An Epiphany sermon based on Matthew 2:1-12
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
January 6, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today on the church calendar is the day known as “Epiphany.” The word “Epiphany” means a “showing forth” or “revealing.” It is a picture of a lifting of the veil. The texts for Epiphany center around the revealing of Jesus, the Chosen One of God, not only as the Savior to God’s chosen people the Jews, but also as the Savior for those born outside the Jewish family. Epiphany occurs each year twelve days after Christmas. This is a part of the origin of the famous 18th Century British Christmas carol of the same name.

One of the classic texts for Epiphany each year is Matthew 2:1-12. This text tells the mysterious story of the visit of the Magi from the East. The gospel of Matthew is the only source for this story. It is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. You all know how the story goes. It is a familiar part of the Christmas story that we hear every Christmas season.

In Matthew 2, these visitors from a faraway land came to Israel searching for “The King of the Jews.” They are guided by a new star that had appeared in the night time sky. They understood this star as a supernatural sign of the birth of someone important. So they followed the star, not really knowing where they were going or exactly what the star might signify. Eventually they found Jesus and his parents in Bethlehem after a detour through Jerusalem and an ill-advised visit with the current ruler Herod. And when they arrived in Bethlehem, they presented the infant Jesus with royal and expensive gifts.

I think that the story of the visit of the Magi is one of those stories that has become so familiar to us over the years that it has lost much of its mystery. We read and hear about it every year around this time. We display Nativity sets in churches and in our homes complete with a trio of richly dressed visitors from the East bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. And we sing about it each year in carols like we sang just a few moments ago, “We Three Kings.” But at its core, the visit of the Magi is a strange story.

As I was preparing this sermon, there was a song lyric that kept running through my head. (I do not imagine that comes as a surprise to any of you…) The more that I studied and reflected on the text, the more this song lyric kept repeating itself to me. It is the opening line of song by the classic ’60’s band Buffalo Springfield. It was their only Top Ten hit–the title of the song is “For What it’s Worth.” I am sure that many of you remember the song and can probably sing the opening lines, “There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear.” Those words seem to describe much of what is going on in this passage. During the next few minutes, I hope that you will begin to see this text with new eyes–eyes that catch a glimpse of the wonder and mystery of this unusual story. And maybe the story can also help us to catch a glimpse of how God still works in our world and in our lives today…

The story begins in verse 1: “In the time of Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men came from the East to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.'”

Tradition has made these visitors from the East as “kings,” though the Bible does not call them kings. The translation we just read–along with many other translations–calls them “wise men.” Matthew describes them as “Magi.”

The Greek word used here is magos. It is the root word from which we get our English words “magic” and “magician.” Magos is derived from the Chaldean language to refer to astrologers, fortune tellers, sorcerers, teachers and even priests in the religion of the Persians. Nothing in the word suggests royalty. It is interesting to note that the word magos appears only one other time in the New Testament aside from Matthew 2. And it is not in a good way.

In Acts 13, we read of the beginning of the Apostle Paul’s first missionary journey. After being commissioned by the church at Antioch, Paul and his co-worker Barnabas travel to the island of Cyprus. While they were there, they came across a man named Bar-Jesus, who is described as “a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet.” The word used in that verse for “sorcerer” is that very same word used in Matthew 2, magos. We are told that Bar-Jesus opposed Paul and Barnabas’s teaching. After being denounced for his wickedness by Paul, the Bible says that mists and darkness enveloped Bar-Jesus and that the Holy Spirit struck him blind for a season…

Nearly all of the different cultures in the ancient Near East practiced some form of astrology as a part of their religion. Archaeological evidence suggests that the practice of consulting the stars goes as far back as 3500 BC. By the time of the birth of Christ, Babylon had become the center of astrological learning and practice. Though the practice of astrology was widespread among its neighbors, the people of Israel were forbidden to practice it.

The Old Testament law was very clear on this. Leviticus 19:26 says, “Do not practice divination or sorcery.” And in Deuteronomy 18, God tells the people through Moses, “Let no one be found among you who…practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens [that’s a direct reference to astrology], engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord…”

The point is this: if God is so against astrology and divination as the Old Testament is unambiguous in stating, then why would God alert this group of pagan Gentile sorcerers from somewhere in the East–most likely Persia–to the birth of our Lord Jesus even while they were practicing the very arts that God had condemned? And why did he lead them to the newborn king of the Jews on that very first Christmas? Doesn’t that seem strange to you? Hmmmm… “There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear…”

The story continues. The Magi, continuing to be led by the star, travel to Israel and stop off at Jerusalem to inquire about the newborn King of the Jews. It makes perfect sense for them to do that. Jerusalem was the capital city of Israel and had been for roughly 900 years, dating back to the time of King David. The Magi just assumed that the heir to the throne of David would be born in the capital city. After all, most royal births occur in the palace of the capital city.

