Epiphany of our Lord
“We have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” [Matthew 2:2]
Some 150 years ago this day, twenty-one-year-old William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898) of Bristol, England was ill. And you are probably wondering why this is important. Well, as Dix lay in bed, unable to attend church, he read the scripture lesson for the day, which was and continues to be in the church lectionary calendar the Epiphany story of the Wise Men recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew 2:1-12. The harrowing story of the Wise Men, the evil antagonist King Herod, the bright morning star, Mary mother of our Lord, the holy Christ-child, and the gifts of precious worth sparked the ailing man’s poetic mind, and before long he had written the well known carol and hymn, As With Gladness Men of Old [LSB 397].
In the years following, the original text needed reforming for Dix’s poetic propensities had, like many modern descriptions of the Wise Men, their number, when they came, and what they came to, had gone ahead of the text, had artistically painted in or molded in that which was, and has never been in the biblical account or at least faithful to its chronology. So it was that the original text had referred twice to a “manger” but this was changed in the 1875 edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern with the approval of the author’s own hand. Verse 2 line 2 had read, “to that lowly manger-bed” and verse 3 line 2 had read “At that manger rude and bare.” In the revised version, the first manger disappeared and the second manger became a “cradle” mainly because Matthew 2:11 refers to the Wise Men coming to a “house” not a stable.
And so, whereas at the Christmas manger we hear and see God in human flesh announced to the nearby shepherds, the season of Epiphany and its distant traveling Wise Men from the East remind us that this baby boy appears before the world as God, the Savior of the Nations, whose house, who’s Kingdom will include both Jew and Gentile. There is indeed a startling contrast between the religious leaders of Jerusalem and these Wise Men from the East. The Jewish leaders knew exactly where Christ was prophesied to be born, they knew their Old Testament. They certainly knew more than the Wise Men did, who and what this Christ was to be, for they knew their Bibles. Yet they are content to stay at home in Jerusalem with their Bibles and not travel with the Wise Men to worship Christ in the flesh who resides just a few miles away.
The Wise Men, on the other hand, received the Word of God as it is meant to be received. They received it in such a way that they are compelled, with joy and jubilation to seek out Christ, the Word made flesh. The Wise Men rely on the inscribed Word of God, but they are not content with Bible as if it were some type of magic book waiting to be found in a hotel near you. No, they follow it, they cling to it for the sole purpose that it was written, to lead them to Christ. “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” so wrote St. John [John 20:31]. The Bible testifies to Him who is its author and in so doing it brings life to those who hear and receive it as such. In hearing and receiving the Word of God as the very audible communication of God Himself you hear and receive Him who is both gift and promise, en-fleshed for you and for your salvation. With this in mind, it is no surprise that Dix would write of the Wise Men who traveled from afar, “As with gladness men of old did the guiding star behold; As with joy they hailed its light, leading onward, beaming bright; So, most gracious Lord, may we evermore be led by Thee” [v.1].
The contrast between the pious religious leaders of Jerusalem and the Wise Men from the East still instructs us today. Our age is saturated with “Bible experts” And what are the requirements, the credentials of such “experts.” Not much, it would seem. A Bible, a microphone, maybe even a flashy suit or Hawaiian shirt—the list is endless, but never seems to incorporate the essential things that must and indeed form a theologian, a pastor, a child of God. Taking his cue from Psalm 119, Luther delineates out three realities that form a Christian, a theologian. These three are Oratio (prayer), Meditatio (mediation), and Tentatio (suffering). Though the unpacking of these terms and their relationship to one another is beyond the scope of this sermon, suffice it to say, that in Oratio, the child of God is driven outside himself into a community of persons wherein he receives the language of faith, so he may speak and perform it “in faith toward Thee and in fervent love toward one another.” In Meditatio, the child of God hears the voice of Christ, and in so hearing lays hold of Him and learns to know by His voice who he is and delights in what he hears. And finally, the child of God in Tentatio learns that true faithfulness is not characterized by a continual sidestepping of our human imperfection and suffering, but in confessing it, learns that true glory and freedom are born from it.
With the absence of these three realities in the life of a pastor, a theologian, I wonder sometimes what the perceived value among the people of God for a seminary educated, trained and Oratio, Mediatio, Tenatio formed pastor is. In an era when “chose your own adventure” novels are atop the bestsellers list, when countless alternative paths exist to the honorable, yet humbling and self-denying rite of ordination, what really is the importance of having a pastor formed by such important yet seemingly forgotten realities of pastoral care and guidance?
