They just showed up. Matthew begins our text by telling us, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” It’s never hard to know what Matthew thinks is important – what he wants us to notice. Again and again he says, “Behold!”
And the big deal here is not merely their presence, but also what they said: “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.” Now that first sentence set off all kinds of alarm bells, because there was indeed a king, and he hadn’t just been born.
Herod the Great was king. Herod was a wicked, but very capable man. He was an unlikely candidate to be ruling over the lands of ancient Israel because he was actually an Idumean. He was from the lands of Israel’s enemy, Edom. Though these lands had become Jewish, the Idumeans were always viewed as half-Jews. They were second class.
And Herod had the misfortune of geography in the Roman Empire which kept putting him on the losing side of the civil wars. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., war broke out and twice Herod found himself having to support the leader who was ultimately defeated. Each time, he was able to convince the winner that he would be loyal, and they kept him on as king over the kingdom that was part of Rome’s sphere of power.
And he didn’t just hang on to it. Through cunning, ruthlessness and sheer determination he actually managed to assemble the largest kingdom that had existed since the days of King Solomon. This was a kingdom subservient to Rome, but still the kingdom he ran. He had worked too hard to give it up to anyone, and thought nothing of killing his own sons when he viewed them as threats. As Emperor Augustus is reported to have quipped: “I would rather be a pig than a son in Herod’s Court” – since of course, Jews didn’t kill pigs for food, but Herod did kill his sons. Matthew tells us, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” There was good reason to be troubled, because when Herod got troubled, people often died.
The magi showed up and explained their question by saying, “For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” The magi were the learned men of their day in the areas of astronomy and astrology – there was really no distinction for them. We don’t know where them came from, but Mesopotamia – modern day Iraq – is a good guess.
And truth be known, what they said does not match what you have seen on many a Christmas card. You know the scene – men on camels traveling through a desert following a guiding star. Instead what they said was that they had seen “his star at its rising.” They had not followed a star to Jerusalem. Instead they had seen the appearance of a star or some of kind of astronomical phenomenon that caught their attention.
The appearance – this “star at its rising” – indicated to them that a Jewish king had been born. Certainly the text of Scripture they had in mind was from the Book of Numbers which said, “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.” The Jews had certainly taken the Scriptures with them into exile in Babylonia, and many of them remained there. It would not have been hard for the magi to come into contact with the Torah – the books of Moses. The “star at its rising” told them that a Jewish king had been born. But it did not lead them to Jerusalem. Instead they travelled to the city because that was where they expected to find a Jewish king.
Herod the Great put on a good show for the Jews of his kingdom that he supported the faith of the God of Israel. He was the one who undertook the massive project that produced the incredible temple that existed in Jesus’ day. But he also was a fan of pagan Greek culture and contributed money to different pagan projects in the Mediterranean. When he summoned the chief priests and scribes to inquire about where the Christ was to be born, it is quite likely that he really didn’t know. It didn’t hurt that this was another example of him looking like he actually cared about the Scriptures. And while he probably didn’t believe it, Herod was also not a man to take chances.
For these men who really did know God’s Word, the question was easy: it was Bethlehem, the city of David. The prophet Micah had written, “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.” Herod then sent the magi on their way to Bethlehem with the request that they find the child and bring him word so that he too could worship him. But first he met with them secretly and showed a particular interest in the timing of when the star had appeared – of when this child had been born. Herod had plans.
Matthew tells us what happened next: 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.” Thanks to the prophet Micah, the magi had a destination: Bethlehem. Beyond that they knew nothing more and they must have been wondering how exactly they were going to track down this child.
And then it happened. Did you notice Matthew calling our attention? “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.” The star at is rising that had prompted the journey to Palestine in the first place appeared again. But this time things were completely different. This time it actually led to the place where Jesus was.
There is no way to explain this by nature as we know it to work. It was a miracle. It was God’s doing as he led the magi to Christ. They saw it and “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” When they arrived at the place they went into the house they saw Jesus with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
The Epiphany of Our Lord is a lavish demonstration of God’s grace. We see the saving action of God that is unexpected and unmerited. The magi were Gentiles. They were not Jews. They did not descend from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were not part of God’s covenant people. You know who else fits that category? Most of you.
Matthew’s Gospel is very striking because it is the most “Jewish” of the Gospels. For example he also uses the Jewish circumlocution “kingdom of heaven” for the phrase “kingdom of God.” He alone tells us that the sending of the twelve disciples on their mission trip was only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And yet … the first people who come to worship Jesus in the Gospel are Gentiles.
By his grace, God has given you forgiveness and salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah. You had no right to expect this. You had no claim on it. But in his grace, love and mercy God has chosen to give it to you. His love has embraced you and all people.
This is by God’s grace. And it is entirely God’s doing. You may have noticed that I have consistently referred to the foreign visitors as “magi.” I have not called them “wise men” because to God’s people they were not wise. No doubt they were learned. But they were learned in things that were shot through with paganism. In the Greek translation of the book of Daniel, the men who were called “magi” are grouped with the wizards and the sorcerers! When it came to true things of God, the word “magi” resonated with associations of blindness, incompetence and opposition to God.
And in fact, at each step of the way it is God who must lead them. It is God’s Word from Numbers that told them what the star at its rising provided by God meant. It was God’s Word from Micah that sent them to Bethlehem. It was God’ star at is rising – now actually leading them to the exact spot – that showed them where the Christ child was.
The magi did not come to Jesus Christ by their own reason or strength, and neither have you. You had nothing you could do. Nothing that is, except engage in sin and resist God. If you want to know what you can do apart from God’s grace, you can find examples of it. Actually, it is really not hard to spot. You see it in the angry and hurtful words you speak. You see it in the pride and jealousy you feel.
But in his mercy and by his grace the Spirit of God has called you by the Gospel and enlightened you with his gifts. Through the Means of Grace he has applied the saving work of Christ’s cross and resurrection to you. He has given you forgiveness. He has worked regeneration in the water of Holy Baptism. He has made you a new man in Christ.
This is unexpected. This is unmerited. This is a gift. The question now is how we respond to this gift. Does the grace and mercy God has given us in Jesus Christ become something we take for granted? Do we treat the Word of God as something that is really not all the interesting? Do we treat this grace and forgiveness as if it is now our personal possession that does not need to be shared with others in any way, form or shape that may inconvenience us?
The response by the magi was very different. When they saw the star leading and guiding them for those last six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy as God drew them to Christ. You need to rejoice in the means by which God continues to draw you to the Lord Jesus. You need to rejoice in them by using them – by reading God’s Word during the week and by daily looking to your baptism in faith. You need to rejoice in them by coming to the Divine Service each week to receive absolution, hear God’s Word proclaimed, and to receive the true body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar.
Matthew tells us that when the magi arrived at the Christ child, “opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” Our response as the Spirit draws us to Christ is to offer our treasures. We use our treasures of time and talents in order to serve others in our home; at school and work; and at church. We become the means that the Lord Jesus uses to share grace and mercy with others.
On this Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord we learn of how the glory of the incarnate Lord first began to appear in the world. God led the magi to Jesus Christ through a star. But it was not the star alone. It was the star and his Word by which God led them to Christ. In the Epiphany we see the tremendous grace God has showered upon us. Like the magi, we didn’t deserve Jesus Christ. We could not do anything to know God and his salvation. But through his Word and baptism God has drawn us to the Lord Jesus and given us forgiveness through faith. And because he has, we respond by giving our treasures to the Lord for service wherever he places us.
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