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Epiphany
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Michael Moffitt, January 6, 2019


Seeing the Heart of God


Text: Matthew 2:1–12

When I was growing up I had a paper route and of course got to know, or at least be aware of, most everyone on my route, even those who didn’t subscribe to the newspaper. There was one elderly couple who didn’t subscribe to the evening paper but who were often sitting on their front porch when I walked by. They always appeared very serious and were very stern, never smiling at me or acknowledging waves. I thought they were probably just jerks and chose to ignore them.

Two doors up from me I had a friend who was of Italian descent on his father’s side. We used to play ball and hang out together on a regular basis. One day he invited me to go with him to his grandparents’ home for lunch, where he promised they would serve wine. When you’re 12 years old that’s quite a thing to look forward to. As it ended up, his grandparents were the same couple who used to ignore me but this time they greeted me with warmth. I assumed it because I was with their grandson who they clearly loved and doted upon. As it ended up, they had very poor eyesight and didn’t recognize me as the paperboy. I learned a very valuable lesson about the importance of my perception of people and situations being informed by facts, not impressions. They didn’t dislike me, they couldn’t see me clearly as I walked by, and they didn’t speak English well at all. (In case you were wondering, yes, they did serve wine for lunch).

Over the years I have focused on the importance of knowing all that I can about what the Bible has to teach about the character and nature of God. The world often has a very different viewpoint of who God is and they let their feelings and the viewpoints of others inform them as to who God is or should be in their opinion. They choose to focus on limited aspects of who God seems likely to be. Because of that often the focus is merely on their view of God’s love, but certainly not on his wrath; on His willingness to forgive sin (if there is such a thing), but never the penalty of unconfessed sin. They make assumptions about what Heaven will be like but make no room for the reality of Hell. The God of their imaginations is pure love and would never even think of something as spiteful as punishing those who reject him. Surely, God would never do something so out of character as displaying wrath. I once had someone tell me that their view of God was simply how they liked to think of what he/she should be like.

Unfortunately, many within the organized church have an unbalanced understanding of who God is and become alarmed when they read or hear Bible stories about God that don’t live up to their view of who he is supposed to be. When we don’t allow the Word of God to inform us about God, then we come up with a view of him that is not merely incomplete but often untrue. One of the reasons that we should follow the seasons of the church is so that we have an opportunity to read and reflect on the whole of Scripture and God’s perfect plan for redemption. Within those reflections we receive a true, biblical view of who God is and why he moves in the ways that he does. It will lead us to an understanding of God that invokes praise, worship, awe and wonder and yet gives us a holy fear of our creator who transcends us in every way.

Today, January 6th begins the Epiphany season and it extends to the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Epiphany Day ends the Christmas season and is a time to reflect on the faith it took for the Magi (wise men) to follow a star for well over 1,000 miles. We can only imagine what such a journey would have been like over 2,000 years ago. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that the star was so prominent that everyone noticed it. Even when the Magi arrived at Herod’s court in Jerusalem there is nothing in the account of Scripture that would lead us to believe that Herod or his wise men had noticed the star. It makes you wonder what it must have been like for the wise men who most likely were traveling with a large company. Were they laughed at and ridiculed when they told local people that they were following a star that would lead them to a new-born king?

During Epiphany, we focus on our own faith in the King who was born on Christmas Day over 2,000 years ago. When we share our faith and joy in the good news of the gospel, we must be ready to receive the same skepticism and mockery from those who can’t yet see or understand the truth of salvation found only in Jesus Christ. Just like the wise men who continued their journey from their home in the East to Bethlehem of Judah in the days of Herod, the king of Israel, we must stay the course in proclaiming the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, and his redemptive work that begun that Christmas morning long ago.

There are three main teachings of Epiphany that I want us to take away this morning.

