Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"Faithful, but in unexpected ways." Matthew 4:12-17

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters Baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus:

For eight hundred years the Jewish residents of the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali had vainly attempted to forget the memories of the Assyrian invasion recorded for us in the 15th and 17th chapters of 2Kings. During that military strike, residents who possessed skills that might be of use to the Assyrian Empire were ripped from their family and land and hauled off to the capital of the kingdom of the north. Oppressive conditions at the hands of Babylon followed. Both farmers and fisherman were brutally deported, only to be replaced by settlements of Assyrians who brought with them their distasteful customs and language and religious beliefs and practices.
This northern section of the promised land given to the twelve tribes of Israel was one of the first to suffer at the hands of Israel's pagan enemies. And, in many respects, one of the last regions to begin to recover. Even in the days of Jesus, eight hundred years later, the area was still considered by the rest of the Jewish nation as backward, colloquial, less Jewish, more infected with heathen influences, and, at the end of the day, less important to God and his continuing kingdom. "Galilee of the Gentiles," although predominantly Jewish, was a frontier territory inhabited by many different kinds of peoples, languages, customs and religions; a region of continual temptation to abandon the Word and Sacraments revealed by the God of Scripture. (Remind you of any place in our nation today?)
The region of Galilee, particularly the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, was disdained by much of the southern kingdom of Judah. The northerners dressed differently, spoke with an accent, and their family and religious pedigrees were not as pure as those enjoyed by the Jewish residents in the regions that surrounded Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon.
No doubt that even in Jesus' day, generations —centuries —after the brutal siege that tore apart the Jewish fabric of the these northern regions, the residents of Zebulun and Naphtali had little hope that they would ever regain what they had lost: their status as true children of Israel and the life-giving promises from the hand of Israel's gracious God. A darkness and gloom had settled over these northern districts, and the results upon the faith of their residents was as devastating as that experienced at the hand of the Assyrians.
Nevertheless, even though many had thrown in the towel on God's merciful intervention, the prophet Isaiah was called to send word to Zebulun and Naphtali. Isaiah had a word of hope for those who had given up on God's salvation, for those who had sat down in hopeless resignation. God would surely come and restore his people who lived oppressed in the shadow of death. The Lord had not forgotten these pitiful people, despite their unfaithfulness and failed attempts to resist the temptations presented by their new Assyrian neighbors.
Through his prophet, the Lord of Israel had announced life-giving Good News to hopeless people who could do nothing but sit in their own no-win situation. God's glorious Light had come to break through the darkness of believing that God had forever abandoned his people to suffer the loss of their families, their land, their culture and language — their connection with the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. "The God of your fathers will restore you." Isaiah proclaimed. "The God of David will come through his Messiah to bring back everything you have lost. He will deliver you, just as he did in Egypt. Put your faith in his Word and in his Son — in the One who will surely come for you."
You see, the appearance of being forsaken and handed over to one's enemies by the God who revealed himself to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is nothing new in the history of salvation. Hope — in the midst of hopelessly being "handed over" to evil men — was a saving gift of God given to our first parents and to those who followed them in faith: to men and women such as Joseph and Ruth, Moses and Samson, David and the prophets that followed him.
And so we are surprised, but not completely surprised, when we hear this morning that the public ministry of Jesus is set into motion with the news that with John the Baptist, again, God has allowed one of his own to be handed over, to be seized and arrested and taken by evil men into the land of darkness and despair.
We had a feeling this is the way it might end for John as he followed in the way of the Old Testament prophets of the Lord, prophets who were subjected to abuse at the hands of those who had no intention of receiving their God-given proclamation in obedience and faith. We had a feeling this is the way it might end for John as he pointed to the coming of a Messiah hunted down by King Herod and despised by his sons who ruled after him; the Christ who had to flee to Egypt and then to Nazareth, and now withdraws to Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee.
But just when all hope in rescue from the hands of the oppressor has seemingly vanished, God's trusting people hear that their Lord is on the move. This unexpected Good News, this undeserved Gospel of our God's gracious intervention — his breaking through to rescue and save and restore — was placed in the mouth of Isaiah and fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah, in the coming of Jesus to set up his base for ministry at Capernaum.
John had been handed over, and now, in Jesus, the gracious reign of heaven has come near. His epiphany, the manifestation of his redeeming light, has dawned on a hopeless people who can only sit in the darkness of their despair and wait for the merciful intervention of One more powerful than their sin and doubt and empty promises to remain faithful to the perfect will and law of God.
It is Saint Matthew, guided by the Holy Spirit, who sees the same Immanuel, the same "God-is-now-with-us," manifested to betrothed Joseph in a dream now rising with healing in his wings to the inhabitants of forsaken and despised Zebulun and Naphtali. "God-is-now-with-us" to complete and fulfill all that John the Baptist pointed to, but in a way that takes our breath away.
The Lord of heaven and earth is faithful to what he promises — in his time and in his way. That revelation is written on every page from the inspired pen of Saint Matthew. God is — unexpectedly — faithful. From the inclusion of five unexpected women in Jesus' genealogy to the unexpected visitation of the angels to Mary and her husband Joseph; from the unexpected faith of foreign star-gazers and the unexpected hatred of Herod to the handing over of the infant children of Bethlehem to the flight into Egypt and the sudden appearance of John at the Jordan, God is suddenly on the move to redeem and rescue and save — in a way unheard of, in a way we would never have expected.
Jesus came to do what we did not expect in a way our old nature will never accept. Jesus came to reveal his Gospel light of deliverance to sinners, to those who have not been faithful, to those who have given in to the evil ways of their spiritually heathen neighbors. Jesus has come for all who have given up and now can only hope against hope that an undeserved Champion over darkness and death will graciously arrive.
Jesus is that Victor. True God, that he might conquer forever the forces of death, devil and world, and true man, that he might atone for our sin in our stead. But how he conquers shuts our mouths and brings fear to our hearts: he — the spotless Lamb of God, the innocent One, the righteous One, the beloved One — is handed over to evil men in our place to suffer the separation from God's love reserved for not only the unfaithful inhabitants of Zebulun and Naphtali, but for an entire wayward race, for you.
Christ, handed over and abandoned, that his saving light might shine upon the darkness of your sin.
That is the Christian faith; that is our confession and belief and song:

