We’re celebrating today as the Sunday of the Epiphany. Epiphany, of course, is a word we use for “AHA” moments, moments of clarity when we “get” things. The word comes to us from Greek and it literally means manifestation or appearance. During the Epiphany Season, we remember those times when Jesus most especially disclosed Himself to be God the Son and Savior of the world. January 6, Epiphany Day, annually remembers when the identity of the toddler Jesus as God and Savior was disclosed to Gentile visitors from the East and they worshiped Jesus. Because Epiphany didn’t fall on a Sunday, our Bible lessons this morning are the readings assigned for that day. Our Gospel lesson is Matthew 2:1-12.
This lesson, as I see it, raises three questions for us to consider.
First: What prompted the Magi to follow the star?
These were superstitious men. They didn’t believe in God. They made gods out of things they could see, touch, or manipulate. They were astrologers and mediums.
The Bible forbade such activities as idol worship. Leviticus 19:31, part of the “Holiness Code” that explains the Ten Commandments, says, “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the Lord your God.”
And yet, to foreign idol-worshipers God gave a sign of the birth of the Messiah. That’s because it’s God’s pleasure and desire to make Himself and the grace by which He saves repentant sinners known to all people. God used a sign the Magi would notice in order to call them to worship Christ, the newborn King.
But would a star have been reason enough for them to set off on a journey to an unknown destination to see a King Who may have been indifferent to them? I doubt it.
The only thing that would have prompted them, I think, is that they must have heard or read the Word of God that promised the Messiah!
Scholars tell us that the Magi came from Babylon or Persia, lands that had once conquered God’s people and taken some of them to live in exile in their lands. One of the Judean exiles, Daniel, told the Babylonians and Persians in the fifth century BC about God’s promise of a Messiah, Who would make all things right between God and His fallen creation. “...the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed,” God revealed through Daniel. “It will crush all [other] kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.” (Daniel 2:44)
After the star appeared to them, it was God’s Word, however deeply or well understood, that sent the Magi to follow the star to the Messiah.
Christians today wring their hands over the future of Christ’s Church. They ask, “What can we do?”
Our call is simply to receive and then to share the Word that out of His love for us, God sent the Son Jesus to die to take the condemnation for sin we deserve, then raised Him from the dead so that all who daily turn from sin and trust in Christ have the forgiveness of sin and everlasting life with God.
This Word gives more light to the world than any star ever could!
When John talked about Jesus entering our world, he called Jesus, the Light of the world and said, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
It was the Word they’d heard about a Messiah that compelled the wise men to follow the star. They wanted to see Jesus!
The second question is this: When did the Magi lose track of the star? We know they did lose track of it because Matthew tells us that following their visit to King Herod, “the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was…” (Matthew 2:9) The star reappeared to the Magi!
Evidently, once they’d gotten close to Jerusalem, they reasoned they needn’t depend on the star sent by God any longer. If the Messiah was “the King of the Jews,” He had to be in the palace at Jerusalem, right? Or at least, the present King there would know where the newborn Messiah was. Or the priests and scribes who worked in the temple and synagogues would know.
So, like an overly-confident driver turning off his GPS in a strange place before he’s reached his destination, the Magi take their eyes off the star sent by God and take a detour. Instead of relying on the Word of God to reveal the Messiah to them, the Magi decide to rely on themselves to find Jesus.
We can do this in our own lives, relying on ourselves God’s Word. It’s always a mistake. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” Proverbs 3:5 reminds us, “and lean not on your own understanding.” Another passage in Proverbs tells us that, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 16:25)
If we’re to see Jesus in our daily lives or in eternity, we need to turn to where He promises to be: in the Word and in the Sacraments, in the fellowship of believers, in Christ’s Church.
The Magis’ visit hit King Herod and his hangers-on like a bomb! Herod loved power. He didn’t want a Messiah messing things up.
He pretended to be pleased though and called in the priests and teachers of the Law to learn, from God’s Word, where the child was to be born. The answer was in the Old Testament book of Micah: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel…” (Micah 5:2)
That leads then to our third question. When did the Magi finally find the Savior pointed to by the star? That’s simple: When they once more heard and trusted in the Word of God! That Word said the Baby would be born in Bethlehem. The passage from Micah led them to Jesus. When the star revealed Jesus’ location, they worshiped the Baby. Through God’s Word, they knew they were in the presence of God Himself!
There’s a writer and editor with whom I’ve interacted through my blog, Facebook, and Twitter for nearly twenty years now. She’s a self-described unbeliever, but deeply respectful of the belief she sees in some Christians. She wrote this past week that what she found unique about Jesus among all the religious figures of history is that He “is a living presence of overwhelming love” in the lives of those who believe in Him.
My heart fairly skipped a beat when I read those words! She sees that Jesus gives to believers what no other religion and no other philosophical system in the world can give: the assurance that, despite what we deserve because of our sin, we are loved by the God revealed in Jesus!
There’s a reason Christians sense themselves to be “living in the presence of overwhelming love.”
Back when I was an atheist, a Christian might have been able to convince me of God’s existence by one or both of several arguments.
They may have said, “A creation must have a Creator.” But even if I had agreed to that proposition, it would have left me far from a the belief in Jesus that assures believers they live in the presence of overwhelming love.
A Christian may have pointed to moral law, the sense of right and wrong that everyone seems to have, even if they don’t believe in God. “That sense of right and wrong came from Someone,” a Christian may have told me, “and that Someone is God.” But even if I’d been convinced of their argument, I still would have been far from knowing and believing in Jesus as Savior, King, God…my Savior, King, and God.
It took the Word of God about Christ in the words and the lives of people in the church to which Jesus once dragged me for me to become a believer in Jesus Christ. Even now, I can see them and picture the disciples of Jesus Who spoke God’s Word in such a way that caught my attention and gave me faith. There were the Dells, the Larsons, the Schneiders, and others. They were the “stars” God used to lead me to Jesus, to trusting in Him, to worshiping Him.
Through these ordinary saints who got knocked down by life and lifted up again by Jesus, who trusted Him for life even in the face of death, I came to trust Jesus too. They taught me in practice the truth of God’s Word which Jesus threw back at Satan when he tried to tempt Jesus: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) Through them and their proclamation of God’s Word, I came to believe in Jesus. That’s no mystery, because as Paul says in Romans 10:17: “...faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.”
When the Magi heeded God’s Word to follow the star, they soon found themselves in the living presence of overwhelming love. They came into the presence of and worshiped Jesus, God in the flesh.
This is the God revealed to you in His Word and in the Word made visible in bread and wine and water.
He’s the God Who has died for your sin and was raised again by the Father so that as you, by the power of God’s Word, turn from sin each day and turn to Christ, you live knowing that You are loved deeply and overwhelmingly.
You know you have been set free from your slavery to sin and death, set free to live in God’s forgiveness and are saved to live forever with the God Who made you.
Whether because of our sin, the devil, or the evil in the world, it’s so easy for us, like the Magi, to get lost: to think we know better than God about right and wrong, to grow indifferent to God and His Word, to become spiritually proud or to wallow in self-condemnation.
But God’s Word about Jesus can set us straight and bring us into the presence of God and His love again and again. That can happen every time we listen to or read God’s Word or receive the Sacraments.
When we hear and are empowered by the Holy Spirit to trust God’s Word about Jesus our God and King, we can say with the psalmist, “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.” (Psalm 40:2)
Friends, it was God’s Word that led the Magi to Jesus and to faith in Him. And it’s God’s Word–in the Bible, in the words of Christians, in the Sacraments–that lead us to Jesus and to faith in Him.
You can trust in Him and in His Word! Amen