Epiphany of Our Lord
There is something that is often overlooked when it comes to the visit of the magi. These men from the east, called wise by Matthew, travel to Jerusalem, supposing the new king to be born there. They had at least part of the Hebrew Scriptures when the Hebrews were exiled in their land. The connected the dots: seeing the star that led them to Palestine, they surmised that the promised King was born. Jerusalem was the capital, so it would make sense that the King, in the line of David, would be born and live in Jerusalem. They arrive at the palace and find Herod there, but no baby.
“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
Now, here’s the first thing that’s overlooked. When Herod heard this, he and all of Jerusalem were troubled. What troubled them? Well, for one thing, and the one most often cited, the fact that there were foreigners looking for a new King. But, remember, the wise men wanted to worship Him. They were clear in their question—this was no ordinary king who sat on a throne, but one worthy of worship (a concept, I’ll admit, that was not uncommon in the ancient world), unlike the king they met in Jerusalem. It’s almost as if Herod and the people of Jerusalem weren’t expecting such a great King to come, despite the fact that they had the full revelation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
“And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
So, Herod sends the wise men to Bethlehem with instruction to bring word back to him of the exact location of the Child, so that he may go and “worship” him, too. Of course, by “worship,” we know that he intends to kill the Child.
And here’s the second thing that’s often overlooked. What did the chief priests and scribes do? Matthew doesn’t tell us, and his silence speaks volumes. Nowhere is it mentioned that they traveled with the magi to Bethlehem, to see for themselves this King, the Christ, who will shepherd them. No mentioned is made that they were even curious if what the magi surmised was indeed the case. One would think that doing so or being so would have been noteworthy, that Matthew would record it if it happened, since he records the visit of the magi. One would think that the first instinct of having heard of the birth of the One promised in the Scriptures would be to go see Him, but Matthew doesn’t even tell us if there was the least bit of interest on the part of the chief priests and scribes, and certainly no serious intent to go worship Jesus on the part of Herod. In a way, this would prefigure the scorn and opposition that Jesus would endure from the scribes and chief priests throughout His life.
All of this illustrates a point. There was no hunger for God and His Righteousness on the part of Herod, Jerusalem, the chief priests, or scribes. The shepherds in the fields the night Jesus was born rushed to see Him, having been directly instructed by the angels. The wise men from the east traveled great distances to meet their Creator and Redeemer and offer Him their gold, frankincense, and myrrh, having only a portion of God’s revelation to the holy men. But, here are people who live in the shadow of the temple, God’s presence on earth, with the words of Moses and the prophets, and they would rather stay put, showing no hunger or thirst for righteousness.
Martin Luther saw the writing on the wall, you could say. The Word of God is clear—He does not force Himself and His grace on anyone, and if His gifts and presence are rejected, He will give them to others. Writing to the councilmen of all cities in Germany, encouraging the establishment and maintenance of Christian schools, Luther wrote,
Let us remember our former misery, and the darkness in which we dwelt. Germany, I am sure, has never before heard so much of God’s word as it is hearing today; certainly we read nothing of it in history. If we let it just slip by without thanks and honor, I fear we shall suffer a still more dreadful darkness and plague. O my beloved Germans, buy while the market is at your door; gather in the harvest while there is sunshine and fair weather; make use of God’s grace and word while it is there! For you should know that God’s word and grace is like a passing shower of rain which does not return where it has once been. It has been with the Jews, but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have nothing. Paul brought it to the Greeks; but again when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the Turk. Rome and the Latins also had it; but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the pope. And you Germans need not think that you will have it forever, for ingratitude and contempt will not make it stay. Therefore, seize it and hold it fast, whoever can; for lazy hands are bound to have a lean year. (AE, vol. 45, p. 352)
Having lived in Germany, even as recently as 1989, I can confirm that, by-and-large, many church buildings in Germany serve more as tourist stops than places where God’s Word is proclaimed, where the Mysteries of God are delivered, where Jesus is given and received.
Were there believers among the Jews and the others, even when they had abandoned God’s Word? Certainly, a remnant of God’s chosen people believed and are counted among the saints; or else there wouldn’t be a letter written to the Hebrews. Among the Greeks, even after Turkish conquest, there are still members of the Bride of Christ, made and kept so as Jesus is manifest among them in His means. Even in Rome and in the churches of the papacy there are people who preach, hear, and receive Jesus, despite the office of pope, even as we confess of them to be brothers and sisters in Christ. And I can confess knowing of many churches in Germany with whom we are in altar and pulpit fellowship, where I would encourage you to go to receive the gifts of God, should you ever visit the country.
By and large, however, among all of these people, God’s grace and Word are gone. Jews simply do not believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah, or else they wouldn’t be Jews. Greek and Eastern Orthodox churches are concerned, more-or-less, with tradition and doing things the right way than with hearing and receiving the Word of God in the flesh. The churches of the papacy hold to the pope being the vicar of Christ, whose word can supersede that of God. And the Germans are predominantly humanists (especially in the east), atheists by nature who reject anything that is religious or spiritual in content.