The people that in darkness sat
A glorious light have seen;
The light has shined on them who long
In shades of death have been. ...

Lord Jesus, reign in us, we pray,
And make us Thine alone,
Who with the Father ever art
And Holy Spirit, one. ... Amen

Monday, January 21, 2008

"A Faithful Pointer." John 1:29-41

In the Name of Jesus
Dear Brothers and Sisters washed white in the blood of the Lamb:

The dictionary gives several meanings for the word "pointer," ranging from a star in the Big Dipper to a long tapered stick; from a breed of hunting dog to the hands of a clock. But regardless of the details, a pointer is, simply, something that points. It is an indicator, an arrow. It functions as a guide, as a compass.
And whether it is composed of burning gas or sharpened wood a pointer is judged to be a good or a bad pointer based on just one thing: the precision of it's point. No one wants a sloppy pointer. No one wants directions from someone who keeps his hands in his pocket and answers, "I think it could be over there somewhere — I think." We want to know if it's nine o'clock or eleven o'clock, if it's northwest or northeast, if it's something to shoot or something to shoo, if it's the woman with the ponytails or the man with the baseball cap. If a pointer is going to be a good pointer, it must point to something, something definite and specific. It must be accurate.
That's why only a handful of watches are given the name "chronograph." That's why hikers these days use GPS units and not bread crumbs to find their way home. That's why law enforcement personnel match DNA and not shoe sizes. Sometimes — often — it just not good enough to be "somewhere in the ballpark" or headed in a general direction. Except for horseshoes and hand grenades, "almost" counts for very little.
Now when it comes to people being pointers, there are always an uncountable array of guides out there running around and saying, "It's not over there, it's over here!" And when it comes to the realm of salvation, just when we think we've seen and heard it all, up jumps another self-proclaimed spiritual expert yelling, "Hey, everybody, this way!"
This morning God through his holy Word comes to get our attention, that it might be placed upon his only-begotten Son come in the flesh. And this morning he does that life-and-death work through the mouth and the finger of a man named John.
Generations have watched the old television series with Raymond Burr as master defense attorney Perry Mason. And like other classic "who-done-it" dramas, the court case suddenly comes to a head as Perry scans the room, casts his eyes upon the unsuspected culprit and says, "My client actually didn't commit the crime he is accused of. Isn't that right Mr. Phillips?"
And so it was with John the Baptist. He was called by God himself to guide others through his riveting look and boney finger. He was to be "a voice calling out in the wilderness" — a prophetic pointer.
For the evangelist of the fourth Gospel, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus played out much like one of those courtroom dramas we listened to on the radio and watched on television. The scenario is similar, but those who take part in the biblical drama are even more real. Saint John presents the setting, and we are called to be the jury as we hear and watch Jesus on trial. Witnesses are called to testify — to give witness. The attorneys make their next move as they announce, "Your honor, for the next witness, I call — John the Baptist."
The Holy Gospel According to Saint John, the first chapter:
The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:29-34 ESV)
This faithful testimony of John the Baptist is one of the most endearing statements in the entire Scripture. It doesn't begin with a "Hey!" or a "Yo!" or a "Look guys!" It begins, intentionally, with the distinctive word "behold," the announcement that the words just about to be proclaimed are from none other than the Lord of heaven himself. "Behold!" he says. "I come with the Word of God. This is the one who has come to bring comfort to repentant hearts! This is the holy Lamb of God, provided by heaven as the eternal sacrifice for sin — for you and for the world!"
