Summary: An Epiphany sermon I preached on 1/7/2009 at the Salem Lutheran Home chapel, Elk Horn, Iowa.
In some ways, you could say that Epiphany is the “last hurrah” of Christmas. It’s the day when we remember the visit of the wise men, or magi as they are called in our text, to worship the Christ child and present the gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. It’s a great scene, one that’s often included in most Nativity scenes. But what’s the real significance of this event? Why does the church celebrate it every year on January 6th? That’s what we’re going to consider this morning during our communion service.
The story in the reading is pretty straight forward. Matthew tells us these Magi, or wise men, who were from a country east of Judea, (We don’t know exactly what country, the Bible doesn’t specify exactly where they came from) have made the long journey to Jerusalem to worship the one who was born king of the Jews. They tell the local folks they saw a star in the east and had come to worship him. The reigning King of the Jews, Herod, hears about this, and asks the religious leaders of his day where the Christ was to be born, and from a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Micah, they tell him that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. So Herod meets with the Magi, tells them to go to Bethlehem, and the star reappears to guide the Magi to the Christ. Once they get to the house where Mary and Joseph are staying, they present the child Jesus with gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. They also bow down to worship the child. Then, after being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, because Herod had some evil plans for the child, they returned home by using another route. It’s a pretty familiar story. In fact, it’s one that is often pictured in nativity scenes with three wise men presenting the Christ child with the gifts, and has almost taken a legendary status of its own. In fact, the popular song “We Three Kings of Orient Are” came from that. But what’s so important about it that we set aside a day on the church calendar each year to commemorate their journey to visit the Christ child?
First, remember those who had come to worship the Christ child prior to this point. On that first Christmas night, the first to worship the child were Shepherds in the fields nearby, Jews. At eight days, the child Jesus was circumcised, to fulfill Jewish law. Again, surrounded by Jewish people. When he was 40 days old, the baby Jesus was presented at the temple, and Jews, Simeon and Anna, recognized that this was indeed the long promised Messiah and worshipped him. Yet, that day, Simeon said that this child would be “a light to reveal you to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” This child wasn’t just a savior for the Jews, but for Gentiles, for all nations.
These Magi were Gentiles, outsiders if you will. Considered to be outside of the people of God by many Jews of the day. Yet, they didn’t make this trip to study the movement of a star, they didn’t make this trip to study the everyday life of the Jewish people. They came with one purpose, to worship the Christ, the promised Savior. And in doing so, they became the first Gentile, the first non-Jewish worshippers, of Jesus Christ. That’s why Epiphany is sometimes called the “Gentile Christmas”, because it was the first occurance of Gentiles worshipping the true God.
While we remember the visit of the Magi this day, we’re not here to focus so much on them, but on the child they worship. You see, that child doesn’t just take his gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, and live happily ever after. He will flee with his parents to Egypt when Herod tries to kill him by ordering all baby boys two years of age and under in Bethlehem to be killed, and then the child will return to Nazareth where Mary and Joseph will raise him. As an adult, he will be baptized at the Jordan River, and spend the next three years of his life calling disciples, teaching them about the Kingdom of God, and throughout his life, living a perfect, sinless life. Then, he will allow himself to be arrested, beaten, mocked, spit on, and die. And why? To endure the punishment and be the sacrifice for our sins, your sins, my sins, the sins of all the world, Jews and Gentiles. Then, on the 3rd day, he will rise again to defeat the power of sin, death, and the power of the devil for all eternity. For the Christian, Jew or Gentile, death becomes merely the vehicle God uses to bring us out of this sinful world and into the presence of God for all eternity. That’s why we worship Jesus Christ yet today. And just as the Magi heard of the Christ from the Word of God, you and I hear of it today also from hearing the Word of God. God may have used your parents, baptismal sponsors, Pastors, teachers, or others in your life to tell you the story of what Christ did for you on the cross so that the Holy Spirit would work the miracle of faith in your heart, and you would desire to come and worship the Christ yet today. In a way, you could say that we are walking the way of the Magi.