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.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “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.’ ” 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.” 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. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Mt 2:1-12, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
It’s like the final chapter of the Christmas story. We’ve come to “We Three Kings” and Christmas is over. At least that’s kind of the way we think about it. Traditionally, after Epiphany, Christmas trees can come down now. Decorations can be put away. The little stables go back in their storage boxes to be brought out again next December. This part of the story seems to put a big red bow on the whole thing. Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem to pay their taxes; Jesus is born in a stable because there is not room in the inn; the angels appear to the shepherds; the shepherds visit: they represent the poor and the Jews. The “Wise Men” visit led by a star: they represent the rich and the gentiles. (I expect we more often see ourselves as the Kings rather than the Shepherds, after all Kings don’t smell.) Still, everyone has acknowledged Jesus for who he is. Christmas is “officially” over, now it’s time for the “January blahs.”
But there is a part of the story that we see here in this text that we might sometimes just skip over. Maybe we do it on purpose; maybe we just don’t want to corrupt the sweetness of the stable with blood and death. But the truth of the matter is that the visit of these Magi from the East stirs things up. That’s the very thing the text tells us about King Herod. When Magi from the East entered Herod’s Palace and asked where the new king was, Herod was troubled (literally “stirred up”) and all Jerusalem with him. It’s not that the people of Jerusalem were worried about the new baby who would become king. They were troubled about their current king. You see, although Herod the Great was a good political leader in his early years, here at the end of his life he had grown very paranoid. Every time he felt threatened, every time he thought someone was set to sit in his throne, the body count went up. In order to stop what he saw as threats to his throne, Herod had already killed three of his sons, his favorite wife, his mother-in-law, and many others. One historian of the day tells us, in fact, that when Herod knew he was close to death, he ordered thousands of Jewish leaders killed at the moment of his death. Herod knew that as an very unpopular King, who was Roman installed puppet, his death would be a time for rejoicing. He wanted to give them a reason to mourn. Although in history he his know as Herod the Great, it wouldn’t be totally out of line to call him Herod the Terrible or even Herod the Horrible. I doubt the Magi knew what they were setting in motion. I doubt they knew the danger they were in with their visit, and even the danger they were bringing to the child they meant to worship. But the danger to Jesus was very real. Mary and Joseph and Jesus had to leave the country to be safe. When Herod the Terrible figured out that the Magi weren’t going to help him find the child, he struck out in anger (he was furious) and ordered all little babies boys of the Bethlehem area killed.
You see, the story of the Wise Men isn’t the sweet gentle story we usually think it is. It’s just another part of the story of Jesus that points toward the real reason He came. Jesus says it himself, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Mt 10:34, ESV) From the very beginning we see that Jesus came into a hostile world. From the very beginning we see that his coming isn’t a quaint children’s story but a real flesh and blood story about a real and dangerous world. This is our world, a world where children die by their parent’s hand even before they are born. This is our world where children are neglected and exploited and endangered by violence. This is our world, a world where thousands die because of uncontrollable nature, but thousands more die at by our own sinful hands.
Epiphany means “the showing,” or “making an appearance.” It’s not really about the Wise Men at all, although they play a central part of it. Epiphany, just like everything we talk about here, is about Jesus. It’s about God coming among us in our real and dangerous world. It’s about Him showing Himself to us and making it clear why He came. Even though Jesus’ visit in human flesh was immediately life-threatening to Him, it is life-saving for us.
The season of Epiphany brings it all into proper focus. Jesus birth was not an unusual birth into an unusual world. It was a remarkable birth into the usual, hostile world. That’s the revealing of God, that we see in Jesus. He knew the dangers. He knew the hostility that His coming would stir-up. And yet, He came all the same. He knew where the journey that began in the stable would take Him. That’s His great love for you, that the Baby in the manger had His eyes on the cross, and on you.
The problem is that when it comes to sin, we are no better than Herod the Horrible. He jealously guarded his throne. He wouldn’t tolerate even the Messiah to displace him. That’s the essence of sin: hostility toward God; desire to be apart from God; desire to be in control of our own lives. Don’t you and I show that in our lives? Don’t we struggle to do what we know is right? We keep God in a box, where we can keep a handle on Him, where we can hedge our bets, just in case we need a “higher power” when things get out of hand. Right here where He doesn’t interfere with the way we really want to live, the things we really want to do. Herod didn’t want Jesus to sit on his throne. There are times in our lives when we are guilty of the very same thing. Jesus, I can handle this, just let me take care of it myself. God, my sin isn’t so bad, there are others who are much worse, let me live the way I want to live. As sinful human beings we fit in this sinful world very well. It wants nothing to do with God. It wants nothing to do with God coming and taking charge. St. Paul tells us in Romans that “the sinful mind is hostile to God” (Rom 8:7 NIV). But the baby that was visited by the Wise Men changed all that. Instead of enemies we have been made friends. St. Paul says again, While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son (Rom 5:10).
I don’t know if the Magi knew what they were looking at when they found the newborn King. They did say they had come to worship Him. Weather they knew it or not they had found God in human flesh. They had found the way that God provided to remove sin and hostility toward God from all people. Jesus not only took on our human flesh, but he carried human sin to the cross. You’ll notice on the cover of the bulletin that there’s a picture of Jesus being baptized. Well, that’s the regular text for today (Epiphany 1: Matthew 3:13-17). You can picture Jesus going down into dirty water and sucking up all the filth into himself. How did the water get dirty? From you and me. Our baptism washes away our sin for Jesus to take up. From there he takes He takes that sin to a bloody death, a death that hostility toward God deserves, my death, your death, for my sin, and for your sin.
That’s what Epiphany shows us. It shows us God revealed in human flesh to be the sin bearer. It shows us God’s love for us that compelled Him to remove our sin, no matter what the cost.
There’s that hymn “We Three Kings.” It is a very complete hymn. It tells all about who Jesus is. It shows us the infant child is not only a King but “King and God and Sacrifice.” That’s the whole story. That’s the King they were seeking. That’s the King they found. That’s the King they worshipped. And so do we.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.