By the grace of God, John the Baptist was allowed to do more with his little right index finger than many of us have done with our entire lives. The same hand that was used by God to scoop up water during the Baptism of our Lord now points others to the one whom the Bible and the prophets and the Father and the Spirit all give witness: Jesus, the Redeemer of the children of Israel and the nations that surround her.
The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). (John 1:35-41 ESV)
That pointing finger and the accompanying proclamation of John the Baptist set into motion one of the first events of Jesus' public ministry: sinners receiving Jesus — not as another coach or another policeman or another prophet or another cheerleader, but the Lamb of God.
Luther is un-moveable on this point:
This [announcement, "Behold! The Lamb of God!"] is an excellent and splendid testimony of John regarding the introduction of the new rule and kingdom of Christ. It is a powerful statement. The words are clear and lucid. They tell us what one should think of Christ. ... This [proclamation by John the Baptist] is an extraordinary fine and comforting sermon on Christ our Savior. Neither our thoughts nor our words can do the subject full justice, but in the life beyond it will rebound to our eternal joy and bliss that [this] Son of God abased himself so and burdened himself with my sins. ... Despite its show of holiness, virtue, power and glory, the world continues to be under the dominion of sin and [its human works] are completely discounted before God. [Therefore,] anyone who wishes to be saved must know that all his sins have been placed on the back of this Lamb! ... If you really want to find the place where all the sins of the world are exterminated and cancelled, then cast your gaze upon the Cross. The Lord placed all our sins on the back of this Lamb. As the prophet Isaiah declares, 'We have all strayed like sheep, each of us going his own way, but the Lord laid on him the guilt of us all.' [Isaiah 53:6] ... Isaiah says that the right way is this: 'God placed all our sins upon him and struck him [down] for the sins of [all who] went astray. God put all our sins on the back of this Lamb and upon no other. ... Therefore a Christian must cling to this verse [in the Gospel of John] and let no one rob him of it. For there is no other comfort either in heaven or on earth to fortify us against all attacks and temptations, especially in the agony of death. ... This is the basis of all Christian teaching. Whoever believes it is a Christian; whoever does not is not a Christian. ... The statement is clear enough: 'This is the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world.' " (Am. Ed. of Luther's Works 22:161-64)
It was the all-powerful Word of God given to John the Baptist that animated his finger and his voice as he guided the disciples to Christ and then quietly stepped back out of the spotlight. Faith creates pointers who guide others to the Word of God, and then get out of the way. That's a lesson that each of us needs to learn and take to heart. Each of us has been given a voice and an index finger that we might point others to one specific thing.
Will that be our own human abilities and accomplishments? Will it be the things of the kingdom we have built around ourselves? Will it be our certificates of merit or trophies of achievement?
Or will we allow God to place before our eyes his faithful pointer, the greatest of the prophets, the forerunner with the forefinger calling all lost and condemned creatures to receive the One who has come to place upon his shoulders all our fears and failings?
Will you allow John the Baptist to be your guide? Will you point to Christ as you daily remember your Baptism and hear his life-giving Word? Will you point to Christ as you live under his mercy and grace? Will you faithfully give witness as you receive the forgiveness of sins through his very body and blood?
Hear and hold tight to the object of John's undivided attention as he says to you this day,
"Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.1

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Matthew 3:13-17 "Baptized—but into what?"

