Today is Epiphany. Also known as the “Christmas of the Gentiles.” Both Christmases essentially consist of God’s work: first God sending a Savior into the world and then revealing him to be the Savior of the world. The first Christmas consisted of baby Jesus swaddled in a manger visited by shepherds who had been called in from the fields by the angelic host sent by God. This second Christmas finds Jesus as a toddler playing at his mother’s feet in a house in Bethlehem visited by magi who were guided from the east by a star God had placed in the sky. The first Christmas was for Israel, for descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The second Christmas was for the world, the nations, the Gentiles, for you and for me – just as Isaiah predicted 700 years earlier: nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:3) And so, this “other” Christmas is really our Christmas.
The word “Epiphany” means “appearing,” usually referring to the appearance of a king or a god. The magi had come from the east to Jerusalem because God had caused a star to appear in the sky – which they understood to be a star announcing the birth of a king. Who were they? While we can’t say with certainty, they were probably Persian court astrologers who carefully studied the sun, moon, and stars for changes and movement and signs – especially (before the invention of the calendar) to determine when to plan or harvest or travel. The parallel with the first Christmas is interesting, isn’t it? The people who wound up worshipping Jesus weren’t seekers, they weren’t running around looking for Jesus, determined to welcome him into their lives – rather, in both cases God brought them to their Savior. God shocked the shepherds out of fields where they slept with their flocks with the glory of the angelic host and used the day-job of the magi – studying the stars – to bring them to the feet of their Savior.
When they get to Jerusalem, they go right to Herod’s palace. That’s logical, right? Herod was the king of Judea – where else would you go to find the newborn “king of the Jews” but to the current “King of the Jews?” But despite their supposed wise reasoning, they got it all wrong: Jerusalem was the wrong city, the palace was the wrong house, and Herod was the wrong king. Here we see the grand contrast between God’s ways and man’s ways which is woven throughout Scripture. The magi expected to visit “man’s king”; the star pointed to God’s king. Man’s king lives in palaces, in capital cities, in splendor and glory. God’s king lives in a humble house, in a second-class suburb, in poverty and humility. Man’s king strives to become a god. God’s king becomes a man. Man’s king expects his subjects to bleed for him; God’s king bleeds and dies to save his subjects. And so again, just like at the first Christmas in the manger, just like boy Jesus at the temple – we are reminded that God works salvation in the most hidden, mysteryious, humble ways. Not the way of power and might – but the way of poverty and lowliness. God’s hidden ways are seen most clearly in a peasant virgin who becomes the mother of God, in a manger that becomes the cradle of a king, in a cruel cross that becomes his throne, in the fact that a tomb proves his victory not his defeat.
And, while the star is what brought the magi to Jerusalem, it was the Word of God which brought them to Bethlehem. To Herod’s shame, he did not know where Scripture said the Savior would be born, he had to ask the religious experts. And even though they clearly lack faith in Scripture, they knew what the prophet Micah said: in Bethlehem in Judea. (Micah 5:2) Bethlehem in Judea. Literally, the “house of bread.” It was a little afterthought of a town 5 miles away from Jerusalem – where the real “power” was. But with the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem lives up to its name. It was the “pantry,” the “breadbox” in which the living bread from heaven (John 6:25-59) was born and raised.
So off the Magi go to little Bethlehem, urged on by Herod – whose claim to want to join them in worship veiled a heart that was bent on murdering this little threat to his power. (Matthew 2:16) And, to the great joy of the magi, the star appears again in the sky, like a divine GPS, verifying Micah’s prophecy, guiding them to the very place where the child was. No more manger crib for Jesus; now he’s in a house with his parents. Imagine the look on Mary’s face when she opens the door and sees magi standing there – whether three or more, we don’t know – with their camels (or donkeys or horses – we don’t know that either) stomping in the yard - and they ask to see her son and then bow down and worship him. Imagine her surprise when they present him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. These Magi realize what Herod and all his chief priests and teachers of the law – people who should have known better – missed completely: this child is the true King of the Jews, the God of the universe, the Savior of the world.
