Sermon for Epiphany, 2022

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In Exodus, the people of Israel were led by a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of smoke by day to the Promised Land. They were led out of the slavery they experienced in Egypt to the freedom that God would give them in the land flowing with milk and honey. They would be led to the place where God would dwell among them first in the tabernacle and later in the temple. Now, on this night that we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord, we celebrate the leading of the gentile magi not by fire and smoke, but by a star as they exit from the slavery of their sin and unbelief to the freedom that will come by the one born in Bethlehem to be the king of the Jews who will die not just to save Israel, but all people.

The English Standard Version of the Bible—the translation that we use in our services and that is used in all of our church’s publications—translates the Greek word for “magi” in Matthew 2 as “wise men.” You might have noticed that I didn’t read it that way. I simply read it as “magi.” That’s because while the magi may have held some sort of worldly knowledge, they are not truly wise. After all, how do you explain the fact that they go to the wrong place looking for the wrong kind of king.

That said, we can’t be too hard on the magi. After all, at least they recognized something that nobody else did. They recognized that a king had been born in Israel and that there was something significant about this particular king. How did they know all of this? They probably learned it from the Jews who had once been exiled in their land. They probably had a copy of, in the very least, the Torah (the books of Moses). They had read the promise of the coming Messiah. The knowledge that they lacked was filled in by the chief priests and the scribes. That is, the location of where the king was to be born was not evident in the information that they had. The full Word of God had to come to them in order to make them wise enough to know where to go to find Jesus. The lesson is this: no one is truly wise apart from the Word of God. We can acquire as much worldly knowledge as possible, but without the Word of God, it’s useless. It will amount to nothing. We need the Word of God to make us wise unto salvation.

The fact is that everyone should have rejoiced at the birth of Jesus—especially the scribes and the chief priests. They were the ones who pointed out to the magi where the King of the Jews was to be born. They should have been thrilled to hear that it had actually happened. They should have set off for Bethlehem with the magi. But they didn’t. They were indifferent to the birth of Jesus. They had the wisdom of God’s Word telling them not only where the Messiah was to be born, but what it meant. They had this additional word from the magi that it had actually happened. Yet they did nothing. They decided to hang back in Jerusalem with the pagan King Herod and wait for the magi to report back.

That is, after all, what Herod told the magi to do. He told them to come back and tell him all about the child that was born. He said he wanted to worship him, too. That’s not true, of course. Herod was a ruthless king who killed whoever got in his way as king. He only wanted to know where Jesus was so that he could eliminate this threat to his throne. He has no intention to bow down and worship the true King of the Jews. He is purely concerned with protecting his position in the Roman Empire.

The magi, however, will never make it back to Jerusalem. They were warned in a dream to go back to their country by a different route rather than reveal the location of the Christ child. That said, where, exactly, was Jesus when the magi visited and worshiped him? We might assume Bethlehem. After all, nothing is said of the holy family moving anywhere until Joseph is told to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Consider, though, that Matthew never specifies in his Gospel where the star leads the magi other than saying that it led to them to where Jesus was. The fact is that Joseph and Mary may very well have already returned to Nazareth by the time the magi visit. That is, it could be that the magi are led by the star to Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

Regardless of where the magi went, though, the fact remains that they went. They were led by a star to to the Savior of the World. And they were never the same after that. They went home a different way. Yes, they literally traveled a different route to get back to Persia, but as it is with anyone who encounters Jesus, their way, that is, their life was changed. They were no longer pagans walking in darkness, but they were part of the people who once walked in darkness but now have seen the great light. For Jesus is that great light that shines in the darkness. Isaiah writes of him in our Old Testament reading for tonight where he says that glory of the Lord has come. The magi even fulfill the prophecy in their bringing of gold and frankincense to present to Jesus. Now the magi go their way knowing that they have seen with their own eyes the salvation that God promised to all people. They have seen the offspring born of woman that comes to crush the serpents head. They have seen the offspring promised to Abraham that would be a blessing to all nations.

You, too, are part of this chosen race and royal priesthood now. You were made this in your baptism where you first encountered Jesus for yourself as he wrapped you in his robes of righteousness. You have encountered this Savior of all nations in absolution where he declares your sins forgiven and in the Lord’s Supper where he feeds you with his body and blood. Do not take these encounters with Jesus, the great light, for granted! Be not like the scribes and chief priests who indifferently sent the magi on their way. Rather, hasten to the places where Jesus locates himself for the forgiveness of your sins. Come to the altar, pulpit, and font rejoicing with exceedingly great joy. Fall down and worship Jesus Christ, your Savior.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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