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

Dear Christians, baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ:

For thousands of years this Sunday has been celebrated in Christian churches as the Sunday of the Baptism of our Lord.
But for most churches and most Christians today, it's just another Sunday with just another sermon and just another bunch of hymns and prayers.
But, just like many other important things, it's an important day in the church year, whether we recognize it or not. The Baptism of our Lord was a big deal and will remain a big deal for all eternity.
To emphasize the importance of this day we have special music and special hymns and a special children's message and a special sermon and a special time of sharing after each morning service.
Just like the adults gathered around the Passover table, every one of us here should be able to give a good Biblical answer if a child should ask us, "Why is this Sunday different than all the other Sundays of the year?" Our answer should be much better than: "Well, the pastor likes to mix it up a bit from time to time."
It's like I told the Sunday morning adult Bible class last week: any visitor should know very quickly when coming to services that this is a trinitarian congregation. And so it is with Christ's Baptism and our own. People shouldn't be able to leave Redeemer without hearing about the Word of God in, with and under simple water.
Jesus' baptism and your baptism is a regular feature of what we "believe, teach and confess" as a Church, as a congregation, as a church family. It's part and parcel of what we say and hear and sing and do — and remember.
One of the saddest experiences I have as a pastor is visiting someone who has forgotten even their own family name. Sometimes I wonder: "How can they have forgotten their own name?" But this is a reality in the fallen world we live in. And it's the same with our spiritual life as well.
Not a day should go by when we don't remind ourselves of Christ's Baptism and our own. That's one of the assignments in Confirmation class: write three things that you can do to daily remind yourself of your Baptism." That's a good assignment for each of us here today as well.
And so this morning we fight against the threat of spiritual amnesia by first and foremost, focusing our attention on the Baptism of our Lord. The "what" and "so what" of Jesus' wading out into the Jordan to John the Baptist and the once-for-all-time event that followed; the one event that put into motion the mission of the only-begotten Messiah.
Read Matthew 3:13-15
John refused. Jesus called for faith in fulfilling all righteousness, then John consented. Not very different than what Jesus calls each of us to do. "Follow my word," he says. "Even though you don't really get it, put your trust in my direction and my word of assurance. This needs to be done. Say 'Amen' to me and my instructions and my way of ushering in salvation. "Let it now be so." Jesus says. And John consents.
Maybe there's someone here who secretly doesn't believe in Christian Baptism — especially of infant children — or has serious concerns about what Jesus calls us to do and say and believe. Unlike any one else, Jesus' comes with a Word that has the ability to create faith that responds to his direction by saying, "I give my consent, despite my questions and doubts and inability to understand fully. Despite it all, Jesus, I will say 'Amen' to your Word and call."
Now we want to state clearly up-front that Jesus didn't need to come to John to say a word of repentance and have his sins washed away.
Jesus, from his very conception, was the spotless Lamb of God. Hebrews 4:15: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Then, if not for cleansing, then for what purpose was Jesus baptized?
Twenty-four chapters later in the Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, someone will submit to a washing to publicly announce that he will have no part in the fate of the one put under his protection. In Matthew 27:24, Pilate washes his hands of carrying out justice on behalf of Jesus. "I am innocent of this man's blood." he cried.
This Baptism of our Lord, this particular Sunday in the Church Year, stands as the direct opposite of any washing away of sin or any washing away of personal or judicial responsibility.