As much as Luther’s words to his fellow Germans was prophetic, we have these words from the American Luther, C.F.W. Walther:
A person may pretend to be a Christian though in reality he is not. As long as he is in this condition, he is quite content with his knowledge of the mere outlines of Christian doctrine. Everything beyond that, he says, is for pastors and theologians. To understand as clearly as possible everything that God has revealed—all of that is irrelevant for non-Christians. However, the moment someone becomes a Christian, there arises in him a keen desire for the doctrine of Christ. If they have not yet been converted, at the moment of their conversion even the most uncultured peasants are suddenly awakened and begin to reflect on God and heaven, salvation and damnation, etc. They start to wonder about the deepest problems of human life. (L&G Second Evening Lecture; Reader’s Edition, p. 17)
Hearing these words, we are drawn to reflect on the state of Christianity on these shores. Say what you will about the Christian origins of the United States, the fact is that in the early decades of our country, Christianity was taken more seriously, by-and-large. The legends go (and these most likely with more than a hint of truth) that our American ancestors went to great lengths to know and understand Christian doctrine and Biblical content. A look at text books from a century and a half a go reveal as much; these contain questions which would stump many-a confirmation student or even pastor today.
Compare that with today, and you’ll find Christians like Walther described. Throngs of people fill stadiums to hear speakers who claim to be Christian tell them that God is pleased with them no matter what they do or how they live or what they believe, and they go home feeling pleased with themselves. Cable and satellite television providers carry broadcasts from dozens of channels that claim to deliver Jesus around the world, but teach little more than self-help principles that are only, at best, derived from Scripture but more-often-than-not only sound Scriptural.
Even in churches where Jesus is faithfully given to the people, there can easily be a lazy or indifferent attitude to the doctrines and content of Scripture. I cannot count how often I have heard it mentioned at pastoral meetings that pastors seldom see many of their parishioners outside of Sunday morning for worship services; people will come for church, hear the Bible read to them and the forgiveness of their sins proclaimed to them, even receive Jesus’ body and blood, but few make any effort to attend Bible studies, ask for devotional materials, or ask their pastors questions of deep theological significance indicating a Christian life outside of the church walls. There seem to be many Christians in the vein of the chief priests and scribes in today’s text, who do not have a desire to seize and hold fast to the Word of God, who do not reflect on God and heaven, salvation and damnation, etc.
You might wonder if such is the case in this place. You may even question if you would be counted among these who are content with knowledge of the mere outlines of Christian doctrine, leaving the rest to pastors and theologians. Dear hearers, these are not bad questions to ask, nor the wrong things to ponder. By doing so, you ask yourselves, “How have I grieved God? How have I transgressed the Law of God?” Listen to the third commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” What does this mean? “We should fear and love God that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”
Therefore, dear baptized, I point you to the Word, and encourage you to hear and learn it gladly.
Today, we hear of the magi who traveled from the region of Persia to Palestine looking for the King of kings which was promised in the Word of God. We heard of the chief priests and scribes who declared according to the Word that the the King was to be born in Bethlehem: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.”
The magi went to Bethlehem, where the King of kings was manifest for them—they were brought into the Light, as Jesus is the Light. They presented Him their gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—gifts fitting a king, spices intended for burial, prefiguring the death and burial of Jesus, the King of kings. This Jesus who manifest Himself in the flesh to the Persian Gentiles would ultimately take their sins, the sins of Herod and those of all of Jerusalem, the chief priests and the scribes—in fact, the sins of the world—into His flesh, and shed His blood on the tree of the cross for their remission. His Word declared that He would do it, as it is written in the prophet Isaiah, and He did it, accomplishing the redemption of His creation. Do not disregard this simple fact: Jesus was right where He said He would be!
This is good news for you, dear Baptized, because He is still right where He said He would be. He has given us His Word, as He swears on oath that He is present in His Word as His means of grace. His Word does what it says, because Jesus is the One who says it, and He does not break His promises. Therefore, with Martin Luther, I urge you to seize God in His Word and hold fast to it. In His Word, Jesus manifests Himself to you, bringing you into Himself who is the Light and Himself into you. Jesus is just as flesh-and-blood present for you in His Word and means of grace as He was for the magi in Bethlehem. Jesus is just as flesh-and-blood present for you in this place as He was in that house in Bethlehem.
- And so it is that the Word of God is applied to simple water, and you are Baptized, putting on Christ as your Redeemer and Savior, and you are clothed in His righteousness. He promised to be present in this means, and so He is.
- Throughout your baptismal life, the words of Holy Absolution are proclaimed in your hearing, words which Christ Himself instructed His ordained servants to proclaim, and you receive the forgiveness of your sins. He promised to be present in these words, as much as He is the Word of God proclaimed, loosing in heaven what was loosed on earth and binding in heaven what was bound on earth.
- And, most manifestly, Jesus joins Himself to bread and wine so that as you come forward to His table, you eat and drink the body and blood of the Lord, in so doing receiving Him for forgiveness, life, and salvation. He promised to be present in this means, and so He is.
This is the purpose for which Jesus came, and why He makes Himself known to Persian Gentiles and for all the world, Jew, Greek, Latin, German, and everyone else. He is here for you, dear hearers, in grace and mercy. Therefore, you are forgiven for all of your sins.