Pastor James Preus
January 7, 2024
Unless the angel heralded the news, the shepherds would have never known that their Lord and Savior was born in Bethlehem. If you put a lamp under a basket, its light will not illuminate the room. And without Epiphany, the miracle of Christmas remains hidden in darkness. Epiphany means manifestation or appearing. The Feast of Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ. Historically, it observes three events in Jesus’ life: the visit from the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana.
Today, we celebrate the Magi, also known as wisemen, who worshipped baby Jesus in Bethlehem. They were the first Gentiles, that is, non-Jews to worship Jesus, demonstrating that Christ came to save all nations and to bless all peoples. If Christ were not manifested to us, we could not be saved, even though God became a man to save us. So, through the story of the wisemen, we learn how Christ is made manifest to us today.
“Where is He, who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him,” said the Magi to King Herod in his palace. How did these wise men know to follow this star? And how did they know that it would lead them to the King of the Jews? And how did they know that they should worship Him as their God? About six hundred years before Christ was born in Bethlehem, a young Judean named Daniel was taken captive to Babylon, east of Israel. He lived there for over seventy years and was numbered among the magi. Magi were known as wisemen, sorcerers, scientist, and astrologers. Daniel was no sorcerer or student of superstitious arts. Rather, He was a prophet of God, who devoted Himself to the Holy Scriptures. He certainly taught the prophecies of the Bible to the Gentiles in Babylon. I am convinced that these magi, who visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem, were acquainted with the Holy Scriptures, and read the ancient prophesies, which foretold Jesus’ birth.
In Numbers 24, Balaam prophesied, “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.” (vs. 17) The Magi understood this prophesy of the star quite literally, and when they saw a star rise supernaturally from Israel, they looked for Him who would hold the scepter. In Genesis 49, the Patriarch Jacob prophesied to his son Judah, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes to him; and to Him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” This is a most remarkable prophesy from the father of the nation of Israel. Eight hundred years before David was crowned king over Judah, Jacob predicted his reign. Moreover, he predicted the scepter would not depart from Judah until Shiloh came. Yet, the scepter did depart from Judah. King Herod was no Jew, but an Edomite, given the throne of Judea by the Roman Senate. He secured his crown over thirty years by shedding much Jewish blood and finally appeasing the Jewish leading class by beautifying the temple.
Yet, the prophesy said that the scepter would not pass from Judah. And the long-promised star had risen. So, Shiloh must have come! There is much disagreement over what Shiloh means. Many point out its similarity to the Hebrew words for rest and peace. What is clear is that Shiloh refers to the Christ, who will reign as king of the Jews. Jesus is our rest. Jesus is our peace. This Shiloh, who comes to rightfully claim His Judean Scepter comes to be not an earthly king, but a heavenly King, a spiritual King, who will rule with justice, righteousness, and peace, and of whose kingdom there will be no end.
And the Scriptures prophesied that these Magi from the Gentile nations would come to worship this King Shiloh. The Prophet Isaiah proclaimed in chapter 60, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 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. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. … 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.” (1-3, 6) And so, the Magi came with their gifts to this rising light.
Yet, the Magi seemed ignorant that this King would be born in Bethlehem, yet Herod’s scribes quickly found the passage from the Prophet Micah, “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. Therefore, He shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of His brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And He shall stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. And they shall dwell secure, for now He shall be great to the ends of the earth.” (Micah 5:2-4) The prophecy read by the scribes confirmed the hope of the Magi, who came to worship their God. Though He is born in Bethlehem, His coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. He is young, yet He is eternal.
Yet, there is one more thing that the Magi needed, which they received but Herod did not: The light of the Holy Spirit, who creates faith where and when it pleases God. The Holy Spirit enlightened the hearts and minds of these Magi through the Holy Scriptures to believe the promise of the Christ. Yet, Herod, who heard these same prophesies, raged against them, and tried to snuff out the Light of Bethlehem, so fiercely did Herod resist the Holy Spirit.
And this brings us to another Scripture fulfilled in this Epiphany of Christ. Psalm 2, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against His Anointed saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:1-3) This is how King Herod responded to the news of the LORD’s anointed born in Bethlehem! “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod plotted against this King born in Bethlehem. He questioned the Magi privately to learn when the star appeared. Then he lied to them and said that he too wanted to worship Him, so he sent them to look diligently for the child. Herod wanted to kill Jesus and snuff out the light of Epiphany.
