Monday, January 5, 2015

Those Wise Guys

After Jesus Was Born in Bethlehem

Gospel Lesson: Matthew 12:1-12 (KJV)

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
7 Then Herod, when had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

I had a friend whose first career was as a veterinarian. He was a bachelor approaching the age of 30. There was an 18 year old girl who loved horses and didn’t mind work. He hired her to do whatever needed to be done including mucking out the stables. Eventually it hit him. This girl might make a great wife. They married and had 6 kids and she made a great wife and mother.

What happened when “it hit him” that this girl could be a great wife? He had an epiphany. He saw her in a new way. The reality of her potential as a wife was manifested to him.

The word “epiphany” means “appearance” or “manifestation.” On Epiphany we celebrate the appearance among us of the Son of God in the human flesh of Jesus and his first manifestation to the world beyond the Jews when the wise men visited him.

I’d like for us to look at three things from today’s Gospel Lesson. First, the wise men and the star, second, Herod and the Jews, and third, Jesus and the Gentiles.

1. The Wise Men and the Star

Who were these men? The Greek word translated wise men is “magi” from which we get our word “magic” and “magician.” In the time of Daniel, around 600 years before the birth of Christ, magi were members of the royal court who advised King Nebuchadnezzar. Later they were not always attached to kings but were men who did things like read and interpret the sacred writings of pagan religions, pursue various forms of wisdom, practice the art of magic, interpret dreams, and study the sky. They were not astronomers but astrologers. The last part of their job description is particularly relevant to their visit to Jesus.

What did they see? Matthew calls it a star, a word that he does use in the technical sense. There have been various proposals about the nature of what they saw in the sky. One suggestion is a comet. Back in 1973 there was a lot of excitement about a comet named after the Polish astronomer Kohoutec, who discovered it. It appeared at Christmastime, but turned out to be a big disappointment because it was not as spectacular as predicted. But some think it was a Kohoutec-like comet that appeared. Others have suggested it was a supernova, the explosion of a star that emits great light over a period of several weeks. More recently at a conference last October astronomer Michael Molnar offered evidence that the star of Bethlehem was the emergence of Jupiter as the morning star. It was not a brilliant light, and most people would not have noticed it, but the wise men observed it and thought it had great significance.

In the end we do not know, but it seems most likely that the star was a temporary supernatural event that has no natural explanation. There is no reason God could not have manifested to these men a bright light in the sky.

How did they interpret the star? Whatever they saw and whatever concepts they used to interpret it, they took it as the sign of the birth of a Jewish king. They may have learned from Jews of the prophecy of the Balaam: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel…” (Numbers 24:17). The Jews had come to understand this as one of the prophecies of a Messiah and Deliverer. It’s possible that the wise men had heard this and that it influenced their interpretation of what they saw in the sky.

Where did they live? The wise men probably lived in the region of modern day Iran and Iraq. If they saw the star at the time of Jesus’ birth and set out then for Jerusalem, it would have taken a minimum of 40 days, averaging 20 miles a day, for them to make the trip of about 800 miles. Whenever they saw the star and however long the trip took, when they finally arrived in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph and Jesus had moved into a house.

What do we make of this? These men were pagan astrologers. They saw a star. They interpreted it to mean a Jewish king had been born. They wanted to do homage to this king. They travelled 800 miles or so to find him.

God has a wise and gracious plan. He has the power to make his plan happen. He wanted these particular men to see Jesus. He used their backgrounds as astrologers; he showed them a star; he led them to interpret it as a sign of a Jewish king’s birth and moved them to go find him. These were the men God had chosen to be the first Gentiles to meet the Savior-King. God still has a plan. He still acts in wisdom and grace. He still has power to carry it out. He still leads people to Jesus to worship him. 

God didn’t show you a star, but he used the Bible and the Church and the work of the Holy Spirit in your heart to lead you to Jesus, to manifest to you Jesus as your Savior and King who delivers you from sin, Satan, death, and judgment.

2. Herod and the Jews

Who was Herod? He was appointed by the Romans as King of the Jews and ruled Palestine. As Pastor Rich told us last week this Herod was a descendant of the Edomites, though he had been born in Palestine. His ancestors had converted to Judaism, and he outwardly practiced Judaism. But the Jewish leaders did not warm to him because of his Edomite lineage and his personal life. He built things all over Palestine, the most impressive of which was his rebuilding of the Jewish Temple. He was also a ruthless man who suffered increasingly in his latter years from both physical disabilities and mental instability.

What was his response to the visit of the wise men? When word got to him that visitors had come from the east in search of a newborn king of the Jews, he was greatly disturbed. He was King of the Jews, powerful but insecure and paranoid. Any child born of pure Jewish lineage and with a claim to the throne could be a threat to him. As word of all this spread in Jerusalem, the people of the city also became disturbed. They may have become disturbed just from the sudden excitement of such news. Or they may have become disturbed because they feared how Herod would react.