Jesus' Baptism is a public proclamation, a public submission, a public consecration into his unique mission of redemption. Here, in the Jordan River, Jesus says "Amen" to the heavenly Father's call to become the once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of a weak and helpless world.
For anyone asking, "Who is Jesus?" "What did he come to do?" no one need look any farther than his Baptism. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, but, more importantly, he is baptized into his calling, his mission, his office as Redeemer and Savior and Sacrifice. His atoning work all begins in ernest here.
Read Matthew 3:16-17
Through his Baptism, Jesus does not walk away from protecting and saving those placed under his care. He does not wash his hands of your fate or mine. He is baptized into your place, into your stead, into your condemnation, that he might redeem each of us from it and its deadly consequences. Though equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit according to his divine nature, Jesus, according to his human nature freely submits to the Father's call to go down and rescue you and all people by the giving of his life-blood upon the cross. That's the call and mission and assignment Jesus said "Yes" to at his Baptism. And we, through the four New Testament evangelists are brought to the shore of the Jordan to watch and hear and bow our head and knee at the unbelievable: the holy Son of God taking on our burden as he begins to make good on God's gracious promise to win us back.
Satisfy the wrath of God's holy will against sin. That's an assignment that would have crushed even the best of us. But Jesus, at his Baptism, as water is poured over him, prays, "Yes, Father. I willingly will give my life for these, your wandering and wayward children."
And the Holy Spirit hovers over Jesus as the Father responds: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
This is the Jesus you and I have been baptized into. The "incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and buried" Jesus.
The most shocking thing in preparing for a Baptism here at Redeemer is often telling the excited parents desiring a "Christening" of their pure-as-the-driven-snow baby that Christian Baptism is a Baptism into Christ's death. That will get their attention, as it should get ours this morning. "What were you baptized into?" "The perfect life and sacrificial death of Christ."
That's the only way out of this dead-end life in this dead-end world. Baptized into the life and death of Christ.
That's why it has been a Christian practice for as long as anyone can remember to make the sign of the cross in remembrance of one's baptism. Not some sign of the empty tomb, or some sign of Pentecost, but the sign of the Cross.
And if you're wondering to yourself, isn't that making-the-sign-of-the-cross a Roman Catholic thing that we Lutheran Christians got rid of a long time ago, take a look at Martin Luther's instruction of how to begin each and every day as it's outlined in the Small Catechism.
Why is reminding ourselves of our Baptism and the Cross such a big deal? Because it is only after Jesus fulfilled his redemptive mission upon the cross, and the heavenly Father's seal of approval at his resurrection, that the Crucified One commands his Body, his family, his own, the Church, to make disciples of all nations by baptizing them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
At your Baptism, you have been born into the family of Christ, his Body, the Church. You have been given the family name for all eternity — whether you remember it or not, the name "Christian."
In the Jordan, God the Father, through John, through the Holy Spirit, anointed his very Son. In the Jordan, Jesus bound himself to your sins, that he might bind you to his righteousness.
Be who you are as a Baptized child of God. Live under your family name. Hold tight to Christ's promises. Bind yourself to him and his sacrificial work on your behalf.
Remember your Baptism. Remember which family you have been born into. Remember who you have been united with: Christ, the Lamb of God, who graciously remembers you, even on those days you forget him and his Cross.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Epiphany, the Glory of Christ and the Magi. Matthew 2:1-11

