The Epiphany of Our Lord
January 6, 2017
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
It’s interesting that in Matthew’s Gospel, which is considered to have the most Jewish flavor of all the Gospels (almost as if he saw himself as writing the last book of the Old Testament), one of the first narratives following the birth of the Messiah is the visit of Gentiles. Uncircumcised outsiders are the first to recognize the infant Jesus as King of the Jews and to offer Him worship and praise. For this reason the Epiphany is known as Christmas for the Gentiles.
Although it shouldn’t be entirely unexpected. The coming of the Messiah among the Jewish people would mark the return of the nations to worship God and be His people. For example, hear what Isaiah writes in chapter two of his prophecy: This is what Isaiah, the son of Amoz, saw about Judah and Jerusalem. In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established at the top of the mountains and be raised above the hills, and all the nations will flow in streams to it. Then many people will go and say, “Come, let us go up to the LORD’s mountain, to the temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us His ways, and we will live in them.” The LORD’s instruction comes from Zion and His Word from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations and make decisions for many people. Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. No nation will raise a sword against another or train for war anymore (Is 2:1-4 AAT).
The Nations Flow to the Lord’s Temple, Who Is Jesus
It was not unheard of for Gentiles to participate in the Jewish ceremonial life. God makes provision for sojourners and strangers to participate in the Passover. The only requirement was that they be circumcised before participating—a pretty big commitment to share the sacrificial meal. Proselytes were among those who journeyed to the temple on the day of Pentecost, who witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit. But this was different. These Gentiles were not coming to participate in the ritual observances of the Law at the Jewish Temple. They came to find where all those Laws and rituals had begun to be fulfilled. The Gentiles from the East were drawn to Jesus by the Word of God.
The men from the East didn’t just happen to be passing through Judea that first Epiphany. 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). This was an intentional visit, and their first stop was to Jerusalem. It only made sense. That’s where the temple was; that’s where the king lived. But Herod was not the one they came to see. He was an old man. Not to mention thoroughly wicked.
The Magi are wiser than we often give them credit for. They were indeed guided by the star, but there are lots of stars in the sky—sometimes even unusual ones. These men were wise because of something else added to the star. They had God’s Word, a gift and deposit from the Babylonian captivity, when teachers and prophets like Daniel taught the Torah to these far-off disciples.
And so the Gentiles are drawn to Jesus by the Word of God. 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 24:17). This is one of the oracles of Balaam, who spoke with the Angel of the Lord. The star guided the Wise Men, but God’s Word drew them from afar. It would be nice if, in addition to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the Wise Men are holding in our nativity sets, one of them would also be holding a Bible.
But Isaiah’s prophecy is a little off. He foretells that the nations will flow up the mountain to the Lord’s temple. The Gentile Wise Men journeyed to Jerusalem where the temple was; perhaps they even inquired in the temple (or outside of it, because Gentiles were not allowed into the temple proper). But in the end they were sent elsewhere. They landed in Bethlehem, again because of God’s Word. There they find Jesus, and fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, because all nations are drawn to Jesus as the new Temple and dwelling place of God’s glory.
The Magi, in their journey to find the newborn King of the Jews, get caught up in some political intrigue. When King Herod heard, He was stirred up, and all of Jerusalem with him. And calling together all of the chief priests and scribes of the people, he kept inquiring from them where the Christ would be born. And they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written through the prophet: ‘And you Bethlehem, of the land of Judah, are not at all least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will go out a ruler, who will shepherd My people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called the Magi to learn exactly from them the time of the star’s appearance. And sending them to Bethlehem, he said, “When you have gone, inquire accurately concerning the child; and as soon as your find Him, report back to me, so that I also may go and worship Him” (vv 3-8). But Herod didn’t want to worship the child; he wanted to kill Him.
In the midst of all of this, Micah’s prophecy directed the Magi beyond Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is not where the King reigns, but where He is born, just as David before Him. Again, they are guided by the star, but drawn by God’s Word. And when they had heard the king, they left and saw the star, which they saw in the East, continued to go ahead of them, until coming to stand at the place where the child was. Seeing the star, they rejoiced with very great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary, His mother, and falling down they worshipped Him and opening their casket, they presented to Him gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh (vv 9-11).
Don’t pass over the action of the Magi too quickly. They worshipped Him. We take it for granted because we’ve heard the story so many times. Worship was something that took place in Jerusalem, in the temple. And it was a very exclusive thing. These Gentiles would have been able to pray and hear the Law and the Prophets proclaimed, but they would not have been permitted to the ritual worship of the temple. But here, in the house of the infant Jesus, they worship.
The temple was the location of God’s glory as the tabernacle had been before it. But the glory of God had departed the temple; Ezekiel saw it and reported it. Now the glory of God rests not in a building made with hands, but in the flesh of the baby born of the Virgin. Jesus, in whom the fullness of God dwells bodily, is the new Temple and place of worship. And Gentiles are the first to recognize this.
Why is it that Gentiles—and that includes me and you—are now drawn to this new Temple and worship of God? What has changed? The death of Jesus. The cross is the magnet of the nations. All people are drawn to Jesus because of His cross.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death He was going to die (Jn 12:32). It is the Word of the cross, of Jesus’ death that draws the Gentile Wise Men to Bethlehem—even if they didn’t know it in full. But they brought Him myrrh as a gift, and myrrh is something you use when people die.
Likewise, you also are drawn to Jesus by the Word of His death and resurrection. This Word is not added to a star in the sky, but to water, and bread and wine. These are your signs by which to find the location of the King, the Messiah. These are where God’s glory is found, and the place for your worship. As Isaiah said, The nations flow to the Lord’s Temple, and that Temple is Jesus Christ.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard