The Epiphany of our Lord
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 2:1-12 Sermon
January 6, 2008
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
53 "Brightest And Best Of The Sons Of The Morning"
142 "In His Temple Now Behold Him"
55 "Songs Of Thankfulness And Praise"
51 "Earth Has Many A Noble City"
52 "As With Gladness Men Of Old"
HOW FAR WOULD YOU TRAVEL?
TEXT (vs. 1-2; 11) “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’ On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”
There’s a story I heard quite awhile back, and I was reminded of it again this past month when somebody Emailed it to me. I thought it was appropriate for a sermon illustration, so I decided to share it with you all this morning.
The story starts with a couple living in Arizona. They had been married for many years, and they had two adult children. Their son lived in Chicago, and their daughter lived in Atlanta.
Just a few days before Christmas, the father telephones the son in Chicago. “Son,” he said, “I just called to tell you that your mother and I have decided to get a divorce. Over the years, I’ve just gotten sick and tired of everything, so we’ve decided to call it quits. I don’t want to discuss it anymore, so I’d like you to telephone your sister in Atlanta and break the news to her.”
Well the son was absolutely speechless. He was shocked. Of anybody he knew, he felt his parents were the least likely to ever get divorced. So he immediately phones his sister in Atlanta and shares the news with her.
The sister was even more shocked and outraged at the thought of all this. She and her brother discussed it between themselves as to what they could do with this situation.
Finally the irate sister telephones her father in Arizona. She tells her father, “What’s the meaning of all this? I’ve never heard of anything so ridiculous in all my life. My brother and I will be flying in tomorrow to try to get this mess straightened out. Don’t you dare do a thing until we get there!”
The father smiles as he hangs up the telephone. He calls out to his wife and says, “Good news honey! The kids are coming home for Christmas, and they’re paying their own way!”
Of course this is intended to be a humorous story, and I doubt very seriously if it is true. But if we look beneath the humor of the situation, we will find a very sobering truth there—something we need to be asking ourselves.
The question is this: What does it take for you and me to pick up and go someplace? How far will we travel? What kind of a situation would it take for us to figuratively move “heaven and earth” to get someplace?
If we use the scenario of my little opening story, I could imagine that the parents of these two children had wanted them to visit. Perhaps they tried polite requests and made suggestions. But as children go, they were probably way too involved with their own lives halfway across the country to be bothered with visiting their parents during the holidays.
It wasn’t until this conniving father dreamed up a situation that was serious enough and desperate enough that the children felt constrained to go and see their parents. As long as the status quo was being maintained in their estimation, then they could simply stay where they were and not be bothered.
We live in a very mobile society. Just think of it. You can walk out the door of this church building, jump in your car, and in just a few minutes you can be on the entrance ramp of the busiest freeway in the entire United States. In just about a half an hour, you can find yourself on a rail platform with trans-continental rail service in both directions, or boarding a bus which will take you virtually any place in North America. And if that isn’t enough, in about half an hour you can be at an airport, where you can catch a plane which will take you to almost any place in the entire world. And all of this is right at your fingertips, right out your back door!
You see, transportation really isn’t an issue. The real question is, what does it take to get us to leave the comforts of home, make use of one of these forms of transportation, and go somewhere? What does it take to motivate us?
Obviously there are those errands we have to do, like go shopping, go to medical appointments, go to work, and the like. Then there are those excursions which are more planned, such as a holiday or vacation trip, going to see relatives, or maybe going to some sort of function.
But then there are more urgent things. A funeral perhaps, or someone is sick in hospital. Maybe a family member or friend is in need of our help somewhere. Someone may be in trouble. And away we go.
In our minds, we categorize things as to their importance. We discriminate as to what’s important for us, and what isn’t. We make decisions like this all the time, and sometimes the decisions we make aren’t good ones either.
Today is Epiphany, and it is the day we celebrate the arrival of the wise men, or magi at Bethlehem. These men come to the house where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were staying. They present him with gifts of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, and then they worship him.
The word “epiphany” means “appearance,” and is usually used to describe a revealing scene or moment. In this case, it was this star in the western morning sky that God had revealed which was a sign of the holy birth of Jesus. By the appearance of this star, Jesus himself was revealed as the new-born Saviour.
I think it would do us well to consider the situation of the wise men. They came from Babylon, a country that was well over three hundred miles away. They traveled this distance by camel back, and some of the terrain wasn’t easy going either. Some have speculated that this trip took them the better part of two years to complete, considering the speed they might have traveled, and since Herod gave the orders that all male babies two years and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem were to be slaughtered.
It wasn’t an easy trip for them, but yet they made it anyway. Something was so important for them, something so constraining that they just had to make this difficult journey. They knew that the Saviour had been born, the one who was to be the King of the Jews.
How did they know all of this? After all, Babylon was a heathen country, and these wise men came from Babylon. The answer to this goes back to the time of Daniel in the Old Testament; hundreds of years before Christ was born.
When Daniel was carried off from Judah into captivity, he took his faith with him. Time and time again, he gave faithful testimony to the one true God, and he did so in some very high and influential places.
