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“We Have Come to Worship Him”
Matthew 2:1-12


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
The Epiphany of Our Lord (Transferred from January 6)—January 3, 2010

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This morning we are observing, a few days early, the culmination of the Christmas season.  The traditional “12 Days of Christmas” begins with the festival of the Nativity of Our Lord, on Christmas Day, December 25th, and ends with the festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord, 12 days later on January 6th, which is actually this Wednesday.

The word “Epiphany” comes from a Greek word which means “to appear, to reveal.”  The Christian festival of Epiphany celebrates the appearing of Jesus Christ, especially the revealing of his glory to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, represented the Wise Men, who were the first Gentiles to worship the newborn King, as recorded in today’s Gospel Reading.

We are told this event also took place in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.  But, although we know the where, we don’t know exactly when the Wise Men came.  Our common custom of including the Wise Men with the nativity scene at the stable is probably wrong, because the text says that they came not to a stable but to a “house . . . where the young Child was.”  So, it seems the visit of the Wise Men happened sometime after the blessed birth, and by then Joseph had moved his family from the stable where Jesus was born into a house. 

Also, the word used to describe Jesus, which is translated “young Child,” could mean an age anywhere from a newborn up to the two years old which Herod later estimates when he orders the boys up to that age in Bethlehem to be killed.  Perhaps instead of traveling with a newborn and returning immediately to their hometown of Nazareth, the Holy Family had resettled for a time in Bethlehem.

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king.”

Herod was in a precarious position.  Although he had managed to get himself appointed king of the Jews by the Roman emperor, he was not really Jewish, but of the neighboring Idumean tribe.  He was only a pretender to the throne, and resented by his Jewish subjects, who longed for the promised Messiah, the King of Kings.

“Behold, Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem.”

These Wise Men were the scientists of their day, an elite group of the best and brightest, highly educated in the wisdom of the ancient world.  They were probably not kings themselves, but they were advisors to kings, and in this case acting as royal ambassadors to welcome the newborn King.

“Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?’”

That was the last thing Herod wanted to hear.  The British royal family recently announced that Prince Charles and Prince William will be taking over some of the Queen’s duties.  But, Herod would have none of that.  He was so insanely paranoid about anyone trying to usurp his position as king of the Jews that he had recently executed three of his own sons, who he thought were plotting against him.  Now, these royal ambassadors come, acknowledging another rival to his throne. 

“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East.”

There is much debate about what the “star” which they saw in the East actually was.  Some suggest a supernova, a comet, an eclipse, or an unusual conjunction of the stars or planets.  Later, the star is definitely a unique miraculous occurrence, which cannot have a naturalistic explanation.  For, we are told that it “went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was,” and a supernova, comet, eclipse, or conjunction could not do that.

However, the original “star” that they saw in the East could have been any of these astronomical occurrences.  For, the Wise Men of the ancient world were first and foremost astronomers, who intently studied the skies.  They could have interpreted a supernova, a comet, an eclipse, or an unusual conjunction of the stars or planets as a sign that a great King was being born.

But, why come to Jerusalem, seeking the newborn King of the Jews?  Nearly 600 years earlier, when Jerusalem had been conquered by the Babylonians, the book of Daniel recounts how Daniel and the other leading young men of the Hebrews were taken off to Babylon and added to the ranks of their Wise Men. 

Eventually, Daniel actually became the chief of all the Wise Men.  In that position, he imparted to the Wise Men of the East the wisdom of the Hebrews, especially the greatest treasure of Hebrew wisdom, the ancient promise that one day the Messiah would be born from the Hebrew people, the divine King of Kings, God come down from heaven and made man.  This prophecy and promise had been passed down through generations of Wise Men, so whatever the phenomenal astronomical occurrence they saw was, they knew it could only mean one thing:

“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?  For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.”

Obviously, he is much more than just another king, like Herod or the kings they serve.  For they come to “worship him.”  He is the long-awaited Messiah, born from the Hebrew people, God come down from heaven and made man, the divine King of Kings, not only of the Jews, but of the whole world, of the whole universe.

“When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”

The New King James Version translates the reaction to this news as “troubled,” which Herod certainly was.  But, it could also be translated “stirred up” or “excited.”  It means that there was an absolute frenzy in Jerusalem.  It would be like the media frenzy that routinely builds up in our culture over various events and celebrities.  A recent example is the media frenzy over the personal problems of a certain sports star.  On the Internet it’s called “going viral,” when some news, or information, or a video, or a rumor, spreads quickly and widely.

That’s the kind of frenzy Jerusalem was in over the news, “We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.”  Many in Jerusalem were excited and joyful at this news, like Anna and Simeon, who welcomed the infant King when he was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem, and proclaimed him to be the promised Messiah.  As we will sing in the words of Simeon after Communion today, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace; your Word has been fulfilled.  My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.”

But, while many were like Anna and Simeon, excited and joyful at this news that the long-awaited Messiah had come, there were others in Jerusalem like Herod, who was “troubled” at this news, because he was fearful of this rival to his throne.

It’s interesting that the birth of Christ still causes such a negative reaction among some in our world today.  This year in the Illinois state capital, a group of atheists were permitted to place a sign right next to the nativity display which reads, “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. . . Religion is just myth and superstition.”  Why do they think that is necessary?  It seems that like Herod, they still fear this little Babe; they fear him a rival to their false god, Reason; they fear the power he still has to win over human hearts.

That is probably also the reason why the recent attempt to bomb an aircraft took place on Christmas Day.  It really was not only a political but also a religious act of terror, like Herod slaughtering the boys of Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the Christ.  In the same way, this bombing attempt probably took place on Christmas Day as a statement against Christ and Christianity.  For, like Herod, they too still fear this little Babe; they fear him a rival to their false god, Allah; they fear the power he still has to win over human hearts.

“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?  For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him. When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”

The first news of Christ’s birth caused a frenzy in Jerusalem, and some 2,000 years later our commemoration of this event still causes a frenzy each year, in our world, and in our lives.  Shopping, decorating, traveling, celebrating; all the frenzy of Christmas can smother the real meaning of Christmas.

“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?  For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.”  That’s what it’s really all about.  He is the King of Kings, the promised Messiah, who for us and our salvation came to earth and was made man.  As Martin Luther says in the Small Catechism, “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.”

“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?  For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.”  That’s what it’s really all about.  He is your King, your Savior, your Lord.  Like the Wise Men, “Worship Christ the newborn King!”

“When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen 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 exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

The gifts of the Wise Men to the Babe of Bethlehem are not just any gifts, but they form a confession of the Wise Men’s faith in who this Babe is.  Gold, a gift fit for a king, is their confession that he the King of Kings.  Incense, the spice burned in ancient temples to represent prayers ascending to God, is their confession that he is more than human, but is God and man, God born in the flesh.  And myrrh, the spice of bitterness and used in ancient burials, indicate this Child’s bitter life and ultimate death.

Epiphany reminds us again of the real meaning of Christmas.  The celebrations are over; the decorations are coming down.  Maybe we didn’t get quite what we wanted for Christmas; maybe the Christmas presents that brought us so much satisfaction just one week ago are already losing their lustre.  But the real gift and treasure of Christmas is the Holy Child of Bethlehem. 

Amen.

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