Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It might help to understand a few things about the magi. One, despite the song, they’re not kings. No doubt, the Psalms say all kings will bring gifts to God (68:29) and that they will worship Him (72:10). Isaiah 60, which we heard, says that kings will come to the brightness of God’s rising (60:3). But magi never were kings. They served kings. But they themselves were never kings. And we don’t know how many there were. They brought three gifts, but Matthew never tells us how many magi there were. But those are simply matters of what the Scriptures say and don’t say about magi.
More importantly, why do we call them “wise men”? I know the English translations often call them that, but why? Because they often do not seem particularly wise, at least to me. They might be learned. They might have some knowledge. They might be well-acquainted with many books. But let’s hear the story as it is, and not as it’s been imagined in songs and nativity scenes.
Consider what the magi actually do. They see a star, but how they get from that sign in the sky to someone born king of the Jews is left unknown to us. Possibly, they knew Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers that a star would come out of Jacob and a scepter out of Israel (24:17), but Matthew doesn’t tell us that. They simply tell Herod that they saw a star and now they’ve come to bow down in reverence before the King of the Jews. The fact that Matthew has the word “king” three times in the first three verses, none for the magi(!), twice for Herod, and once for this new king of the Jews, tells us this news isn’t going to go over well with Herod. There can be only one king in Jerusalem, and Herod has no intention of giving up the throne.
The magi do not actually go to where Jesus is. They go to Jerusalem. It’s not from the star that they learn where Jesus is, but from the Scriptures, as Herod consults the scribes and chief priests about where the Messiah is to be born. And then, when they find Jesus with His parents, if the angel doesn’t tell them in a dream not to go back to Herod, they are on the verge of getting Him killed by telling Herod where He is. We know Herod’s plans because he actually does try to kill Jesus in a dragnet of death to those sons two years old and under—the range of time that Herod got from the magi.
It’s not their wisdom that gets them to Jesus, and it’s not their wisdom that protects the infant Jesus. It is only God’s Word, through the Scriptures and through a dream. In fact, magi only show up in the Scriptures two other times: in Acts 13, where there are two “magicians,” Elymas and Bar-Jesus, and in the book of Daniel. In neither place do the Scriptures consider them wise. In fact, in Daniel, they are almost the cause of death for Daniel and his friends, because they cannot do the impossible and tell Nebuchadnezzar his dream and its interpretation. The magi, along with all of Nebuchadnezzar’s other advisers, are portrayed as helpless in the face of the king’s ridiculous request.
Daniel, however, doesn’t need all their learning and wisdom and magical ability. Because he has a God in heaven who reveals mysteries (2:28). And that’s what Epiphany is finally about. This is not a story about wise men versus foolish men, some of whom seek Jesus and some of whom don’t. This is a story about all human wisdom versus God’s revelation. Because no one would know God, no one would seek God, no one would understand or believe if God does not reveal Himself and speak to people of and in the Word made flesh. If God doesn’t tell the magi through Micah where the Messiah will be born, they never would have found Him. If God doesn’t tell them not to go back to Herod, Herod would have had a much better chance to kill the child Jesus. If God doesn’t tell Joseph in a dream that Mary’s child is not the result of an adulterous relationship, but the very Son of God in the flesh, Joseph never would have believed it. If God doesn’t tell Joseph in a dream to go to Egypt, the soldiers might have gotten to Bethlehem before they left. If God doesn’t shine the Light of Christ on us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we never would believe that any of this had anything to do with us.
We have a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and the mystery at the heart of all things is the mystery of God’s salvation residing in a tiny baby, in a Jewish man 2,000 years ago, in a man hanging on a cross. It never would have occurred to us to look there for what God is doing and how God is saving us, let alone in water, words, or wine and bread.
Epiphany is all about this revelation. So the Church hears how God reveals Himself to magi, the first non-Jews to see Jesus, pay Him His Kingly reverence, and give Him gifts. These are not the people you expect. Matthew says, after Jesus was born, look! Magi from the east. What are they doing here, seeking this King? But we also hear about Jesus’ baptism, where the Father reveals that Jesus is the Son whom He has sent, anointed with the Holy Spirit, to bring His salvation. And we hear about Jesus at the wedding at Cana, revealing to His disciples when He turns water into wine, that He is the beginning of the new creation, and the true Bridegroom of Israel.
And we rejoice that we have a God in heaven who reveals to us the mysteries of the Faith, enlightening us, forgiving us, keeping us in the life of Christ until we see it in the resurrection. This is the Epiphany of our Lord.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/4/19