Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 2:1-12 Sermon
January 6, 2013
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal & With One Voice):
TLH 127 "As With Gladness Men Of Old"
TLH 128 "Brightest And Best Of The Sons Of The Morning"
TLH 134 "Songs Of Thakfulness And Praise"
WOV 646 "We Three Kings Of Orient Are"
KINGS, WISE MEN, AND MAGI
TEXT (vs. 1-2) “1 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,2 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.’”
There’s a humorous story I heard sometime back, about a little boy who had been to Sunday School one week. His mother asked him what he had learned that day, and he responded, “Oh, all the teacher talked about were these three wise guys wandering around looking at stars.”
Of course he was talking about the three wise men, or magi, or kings as they’re sometimes called. These are the men who came from the east, followed the star, and came to worship the Christ Child. And with them, they brought the gifts of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
So who were these men that are such an integral part of the Christmas story? What’s the explanation behind their journey to see the Christ Child? Scripture gives us a nice sketch of who they are, and the fact that they’re there in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. But the deeper we dig and the more we examine things, the more we can understand how God works in such a miraculous way. He does this to further authenticate the birth of his only begotten Son, who is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, the Saviour of the entire human race.
Most of the time, we think of there being three wise men, simply because of the three gifts that were presented to Jesus; namely the gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. There are legends that give these men names: Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior. Legend also has it that these three men came from three different countries: Arabia, India, and Persia respectively. However, according to tradition, eastern Magi usually numbered twelve.
The actual number of these men is of little consequence, since it really makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. Since the Bible doesn’t actually fix a number here, this is one of those areas that we call an “open question” in theological terms. But since it is plural in the Bible, we can safely assert that there was more than one. This would be practical too, since it is best to have several people when making such a long journey.
Let’s determine what these men actually were. The word “kings” isn’t part of the New Testament text at all. This comes from the Old Testament prophecy concerning them. If we look at Psalm 72, we read in verses 10-11: “10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! 11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” And in Isaiah chapter 60 verse 3 we read: “3 And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
So the mention of “kings” here is in a more general sense; and if we want to get more specific about it, we must realize that these wise men were part of the king’s court, and representative of him. So describing these men as “kings” in their own right is probably not the best definition.
The word we use most of the time is Magi, which is a direct transliteration of the Greek word “magoi” used in Matthew’s Gospel. This is actually the word from which we get the English word, “magic.” And in Persia, a heathen priest was referred to as “magos,” the singular form of that word.
In this context however, the magi were well schooled men, which is why we use the term “wise men.” These men were experts in astrology. In using this term, we can’t get confused with current day astrologers that cast horoscopes and tell fortunes and read palms. Astrologers in those days were basically the time keepers and calendar keepers. Since there were no calendars as we know them today, the people had to rely upon the astrologers for this information. For example, the farmers knew when it was time to plant their crops by the positions of the stars and planets. So this whole system of early astrology was a very technical process. Months were measured by a lunar calendar, which relied upon the various phases of the moon.
Now we know that these men were not in any way Jews. So how was it that they would be well enough acquainted with Biblical prophecy to know about the Christ Child and to follow his star? The answer lies with Daniel and ancient Babylon, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.
Let’s look at verses 1-3 of Daniel chapter 6 to see what was going on: “It pleased Darius to set over the kingdom 120 satraps, to be throughout the whole kingdom; 2 and over them three high officials, of whom Daniel was one, to whom these satraps should give account, so that the king might suffer no loss.3 Then this Daniel became distinguished above all the other high officials and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him. And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom.”
The Satraps were the astrologers in the Babylonian king’s court, or the wise men if you prefer. Daniel had found such a high degree of favor in the eyes of King Darius, that he put Daniel in charge of all the Satraps in the kingdom.
Now we know that Daniel was a faithful Jew in God’s favor. Since he was in charge of these men, he certainly would have schooled them in Biblical prophecy, especially when it had something to do with their job in astrology. And after the Babylonian captivity ended, the successive generations of Satraps would have been schooled in the same traditions and teachings.
We don’t know exactly where in the east these men came from, but we can assume that God used Daniel as part of his fulfillment of prophecy. And Babylon is as good of a guess as anything.
We also know that these men were not Jews! These were Gentiles, which makes their presence a very key and integral part of the Christmas story.
When it was time for Mary’s purification, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple. And it was there where Simeon first saw Jesus. In Luke chapter 2, verses 30-32, we hear the words of Simeon: “30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
Did you catch that? “A light for revelation to the Gentiles?” Simeon says that Jesus came to save all people, including the non-Jews! The Gentiles were amongst those to be saved!
Matthew’s Gospel targets a Jewish audience. Of course we know it is for all people, but some of the things that Matthew records and explains have special application to the Jews of that day. When we understand this, then we might realize just how shocking and even scandalous all of this was! This new-born King of the Jews had attracted Gentile dignitaries, who came bearing expensive gifts. And then they bowed down and worshipped him! No self-respecting Jew would have tolerated such a thing, and here was the Jewish Messiah breaking down one of the biggest barriers of all! And this was just a babe in arms.
