The Epiphany of Our Lord
January 6 (transferred to 12), 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Epiphany is often referred to as Christmas for the Gentiles. Matthew begins his Gospel by tracing Jesus’ roots to Abraham to show that He is a true child of the promise, the Descendent who had been promised to Abraham by God, through whom all nations would be blessed. After showing His lineage, Matthew sort of glosses over His actual birth (he doesn’t give the details that Luke does). It’s as if he can’t wait to get to the story of the Magi in chapter 2.
Matthew is recognized as being the most “Jewish” of the Gospels, yet the first significant story he tells about Jesus’ childhood is the visit of a band of Gentile foreigners. The Magi are led by a star to Jesus, and there they worship Him—the first people in Matthew’s Gospel, aside from His parents, to recognize Him for who He is. But that star that led the Magi wasn’t just for those ancient wise men. It’s also for you.
The Star Leads the Magi to Christ and Reveals Christ to You
Now, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star in the East and came to worship Him” (vv 1-2).
What is this star? The Greek word is aster. In our day, astronomers make a distinction between the several lesser lights in the night sky—stars, planets, comets—but aster encompasses all of these things. It means a singular star, not a constellation or a conjunction. It’s also clear that it’s an unusual occurrence and not one of the regularly seen stars that make their course across the night sky—it’s something that moves these Magi to make a cross-country trek to find out what it’s pointing to.
Moderns tend to look at the ancients as a half-step above a Neanderthal when it comes to natural science, but it would be a mistake to equate these wise men with cavemen. The Magi come from east of Israel, and to the east of Israel is Babylon. The ancient near-east was a center of knowledge and learning in general, but Babylon is recognized as being the foundation of modern astronomy. These Magi were not mystical star-gazers, but students of the night sky. They knew the difference between the stars and the wandering stars (planet means “wanderer”). They knew of phenomena like comets and meteors.
We can reject that this star was an unnatural phenomena like a hovering UFO that leads the wise men to Jesus—the Magi describe it as a natural, albeit unique, event. Sometimes the star is equated with the Morning Star, which on occasion will rise in the east just before the sun. This presents two problems, however. The Morning Star is actually the planet Venus, and as I said, the Magi were from a place that had detailed charts of the night sky, including the movements of the wandering planets. It’s highly unlikely that the rising of the Morning Star would have caused them to seek the King of the Jews. Plus, the Morning Star rises in the East; the Magi were from the East and were led to the West.
The most likely explanation for this astera is a comet. A comet could appear unexpectedly and its movements would be different from that of the stars or the planets, which are quite expected by trained astronomers. When you go home Google the words, “path of a comet across the night sky.” You’ll find some very interesting pictures. On any particular night, a comet looks like it might be pointing to something. And as it moves, it can also appear to come to a rest before finally disappearing. And indeed there was a comet that appeared in the year 5 B.C., according to some ancient Chinese records, which would coincide with the time of Jesus’ birth according to other records, such as the death of King Herod in 4 B.C. (the monk who originally set the year to begin AD miscalculated, but it’s stuck for our calendars).
But it was more than a star that led these Magi to seek Jesus. If the same phenomenon was observed as far away as China, then surely countless people saw the same thing. Why was it only these Magi that showed up in Israel at the appearance of this astera? It wasn’t just the star alone, but the star combined with God’s Word. The Magi knew exactly who they were looking for—the One who has been born King of the Jews. This is not a conclusion you get from looking at the stars. This is something that is only revealed by the Word of God.
How did these foreigners, these Gentiles, these Magi get ahold of God’s Word? If they learned their discipline from the seat of astronomy in Babylon, then it’s also very likely that they were familiar with the Torah—the books of the Law given to Moses. Because Babylon was not only a place of knowledge and learning, it was also the place where the Jews spent many years in captivity.
The book of Daniel takes place in Babylon. We all know the story of Daniel and the lions, but there is an interesting aside after that story. Daniel was elevated to the chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon (Dan 2:48). Surely Daniel introduced the Babylonian wise men to the Torah, and as lovers of knowledge and wisdom, the text would have been preserved in Babylon—perhaps even a small proselyte church continued preaching in these lands—long after the Jews returned from their exiles. The Magi knew exactly what they were looking for because they had the Torah, which includes this prophecy from the book of Numbers: I see Him Who is not here now; I behold Him Who will come later. A Star will come from Jacob, a Scepter will rise from Israel; He will smash Moab’s head and destroy all the sons of Sheth (Num 25:17 AAT).
The Magi were led to Jesus by the star combined with God’s Word. And there they presented Him gifts and worshiped Him.
The star has gone away, the Magi have gone home, Jesus has left Bethlehem. How does this star reveal Jesus to you? It reveals Him to be the King of the Jews, but the Magi also reveal Him to be the King of the Gentiles—that is, He is also your King.
The phrase King of the Jews would not be uttered again until Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate. It was the accusation put to Him, the epitaph written above His head as He hung dying on the cross. He is your King, but in a way that is unlike any other king. He is the King who suffers, the King who dies, the King who rules by take the scepter from His own hand and allowing Himself to be beaten by it. So you, His subject, would not have to.
But He is not only the dead King, He is also the risen King. As the Morning Star rises early before the sun, a bright spot of light in the dark sky, so Christ is risen from the dead, the herald of the new morning that’s to come.
You are led to Christ just as the Magi were led to Christ—by His Word. Because through His Word, the Holy Spirit works faith in your heart to see what no one else can see—that the crucified One is your King.
The star points to Bethlehem, but Jesus is no longer in David’s city. He’s no longer in Galilee, He’s no longer in Jerusalem. He’s ascended to the right hand of the Father. No star can lead to where He is now.
God connected His Word to a unique and unusual star at Jesus’ birth. But for you, He connects His Word to something much more plain and simple. He connects it with water. But Holy Baptism does no less for you than the star did for the Magi. Through Baptism, you who are a foreigner, a Gentile, born outside of the family of God, are welcomed into His house. By Baptism, you are introduced to the One born King of the Jews and Gentiles.
The Magi brought gifts to Jesus, but by Baptism Christ is revealed to be the One who gives gifts to you. For the worship and divine service of the Gospel is to receive gifts from God. He has taken you from outside His family and given you a new name. You are a child of Abraham because you are a child of the promise. You are brought into the nation that is blessed by Abraham’s Descendent. The Epiphany is your Christmas, because Christ is revealed by the star—and more so by His Word—to be your King.
In +Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard