January 6, 2019 “Just as Much the Star” Matthew 2:1–12
‘Epiphany’ is a Greek term, ‘epiphania’, and means ‘manifestation’ or appearance. Paul uses the term in 2Tim.1, talking about his work & identity in the Gospel; that he was called into the ministry because of God’s purpose and grace, which God arranged in Christ Jesus before the world began, but only “now has been manifested =or epiphanied= thru the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death, and brought life & immortality to light thru the gospel.”
In the church year, the season of Epiphany is between Christmas and Lent, as we hear of Jesus’ ministry of ‘appearing’ or making himself known to the world by his teachings & miracles; as he makes his way to the cross in order the save the world from its condemnation.
The season begins on January 6 with the Festival of Epiphany, which highlights the arrival of the Magi from the East to see the newborn king. This Day of Epiphany is sometimes referred to as ‘the gentile’s christmas’ as the Star proclaims Jesus’ arrival for peoples far beyond the Hebrews. So, that’s the plot line of Epiphany.
Epiphany is the Wise Men’s day in the spotlight, their day on center state in the limelight. Epiphany is the day the cameras focus on the Magi, coming from the East to bring to the baby Jesus those 3 famous gifts: gold, frankincense & myrrh.
‘we three kings of Orient are: / bearing gifts we travers afar; / field and fountain,
moor and mountain; / following yonder star. // ….star of royal beauty bright;
westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to Thy perfect light.’
These Magi had a story. They’re considered ‘wise’ because they’re men of science; astronomers, watchers of stars. The Eastern Orient refers to Persia & the Arabian desert region. They traveled a great distance to Jerusalem, perhaps around 600 miles, to find the newborn King of the Jews. All because of the new star they saw, which they followed.
Out of respect for the country & culture, and also seeking additional information, they consult with King Herod = wicked king Herod, who pretends to want what they want.
That is: to find & worship the child. So, with the help of Herod’s scholars, the Magi leave Jerusalem, and complete their journey to Bethlehem, and reach their goal. That’s Epiphany.
In their timeline, it was over a year since the Christmas angels had gone away into heaven, and the shepherds returned from the manger praising God, and Joseph has found more suitable living arrangements for mother & child. In our timeline, it’s only been two weeks since our celebration of the birth of Jesus. Isaiah prophesied that the Lord’s Messiah would be ‘a light for the nations’, and by God’s hand, the Magi are led to find Jesus.
So today, the Wise Men are the stars of the show.
OR, *are they? Here’s a different thought. What if I suggested that Herod was just as much the star of Epiphany as were the Wise Men?
You might ponder that and say: *How can that be? You can’t equate the ‘good’ Magi with ‘bad’ Herod. They were shining examples of faith; that’s what we heard in Matt.2 : “behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 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.’ ”
So, these Wise Men seem well-suited to be stars of Epiphany, with remarkable qualities. They were schooled, affluent, & cultured. They must’ve had state-of-the-art star-gazing equipment, and had the wealth & know-how to decide to make a 600 mile journey just to honor another country’s new king. They even were quite religious & knowledgeable about Israel’s history to want to find and ‘worship’ this new king. Acknowledging Israel’s God makes them humble & trusting; although they were a bit naïve about Herod. It seems that they had all the worldly advantages going for them; and above all, spiritual advantages.
Those all sound like star qualities; being well-studied in the wisdom of the world, and being students of the Scripture. Part of the job of men who advised the kings of the ancient East was to know the sciences; like astronomy, & anything that could affect a nation.
In pagan nations, that also meant they were ‘astrologers’. That’s bad; God prohibits astrology, horoscopes, fortune-telling, & any activity that does not treat our Creator as the giver & director of life; the only One who makes us who we are. God’s people don’t look to the stars or magic arts for information, because God tells us everything we need to know.
However,… for these Wise Men to understand the real meaning of that amazing new star which had appeared in the sky, it couldn’t be thru astrology & horoscopes.
It was thru a diligent study of the OT Scriptures. The captivity of the Jews six centuries before Christ had spread God’s Word to ‘the East’, including into Babylon & Persia. And in Num 24:17, God had promised, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” These Wise Men had studied that passage, concluding it meant that an actual star would mark the birth of the One who would hold the scepter of Israel; that is, a Great King. So, their studying & believing Scripture, that IS a very good example for us.
