Sermon for First Sunday after Epiphany 10 January 2016 Anno Domini
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.” (Matthew 2:1-12)
The First Sunday after the Epiphany
O LORD, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people who call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
O GOD, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles; Mercifully grant that we, who know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We are now in the Epiphany season of our Church year and we are thinking of the time when the Wise Men came from the East to baby Jesus. “”Many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and with Isaac, and with Jacob.” (Matthew 8:11) Perhaps the bigger picture is the fact that the lowly shepherds were told of the birth, and they came to Christ. These were Judean shepherds and belong to the blood of Israel. A bit later, God drew the Wise Men of the East to come to Christ. These men were gentiles; therefore, the symbolism is dramatic. God was making it very clear that all races of people were invited to come to Him.
The one quality that has defined the Coming of Christ into the world, both at Christmas and beyond, is the coming Light into a world of darkness – and the Lord Jesus Christ is that Light of the World and of Heaven itself. There were men of the East who sat in the darkness of superstition and ignorance for the generations of their lives, but they were men, also, whose minds were open to the evidence of Nature and Reason that there MUST be a God who spanned the Heavens and created all the beauty of the earth. So they studied, perhaps, many diverse religious notions and fell upon the one God described in the Hebrew prophets. They did not read these prophets with a casual demeanor, but with intense and diligent study. I have read a number of scholarly written theories concerning from when these Wise Men came, but the Bible does not say. While living in Esfahan, Iran, I became familiar with the Zoroastrian religion which was still practiced, alongside Islam, in that city. It was the religion of Cyrus (at one point), of Darius, of Xerxes (Ahasuerus of Esther’s fame), and Artaxerxes. These people believed in a duality in God – good (AhuraMazda) and evil (Ahriman). They also maintain a perpetual fire of AhuraMazda which they venerated as light. Their priests, even in the contemporary era, are called “magi.” It seems possible to me that these were the Wise Men who studied the lights of heaven, compared them with the prophetic writings of Scripture, and settled on the prophecy of the Coming Light of Christ. Perhaps these scholars took particular note of the prophecy: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel……..” (Num 24:17) They searched the heavens and constellations for a sign of His Coming, and they SAW it! I do not believe this Star was some sort of natural alignment of heavenly bodies to produce an explainable phenomenon, but a special Star (or Heavenly body) of God’s own special creation to answer the need for this great occasion. Why would it not be when God created all heavenly bodies at the beginning and is still able to create as He pleases?
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.” Please bear in mind that these men saw His Star in the East and followed it to Judea but, as they have drawn near to Jerusalem, they stopped following the Star and began to follow their own wisdom. The Star did not lead them to Jerusalem for that was not where the child, Jesus, was to be found. It might be supposed as they drew near to Jerusalem (Bethlehem is only six miles away), they probably began to reason that the Coming King would not be born in a rural village but in capital city of Jerusalem, and most likely in the palace of the King Herod. They were wrong, for man’s thoughts are not God’s thoughts. God places no stock by glitter and glamour, but in the simple things of beauty and truth. “Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him” There seems to be no question at all in the hearts of the Wise Men regarding the identity of the Child to be born. They possessed strength of faith that exceeded that of the Scribes and Priests of Israel. Their faith had been confirmed by Light – the Light of the Star – and they had come to WORSHIP Him.
“When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” The leadership of a nation, whether good or bad, has a critical effect on the direction of the hearts of the people. If our leader is Godly, he will pursue measures to strengthen the faith of the people. If he is corrupt, the thoughts of the people will be easily inclined to corruption. Note in our present verse how the King (Herod) was troubled at the news of the birth of Christ. It should not have troubled him for he was aware that the coming King of the Jews was a prophecy reinforced by all of the prophets. The amazing fact is that ALL of Jerusalem was troubled with him. See how blindly men will follow the example of a devious leader? The Scribes and Priests knew well the [prophecies, yet they were troubled along with the King and all of his subjects. How sad!
“And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.” That old snake, Herod, knew well of the prophecy and he demonstrates the same by summoning the scribes and chief priests together to inquire of the details of the Lord’s birth. He desired to know the EXACT place of His birth for the sake of taking action to destroy the Son of God. What a vile creature he was, and blight upon the face of the earth!
