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Sermons

“Wise Men and Foolish Kings”

Emanuel Lutheran Church.  January 8, 2023 Epiphany of Our Lord The text is Matthew 2:1-12.

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1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

This morning we celebrate the epiphany of the Three Wise Men, who followed the star that led them to Bethlehem and the infant Jesus, the foretold King of the Jews.  And we have gathered together on Epiphany a few times now, you and I, and during those services we have delved a little bit into the accepted greeting card version of the Wise Men and the rather different view that most scholars have generally come to acknowledge about them.  

It might be good for us to take just a moment to revisit what is known about these mysterious persons who have travelled far from the East in search of Jesus.  The accepted view that there were, in fact three of them resulted from the listing of three gifts they brought to honor Jesus; Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.  More on these in a minute.  But Scripture doesn’t actually tell us how many Magi came in search of the Christ-child.  The “We Three ‘Kings’” in the title of the beloved Christmas carol seems to come from the writings of the prophet Isaiah; he clearly writes that “kings” shall come to honor the Messiah.  In truth, the Wise Men (if indeed they were all males, for we don’t know for sure if there were women among them) were most likely followers of an ancient Persian religion; Zoroastrianism.  This very ancient Eastern belief system, which is still practiced to some degree today in Iran, was deeply rooted in astrological observance; the movements and alignments of stars, planets, comets, and the like in the night skies.

Zoroastrian priests gazed toward the heavens in search of celestial phenomena that might foretell of an event of great consequence.  They did in fact observe what has come to be known as the Christmas Star, and followed it, believing that it foretold the birth of a great king.  And the word, “Magi”?  Well, it’s derived from the same Greek word for “magic”.  Ancient Persian Magi were thought to have the ability to predict future events through their astronomical observations.  And to the ancients, this must have seemed like magic.  Today, this process is more akin to astrology, rather than astronomy.  Nonetheless, these Persian priests determined that something they saw in the night sky was important enough for them to make the long journey from what is modern-day Iran to Bethlehem in Israel. 

And the timeline of the events in Matthew leads us to conclude that these Magi arrived to pay homage to Jesus when he was about two years old.  Matthew writes that they made the long trek from Iran to Israel, first travelling to Jerusalem to meet with Herod, then being sent to Bethlehem where they would find Jesus.  And Matthew also states that they found Jesus and his mother in a “house”, so we may assume that a rather substantial period of time has passed since that Christmas night when the shepherds heard the angels proclaim the first noel.

That said, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the Wise Men are accurately portrayed as bringing their gifts to Jesus as he lay among the hay and animals in the manger or if they did show up two years later.  One thing we can be sure of is that they had an epiphany; the realization, the revelation, the perception that something immeasurably important had taken place.  This epiphany is valid whether it occurred when they first saw the star, met with Herod, or came to be in the presence of Jesus.  And the location where their visit took place isn’t all that important either, whether in the manger, the house, or right here in this Fellowship Hall.  They had their epiphany!

Why did they select the three gifts they did to honor Jesus, whom they determined was to be a future king?  Well, gold certainly makes sense, it being a rare, valuable metal; and monarchs nearly always choose gold for their crowns.  Thus, gold is a gift “fit for a king”.  But frankincense and myrrh, exactly what are we dealing with here?  Both of these are tree resins, somewhat like the sticky sap that forms on pine trees when the outer bark is damaged.  Frankincense had many uses in antiquity, but its most common one was as a dried powder used as a ritual incense.  Myrrh takes its name from the Hebrew word “Mor”, meaning “bitter” and its use was a bit more varied.  It had medicinal qualities, was used as a painkiller, but most frequently mixed in oil and used for anointing; often ofh the dead for burial.

In Jesus’ time both these substances were extremely rare, having to be transported great distances from where the trees that produced them flourished.  The Magi would have brought them from Arabia to Bethlehem and based on their rarity and exotic nature many historians suggest that they may have been worth their weight in gold in the time of the Wise Men.  Thus, all three of these gifts would have, in fact been worthy presents to bring to honor a king.  Although, one can’t help but wonder if there might be something of a glimpse into Jesus’ early death, considering that two of them would be included in the assortment of perfumes that Mary and the women brought to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.

But back to the Wise Men and their epiphany that a king has been born in the person of Jesus; these foreigners who have come to realize that Jesus’ birth heralds the coming into the world of someone of great importance, someone to be honored, even in his infancy.  When they ask Herod, the puppet ruler installed by Rome where they might find this newborn king of the Jews, his response to this epiphany is drastically different.  The Magi seek the Christ-child to honor and worship him, while Herod responds to Jesus’ birth with fear of losing his political power.  So much so that Matthew tells us that he resorted to ordering the death of all the baby boys aged two and under in Bethlehem and in the surrounding area.  Herod was not going to take the risk that this infant born of peasant parents might grow to become what the Magi believed he was to be.  After all, Herod fancied himself as the king of the Jews and he wasn’t going to surrender his perceived power for any reason, even if it meant the slaughter of an untold number of innocent babies.

God has come into the world as an innocent human infant, born of a poor peasant girl, and this knowledge has been reacted to in completely different ways.  The erstwhile ruler of his own people responds by condemning infants to die, while foreign astrologers rejoice that they have discovered the One who will come to free all of God’s people from sin and death.  And these differing realizations, these epiphanies about Jesus’ nature continued throughout his ministry and well beyond.  Doubting Thomas finally caught on, believing only after he is in Jesus’ presence after the resurrection.  Simon Peter continually struggled with his acknowledgement of who Jesus is, often requiring Jesus to convincingly remind him.  The criminal crucified next to Jesus and the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross; they also had their epiphany, their revelation that Jesus is the Son of God.     

Let’s be honest, even today there are wildly divergent opinions regarding Jesus; his divinity, his nature, and his role in the life of the world and its people.  Not everyone has been blessed with having faith in Christ as God incarnate and many do not acknowledge that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross has secured salvation for all.  But what about those who do profess faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, do we still have a need for the occasional epiphany?

Perhaps we do, especially when we’re confronted with the state of the world in which we live.  The list of global conflicts is a long one.  Political divisions here at home seem to be worsening.

Heretofore unknown illnesses are continuing to afflict the world’s people.  So, it’s helpful for all of us to occasionally pause and remind ourselves that Jesus has walked among God’s people and that our acknowledgement of this, our personal epiphany often benefits from a review.  Reaffirming our belief, faith, and trust in the truth of Christ Jesus as God incarnate is often the comfort and consolation we provide ourselves when the world around us is in such turmoil.  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the proof that God comes to us in love, mercy, and grace.  It’s really no more difficult than that; reminding ourselves that God desires only good for God’s people is a reinforcement of the epiphany that began with the Wise Men, and continues as the guiding principle for the life of the Christian today.  May we all experience epiphanies anew, each and every time we recognize the goodness of God at work around us.

Will you pray with me?  Good, and gracious, and holy God, our prayer this day is a simple one.  Grant us strong faith, unwavering belief, and unshakeable trust in you.  And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose resurrected life demonstrates your love for the world.  We pray to never waver from the truth of this epiphany.

God is good, all the time.  All the time, God is good. Amen.

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