Sermon for Epiphany of our Lord – January 6, 2019
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the Epiphany story we hear in Matthew today is how much is NOT actually there. We have all kinds of images and details about this story floating around in our heads that are just not there in Matthew’s story!
You see, we have been shaped by centuries of “fan fiction” related to these wise men from the east. Do you know what fan fiction is? It is when fans of certain stories just can’t get enough of those characters and that world, and so they start to write their own additions, filling in their own details, expanding on the original stories. Harry Potter and Star Wars are two modern examples. You can find all kinds of fan fiction expanding on the original stories. Well, the church has been so fascinated by these wise men from the east that it has written a fair amount of “fan fiction” about them over the centuries. This fan fiction shows up in hymns and art and nativity scenes. It fills our heads with all kinds of details that aren’t actually in the gospel of Matthew!
For instance, even though they are almost always featured in paintings of the wise men’s journey, there are no camels mentioned in the gospel of Matthew. In Matthew, the wise men are nowhere described as kings. Matthew doesn’t give us their names, nor does he tell us precisely where they are from – they are simply “from the east,” which could mean a lot of different places. Matthew doesn’t even specifically say that there were three of them!
Very early on in Christian history, the western church started talking about three wise men – a simple assumption based on the fact that there were three gifts. The eastern church, however, including the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox and the Coptic Christians, says there were twelve wise men!
In the fifth century, the western church started attributing names to the three wise men: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. At this time they started to be depicted as having different ethnicities – at first they were from Persia, Arabia, and India, and later they started being depicted in art as being from Europe, Asia, and Africa. In medieval times, the three started to be depicted with different ages: one a young man, one middle-aged, and one elderly. You can tell by the beards – there’s always a white beard, a brown beard, and one guy without a beard, representing the three stages of adult life (for men anyway).
I don’t mean to demean any of this by describing it as “fan fiction” – quite the contrary! The church has added these non-biblical details out of love for Matthew’s report. These details have emerged out of love for what God was up to in the real-life facts recorded by Matthew, spare though they may be. The church has sought to wring as much meaning as possible out of what really happened as these mysterious, unnamed, unnumbered wise men from the east came and worshipped Jesus.
Furthermore, some of the details we know so well about this story that aren’t actually found in Matthew come from connections the church has made between Matthew’s story and other passages of scripture. We heard two of those other passages today. In our first reading we heard Isaiah describe how when the Messiah came, kings would follow a light to come to him. They would be riding camels and bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. In our psalm for today we heard how the nations of the earth would bow down before him. You can see how this picture we have begins to come together.
So, some of the images and details we have floating around in our heads are later additions of the church, additions that spring either from a holy imagination or perhaps from strands of actual history that are lost to us. Other images and details come from connecting Matthew to other parts of scripture referring to the coming of the Messiah.
But even if we only had Matthew to go on, it would be enough to know what God was up to in this story. We don’t really need to know the names of the wise men, do we? We don’t need to know exactly where they were from. We don’t need to know how many there actually were. While Isaiah and the psalmist in particular are helpful here, God gave Matthew the precise details we need to know to understand the significance of what is going on here.
This story is about God keeping his promise to bless all nations and peoples through the Messiah he would send. This story is about the new king God was sending – not to overthrow the penny-ante kings of the world, in spite of Herod’s murderous fretting, but to overthrow the powers of sin and death. This story is about God calling people to his Son, to the Savior he has provided for them.
God called these wise men by putting a star in the sky. You see, these wise men were magi. That’s the actual word Matthew uses. Magi were people who studied the stars. God got their attention by meeting them where they were, using signs they could understand. The Creator of the universe put a star in the sky for them to see, a star for them to follow, a heavenly lamp for their feet, a heavenly light to guide their path.
These wise men, whoever they were and however many of them there were, came from the east – from where the sun rises, from where the new day dawns. We don’t know exactly where they were from, but they certainly weren’t Jewish! They were from the other nations, the other peoples, God would call to Israel so that they would come to know Israel’s God. They were from the other families of the earth that God promised Abraham he would one day bless. They came from other lands, other cultures, other religions, to worship the one true God.
And worship they did. When they finally found the newborn King in Bethlehem, they were overwhelmed with joy, Matthew tells us. They saw Jesus with his mother, Mary, and they knelt down before him, worshipping him. Then they opened up their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These might not sound like the most practical gifts for a baby, but they were gifts fit for a king. These far-off foreigners now had a new God, and a new King. The work Jesus would ultimately accomplish on the cross, the work of drawing all people to himself, had already begun.
And this work continues. The Epiphany story continues even today as God continues to bless all the families of the earth through the Messiah he has sent. It continues as God continues to overthrow the power of sin and death in our lives. It continues as God continues to call us all to his Son, our Savior.
God has given you a star to follow. I’m not talking about the North Star or the Big Dipper or that weird snowman-shaped thing they just found in outer space. I’m talking about the heavenly light of his Word, which is a lamp to our feet and a light to our pathway. I’m talking about the Morning Star who is Jesus himself. God has given us his Son so that we would receive his gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. God has put this lamp of his Word in our lives so that we would find our way to him. God has put the light of his Word in our lives so that with hearts that have been cleansed and renewed by his love, we would walk in paths of righteousness. God’s Word is our star, leading us back again and again to his Son, so that we would be overwhelmed with the joy of his presence.
This star is for people of all nations and peoples. It is for people of all ages and ethnicities. It is for people who have lived in a far-off country, far away from God, that they might find their way back to him.
This star has led us here today so that we would worship Jesus. It has led us here so that we would lay our treasures before him, so that we would pay homage to him as our God and our King.
The Epiphany story has spawned centuries worth of “fan fiction.” It has spawned centuries worth of pious and meaningful elaborations and additions springing from holy imaginations which are sung and seen yet today.
But it is all rooted in the true story of God sending a new King, a King for all nations and peoples, a King for you and me, a King who has come to conquer sin and death and rule our hearts with his love.
And there is nothing fictional about that.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church