Yet, Psalm 2 goes on, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then He will speak to them in His wrath and terrify them in His fury, saying, ‘As for Me, I have set My King on Zion, My holy hill.”’ Herod’s plotting against Christ is ridiculous to God for two reasons. First, Christ was not born to threaten any earthly reign, so He is no threat to Herod. Secondly, no attempt by earthly powers can stop Christ in advancing His kingdom. God has set His King on His holy hill. Who is this King? Psalm 2 again tells us, “I will tell the decree: The LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” This King is the only begotten Son of God. The nations may rage, and the peoples may plot, and the kings of the earth set themselves against Christ the King, but it is all in vain. Christ is King! And there is nothing they can do to undo that!
And Psalm two continues to be fulfilled in our day. The nations and people continue to plot, like King Herod, to snuff the Light of Epiphany out, to cover the Gospel of Christ in darkness, and to keep His reign from spreading. Christ’s Church is attacked from the inside and outside. False teachers and prophets have arisen and attacked the Holy Scriptures themselves, calling them unreliable and belittling the Gospel of Christ. The Bible is the most banned book in America. Hardly a school age child is allowed to read it. Hordes of distractions rise to stop Christ’s people from hearing His Word and worshipping Him. Riches or poverty, work or play, the seemingly innocent to the debased and filthy, anything that will cover up the light of Christ, the emissaries of Satan will throw, as if to cover a lamp with a thick blanket. Yet, He who sits in heaven laughs at them. Christ remains King. His light continues to shine. His light is shining right here on you, as Christ’s Gospel is preached.
And so, the Magi teach us how to celebrate Epiphany even as the kings and nations of the earth rage against it. First, they diligently seek for Christ, relying on Holy Scripture. You cannot find Jesus without the Bible. He will not be found any other place than where His Word is proclaimed purely from Holy Scripture. Second, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy when they found Christ and they bowed down to worship Him. And so, you should rejoice with exceedingly great joy when you have found Christ your King, and you should worship Him. We should joyfully go to church to worship Christ, because He promises to be there where His Word is proclaimed and where His Sacraments are administered. As the Magi bowed down before their God in human flesh, so we should kneel and receive Christ’s true body and blood in the Sacrament with great joy and reverence, for when we do so, we are in the very presence of our God and King, who comes to bless us.
Third, we should confess Christ with our words and deeds. The Magi gave gifts to their king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold shows that they recognized Jesus as their God and king. Frankincense is what priests burn to God. St. Paul tells us that Christ gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:2). So, this gift of frankincense foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for all our sins. Myrrh is a spice traditionally used to anoint dead bodies for burial. Nicodemus mixed myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body before burying it in a tomb (John 19:39). So, the Magi’s gift of myrrh foreshadows Christ’s burial and resurrection. And so, our worship of Christ should always acknowledge that He is our God and King, who offered Himself up as a sacrifice to God to take away our sins, who was buried and rose again for us.
Yet, there is a practical aspect to the Magi’s gift. As beneficial as it is to see the spiritual meaning in them, we cannot ignore the fact that the faithful Magi gave Christ their first fruits, confessing that they found Him more valuable than these treasures. And God used these gifts of the wisemen to preserve His Church on earth. What else is the Church, but the household of God, the cradle of Christ on earth? And so, the Holy Family is Christ’s church on earth. Shortly after the Magi left, Herod’s soldiers came to Bethlehem to murder all the baby boys. Joseph had to flee in the middle of the night to Egypt with his wife and the Christ-child. Do you think that gold, frankincense, and myrrh proved useful to them as they traveled to a foreign country as sojourners? And so, God uses your tithes and offerings today for the sake of His Church. Your offerings to the church are not only an important spiritual exercise, but they go to good use, so that the Gospel may be proclaimed and the light of Christ shined into dark places.
Finally, the Magi went back to their country another way. And so should we. We should no longer walk as the Gentiles do, but walk as if the Light of Christ is always shining on us. Walk as subjects of King Jesus, who rules in our hearts. Frequently walk toward His shining star, so that we may bow down with great joy and receive His body and blood in the Sacrament. God has set His King on His holy hill. And the light of Epiphany has led us to Him. Let us rejoice with exceedingly great joy and worship Him always. Amen.