If we look at the chronology of the Christmas story, we know that the wise men appeared some time after the actual birth; but it would have been shortly thereafter, since Matthew refers to Jesus as a child, most likely still in infancy. And from what Matthew infers, the Holy family was still in the vicinity of Bethlehem in a house. Mary would not have been in any condition to make the trek back to their home in Nazareth.
The popular depiction in Nativity scenes is to show a type of stable, with Mary and Joseph and Jesus, with the shepherds, the animals, and the three wise men. From what the Bible records, it would be foolish to think that Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds hung around that stable waiting for the wise men to come. Even though these Nativity scenes are inaccurate in that regard, we can still look at this layout and see the complete picture of the Christmas story. And I don’t have a problem with that in the least, because the wise men are an integral part of the whole picture.
If we think about it, the Christmas story has a lot of important facets to it. Jesus was born in very humble surroundings. The announcement to the shepherds demonstrated that he came to save all people, regardless of their social position. And then when the wise men appeared on the scene, it because very clear that Jesus came to save even the Gentiles as well as the Jews. That’s a lot of theology packed together there!
As we look at this whole scene, we need to see our place in it as well. The angels’ message to the shepherds is one that we take to heart all the time: “For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” And even in our liturgy, we join the angel chorus when we sing, “Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.” When we come to church, regardless of the time of the year, every Sunday is a celebration of Christmas Day!
Today is Epiphany. That word is derived from a Greek word that means “manifestation,” or “to come forth.” Jesus has come, just as God had promised. The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians chapter 3, verses 26-29: “26 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.”
Jesus is true God, manifest in true man. He came for all people, regardless of who or what they are. This is what the Apostle Paul is reminding the Galatians. In God’s eyes, there is no such thing as first and second class souls. The message of salvation is the same for Jews, Gentiles, men, women, and everybody.
We live in a world filled with sin, and the entirety of the human race is sinful and in need of a Saviour. Absolutely nobody can be reconciled with God apart from faith in Jesus Christ. You can be the smartest, wisest, and best educated person in the world, but you still need Jesus in your life. These wise men in our Gospel lesson for today were dignitaries in their own right. They were high ranking officials in society, and very well respected.
But they came seeking a Saviour. The Holy Spirit was at work in their lives. The star had appeared, and they knew that Jesus had entered into our world. They knew what he was about. And so out of a thankful heart, they gave their gifts of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
Evangelism actually began at the manger, and it has been carried on down through the ages. And it has continued right down to us here today. The gift of the Christ Child is right in front of you. Now what are we going to do with it? How are we going to give the gift that keeps on giving?
It’s a humbling experience when we see ourselves for the sinners we are. Our pride doesn’t want to admit it, and our self-esteem doesn’t like the idea that we are helpless. But we are. So we have to be like those wise men, and look to the babe in the manger to see our salvation. What God has given to us as part of the sinful human race is a gift that is priceless. He asks us to look into that manger and see what he has done for us. He wants us to look at his Son who is our Saviour, the one born King of the Jews. And we look to him through the eyes of faith, and know that we are now reconciled to God through faith alone in our Messiah.
The Holy Spirit has given us this gift of faith, which is like turning on a bright light in the darkness of our souls. Sin no longer separates us from God, because Jesus Christ has paid for our sins and bought our peace with God. That’s the “peace on earth, good will toward men” that the angels sang about on that first Christmas.
The wise men followed the star that led them to their Saviour. If we carry that over into our world today, God still uses light to lead people to their Saviour. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says in Matthew chapter 5 verses 14-16: 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Yes, that light that leads others to Jesus is the Saviour’s love that lives in each of us. The light of forgiveness and peace in our lives should be no less radiant than the star that led the wise men to Jesus. That’s our place in the Epiphany story.
This morning I am going to share a small snippet from an Erma Bombeck story that I have found particularly amusing. When you see children witnessing their faith in Christmas programs, and the sincerity with which they do this, it is especially touching. And when there’s a bit of humor involved, it makes it all the more memorable. Here’s Erma’s experience with her children in a Sunday School Christmas program:
My proudest moment came during the children's Christmas pageant. My daughter was playing Mary, two of my sons were shepherds and my youngest son was a wise man. This was their moment to shine.
My five-year-old shepherd had practiced his line, "We found the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes." But he was nervous and said, "The baby was wrapped in wrinkled clothes." My four-year-old "Mary" said, "That's not 'wrinkled clothes,' silly. That's dirty, rotten clothes." A wrestling match broke out between Mary and the shepherd and was stopped by an angel, who bent her halo and lost her left wing. I slouched a little lower in my seat when Mary dropped the doll representing Baby Jesus, and it bounced down the aisle crying, "Mama-mama."
Mary grabbed the doll, wrapped it back up and held it tightly as the wise men arrived. My other son stepped forward wearing a bathrobe and a paper crown, knelt at the manger and announced, "We are the three wise men, and we are bringing gifts of gold, common sense and fur." The congregation dissolved into laughter, and the pageant got a standing ovation.
" I've never enjoyed a Christmas program as much as this one," laughed the pastor, wiping tears from his eyes. "For the rest of my life, I'll never hear the Christmas story without thinking of gold, common sense and fur."
May the light of the Saviour’s love that lives within you shine forth as you live each day in his grace, for Jesus’ sake.