How many ‘stars’ in our day are people who are well-studied, & wealthy, but also humble & religious? Not too many. So, compared to King Herod, these Wise Men must be the bigger stars of the day. They did not give up until they complete their quest. “…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.”
It’s as if they had faith =like us= that understood that everything we have is a gift from that little baby. Everything we have is to be dedicated to & used for that little child & his kingdom. These eastern men had position & honor & achievement; but that counted as nothing in the presence of this Child-of-Heaven. They, and us, are poor miserable sinners who desperately need this Savior.
So, here are these rich & important men bowing down to a toddler. It’s quite an amazing example of faith, isn’t it. Star-quality faith! And what’s more: The Magi are Gentiles; yet somehow, they were convinced that the God & King of the Jews would accept them. Epiphany is a Festival Day, because it’s the day God proclaims again that His Christ is for Gentiles also. In their day, that was not common thinking. Many of Jesus’ own people thought the Messiah was just for them. It took a lot of faith for the Gentile Wise Men to take the time & money to travel those hundreds of miles to worship & give gifts to the King of the Jews.
SO,.. on the one hand, the Wise Men certainly qualify as the stars of the Epiphany drama. But on the other hand, I said that King Herod was as much the star of Epiphany as they were. *How could that be? Because Herod was an example of darkest evil. A few people in the Bible could play Darth Vader, & Herod would be one.
He was nobody’s star, except maybe in his own mind. Herod was a crazed murderer. He had his favorite wife and his son both executed because he thought they were looking to take over his throne.
He didn’t even mellow at the end of his life. Just a couple of years after our text, when Herod was sick and knew he was going to die, he knew no one would mourn for him. So he had his sister call all the chief nobles of the Jews to gather in the Hippodrome in Jerusalem. Guards were placed around the building and given orders that when he was dead, everyone inside was to be killed. In that way, he knew there would be great weeping & mourning throughout the country at the time of his death.
Herod was as evil as they come. Vrs.3 said: “When Herod the king heard this [about a new King of the Jews], he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” No wonder; there was no telling what Herod might do. He decided to use the Magi, & put on a mask of religious piety. As we heard, he summoned his chief priests & scribes to find out where this so-called ‘christ’ would be born. They quoted from the prophet Micah: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” ’
“Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly, and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ ” Wickedness. Herod used the religious teachers, and the sincere, naïve faith of the Wise Men for his devilish plan; knowing full well that, after the Magi returned, he would be sending ruthless soldiers to slaughter Bethlehem’s children.
SO THEN, *how in the world could Herod be just as much the star as were the Wise Men? IT’s a trick question; …because neither of them is the star. The star itself is the star of this show. That star is the focus 3 times: +‘We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him. +‘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.’ +‘When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.’
With Epiphany, God lets the star be the star-of-the-show because it is God’s own invitation to all people to the Savior. The Wise Men were faithful because they had something real & solid to place their faith in: in God’s promise of a Savior. The star signaled the fulfillment =not only= of Num 24:17, but also of Gen 3:15 = that the seed of the woman, Christ, would crush the head of the serpent, Satan. Also Is. 7:14 = that the Virgin would have a Son, Immanuel, God-with-us.Also Is. 53:5 = “He was wounded for our transgressions; crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” SO, not the Wise Men, not Herod, but the star signifies Epiphany because it announced the Christ, the fulfillment of all parts of God’s promise of redemption. That star came to rest over the One who would live, suffer, die & rise to save all people.
God put that star in the sky where all could see, and he moved men to take note of it. This was God’s sign that Gentiles too, people of all lands & languages, are included in His promises. You & me, & our neighbor. God’s star was a shining invitation to those in the East, including astrologers & pagans to reveal the true God. The star also shined over Jerusalem and even Herod.
God was even giving Herod a last chance. God had those priests & scribes tell the truth from Micah 5:2 = that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. Even tho Herod’s reaction was to plot to kill Jesus, that information = the news of the arrival of Messiah = was intended to save even wicked Herod, tho he refused.
This Epiphany drama is quite-the-show. It has /Wise Men, /a king, /priests & scribes, /the little town of Bethlehem, /even all of Jerusalem. They all played a part, but none of them was the star. The star itself shined for all of them; including you & me. Ultimately, that is the message of the star of Epiphany: Christ Jesus is our Savior, no matter /who we are, /where we are, /no matter how nice or how wicked. The star guides us to God’s perfect Light.