The first is that twelve days before the start of Epiphany, God manifested himself through the birth of a child. This was the first time that God condescended to manifest himself in human form, not as a ghostly apparition but as a flesh and blood human being born in the same way as anyone else. The idea would have been unthinkable and yet God chose this as the solution to our separation from him because of our sin. He decided to come and live in our midst and maintain his human identity eternally as the God-Man. His decision was not a temporary solution but an eternal one that changed everything for us as well as the Godhead. The Good News that we celebrated in the Advent was that his commitment was perpetual and eternal, and this was not the last time that he would manifest himself to us. At the end of the ages, Jesus will again walk upon the earth and bring with him an army of the heavenly hosts.

Second, Epiphany points us to the Royal Kingship of Jesus. The birth of this child was of such importance that even the heavens revealed his birth. The wise men were believed to have come from Persia (modern day Iran) and they were most likely astrologers from the royal court of the king of Persia. Church tradition even tells their names, supposedly Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar. Their job was one of divination and they would have shared their wisdom and understanding of the stars in order to inform their king and give him great wisdom. You might ask the question, ‘then why did they seek another king?’ William Barclay in his commentary on Matthew wrote this:

It may seem to us extraordinary that those men should set out from the East to find a king, but the strange thing is that, just about the time Jesus was born, there was in the world a strange feeling of expectation of the coming of a king. Even the Roman historians knew about this. Not so very much later than this Suetonius could write, "There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world.”

The Magi and people from the East would most likely have been acquainted with Jews who had been exiled from Judah and Israel centuries before. It is likely that they had seen and studied the Hebrew scriptures and had read the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24:17. Balaam was a pagan prophet from Aram (modern-day Syria) who God used to declare himself to Israel’s enemy Balak, king of Moab. Listen to the prophecy of Balaam,

I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.

When the star first appeared to the Wise men in the East, God brought this prophecy to their remembrance and gave them the desire to follow it. They must have had permission from the King of Persia and it wasn’t unusual for Magi to travel in welcome to a new king on behalf of their master, the king of Persia, who had declared himself king of kings.

Apparently, the Wise men traveled with a large enough retinue that they attracted the attention of everyone in Jerusalem when they arrived. Though they knew enough to follow the star to Jerusalem they didn’t know enough about prophecy to instead go directly to Bethlehem. They don’t seem to have been acquainted with Micah 5:2,

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.

Bethlehem was very small and insignificant in the minds of the people of Israel even though it had been the birthplace of King David. I’m assuming that the Magi went to the palace of the king because where else would a king of this importance be born? Surely this child was celebrated and treated with the utmost of reverence and care. I’m guessing that they also expected that the leaders and people of this important capital city would be even more interested in the birth of their King than they were. I can only imagine their surprise when they show up at Herod’s court asking to see the newborn king and find that no one has any idea what they're talking about.

Let’s read again Matthew 2:1–5,

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, 2 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.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

Essentially, they found that no one in Jerusalem was looking for this king much less bowing down to worship him. Even though others around the known world had a sense that a king was to be born, those who claimed to be the people of God were clueless. You’ll notice that Herod was troubled by this news but if you study who he was then you’ll see that he wasn’t concerned that he had perhaps missed something important but he was troubled by anyone who might present a threat to his rule. He was constantly on guard against threats to his position as king, even from within his own family. He assassinated many family members whom he suspected of disloyalty. He had his wife and two sons murdered as well as 300 court officers from the Sanhedrin. It was said that it was safer to be a pig in Herod’s court than a son.

He was very cunning and determined to find out the identity of this child, this potential interloper to his throne. So, he calls all the chief priests and scribes, so they can search the scriptures and tell him the place where this king would be born. Isn’t it odd that he would put his trust in prophecy but not in the one prophesied about? The scribes find the prophecy in Micah 5:2 and report back to King Herod. The fact that they had to search seems to indicate that they had ceased looking for the Messiah and were instead deeply immersed in their religious traditions and their status. Herod feigns interest in knowing the location of the child so that he can come and worship him as well. So, he sends the Magi away with the task of finding the child and reporting back to him ASAP.

