathers talked about the learning of the Magi, they considered it to be a false knowledge or false religion. Instead, it is only since the Enlightenment – since the 1700’s – that today’s common understanding of the wise men as scholars who were seeking truth arose.
Matthew says in our text, “Behold! 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 have come to worship him.’” The surprise is not just that these guys unexpectedly showed up. It is also the fact that these guys – these ignorant Gentiles – showed up looking for the Christ.
Now it’s not as if their learning had nothing to do with it. They had seen an unusual astronomical event that they described as “a star when it rose.” Most likely they associated it with a Jewish king because of Numbers 24:17 which says, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”
But for a Jew their learning doesn’t get any real credit. Instead, the fact that these guys show up in Jerusalem looking to worship the Christ prophesied in the Scriptures is because God has revealed Christ to them. It is not something that they have figured out by their own reason or strength. Instead it is God, who in his surprising grace and mercy, has made him known to them.
The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek word that means “to appear.” On the Epiphany of Our Lord we celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ began to appear – to be made known – to all people. God even reveals him to Gentile Magi who are trapped in their foolish learning.
The Epiphany of Our Lord highlights a theme that we often overlook and take for granted. We live as Christians. We know Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord. This is all old news. And so we take it for granted. This shows up in different ways in life. Perhaps you don’t pray all that often. Perhaps you don’t read God’s Word in your devotional life very much – or perhaps there really isn’t very much devotional life at all. I’ll leave out what I would normally say next, because if you are here tonight, attending the Divine Service is probably not a big issue for you. However, perhaps you find it easy to remain silent about the faith when you are around others. In different ways we all show that we take faith in Jesus Christ for granted.
On Epiphany, the Magi underscore God’s gracious revelation that is necessary in order to believe in Jesus Christ. The most impressive worldly learning and knowledge is of no use when it comes to this. Later, in chapter eleven of this Gospel Jesus will say, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” It is not the wisdom and understanding of the world that allows anyone to grasp and accept Jesus Christ and his saving death and resurrection. Instead, it is God the Father who must reveal it. As our Lord said after Peter’s correct confession about Jesus: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
It is God the Father who has done this for you through his Spirit. As we confess in the Small Catechism, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” He has done it for you through water and the Word. He has revealed Jesus to you, who could never figure it out on you own. He has revealed Jesus to you – a Gentile – the one who was not included in his covenant with Israel. And yet, you ignorant and foolish Gentile by his grace God has revealed the Christ to you. He has revealed that Jesus is the Christ, the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. He has revealed that Jesus is true God begotten of his Father from all eternity, and also true man born of the virgin Mary. He has revealed that through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ you receive forgiveness, peace with God and eternal salvation.
The recognition of this gracious gift prompts us to do two things. First, it moves us to cling to the means by which God sustains this faith – the Means of Grace. Faith in Christ is the gift of God revealing him to us. The only way this gift of faith can be sustained is by the means that come from God. The recognition of this gracious gift leads us to listen intently to God’s Word as it is read and preached, and as we read it at home. It leads us to live lives that daily return to our baptism as in repentance we drown the old man so that daily the new man may arise to live before God in righteousness and purity. It leads us to come to this altar to eat and drink his true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and to nourish the new man within us.
And it also prompts us to speak the word about Jesus to others. That’s all we can do, and that’s all we are expected to do. Paul wrote, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” The word of the Gospel is the means by which the Holy Spirit continues to reveal Jesus in our place and time. He doesn’t use a star at is rising to prompt a journey. He doesn’t use a star that appears and guides them to where Christ is located. Instead through the Gospel the Spirit reveals Jesus. This may lead to a long journey – a journey in which people find their life being redefined and redirected – but it does not require a person to go anywhere. Instead Jesus is revealed as we tell them of how Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead to give them forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
In our text tonight, Matthew writes, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold!, 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 have come to worship him.’” In a great surprise, God reveals Jesus Christ to ignorant Gentiles. Through water and the Word he has revealed him to you as well so that, like the Magi, you have become wise unto salvation.