Some people see symbolism in their gifts, and if you’d like to see the gold as a gift fitting for a king, incense as a fitting offering to God, and myrrh (an ingredient used in embalming) as predictive of the fact that this child would die for the sins of the world – there’s nothing really wrong with that. But in all likelihood, these were simply gifts of great value, gifts fit for a king. Even more, just as God promises all of us, so God provided his Son’s daily bread – in this case, indirectly providing the means that allowed Joseph to follow God’s command to flee to Egypt. (Matthew 2:13) In it all, we see the triumph of faith over sight, of the wisdom of God over the wisdom of man. What the magi saw was a little child, perhaps a year or so old, playing at his mother’s feet. But they didn’t believe their eyes. They believed the sign of the star and the prophetic Word of God – and through eyes of faith they saw God’s Son and their Savior and offered him gifts worthy of his position and power.
This is the real, central message of Epiphany: by God’s grace alone, through faith in the Word alone, the outsiders are now the insiders. Those who stood outside of Israel, outside of God’s chosen people and his promises – are now in the presence of Israel’s greatest King, the promised son of David. This is the great “mystery” which Paul wrote about in his letter to the Ephesians; that in Jesus the Gentiles are now fellow heirs with Israel of the promise of salvation in Christ. (Ephesians 3:6) The first Christmas was for the Jews, the chosen, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But this Christmas is for the nations, for the Gentiles, for those who at one time were not God’s people – but who now are the people of God. (1 Peter 2:10) And in Jesus, these two distinct groups are united, joined as one body, one people, one Church.
Gathered here this morning you are a lot like those magi from the east. No, I didn’t see anyone park their camel outside nor did I notice anyone hauling in bars of gold or baggies of incense; but you, too, have been guided to the Christ child by signs given by God himself; not a star in the sky but Word and Sacrament. Through these means, God has called you in from the darkness, has shined the light of faith into your heart, so that you are no longer outsiders, but insiders – brothers and sisters of Jesus, children of God, heirs of heaven. You have been led to the house where God’s Son, the King of the world, is present with you and for you under the signs of water, word, bread and wine. Presence just as real and tangible – and hidden – as that little child at Mary’s feet.
Just like the magi we confess that it was not by our own thinking or choosing that we believe in Jesus Christ as Lord or came to him. But the Holy Spirit has called us by the gospel, enlightened us with his gifts, sanctified and keeps us in the true faith. The world may laugh at the Word as an ancient artifact of the past, at Communion as hocus pocus, at Baptism as nothing more than a symbolic show. But we are living evidence that these things are the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew then for the Gentile. (Romans 1:16) And one day all the wisdom and knowledge of man will eventually bow, like these magi, with faces on the ground before the one who is the wisdom of God in human flesh. One day every king of this world will bow before the King of kings. (Isaiah 49:7) There is a Day coming when at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
Like the magi, you too bring your gifts and leave them here for your King. The gifts of your time, your treasure, your talents, your prayers, your praise, your living and working outside of those doors, even your repentance (Psalm 51:17) – these are your gold and incense and myrrh – the concrete evidence of your heart’s conviction that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior, your joyful offering of thanks and praise to the one who came to live, die, and rise for you.
The magi were going to return to Herod. But having been warned in a dream not to…they returned to their country by another route. They did return home, not by the way of Herod – the way of human wisdom and power – the way of death; but by the way of Jesus – God’s wisdom and God’s power – which leads to life. You too will leave your Savior’s feet here and go back to your home, your family, your job, your life. You will leave your Savior’s feet here and go out into the world. And you too will have your choice of two ways to go: the way of man’s king or the way of God’s king; the way of this world or the way of the kingdom of God; the way of power and glory and reason or the way of weakness and humility and faith; the way that depends on your wisdom, your reason, your strength, your blood, sweat and tears or the way that depends completely on God’s wisdom, on Jesus’ strength, his life, his blood, sweat and tears shed for you; the way that leads to certain death or the way that leads to eternal life.
Jesus, in his grace, has not left that decision up to you. He chose you, claimed you in baptism. He will feed you and strengthen your faith for life’s struggles here at his table with his body and his blood. His Word will continue to be a bright star which will guide you through this dark world to his glorious presence – and your glorious home – in heaven. He has put you on a new road, a new way, the way of forgiveness, the way of resurrection, the way of life. The world is done with Christmas, packed it away for another year. But for us, the celebration goes on – because today is the other Christmas, and this Christmas is just for us. Amen.