The answer to such a question mines the depths of what a person expects and confesses about the pastoral office, and what it means to be on the receiving end of such care. Competing thoughts swirl around a person when attempting to answer such questions. There is the thought that if one just learns enough facts about the Bible, or learns enough about the moral life within the Bible and so lives it, or receives “sage” advice from his shepherd, that one will have what they need to unlock the heavenly mansions prepared for them before the foundation of the world. There is the thought that it is sufficient or even more applicable to 21st century life to stay at home with one’s Bible and forsake the presence of Christ in the flesh in His gathered church.
There are those who search the scriptures, because they think that in them they have eternal life. But like the scribes and the Pharisees, they don’t find it. This is because they read the scriptures with hardened minds. “Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” so wrote St. Paul to the church at Corinth [2nd Corinthians 2:14-16]. This is what Epiphany declares to us still this day. When the light of God’s love broke the darkness of our hardened hearts, Christ the Son of God, came into the flesh making our corrupted flesh, a new flesh, a flesh that though it will die yet shall live. This baby born in Bethlehem was a real live baby boy; He is very God of very God. He is not some phantom or ghost. He is flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. He is a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.
This gathering in of the Gentiles, the Wise Men from the East, was foretold by the prophet Isaiah. Speaking of the light to come as being the light of Israel, Isaiah says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” [Isaiah 60:1]. It was Israel’s light, and it was to arise in Israel. But then the prophet goes on to say that the Gentiles would also come to this light; for addressing Israel he says, “Nations [Gentiles] shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; our sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried on the hip” [Isaiah 60:3-4]. More specifically to the including of the Gentile nations, Isaiah foretells the coming of the Wise Men and their precious gifts and praises to the Christ-child. “The multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord [Isaiah 60:6]. The Wise Men came. They came to worship Him in faith and in truth, falling upon their knees and rejoicing over this salvific divine gift who is, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” [Isaiah 9:6].
They came from the East, and the East was not without its Old Testament witness. When Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews were dispersed in the Babylonian captivity, Old Testament promises were also dispersed in the East. Six hundred years before the Wise Men set foot in the house of the Christ-child, Daniel had served in Babylon as governor of all the wise men [Daniel 2:48]. And Daniel worshipped the true God who promised the coming Messiah.
The Wise Men came. They were spurred on in part by what they heard from the prophecy, for they were seeking a child who was the King of the Jews. The star alone did not tell them His title. But the star, His star, was revealed to them in the East. The text indicates that is was no longer visible when they ended their travels in Jerusalem. They were expecting to find a newly born king in royal Jerusalem. Yet the Bible gave a different and unexpected Word. This king was not in the seat of power called Jerusalem. Rather, and according to Micah’s prophecy, small and puny Bethlehem was the place where God was present in human flesh, present in a child whose “origin is from old, from ancient of days” [Micah 5:2].
Outwardly they saw only a humble dwelling place and a young mother with her small child. The wealth and show of Herod’s court was not rivaled here. Yet with trusting faith they refused to be turned away by human reason. Following the word of the prophets and the witness of the bright shining star, they fell on their keens and worshiped Him. They opened their treasures to Him. And that was the wisdom of the Wise Men, worshiping God in the flesh.
There search is over, for they have come to Him who is the Star of Mercy, the true light which enlightens every man. These Wise Men come to the One who is the very Wisdom of God in human flesh, the One who is greater than Solomon, the One who is not only King of the Jews, but King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The kingdoms of men will lie in the dust of history, but of the kingdom of this Christ-child there will be no end. His kingdom will be established by His death on the cross through the preaching of that cross. He will draw to Himself a kingdom of priests to glorify Him forever.
Epiphany continues among us here this night, and every night, for God makes His mercy manifest in the preaching of His Gospel, the Gospel which declares to us that we have a Savior who has died our death on the cross and has been raised from the dead to live and reign as our King. He is the Light of the world, the light which no darkness can overcome. He is the Light which you, saints in time, and yes, saints in eternity declare, “And the night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” [Revelation 22:5].
In the heavenly country bright Need they no created light;
Thou its light, its joy, its crown, Thou its sun which goes not down;
There forever may we sing Alleluias to our King [v.5]
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.