“And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” Notice that these scribes and chief priests, who were alike troubled at the news of Christ’s birth, knew well the prophecies of His Coming birth and accurately related them to Herod. It is this attitude that seems to prevail among the religious leaders of Israel, not only at this time, but throughout the ministry of Christ, that convinces me that their evil hearts always knew who Christ was and rejected Him out of that knowledge and not out of ignorance as is proffered today by many preachers. These culprits quoted the prophecy well. They also believed the prophecy for they told Herod that the Child would be born in Bethlehem “for thus it is written.” The last phrase of the prophecy is that which troubled Herod beyond all measure: “for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” Herod was concerned for his own power and rule by this last phrase.
“Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.” We can deduce the motive of Herod here in asking, privately, when the Star appeared. He obviously wished to know the age of the Child and considered Him to have been born at the appearing of the Star. Bear in mind that the Wise Men traveled many months, if not a year or two, in traversing the desolate deserts of Arabia in following the Star. Moreover the rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates had to be crossed. So Herod inquired ‘diligently’ for he believed he had a personal stake in the answer.
“And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.” I must confess that Herod is worse than a serpent for a snake will not chase us down to murder us, but Herod asks cunningly about the age of the Child and requested the Wise Men to report back His exact whereabouts when they have found Him. He adds that he would like this information that he might come and worship Christ as well. As you will recall, Herod sent soldiers to Bethlehem later and slew every male child two years of age and younger.
“When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was..” I am amazed at the concise manner in which much meaning is conveyed in Holy Scripture. Observe, not only that which is spoken, but that which is implied in this verse. When the Wise Men departed from the false, man-made lights of the city, they again saw the Star which they had stopped following when they entered Jerusalem. The Light will always lead us to Christ for all Light knows its source. Christ is the Light of the World and, like the Sun, generates Light and IS the Light. The Star led them to Bethlehem and stood over where the young Child was. The child was no longer a new-born baby but a young child.
“When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” That is, when they saw that the Star stopped and stood over the place they knew would mark the place of the young Child. They have traversed desert, plain, mountain, and great waters for this very moment. Now their expectations will be fully satisfied! “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him.” The Great Lighthouse casts its beams across the tempestuous Seas and billows to herald all ships at sea who will respond to its beckon that here is the harbor of calm and safety. “Come hither for rest and security.” The Wise Men have followed the warm and radiant beams of a Star Light to Christ. When a sinner comes near to Christ, he must not stop at the threshold, but enter in to the company of Christ. The Wise Men enter into the house without delay. Immediately upon seeing Christ with His mother Mary, they fell down and worshipped Him. These were no beggars, but men of renown and fortune who were honored in their homeland. But they fall down and worship a little Baby Jesus immediately upon seeing Him. The battered ship, having weathered the storm to come to safe harbor must “let go anchor.” We have found a place of constant abiding in Him.
“……and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” These men were Wise because they employed their faculties in coming to Christ. They went to a great deal of trouble to find Him. How much effort have we expended to come to Him? They remembered to bring their treasures. Today, we bring our talents, our souls, and bodies. The gifts of the Wise men are particularly prophetic: the Gold signified His royalty, the Frankincense His Deity (as the smoke of the incense rises over the altar, it represents our prayers being raised to God), and the Myrrh represents His death. It was perhaps these precious gifts that provided support for Mary, Joseph and Jesus during their repose in Egypt.
“And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”
God has taken precaution against that Old Fox – Herod, and warned the Wise Men to return home on another route than that which they had traveled in coming. There is a coming terror to the mothers and male children of Bethlehem. That dire prophecy, uttered by Jeremiah the prophet, is about to transpire: “Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah (Bethlehem), lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.” (Jer 31:15) These precious children, ruthlessly murdered by a power-mad ruler, became the first martyrs in the cause of Christ. We acknowledged their Day of Holy Innocents three days following Christmas Day. Their precious little souls were also perhaps first to rest in the bosom of another Child, the Lord Jesus Himself!