The Epiphany of Our Lord
January 6, 2021
Text: Matt. 2:1-12
God led His people, Israel, to the Promised Land by the light of a fiery pillar. It was the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that separated the people from their Egyptian oppressors. It was the pillar that led them through the Red Sea as on dry ground. It was the pillar that led them through the wilderness. And God Himself, the Angel of the LORD, was in the pillar. Whenever the pillar would lift up from the Tabernacle, the people would set out, and wherever the pillar came to rest, the people would settle in. And always, the pillar would settle over the Most Holy Place, where the Ark was. And God would take up His throne between the Cherubim on the Mercy Seat, the covering of the Ark, where the blood of atonement came between Him and the Law within it, the Ten Commandments. God took up residence in the midst of His congregation. He camped with them. He tented, right there in the barren desert, even among His harried and rebellious people. He tabernacled among them, because the place of this God is always with His people. He was their Light. He was their Life. He was their salvation.
But it was never God’s plan only to save the House of Israel. He says of the promised Messiah through the Prophet Isaiah, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is. 49:6; ESV). And so it is, that in the fulness of time, when God had brought forth a Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law (Gal. 4:4-5), He led Gentile sages to the fleshly Ark of His Presence, this time not by a pillar, but by the light of a star.
Now, when it comes to the star, I suppose we cannot rule out natural phenomena entirely, but if this year’s conjunction of planets has taught us anything, it is that no natural astronomical phenomena we are aware of could lead the wise men first to Jerusalem, then after the time required for deliberation with Herod and the clergy, to Bethlehem, and then to the very house where the Child was with His mother. In other words, we’re pretty safe in assuming this is a miraculous star appointed just for the occasion. It behaves just like the pillar. God is doing for the Gentiles what He had done for His people, Israel. And in this way, Simeon’s words ring true: The Christ Child is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). God makes of the two, Jew and Gentile, one new people, one new Israel, bringing them to Christ by the Light.
It is the fulfillment of prophecy: “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.” Thus did Balaam declare to Balak in Numbers 24:17. And our Old Testament reading from the Prophet Isaiah: “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Is. 60:3). Even specifically this coming of the wise men: “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD” (v. 6). Incidentally, the wise men, magi (from which we get the word, “magician”), astronomers, scholars, keepers of ancient wisdom, may well have been from Media or Persia, possibly from the school which traces its lineage back to Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In any case, they didn’t simply see the strange light. They also must have had some knowledge of these Scriptures, and made the connection, guided by the Holy Spirit, between these prophecies and the astronomical sign. And so God led them by the light of a star, by the Light of His Word, to the very spot where God tabernacled among all humanity (Jew and Gentile), tented in our flesh, in the very wilderness of this world, among harried and rebellious people. He is the enfleshed Mercy Seat (what St. Paul calls, “the Propitiation”), where the Blood of Atonement comes between God and His Commandments, wherein dwells His Torah, His Logos, His Word. To be humanity’s Light and Life and Salvation.
Now, what God did for Israel and for these Gentile magi, He does for you. Okay, you don’t get the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. You don’t get the star that leads you to the very house where the Child is with His mother, Mary. You get something that St. Peter calls “the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). God leads you by the Scriptures, by the Light of His Word. He leads you through the Red Sea waters of Baptism, right into the Holy of Holies where He is enthroned, in the flesh, in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. He leads you to the Blood of Atonement that comes between your God and His Law, which you have broken, to cleanse you from all your sins. There God dwells with you. He tabernacles with you. Because the place of this God is always with His people, to be your Light, your Life, and your Salvation.
I think we mostly take it for granted that God’s salvation has come among us Gentiles. And so we miss the whole miracle of Epiphany. But think where our ancestors were before Christ was revealed to them. Think where you and I were before the Light of Christ shone upon us. St. Paul tells us: You were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked… You lived according to the passions of your flesh, carrying out the desires of your fallen body and mind, children of wrath, separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the Covenants and Promise, having no hope, and without God in the world (Eph. 2:1-3, 12). “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). This is no minor miracle that you are sitting here in the pew this evening. God led you here by a miraculous light even greater than the pillar of fire or the Bethlehem Star. His Spirit led you here by the Word. He led you to the very presence of Christ. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
The Word shines the Light of Christ into every dark corner of your life as it is held before your eyes and preached into your ears, exposing and forgiving your sins; healing your diseases of heart, soul, mind, and body; freeing you from your chains of captivity; restoring your sight; giving you ears to hear; providing you with all the riches of God in Christ; and raising you to new life. And this is important, because you know the darkness around you and within you all too well. Hiding it doesn’t help. Blast it with the Light. Whenever and however you find yourself in darkness, run to the Word that shines upon you and gives you Christ. Run to the Scriptures. Pray the Psalms. Call your pastor. What do you think I’m here for? Demand the Gospel. Demand Absolution. Run to the Church at every opportunity to hear the speaking of Christ for you. Run to the Mercy Seat, run to His Altar, the Sacrifice for your sins once given on the cross, now given to you to eat and to drink and to fill you with Light and Life. You are no longer enslaved to the darkness of sin, death, and the devil. You belong to Christ who has come to pitch His tent here with you.
And, by the way, not only does the Light of Christ put the darkness to flight in your own life. The same miracle takes place every time you speak this Light into the ears of others. You know they are afflicted with the darkness, too. Speak God’s Word into it. Speak Christ into it. Encourage your fellow Christians. Tell those you love about God’s love for them. Share Bible passages with those who are going through a hard time. Tell people you are praying for them. Speak God’s blessings upon them in Christ. Rejoice with them. Weep with them. Always in the Name of Jesus. And love them. Serve them. Help them… as the hands of God in the world. It doesn’t have to be an awkward evangelism program. It is simply the living of your Christian life tented among people. You go forth from this place, from the Mercy Seat, bearing Christ, aglow with Christ. And that Light leads others here.
Now, we should say a word about the gifts. You know them well: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Do not miss what these gifts indicate. It is not simply that we should give God our riches and our very best, as true as that may be. These are not Law gifts. They are Gospel gifts. Gold, because Jesus has come to be our King. Frankincense, the sweet-smelling incense offered to God with the sacrifices in the Tabernacle, because Jesus is God, and He is our High Priest who makes the Sacrifice for our sins, and is Himself the Sacrifice. Myrrh, the prominent spice used in burial. Because Jesus was crucified for us, dead and buried. And now He is risen from the dead, and lives, and reigns, our Prophet, Priest, and King.
The gifts are first of all God’s gifts to you in Christ. And now you respond by returning gifts to God: The gold that is faith in Christ, precious to Him, refined by fire, imperishable and unfading. The frankincense of your prayers that waft before the throne of God. The myrrh of repentance as you mortify your flesh, crucifying Old Adam in you and burying Him in the tomb. The Church Fathers make a big deal out of this, that after the wise men worshiped the Child, being warned in a dream, they did not return home by the same route. So also, when we come before Christ, to receive and worship Him, we can never go back the same way we came. We should not return to the way of the flesh. Christ has set us on the path of life, the way that is ever new. Led by the Light, let us turn not aside, as Christ, who implants Himself among us, leads us on into the Promised Land. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.