But Herod, the ruler over Israel as a pawn of the Roman government, knew nothing about such a birth. Unlike the shepherds on Christmas Eve, he does not greet the news of the coming of the Christ with great joy. Instead, he greets the news with fear. So verse 4 tells us that he called in the chief priests and the scribes from the Temple to ask where the Messiah was to be born. Apparently without hesitation, they answered him, “In Bethlehem, because that is where the prophets of old said he would be born.” The information was relayed to the Magi, with the instructions that they were to send word back to Herod when they had found the child.

There’s no question as to what Herod’s motives were. Herod was being deceptive with the chief priests, scribes and these visitors from the East. He desired information about this new threat to his throne for no other reason than that it could be quickly eliminated. His actions later in the story show that to be true when he orders the execution of the children in Bethlehem. But what about the attitude of the chief priests and scribes? What do you think they might have thought about it?

They are a bit harder to read than Herod. I am sure that they must have been surprised–and perhaps suspicious–of Herod’s sudden interest in the birthplace of the Messiah. So the question is worth asking: why would they be assisting Herod in identifying the birthplace of Jesus? Surely that must have raised some red flags for them. Were they just being meekly submissive, cowed by imperial power that Herod wielded? Or maybe they were being naive to his true intentions? Or do you think that they were already hostile to the Christ as they would prove to be later on in Jesus’ ministry when they were opposing him at every turn?

I don’t know. Maybe they turned a blind eye because they were “just following orders.” When word came back about the slaughter of children in Bethlehem a few verses later, the knowledge that they were “just following orders” perhaps helped to salve their consciences about being complicit in that heinous act. It must have been hard for them to deal with the fact that they had a part in the murder of innocent children. Or maybe not. Maybe they were just that callous. Lots of questions there… For the chief priests and the scribes in Jerusalem, “There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear…”

And then the story concludes. When they leave Jerusalem, the Magi pick up the trail of the star once more. They follow it until it stopped over the place where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were. They were staying in Bethlehem, which is only about one day’s journey distant. Once they had found the Child, they prostrated themselves before him. And then presented the gifts that they had brought with them: say it together with me–gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Now I would confess to you that I have not participated in very many baby showers over the years. And so my knowledge about such things is somewhat limited. But it seems to me that these are peculiar gifts to be presenting to a couple of brand new parents. Don’t you think?

Gold–that I can understand as an appropriate baby shower gift. What new parents cannot use some extra cash to cover the expenses associated with the addition of a newborn? But frankincense and myrrh?–Those are different matters altogether. These two compounds are aromatic resins derived from two different trees that flourish in the Arabian Peninsula. Frankincense and myrrh were common in the Near East during time of Jesus’ birth–and very expensive.

[I’m sure that you’ve probably heard the old joke: The wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The wise women brought gifts that were more practical…!]

Frankincense was used as a type of medicine that was widely regarded to be able to cure all kinds of diseases. It was said to be able to cure everything from leprosy to gout and even baldness. (WOW! Sounds like a product sold by Amway, doesn’t it?!) It was also used in many religious observances as a kind of incense. In that usage, the smoke would rise from the burning frankincense toward heaven like a prayer. Myrrh, on the other hand, also had some medicinal uses, but was primarily known for being one of the main ointments and spices that was used to embalm bodies.

Strange gifts to be bringing to a newborn and his family. “There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear…”

So what are we to make of this strange and wonderful story? Is there something in the story of the Magi coming to Bethlehem that can speak to us today?

I think that the main point of the story of the Magi and their quest for God’s Messiah is this: God was announcing that the world is changing. Nothing can stay the same once God’s Messiah arrives. The visit of these wandering astrologers signals that the reach of God’s embrace is broadening considerably. Artificial categories that used to be determinative are no longer relevant. Ethnic differences no longer matter. There are no more any distinctions based on who you are…or what you have done…or who you’re related to. There are no more spiritual “insiders” and “outsiders.” All are invited to become part of God’s family by becoming one in Christ. There are no exceptions…

Because that was the kind of world that Jesus was born into. It was a world that was dominated by fear–fear of disease, fear of hunger, fear of scarcity, fear for safety. It was a world of those who had enjoyed abundance…and those who barely scratched out a meager existence. It was a world stratified by social class and privilege. It was a world where life was cheap.

God sent his Son–and then, by extension, he created the church–to announce a new breaking in of the kingdom of God here on earth. The old ways of doing things are swept away. Through Christ, God has declared that the process of creating the world anew has begun. And that begins with you and me–allowing the Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out…to recreate us more fully into the image of his Son…to be the hands and feet of the Savior as we spread the good news of the Kingdom and share God’s life and love with those around us.

Yes–with the visit of the Magi, God was announcing that the world is changing. And it continues to change as the Kingdom of God increases in power. And like He did through the visit of the Magi 2000 years ago, who knows what God may change next…

To God alone be the glory! Amen.