Did Herod have reason to feel threatened? Herod had no reason to fear the birth of Jesus in the way that he did - as a threat to his position as king. Jesus did not come to seize the throne in Jerusalem or any other human throne. He did not come to overthrow the Roman government or to take over the Empire. He told Pilate at his trial, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). His kingdom did not originate in this world and did not have the characteristics of earthly kingdoms. His kingdom in this world is his church which has no army except its ministers and members and no weapons but the Word, the Sacraments, and Prayer.

However, in another sense Herod did have reason to feel threatened, because the coming of Jesus challenges everyone to stop rebelling against God, to receive the salvation Jesus came to give, and to bow their hearts to him as King now. At the last day Jesus will come again, and then he will finally and totally defeat and subdue all his enemies. Then every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, either gladly because we confessed him as Lord in this life or else under compulsion when the day of salvation is past.

Whom did Herod consult? Herod called in the scribes and the chief priests. The scribes devoted their lives to studying and interpreting the Old Testament Scriptures. The chief priests were administrators of the Temple. So Herod called them in and asked, “What does the Old Testament say about where the Messiah is to be born?” They had a ready answer. They referred to Micah chapter 5 (v.2) and the prophecy of the birth of a Governor or Ruler. This Ruler would be like David, a shepherd who would lead, protect, and provide for God’s people, a very different kind of ruler from the Romans and the kings they appointed like Herod. The place of his birth would be Bethlehem, a village only 5 miles or so from Jerusalem.

How did the scribes and chief priests respond? When Herod got this information about the birthplace of the Messiah, he called in the wise men secretly and told them to go and find the child, and then to come back and tell him where the Child was in Bethlehem, so he also could go and worship him as the future King. We know from subsequent events what was on his murderous mind. He would kill the Child before he could pose any threat to Herod. Herod’s response is not surprising.

But what is shocking is the response of the scribes and chief priests. They consulted the Scriptures, provided the information to Herod, and then did nothing. Supposedly they longed for the Messiah to come and deliver God’s people. They knew their Bibles well enough to know that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. There was evidence now that he may have been born and could be found now in Bethlehem. Yet they made no attempt to go and find him.

Perhaps they were too comfortable in the positions, prestige, and power they had. So they hoped that, if they ignored his birth, maybe things could go on as they were. They are like a lot of people who ignore Jesus, not because they are openly hostile to him like Herod, but because they are too taken up with life as it is and do not want their familiar and comfortable lives to be upset. 

Of course, when Jesus actually came on the scene claiming to be God’s Son, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and calling on all to repent and believe the Gospel, they became as hostile as Herod. So it is with those who are presently indifferent but interested in preserving their little kingdoms. When really confronted by Jesus and his claim to be the only Savior and Lord, they turn against him in hatred and sometimes in violent opposition.

3. Jesus and the Gentiles

What did the wise men do? When they got the information they requested, they left Herod. Now they saw the star again. It led them to Bethlehem and rested above the very house in which Jesus was living with Mary and Joseph. Jesus was no longer in the the stable. Joseph has found a house for them in Bethlehem.

The wise men had great joy - “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” They entered the house and saw the little Child. Immediately they went to their knees and worshiped him as King. They presented to him the gifts they had brought - gifts appropriate for a King - treasures of the ancient world, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, of course, is a precious metal. Both frankincense and myrrh were aromatic tree resins that were highly valued in the ancient world. All three were the kinds of gifts people would give to kings.

What does this mean? What is significance of the wise man seeking Jesus, finding him, falling on their knees, worshiping him, and giving him treasures as gifts? They are the first Gentiles to find and worship Jesus as King.

God’s plan was always to include the Gentiles in his plan of salvation. Isaiah foresaw it and prophesied to Israel:

I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth (49:6). 
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising (60:2)
The coming of Jesus was the turning point in God’s plan - the point at which God would begin to gather the Gentiles by lifting up Christ in his saving glory among them. The reaching of the Gentiles began slowly. God drug Peter almost against his will to the house of a Roman soldier named Cornelius, and those Gentiles believed the Gospel about Jesus. God sent persecution against the church in Jerusalem and Christians moved outside Palestine to other areas in the Roman world, and as they went, they talked about Jesus. Eventually there was in Antioch, the first predominantly Gentile church. It was in that church that God set apart Paul to become the Apostle to the Gentile world.

Paul wrote of his calling:
For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles (Romans 11:13).
Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8).
Now the church has taken the good news of Jesus as Savior from sin and Lord of our lives to the world, and throughout the world people continue to find Jesus today.

Where can you and I find Jesus today? We find him in the words of this book, the Bible, the book that from beginning to end reveals to us Jesus the Messiah. We find him in the words proclaimed from this pulpit by men whose primary responsibility is to manifest Jesus to you as the Son of God, as our Savior from sin, and our King who delivers us from our enemies and rules us for our good. We find him at this Table where he promises to appear, not in the bread and wine transformed into his physical body, but spiritually as we feed upon in our hearts by faith. He appears here - in Word read and preached and Sacrament faithfully administered and received.

Seek him. Find him. Worship him.

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