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“Follow the Word to the Word Made Flesh”
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 8, 2012

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

The unifying theme of the Old Testament is the Lord’s promise, repeated again and again, to send the Messiah, the Savior of the world.  The Gospel of John describes the birth of Jesus as the Word made flesh, because by his birth this great promise of God’s Word was fulfilled, the Word God had proclaimed was made a visible, tangible, corporeal reality: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”  In today’s Gospel Reading we have the wonderful example of the Wise Men as they “Follow the Word to the Word Made Flesh.”

The actual date of Christ’s birth is not known, and in the early Church there was a divergence about when to celebrate his birth.  For various reasons, the Western Church, from which we are descended, settled on December 25th, while the Eastern Church preferred January 6th.  In an excellent example of Christian compromise, when the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity merged their celebrations of Christ’s birth, they kept both dates, and that is how the “12 Days of Christmas” was created from December 25 to January 6.

At the commencement of the Christmas season on December 25th we focused on the Nativity, the birth of Christ.  This morning we are celebrating, a few days late, the second festival, which comes at the end of the 12 Days of Christmas, The Epiphany of Our Lord.  The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “revelation.” During the Epiphany season that we begin today we commemorate events in our Lord’s life by which his divine nature was revealed and made manifest, beginning with the Wise Men from the East coming to worship him, as recorded in today’s Gospel Reading.

Epiphany is sometimes called the “Gentile’s Christmas,” because the Wise Men were the first from outside the Hebrew people to acknowledge the newborn King of the Jews as their Lord and Savior also.  As Isaiah prophesies in today’s Old Testament Reading, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” So, at Epiphany we celebrate the expansion of the chosen people of God, from just the Hebrews to also include all nations and races.  As Paul says in today’s Epistle Reading, “Through the Gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

In our nativity displays and pageants we tend to place the Wise Men with the shepherds at the stable on the night of Jesus’ birth.  But, the Gospel says, “When they had come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshiped him.” So, the Wise Men found Jesus not in the stable where he was born, but in a house, which indicates it was sometime after the night of his birth.  Mary and Joseph had probably stayed on with relatives in Bethlehem because the ancient ceremonial law required that all firstborn males be presented at the Temple in Jerusalem on the 40th day after birth, and it would be about 65 miles from Nazareth back to Jerusalem to fulfill this obligation, but only about 6 miles to the Temple from Bethlehem.

“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, saying, ‘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.’”  The Wise Men were the scientists of their day, with a particular interest in astronomy.  They journeyed to the land of Israel after seeing in the East some unusual astronomical event, which they interpreted to mean the great King of Kings had been born among the Hebrew people.

The Wise Men had learned of the God of Israel and the coming King of Kings centuries earlier, when the Hebrews were conquered by the Babylonians and taken away to captivity in Babylon for some 70 years.  The book of Daniel relates how that Hebrew prophet was eventually appointed head over all the Wise Men of the East, and so it was probably from Daniel, and the Hebrew Scriptures that Daniel shared with them, that Wise Men learned of the coming Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, to be born among the Hebrew people.  So, when they see this special star they remember the Word and promise of God passed down to them, and set out to find the Savior of the world.

They come to Jerusalem, the capital city, where they naturally expect the newborn King of the Jews among the rulers and leaders of Israel. They go right to the top, King Herod the Great.  Herod, however, knows nothing about this infant King, and we are told that Herod did not rejoice at his birth, but was troubled by this news.  The Hebrew people had once again been conquered, this time by the Romans.  Herod was troubled because, although had been installed by the Romans as their puppet king of the Jews, he was not actually Jewish himself, and was hated by the Jewish people over whom he ruled.  So, Herod feared that the people would rally around this newborn, legitimate King of the Jews, and overthrow him.

Herod calls together the chief priests and scribes and learns from them that the prophet Micah had prophesied the Messiah would be born, not in Jerusalem, but in the little town of Bethlehem:  “For thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

That’s the symbolic significance of the King of Kings being born in a stable, and his birth being announced first to the shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.   For Micah had prophesied that the Ruler born in Bethlehem would be the Shepherd of God’s people.  “I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus declares, “and I lay down my life for the sheep.”  What more appropriate place for a Shepherd to be born than in a stable, and laid in the animal’s manger?  And who more appropriate to first hear the Good News of this great Shepherd’s birth than the shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night?

Jesus your Good Shepherd laid down his life for you.  Your sins are all forgiven, because he lived, died, and rose again as a sacrifice to pay for all your sins and earn for you forgiveness, salvation, eternal life.

Although Herod and the chief priests and the scribes know the Word and promise of God that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, they do not believe it.  They’ve got it in their heads, but not in their hearts.  This teaches us first of all that faith is not just intellectual knowledge.  Like the Wise Men, true faith in Christ combines intellectual knowledge about him in your head, with trust in him as your Savior in your heart.  Paul puts it this way in Romans, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

It is also significant that all the wonderful wisdom of the Wise Men could not bring them to Jesus.  Not even the special star could bring them to Jesus.  God arranged their journey in such a way so that they would have to turn to the written Word of God for their answers.  This teaches us that it is only through the written Word of God that we are given wisdom from above.  As Paul says in Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ.”  Those who rely not on the written Word of God, but on their own wisdom, their own ideas and human philosophy, will be forever wandering and will never find the true God and eternal life.

Although from a human perspective it didn’t make sense for the great King of Kings to be born in the humble village of Bethlehem, notice how the Wise Men do not argue with God, or doubt the promises of his Word.  In the same way, from a human perspective many aspects of our faith do not make sense.  The Holy Trinity is one God in three Persons.  Pouring on water in the name of this Triune God washes away sins.  The Son of God gives us his body and blood with bread and wine.  He is both true God and true man, so that a Babe in a manger is in fact the Creator of the universe.  Like the Wise Men, do not rely on human wisdom, do not argue with God or doubt the promises of his Word, but “Follow the Word to the Word Made Flesh.”


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