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear Brothers and Sisters Enlightened with the Light of Christ through Water and the Word:
Well, the Magi are in the Narthex, and that can mean only one thing: it's Epiphany.
Now Epiphany — just like many other Christian words and phrases — has both a narrow and wide meaning. Narrow: The Feast Day we celebrate today, on January 6. Wide: the entire season after the Feast of the Epiphany (This year from JAN 6 to FEB 6—five Sundays between the twelfth day of Christmas and the first day of Lent: Ash Wednesday.)
So don't be surprised when someone comes up to you later today or for the next five weeks and says, "A blessed Epiphany to you." It's O.K. It's just part of the Church Year Christians have been observing since the 3rd century).
But now that we've established that we're now in the season of Epiphany, what is it, what does it point to, and what difference does Christ wish it to have in our lives and those around us?
First, then, what is it?
"Epiphany," like: "Wow! I just had an epiphany!" You don't need to be a Christian to use the word, but it doesn't have the same meaning for the world that it does for us here this morning. Epiphany is much more than a light going off in our head when we discover something enlightening, like, "If I go to the grocery store and hardware store at the same time, I'll save on gas." or "If I wouldn't bring up that sensitive subject in front of my wife during the dinner party, I wouldn't be sleeping on this couch."
Epiphany means for the Church what it means in the Old and New Testament: It's Greek for manifestation, appearance, revelation, especially Christ's manifestation of his saving glory to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi. That's why it is today, January 6th, that the Queen of England makes a journey to the Chapel Royal and there presents offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ and his saving glory is proclaimed throughout the entire Scripture, but especially in one very special place in the New Testament Gospel accounts: John 2:11, at the Wedding at Cana. Here we read that: "This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him."
But this morning's Gospel reminds us that Jesus' glory was revealed way before water was miraculously changed into wine under the direction of a thirty-year old Messiah.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the second chapter:
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 saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2 ESV)
The Magi had been enlightened by the star that came to rest over the city of David: Bethlehem. Through the Old Testament Scriptures brought to their distant nation by the exiled children of Israel, these astrologers had picked up on something that had gone unnoticed by the one who occupied the throne in Jerusalem: the light of salvation was being revealed in the heavens, for not only the eyes of those living in and around Jerusalem, but the eyes of all nations. And so it was that foreign dignitaries inquired at the doors of the Jerusalem palace: "Where shall we join you in worshipping the King of the Jewish nation?"
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Matthew 2:3-6 ESV)
Great King Herod, impressive builder, glorious ruler, terrible reader of Holy Scripture. "Where is the Messiah-King to be born? Assemble those of the court who know their Scripture and have taken it to heart. Ask them where we should expect the One Anointed by God Himself — the very Son of God — to be born!"
Poor, unbelieving King Herod, now besides himself as he wondered what all this would mean for the kingdom he was slowly but confidently building. Would he have to step down from his position of power and prestige? How could this be — right in the middle of his great efforts to make a name for himself. What would he do now that these foreigners had somehow beaten him to the punch and were first in line to greet the newborn Messiah of Israel? What to do?
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. (Matthew 2:7-10 ESV)
The strangeness of King Herod's questioning of them, when he should have already held all the answers concerning the birth of his very Messiah — the Messiah who's birth was manifest to all the nations from heaven itself — all of that took a back seat to the joy these Gentile emissaries experienced as the star guided them to the goal of their months of searching: the house in Bethlehem where the infant Jesus lay. "Our journey has reached it's end: Behold! The newborn King of Israel! The Messiah of the Jewish people and all who would come to put their faith in his redeeming work! Behold! The Christ-child!"
And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11 ESV)
We don't really know how many Magi there were, but we know three things.
First, they found Jesus and Mary his mother in the house they had settled into after that eventful night of the child's birth in the stable of the inn.
Second, they brought three gifts, sacrifices of thanksgiving that communicated their appreciation that this Son of God and Mary's Son would bring salvation to many, to as many as would put their faith in him. Gifts that also foretold what kind of Messiah Christ would become — no, what kind of Messiah Christ was, beginning at his lowly birth: a King deserving of the gold of the nations, a Priest deserving of the sacred fragrance of frankincense, and a Prophet deserving of the myrrh used to give honor to the sacrifice of God's prophets at their death.
But, third, these foreigners from a distant land got it right when it came to the order in which gifts are received and given. They saw, they received the Christ child and the gift of salvation manifest in him, and then — and only then — did they respond in faith-created joy as they gave their humble gifts to the lowliest of kings. Their gifts did not appease God's wrath or convince the newborn king that the magi had sincere hearts worthy of heaven. Their gifts did not motivate the Messiah to put in a good work for them with "the man upstairs." It was a pure, adds-nothing-to-their-salvation response of joy and thanks and freely-given appreciation.
Through the star in the heavens, a gracious God sent out an epiphany, a manifestation, an appearance of his mercy and heart of forgiveness for, first his chosen children of Israel, but also, at the same time, all nations who would receive in faith the redeeming light beaming from the star and the manger.
This was the King of Kings who would fulfill what the gifts of these Gentiles pointed to: a King who would complete his priestly calling by the offering of his very self for the sins of the world. For it is at the Cross where this King fulfills his calling to be the glory of his people Israel and a light to lighten the Gentiles.
What difference does Christ wish his Epiphany to have in our lives and those around us? When and where in our day-in, day-out lives do we as Baptized Christians give witness to Christ's saving Epiphany for all people?
Every time we join Simeon in his song of joy and thanksgiving as we take the Christ child into the arms and into the hearts as he comes to us, the undeserving, at his altar.
Have you joined these Magi in confessing your faith in the lowly Christ-child and his reign of grace and mercy and forgiveness through his substitutionary sacrifice? Will you again confess him as the saving glory of Israel and the Light that brings light to souls throughout the nations of the world? Then hear Christ himself as he says of Peter's confession, and the Magi's confession, and your confession this hour:
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will." (Matthew 11:25-26 ESV)
This morning, arise, shine, for your Light has come, even Christ Jesus our Lord and King!
A blessed Epiphany to each of you,
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.