Daniel was carried off into captivity as a very young man, probably in his teens; and when he left Babylon, he was probably in his eighties or thereabouts. Most of his entire life as one of God’s prophets was spent in Babylon.
We know that the key function of a prophet of God was to speak his Word to the people, and Daniel did just that. If we look at Isaiah chapter 55 verse 11, we hear God saying: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”
How true that was! Hundreds of years after Daniel’s passing, God’s Word was still alive and well in Babylon. When that star appeared, these wise men knew exactly what it meant. They knew God’s prophecy; and not only did they know it, but they knew the sheer magnitude of what it all meant. They knew that the birth of the Saviour meant salvation for all of mankind.
Furthermore, they had a special role according to Isaiah’s prophecy. In our Old Testament lesson, Isaiah records in chapter 6 verses 5-6: “Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.”
They had to go. They had to make the trip. They had to pay homage and worship this new-born King. They had to bring the good news of the Gospel back to their homeland.
These men knew their Bible. Their theology was impeccable. According to the prophet Micah, they knew that the Saviour was to be born in Bethlehem in the land of Judah. And so they set out on their long journey to Judah.
As good as their theology was, their geography wasn’t as good. The star was ahead of them in the western sky, which led them directly to the land of Judah. And since they probably had never been to Judah, they go to the obvious place and ask directions from King Herod.
Here we see almost a mad scramble. Herod, if you can fathom it, goes to the Jews and they look to God’s Word for some direction. When he asks where the Messiah is to be born, they respond with Micah’s prophecy about Bethlehem.
Bethlehem, this little hamlet scarcely six miles south of Jerusalem was indeed the place. That star which guided these wise men from the east now guided them to the exact house where Jesus was. That star worked better than any GPS navigator we could ever buy.
These wise men had to be almost perplexed in a way. Why did Herod react out of fear instead of joy? Why were they one of the few to seek him out and worship him? Why weren’t the people of the land excited and enthusiastic over this fulfillment of prophecy?
The people should have known. The shepherds told others about it. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple and presented him to Anna and Simeon, they both announced that this was indeed the promised Messiah. So by the time the wise men finally arrived, everybody should have known about this holy birth.
But look at what happened. Look at how the people reacted. Herod was afraid of him. The Jews couldn’t be bothered with him. In fact those who should have been the most joyful and who knew those prophecies so well couldn’t even be bothered to make the short six mile trek from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to even see him.
And here were these enthusiastic wise men who traveled over “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star” as the old Christmas carol says. Their reaction was the complete and total antithesis of the way Herod and the Jews reacted.
Perhaps it’s time to make this all a bit reflexive. What’s all this worth to us? How do we react to Jesus’ birth? Is it something we are enthusiastic about, or do we apathetically just go through the motions? Do we find allegiance to our Saviour a privilege or an inconvenience?
I often think about my first parish in Australia, where I had people who traveled over sixty miles one direction just to go to church on Sunday. In fact, this one family was heavily involved with youth work, and they would often make even more than one trip a week. They had busy schedules with work and school and all sorts of other stuff. They had plenty of good excuses not to come or to be involved. But they did. They loved their Saviour, they loved gathering together with other believers, they were enthusiastic about their faith, and they were dedicated in the mission of the Gospel.
I think we lose sight of what’s really important in our lives. We often take God for granted, because we know he’ll always be there. Our commitment is often a “hit-and-miss” proposition, and we can become like those Jews in Jerusalem who couldn’t be bothered to even go the six miles to Bethlehem to see their Saviour in the flesh.
This is why we come to Jesus today. We know our faith has faltered, and we haven’t been the person we should have been. We know we have sinned far too often.
But Jesus came to forgive us. He came to this earth to re-establish that intimate fellowship with God that was lost when mankind fell into sin. He came to take all our messed up priorities and put them all straight again.
We can use the Star of Bethlehem as a good example of our faith. God used this star to bring the wise men to the Christ Child. They didn’t find him or discover him on their own. It was all God’s doing. He did all the work.
Today, we don’t have a special star to lead us to Christ; rather the Holy Spirit works through Word and Sacrament to bring us to faith in our Saviour. II Peter chapter 1 verse 19 says: “And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
God the Holy Spirit continues to bring us back time and again to our Saviour. Whenever our lives get twisted and turned, we can be assured that Jesus is waiting for us with open and outstretched arms. Whenever we take the path of sin and selfishness, we can be assured that forgiveness is ours through faith in Christ alone.
When Jesus appeared on this earth, angels announced it to the shepherds. A miraculous star appeared to lead three wise men to him. Even as a baby, Jesus touched some lives in a very big way, and transformed souls.
This Epiphany, may Jesus touch our lives too. May we be moved to celebrate our Saviour’s appearing with the same enthusiasm and dedication the wise men had. So let us pray with the words of the hymn writer:
Holy Jesus every day,
Keep us in the narrow way;
And when earthly things are past,
Bring our ransomed souls at last;
Where they need no star to guide,
Where no clouds thy glory hide.