It should be understood that unlike the Sunday school flannelgraph boards that you may have seen as a child, the wise men were not with the shepherds in the cave or stable where the Christ child was born. They most likely found him in a house that Joseph and Mary were living one to one and a half years after the birth of the child. I find it interesting that even though the experts in the law and prophets knew where the child was to be born and even that he would be the “Ruler who will shepherd my people Israel”, they showed no interest in accompanying the wise men in their journey to Bethlehem. Frankly, the wise men would have gotten better information if they had first encountered the Shepherds who had seen the new King right after his birth. Matthew is challenging the prejudice that often accompanies spiritually complacent religion. He is pointing out that it was the pagans who came to worship Jesus even though it took a great effort of time, money and even danger. The religious leaders failed to act on their knowledge of the Bible and made no effort to take seriously a child, as they saw him, of no real immediate importance. Even though they would show no inclination to kill the child as Herod would, their successors a generation later (when Jesus could no longer be taken for granted) did seek his death.

This leads us to the third concept to be found in the Epiphany—Light. During the Advent season the world was in darkness. God’s people prayed for the coming birth of the Messiah, and Christian’s now, in remembrance that he came, look with anticipation for his second coming in judgment and glory. At Christmas, the light broke through as God broke through the darkness with the Light of Christ. He would dispel the darkness in creation and the hearts and minds of men and women. He was initially seen only by Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. At Epiphany, the mysterious star summoned the Gentiles to benefit from the work and light of God’s own Son. The prophecy that we read this morning from Isaiah 60:1–3,

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.3 And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

The wise men go to Bethlehem and find the child, now most likely a toddler, and they respond with recognition to what they have found. Matthew 2:9–11,

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. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 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.

Again, Matthew focuses in on the fact that it was the pagans who fell down and worshipped Jesus. We must not forget that the sin of taking Jesus for granted was not the sin of the pagans who knew very little about him, but of the religious leaders and teachers of the Torah. The response of the wise men shows their relief at finding what they were looking for—a true King that was worthy of worship and honor and glory. They offer Jesus both homage and gifts that, although standard in the East, were of a more prophetic nature than they likely knew. Each of the gifts had symbolism. Gold was a symbol of kingship on earth, Frankincense (an incense) was a symbol of deity and myrrh was an embalming oil and symbol of death. Even their gifts reflected the true identity of the child and what he had come to do. The Magi’s homage to Jesus may also reflect the biblical language pointing to the pilgrimage and worship of the nations for the true king. We read an example of that this morning in Isaiah 60:6,

A 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.

More important than their gifts was the fact that they bowed down before him in worship. Can you imagine what it would have been like to see these foreign dignitaries bowing and worshipping a child? These were men who sought to unravel the greatest mysteries so that ultimate knowledge might be attained.

In our Epistle reading this morning the Apostle Paul writes that he had been given the joyous task of revealing the greatest mystery ever. Listen again to Ephesians 3:4–6,

When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

The Jews had made the mistake in believing that they were superior as a people because of the God who had revealed himself to them. They had long forgotten God’s promise to Abraham that all the nations of the Earth would be blessed through him. That was their heritage and they missed it. It was pagan wise men who unraveled the mystery of the Christ-child before them.

This morning we have every reason to bow down and worship the King who came to our rescue, offering salvation and inclusion in the family of God. Most everyone here this morning would be considered Gentile by birth but because of the love and mercy of God, we have had the mystery unraveled and know that it’s Jesus that we’ve been looking for all along. Our world is still full of darkness and it can seem overwhelming unless we invite the light of Christ to shine in and through us.

We need to pay attention to the determination and resolve of those wise men long ago who let nothing stand in the way of finding the true king and once finding the king, worshipping him with great joy. This is the lesson of Epiphany, that we join in revealing to those in darkness that the light has come.

Let’s pray.

©2019 Rev. Mike Moffitt

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