January 6, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”
The Magi come to Jerusalem looking for a king. They come because they had witnessed something that led them to believe that a new king had been born. This is the testimony that they give when they enter Israel’s capital city: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.’” A star had been seen, a star that convinced the Magi that a new monarch had been born to the people of Israel. The viewing of this star drove them on their journey to Jerusalem.
But there is a problem with the Magi’s question. Not that the content was incorrect; a new king had been born. But the venue for their question was wrong. They expect to find the newly born king in Jerusalem. That is where a monarch of Israel should be found. But when the Magi ask about it in Jerusalem, the reaction they get is anything but positive: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him….” There is no joy for Herod in hearing about a newly born monarch. His court and city are troubled. It had been troubled before by palace intrigue, including the charges of high treason leveled by Herod against his children and wives and their subsequent executions. And now foreign emissaries come into Herod’s court looking for a new king.
So Herod recalls the ancient promises about a Messiah after he hears the Magi’s question: “assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” Herod knew that a ruler had been foretold, one who was to be the leader of the Lord’s people Israel. But where would this Messiah be born? The answer is given by the chief priests and scribes: “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’” Now Herod knows where this challenger will come from. And he develops a plan to find this rival king: “Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the Child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.’”
Herod’s plan of murdering the Messiah would go unfulfilled. But from the visit to Jerusalem, the Magi are given the missing piece of the puzzle for their quest to find the newborn king. The missing piece is that prophetic statement, the promise issued from the Lord about the Messiah through the words of Micah the sage. From the rising of the star, a phenomenon of nature, the Magi had come to know that a king of the Jews had been born. But this king would not be found in Jerusalem. The natural place to find the Messiah was not where He was to be located. Left to that knowledge, the Magi would wander through all the streets of Israel’s capital but never see the one they came to worship. But when the divine, prophetic words are made known to them—even by an evil and murderous tyrant—the Magi find the Messiah. They are directed and led by what the Lord had spoken.
This is what the Gospel Writer emphasizes: “After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” The Lord’s words are what bring the Magi to Bethlehem. There they find the Messiah who was born. He is found not in the place where they thought He would be, but in the place where the Lord had promised. And this is how the Infant Jesus is first revealed to be the Messiah, the promised Redeemer of the world, to the Gentiles. The knowledge of this is given to them through the Lord’s words.
This great revelation about Jesus’ identity is what the apostle Paul also makes known for you, as you heard this morning: “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Jesus is the One who was born king of the Jews. He is the Messiah, the Christ who was promised. And through His work, salvation has been won for the Lord’s ancient people Israel and for members of other nations who are brought to the knowledge of His will: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that He has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in Him.”
But how is this mystery made known? How is this conveyed, so that you and others may receive it? Where does one find the mystery of Jesus’ identity and work revealed? It is not in the earthly and natural things. That can bring a person close, just as the star brought the Magi to a near proximity of the Messiah. But the Lord’s divine words of promise need to be heard and received. They carry the gospel; they bring the unsearchable riches of Christ to people. This is how you have become recipients of the grace that the Father has offered to you through the gift of His only-begotten Son, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us and carried the glory of the Father, full of grace and truth.
This is why the Church must focus on being the speaker of the Lord’s word in this world. Through that word, the identity and work of Jesus are proclaimed and made known. The natural things can reveal the love of Jesus. Make no mistake, the love of Christ is shown through the social work that the Church and its members do. Such work is part of your life as disciples. Because you have been shown the greatest generosity by the Father—the giving of His Son for your salvation—and have also benefited from the gifts of His creation, you reflect that generosity in offering your money and possessions for others. Because you have been given life, you act to support the life of others. This is what drives our parish’s cooperation and involvement with social ministry organizations, with Lutheran Malaria Initiative, and with our local adoption and abortion alternative groups. This is good, right, and salutary to do.
Yet, these acts can be like the star that led the Magi to go to Jerusalem. Certainly there is the reflection of the Father’s love to people in them. But it is in the word of gospel that the identity and work of Jesus is revealed. And that is why the Church speaks that word in this world. Without that, the people—even you—would be left in Jerusalem and not reach Bethlehem. It is the word of gospel that brings you to the Messiah, so that you can worship and honor Him. More importantly, it is the word of gospel that brings the Messiah’s merits to you, so that you can eternally enjoy the fullness of His divine presence. It is the word of gospel that you hear—that the promised Messiah has come, that He has fulfilled the promises spoken about Him, that He has made atonement for your sins, that He has conquered sin, death, and Satan—that brings you into the Father’s household and makes you His heirs. That is the mystery revealed about Jesus through the divine words: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
This is how the Old Testament promise has been fulfilled for you and the rest of the members of the Church. The Lord says: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you.” That light and glory of the Lord is not a star. No, it is the person of Christ, the Messiah born in Bethlehem, who died and rose again for you. His identity and work have been revealed to you through the gospel words. They shine the divine light in the darkness of your sin and guilt and imperfection. That is why you must be intentional and diligent in hearing the words of the Messiah, the gospel that testifies about Him—not only in the Divine Service, but also in the other venues where this word is read and heard. That is how you will be led to enjoy in heaven the fullness of God’s divine presence.
But the Lord also promised: “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” That is more than just a foretelling of the Magi’s appearance. It is a promise about what will happen as the Lord’s word, the testimony of Jesus’ identity and work, is spoken and declared in this world. The nations come to the Church’s light, the Messiah who is revealed in the gospel—the words proclaimed and the visible words of the sacraments. In them, the glory of the Lord is shown. Through them, the Morning Star shines brightly, so that the identity and work of Jesus are revealed. That is how others will not be left wandering in the shadows of this world, lost in the thick darkness of their sin and guilt and imperfection.
By the same gospel words that brought you to faith in Jesus, they also will be led like to the Messiah and the benefits of His identity and work for them. So the manifold wisdom of God will be made known through the Church in this world, revealed through you who have been made partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. This is the Epiphany that we celebrate today, when the Magi found Him who was born king of the Jews. And we look forward to the glorious revelation of this same Jesus as King of All Creation when He returns.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.